On the Southern author, Shelby Foote

Before I launch into writing about Follow Me Down, I want to make sure y’all know who Shelby Foote is. I’ll start with his author bio, because it will either remind you or introduce you to one of the best Southern writers of our times:

Shelby Foote was born on November 7, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, and attended school there until he entered the University of North Carolina. During World War II he served as a captain of field artillery but never saw combat. After World War II he worked briefly for the Associated Press in their New York bureau. In 1953 he moved to Memphis, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Foote was the author of six novels: Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, Jordan County, and September, September. He is best remembered for his 3-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative, which took twenty years to complete and resulted in his being a featured expert in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary. Over the course of his writing career, Foote was also awarded three Guggenheim fellowships. Shelby Foote died in 2005 at the age of 88.

On a personal note, my mother was a life-long friend of Shelby Foote’s second wife, Gwyn, whom everyone called Ginny- with a hard G. She was statuesque, blue-eyed, and wore her hair in a grey page-boy before it was chic. The Footes lived right around the corner from where I grew up in Memphis. I am a contemporary of Ginny and Shelby’s son, Huggie, so nicknamed because his given name comes from Shelby’s family line and is Huger (pronounced Yoo-gee.) Best for a little kid to be called Huggie, as far as I’m concerned, and the name sticks to this day. Like his father, Huggie is an artist. He’s had an illustrious career as a photographer, and, after moving back to the states from Paris, he resides in New York City. If you’re interested in Photography, Huggie has a couple of books that you can find on Amazon. He admits to being influenced by Memphis’s renowned William Eggleston, and in my opinion, if you’re a photographer influenced by anyone, let it be Eggleston, but I digress.

I have a handful of Shelby Foote memories, one of which sees him sitting on the porch out at Cottondale in Collierville, Tennessee discussing the civil war with the erudite J. Tunkie Saunders, son of Clarence Saunders, who started Piggy Wiggly and built Memphis’s Pink Palace, which is now a museum. When you’re a little kid, you’re not impressed by much of anything, yet I recall running through the porch of what was once called The Old Stage Coach Inn, before J. Tunkie Saunders bought the establishment and turned it into a country retreat on the outskirts of Memphis. I was ‘at the farm,” as they called it, with Lucy Saunders, my age exactly, and we were making a beeline for the stables. Our plan had been to saddle up Buttons and Bows and ride her down to the levee, but I was stopped. “Claire, sit down,” J. Tunkie said, and I, being obliging to my elders, let Lucy run on ahead and did as I was told. For the next half hour, I listened to these two Southern gentlemen talk about the Civil War as if it were still going on somewhere down the road. Wasn’t a big deal to me then, but it is to me now, and I recall the pair matching wits, comparing notes over tumblers of cool, amber whiskey as the sun set through the pin oaks and thinking one day you’ll be glad you’re sitting here.  

Another vision that stays with me is of the day my mother brought me round to visit Shelby in his library. She’d just acquired the first volume of Shelby’s three volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, and she wanted it signed. The two of us stepped down three wooden steps into what would have been anyone else’s living room, in the ivy-covered, pitched roof brick Tudor tucked back off of East Parkway.  I’d never been to an author’s residence, and at thirteen or thereabouts, I hadn’t a clue what to expect from the man I thought of simply as Huggie’s dad.  Shelby didn’t disappoint. Were you to have envisioned your best-case scenario of what to expect from an author in his den, Shelby would have exceeded it. He smoked a pipe, he wore a beard and a vest over his rolled shirt sleeves. His steady blue eyes were mesmerizing, canopied with a thicket of black lashes, his warm voice was courtly in a fluid Southern drawl. He was a gentleman through and through and didn’t let on that we were interrupting him at his work in the prime of his working hour. He received my fawning mother graciously with a manner as though he had all the time in the world.

The world got a taste of the real Shelby Foote, when he narrated Ken Burns documentary miniseries, The Civil War, which aired on PBS in five consecutive nights in 1990. 40 million viewers watched it, and the series was awarded more than 40 major television and film honors. In the show, Shelby wore a pinstriped Oxford and simply told his version of the war as he interpreted it. With more than twenty years of research behind him and a narrative passion that verged on the personal, Shelby Foote, in all his poised authenticity, single-handedly debunked all myth and stereotype many outsiders have of those of us from down South.

It was the Goodreads group, On the Southern Literary Trail, that caused me to read Shelby Foote’s Follow Me Down. I’ll go on and say it: not only am I a Southerner, but I’m a writer, and it shamed me to admit I’d never read Shelby Foote’s fiction. I have no excuse for never getting around to it, other than to say that I, like many, equated Shelby Foote with his Civil War volumes. I’d done myself a disservice, but that’s all behind me, for after reading Follow Me Down, I now have Shelby Foote fever.

Follow Me Down was published in 1950. It sets the standard for Southern fiction at its finest. Set in Jordan County, Mississippi, the book opens with a murder trial, and the reader learns quickly that the defendant has already confessed. Luther Eustice, a fifty-one-year-old, nondescript farmer, got himself into a pickle, when he crossed paths with a disreputable woman, thirty years younger, named Beulah Ross. After running off with Beulah to a small island on the Mississippi, Eustice changed his mind and couldn’t think to do anything else but drown her. Narrated in chapters by a circuit clerk, a reporter, a half-wit named Dummy, Eustice himself, Beulah the victim, Eustice’s wife, Eustice’s lawyer, and the jailer with the key, we learn the detailed minutia of the crime from differing vantage points—each with a voice so Southern and unique, Foot’s feat of writing is showcased for what it is: nuanced, insightful, and chock full of character as to lay bare the hidden secrets of the rural South.  It’s the colloquialisms that captured me. An example is when Foote describes a man by writing, “He is the best example I ever saw of a man gone sour.”  Politically incorrect at points for this day and age, the reader is gifted with the mental accuracy of a bygone era, yet never once does it pull them out of the story.  Follow Me Down is a roughhewn and down-on-its-luck story written with such charisma and aplomb as to fascinate the reader on every page.

I’ll leave you here with one more Shelby Foote tidbit, since I’m being candid. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the great author and poet, Ron Rash, whose eyes grew wide when I mentioned I grew up in Memphis. The first question he asked was if I was familiar with Shelby Foote. I told him I was, though not as a reader, my acquaintance was personal. The look on Rash’s face as I recounted my affiliation with Shelby Foote was one of awestruck wonder. At the time I was thinking Mr. Rash must be a Civil War buff, but now I know why he had that look on his face: it was author admiration, pure and simple.

 

 

 

 

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The Thing About Galway

Even on the best of days, when the weather is temperate and the sky soft and cloudless, Galway City has a worn, secondhand feel to it: an historic, pensive, erudite quality everywhere you roam down its serpentine streets. But there’s also an energetic undercurrent to Galway that seems to thrive on the idea of opposites, which lends the atmosphere a certain air of unpredictability. In many ways, Galway seems like a lively college town, bordered on one side by the dark gray patina of Galway Cathedral, and the ever turbulent River Corrib on the other, which flows straight to Galway Bay on its way through the Claddagh. It’s an undefinable, mood-setting, soul-stirring town with a split personality; it is vividly animated by its youthful culture, yet deeply haunted by its storied past.

To Debra Wallace, who was born and reared in Letterfrack, 50 miles north in rural Connemara, Galway was the pinnacle of urban grandeur. At the age of 27, she’d blown into town carrying her dreams and her guitar to set up house in a two-story rental, on the edge of lower Galway’s Henry Street. She was an accomplished musician with a whisky-edged singing voice, and her dreams involved joining Galway’s vibrant music scene. The second I met her, I thought she embodied everything it meant to be Irish: She was big eyed, russet-haired, quick-witted, nobody’s fool, howlingly funny, and spiritually attuned. She gave our friendship no probation period when we first met at The Galway Music Centre, for there was nothing suspicious or cynical about her, though she was disarmingly shrewd. Upon learning that I am an American, she put her hand on her hip, narrowed her eyes to a slit, and give me the once over. Then she set her guitar case down and invited me to call out to her house for a cup of tea.

I had no idea what to expect as I made my way to Debra Wallace’s blue-painted door. It rose up from the sidewalk, sandwiched in a row of matching gray structures, each with a pitched roof emitting turf smoke that permeated the residential area in an aroma so redolent it made my eyes water. I rapped thrice on the door, and it swung wide immediately. Stepping onto the uneven cobbled brick floor, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust in the shadowy room, for it had only one window and it seemed the haphazardly arranged turf in the fireplace had reached its crescendo and now glowed in a burnt orange aftermath. The heat in the small room was stifling. I took off my raincoat and made to set it aside on the folded futon against the wall, just as I brought the four chairs before it into focus, where three figures looked up at me expectantly. Debra lowered herself onto the fourth chair and motioned for me to take the futon as a voice disrupted the damp air.

“Well, you weren’t telling a tale about that blonde hair of hers, God bless it; must have taken ages to grow,” the voice said.

“Claire, this is my mother; Da sits there, and this is my sister Breda,” Debra introduced, handing me a cup of tea.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. It was then I recognized where Debra had acquired her penchant for the once over, for all three Wallace’s studied me head to foot.

“You’re an American,” Mr. Wallace stated. He was short and stout and leaned forward in his chair, with his hands on his knees and his steady stare beaming beneath his tweed flat cap.

“Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” I confirmed.

“Ah, Elvis and all that,” Mrs. Wallace said, who looked to be, in tandem with her husband, the second installment of a pair of square, blue-eyed bookends.

“That’s right,” I said, then I searched for a way to escape their scrutiny. I knew I could turn the tables if I could use the standard Irish conversational stand-by. “It looks like it’ll rain any minute,” I said, looking at Mr. Wallace.

“It does, yah. We brought the weather with us all the way from Letterfrack, so we did. If you haven’t been there, you should come see us. It’s God’s country up there; not much chance for the young ones to run the streets.”

“So I moved here,” Debra said with a wink.”

“Speaking of streets, we should get going,” Breda said. “We’ve only come to town for the one day.”

We all stood simultaneously, making our farewells, and after Debra closed the door behind her family, she asked me if I wanted to accompany her to the epicenter of Galway City, which is an area known as Eyre Square.

“There’s a card reader up there, her name is Harriet,” she said. “As long as you’re one of us now, I think you should see her.”

“Don’t you have to make an appointment?” I asked.

“For what?” Debra said. “Don’t be so American. Let’s just walk up the road and call out.”

What could have been a 10-minute walk up Shop Street took 45 minutes, for such is the nature of Galway. There is no way to set out from point A to point B within the confines of scheduled time because there are too many people milling around, everybody knows everybody, and it is a crime against Irish society not to stop and chat to the point of exhaustion. I stood idly by as Debra engaged in Irish banter time and again, which is to say that each exchange felt like joining a running joke that had been going on for a while, and we had simply stumbled into its midst. It is a game of wit-topping one-upmanship, this business of Irish banter, and as we made our way to Eyre Square, I was starting to catch the rhythm.

Two heavy wooden doors led the way into the back of an atrium on the north side of Eyre Square. Debra heaved the doors apart and ushered me inside to where a canvas marquee had a chalkboard before it, which read, “Readings with Harriet: 12 euros.”

What happened next is another story.

But the thing about that day is that it was exemplary of the spirit of Galway, where anything can and does happen, on any given day. This wasn’t the first or last time I’d slid into the day thinking it would go one way only to discover it had segued into quite another. Because there’s an energy to Galway that will catch the unsuspecting unaware. It emanates from the dichotomy of its nature, its marriage of opposites, its union of past and present, and at its foundation are the fluid Irish people, who know a thing or two about embracing the flow.

Claire is the author of contemporary fiction set in Connemara, “Dancing to an Irish Reel”  Http://www.clairefullerton.com

 

What Price an Author’s Politics?

 

I don’t believe I’m the only one disenchanted with the current state of affairs on FaceBook. Rather than launching a campaign in broad strokes of generalities from a supercilious pulpit, I will keep things simple and try my best to articulate where I’m coming from as an artist, for writing, to me, is a high art.

 

Like legions the world over, I joined FaceBook to stay connected with many people I’d lost touch with over the years. I grew up in Memphis, which means I’m a Southerner, and Southerners are raised in packs attendant to other packs. The domino effect of this reaches into the hundreds. And I care about all my pack members, so I considered the advent of FaceBook a gift that kept me connected, now that I’m a transplanted Southerner living in California.

 

And then I cultivated a writing career. I, like other writers, was therefore obligated to do my share of marketing and promotion for my books, and Facebook is, perhaps, the most viable avenue to do so. In short order, my list of “friends” grew longer, and I, wanting to help my fellow writers, turned around one day to discover I was connected to unfathomable numbers of authors I would have never known otherwise. And it thrilled me. I will always be fascinated by those who create, be they a writer, musician, dancer or painter. Give me your art, says I; it softens the blow of the human experience. In my opinion, there is such beauty in this world, and it is the artist’s God-given aptitude that points this out. It has been my pleasure and honor to help promote other authors, and there is safety in numbers in this business of living, if one is lucky enough to come across others of their ilk. Like begets like, or so it seemed to me, but lately I’ve become soul-sick and heart-confused while looking at FaceBook, and I’m trying to get to the bottom of why.

 

I feel hoodwinked, led into the miasma of a bait and switch. I came to Facebook because of friendship and art, but now it seems I’m being held prisoner for political ransom. I know the arguments: freedom of speech, a forum for “voice,” and all the other rights people stand up for. I’m not suggesting any of this is wrong, but I do question its appropriateness. Just because one can doesn’t mean one should, and the irony for an author is pontificating politically automatically polarizes their followers. There’s no sense in not admitting this, and those that don’t might be assuming their followers completely agree with their views, yet if this is the case, then why preach to the choir?

 

I think authors should seriously think through posting their political view on FaceBook, and weigh it for the potential ramifications to their career. After all, the way an author shows up in the world begins with deciding how they want to be perceived. I had this question posited to me recently, when my literary agent asked me to articulate “my brand.” It’s going to matter when my next two novels come out, and currently there is wisdom in establishing and investing in my base. I’m thinking the more streamlined and specific I can be, the better.

 

Readers align with us for stories. Reading stories gives many suspended quarter in a hectic world. Readers don’t necessarily need to know who the person is behind the story. If an author is doing it right, their stories will speak volumes to answer the question, without detracting from the author’s mystique.

 

I’m not saying I long to be seen as mysterious, only that I like the idea of my stories speaking for themselves. As for who I am, I’ll let the readers decide, and willingly leave politics to the political pundits.

 

 

 

Whistlin’ Dixie

I stood at the counter of my local grocery store exchanging pleasantries with the cashier, as I am wont to do, and this time it only took twenty seconds for the nice lady to ask what I’m always asked out here in Southern California, “Where are you from? Are you from Texas?” You have to pity the poor people in California; they don’t know any better than to assume if someone has a Southern accent, they’re from Texas ( as if the state of Texas counts as a Southern state, which I say is questionable because everyone knows Texas is its own animal.)
I’m a transplanted Southerner who hails from the Mississippi Delta, and although I am now long in another region, it is no influence on the armor I wear around my Southern DNA. It is its own protective shield, a source of self-identification, and I see the world and its people through the focused lens of my Southerness, which couldn’t be more convenient, for it simplifies everything.

 

To continue:

Claire Fullerton: Whistlin’ Dixie

The Pat Conroy Literary Festival

Because one has to follow what has resonance in life, I wound up on a plane, crossing the country from Los Angeles to Beaufort, South Carolina. I did this because the author Pat Conroy has always been my idea of the personification of what it means to be a writer. In life, he was the embodiment of language in its highest form. Pat Conroy took this business of being human, with all its frailties, heartbreaks, and nuances, and wrestled it into art. He was strong enough, brave enough, trusting enough to share his stories, and in so doing, he gave us all the gift of options by using writing as saving grace along life’s riddled path. That he wrote in the first person spoke to me, for I knew exactly to whom I was listening. I understood Pat Conroy, cared about him, identified with his human predicament, and applauded his uncanny ability to lift himself out of his own confusion by putting his tumultuous life into words.

And so I flew to South Carolina this past weekend to attend the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival, in Conroy’s beautiful, lowcountry hometown. Just last year, I’d done the same to attend the celebration around his 70th birthday, which turned out to be the smartest move I made in 2015. Meeting Pat Conroy in person and watching him navigate the throngs of peers and readers humanized the diaphanous mystery of those lofty souls set upon this earth to interpret it for the rest of us. He walked among us, humble and smiling, posing for photographs and shaking hands like an overwhelmed child, grateful and surprised that so many had turned out for his party. His sincere, wide-eyed comportment shook me to my core and stayed with me long thereafter. I was well aware at the time that I was witnessing exactly what it means to be a celebrated writer and not have it go to your head.

I will digress here to say that In March of 2016, in a crisis that blindsided the literary world, Pat Conroy died of pancreatic cancer. It was such a profound loss, with baffled legions asking how this could possibly be that the outpouring of love continues to this day. My belief is it will go on forever, for Pat was so beloved that people will always be uneasy with the metal glare of letting him go.

 And so the town of Beaufort rebounded after Pat Conroy’s death. The fact that Hurricane Matthew blew through the region the week before deterred them not one iota. They assembled en masse to rise up and fuel the fire that Pat Conroy set. The inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival had the same tone and tenor of Pat Conroy’s 70th birthday; it carried on for him, because of him, in honor of his name. I had a feeling this would be the case, when the festival was announced, and did not hesitate to make arrangements to attend. To not have done so after being there last year seemed unthinkable; it would have flown in the face of all things Pat, and I wanted to uphold my end.

I’m going to go on and say it: It’s liberating to be a writer without personal agenda. Six years of promoting my books, myself, and everything all about me is exhausting, and frankly goes against my nature. This is why I took a big exhale when I got to The Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort. For four days, I was in witness of writers and readers assembled for all the right reasons: love of story. We all knew that Pat Conroy was the pivotal point, yet his absence did not overshadow the celebratory spirit of the weekend. The reason why is because Pat Conroy had shown us, the year before, how to dive right in and revel in the company of those who contribute to our chosen field. There seemed no hierarchy of value in those gathered for the weekend, just the impression that we are all on the same path; some ahead, others a few paces behind. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country and discovering that everybody spoke my first language. I sat in the audience of one panel discussion after another and was invigorated and informed by what the participating authors had to share. The thing about being a writer is there is no there to get to; there is only the process of personal growth, and what is invaluable to the momentum is allowing yourself to remain a student. This is what Pat Conroy did last year, and I say this because I could feel it. I’m pretty sure he was in the audience of every event of the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival, with his pen and paper in hand, for every time I turned around, I saw him, eyes focused on the stage with glee and rapt attention. I cannot adequately articulate what watching this world-renowned author taught me, except to say that it taught me everything. It has much to do with decency and camaraderie, and the willingness to celebrate those who create through the written word.

The Pat Conroy Literary Festival was like being in a bee-hive of literary heroes.  It was a four day celebration orchestrated “for the love of words and story,” which is a phrase Pat Conroy used, whenever he signed his books.  There was something so heartwarming and ceremonious about the entire weekend. It was a literary festival put on by those who loved Pat Conroy for those who loved Pat Conroy, and the overall feeling was that the celebration will never end.   

 

 

 

A Southern Voice

A Southern Voice

The first voice to caress my infant ears rolled with such lyrical beauty that I’m offended by other accents to this day. It soothed in its quicksilver fluidity, lacked hard edges, and whispered in promises so compelling it could turn the most resistant of souls into a willing adherent. I know now that sound travels queerly and can double back upon itself in time. I often hear the voice of my Southern mother when I least expect it; it comes to me more as reminder than recollection, and carries a way of being in the world along a template so firmly etched that its resonance is guiding and indelible.

For Complete Piece:

Claire Fullerton: A Southern Voice