Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Apocryphal Country [Guest Post]

by Alex Bledsoe

[Alex is a published author and I was humbled when he agreed to do this post. I'm also a fan of his after reading The Hum and the Shiver. I am now (im)patiently awaiting its sequel, The Wisp of a Thing. -Drew]

Three of my seven novels are set in the South, specifically in my home state of Tennessee. Two, Blood Groove and its sequel, The Girls with Games of Blood, take place in and around Memphis, a real city. The third, The Hum and the Shiver, occurs in the made-up town of Needsville.

So why the difference? Why use a real place for one story, and an imaginary one for another?

The tradition of fictional Southern places, at least in the popular consciousness, goes back to Faulkner and his tales set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Beginning with 1929's Sartoris, he set most of his subsequent novels and stories in that made-up bit of geography. He called it his "apocryphal country."

The advantages of using a fictional place are obvious. You don't have to worry
about accuracy, or offending the residents (for the most part; I'll get to the
exception). You can put anything in it that your story requires. It's really no
different than making up the kingdoms and countries in my other, pure fantasy

But fictional places, for the most part, carry no weight of reality. It's possible
to fake it, to imply a heavily involved past, but it's never the same. For famous
cities, it's even more difficult. Just the name “Memphis” brings to mind Elvis, BB
King, barbeque, the Mississippi River, Martin Luther King, Jr., high crime, weak
education, and even a huge, actual pyramid. If you tried to create analogs to all
these things in a fictional city, you'd run the risk of looking silly. Why not just use
the real thing and be done with it? So I did. I dropped hard-core, scary vampires
into actual 1975 Memphis.

But I put the Tufa, my mythical race of Southern folk-singing faeries, in the made-
up east Tennessee town of Needsville, located in the equally mythical Cloud
County. I wanted the same thing Faulkner did: a landscape that I could shape to
echo the themes and characters of the stories. I wanted to put certain characters
in the mountains, others in the valley, still others at the edges of the county,
looking in. Yes, it's based loosely on a real place, the same way Lafayette
County inspired Yoknapatawpha. But when you're talking about a small town
and not a big urban area, it just seems polite to make it fictional.

Of course, that doesn't always help. In the 1960s, author Jesse Hill Ford set The
Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, a sensational examination of small-town racism,
in fictional Somerton, Tennessee. However, his neighbors in real-life Humboldt
had no trouble seeing their town in his book, and weren't terribly delighted to be
depicted as corrupt, ignorant racist rednecks. Things did not work out well for
Mr. Ford.

Still, Yoknapatawpha County, Somerton, my own Cloud County and Needsville,
all give writers an option they don't get in real life: the chance to work in a
landscape that mirrors the inner life of their characters. Conversely, places
like Memphis, New Orleans, or Atlanta give readers a common ground with the
story's characters, a chance to go and literally walk in their footsteps. And both
have a proud tradition in Southern literature, of which I am delighted to be a new,
tiny part.

Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland and twenty minutes from Nutbush. He's been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He now lives in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls, writes before six in the morning and tries to teach his two sons to act like they’ve been to town before.

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