Gale Massey, Kelly J. Ford, and I have quite a few things in common. We’re debut crime novelists. We’re queer. We’re Southern.
Growing up gay in the Bible Belt undeniably shaped us, but how deep do Southern roots penetrate our fiction as adults? How do we reconcile identities that are often in conflict with one another? And, importantly, which of us are cousins and how far removed?
Y’all best believe we have Things to Say™, and we’re grateful to Lambda Literary for the opportunity to say ‘em. Pour a little Coke in that bourbon, and buckle your biscuits ‘cause this unflinching roundtable’s heading South. Literally.
And possibly metaphorically.
P.J.: Everyone’s South is different; these are simply ours. Let us introduce ourselves, and describe our relationship with home in three words.
Gale Massey: I’ve been told my family goes back seven generations in Florida but it’s a proven fact I come from a long line of horse thieves and liars, so who really knows? My debut novel is The Girl From Blind River (Crooked Lane Books). My relationship with the South can be summed up in one word: Conflicted.
Kelly J. Ford: I’m based in Boston, but my family’s been lodged in the South for generations. My hometown is nicknamed Hell on the Border and considered a “Top Ten True Western Town.” But it’s also in the foothills of the Ozarks. It’s a weird mix of cultures. My debut Cottonmouths (Skyhorse Publishing) is more focused on those hills, a great place to commit and hide your crimes. At least for a little while. Like many exiles, there’s a lot I love about the South, but much that is deeply disappointing. So, how ‘bout two words: love/hate.
P.J.: I’m a suspense author, and When You Find Me (Crooked Lane Books) is my Southern Gothic debut. It’s dark. It’s twisty. The pages sweat sweet tea and gin in equal measure. I live in Canada (brrr), but I’m an expat from Florence, South Carolina. Nestled in the state’s swampy coastal plains, it’s both had an atomic bomb dropped on it and is vital for drug trafficking as it’s equidistant from Miami and NYC via I-95. Three words that capture my relationship with home: It. Is. Complicated.
Gale: My father was born and raised near Florence. We might be cousins.
P.J.: Dear Reader, this is such a typical occurrence for Southerners. My first question to Gale upon seeing mutual connections on Facebook was literally: Do you know my cousinso and so?
Kelly: I assume I’m a 4th or 6th cousin to everyone in the South because my kinfolk got around.
Gale: I recently learned of a distant, openly gay cousin who was vice-president in 1853. Yay, pride moment! Then I learned he also owned five hundred slaves and a plantation. Ugh. it’s so typical of the South to offer up equal amounts of shame and pride in a single serving.
P.J.: Neither Kelly nor I reside in the South, but set our books there. Gale still calls the South home, but chose New York for her novel to unfold. A coincidence? Or were our story settings influenced by where we live?
Gale: The question of why I didn’t set my novel in the South keeps coming up. It seemed any story I told would be overshadowed by the complexity and quirkiness of the South and that setting the novel here would overtake the story I wanted to tell. So, I headed north and created a small town as a simple backdrop. I guess setting it up north was a way of gaining distance and space from where I’ve spent my whole life.
P.J.: I’m uncertain I’d set my novel in South Carolina if I still lived there. Residing in Canada liberated me to return in my writing. It’s like a bad break-up: distance deceives memory. You constantly remind yourself why the relationship didn’t work out. But traveling there for the book was cathartic. In fictional Elizabeth, SC, I exert complete control.
Kelly: Almost everything I’ve written has been based in or referenced Arkansas. I can’t seem to separate my upbringing from my work. I spent 22 years in Arkansas before I said yes to a free ride to Boston with a coworker from Walmart. That’s a lot of living during formative years to toss off so easily. All I wanted was to get out of Arkansas, but now that I’m gone, my head goes there whenever I sit down to write.
P.J.: One thing we all agree is that this conversation is challenging. Are our relationships to the South so complex that they’re difficult to write about?
Gale: Growing up in a culture that actively persecutes their minorities makes it difficult to come to terms with the fact that you are a member of an invisible minority. Witnessing bigotry and racism and segregation is scary for most children (unless they’re sociopaths), and being a part of a pack is key to survival. So coming out or even coming to terms with being queer can be or at least feel like a life-threatening proposition. This has made it difficult to have a healthy relationship with my birthplace and my ancestry. Add writing to the mix and it means you are processing these things in a way that is very public.
Kelly J. Ford
Kelly: It’s easier to write about Arkansas now that I have distance, both in miles and maturity. But it remains complicated.
For me, the South is inextricably tied to a difficult relationship with my mother. The issues she dealt with are issues you see all too often in the South and rural areas, and in our fiction: neglect, mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse, poor health, and housing and food insecurity. Just overall deterioration of body, mind, and soul. Time and again, I’ve tried to put that relationship into words via essays or even a memoir. But it’s not something I can touch with any emotion unless I channel it through fiction. I put up a defensive wall for protection years ago, and I’m so used to its comforting presence.
P.J.: It’s been challenging for my therapist[s] to get outta me, too. Growing up, I lived for the day I’d hop on I-95 and head north for a life of fame and gay fortune. I left South Carolina, but it changed me far less than I’d hoped. I was still insecure, still carrying wounds. You can’t escape the South any more than you can crawl outta your own skin. One day, I stopped trying. That was an inflection point. Home evolved from a monster to be fled to something layered and begging to be understood. I’m still deep into that part of the journey.
The South doesn’t make it easy to be different, and all that baggage makes talking about it candidly tougher than we expected.
The South also yields an impressive repertoire of literary greats like Frederick Douglass, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Britney Spears (kidding, maybe). How did growing up queer in a region wrapped in a Bible Belt inform our writing?
Gale: Yes, voicing our collective experience is challenging. It seems we have many issues in common. I also grew up bearing witness to the profound impact of poverty on women. You never shake that off. As a child I also saw a lot of duality. Allegedly good men doing hateful things to POC, their wives, and children. Deacons sipping grain alcohol out of brown paper bags before Wednesday night prayer meetings. The closeted choir leader not being true to his nature. But I also saw good men and women helping out impoverished families. The South taught me all about human complexity.
Kelly: I didn’t even realize I was queer until I was in my mid-twenties in Boston. Lord knows there were signs before that. I was madly in love with Dale Arden and Princess Aura from Flash Gordon, Andromeda from Clash of the Titans, Maggie from Escape from New York. Not to mention all the neighborhood girls with whom I developed deeply felt, close friendships. I even had an out gay cousin. But it didn’t even occur to me that women could love women. Gay men? Sure. Anything else on the queer spectrum was not part of my lexicon. I always felt different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was also hit in the head with a metal bar while working at the Hardee’s at 16, so that could explain it.
Honestly, I was so desperate for love and nurturing from anyone who offered it to me. That mix of emotions—confusion, desperation, anxiety, love, hypocrisy—are mental scars. That confusion about who I was and what I meant to people bleeds into my work.
P.J.: The duality was stark, sometimes traumatizing, and is omnipresent in my writing. The religious hypocrisy, victimhood, and substance abuse were as pervasive as the mosquitos. Generational cycles of abuse thread every society, but Southern families seem to bear these burdens frequently. Just my perception, but unsurprising given the income inequality, religious dogma, and marginalization of communities. Hostility thrives in those conditions. Times are changing as cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville experience cultural renaissances, but deep stains don’t wash out easy.
Enter the pathological preoccupation with veneers in my fiction which mirrors life. Patient secrets, toxic relationships, and deceptive masks abound in both. This penchant to hide behind facades is fertile ground for fiction. Writing allows me to vent frustrations with injustice, garish hypocrisy, and the futility of denial. But my pages are also for celebrating the Southern warriors. Like my best friend, Sheri Ard, who was an ally before gay best friends were cosmopolitan. She took heat for her gay friends, and continues the fight. She recently implemented gender nonbinary inclusion in our hometown hospital’s paperwork.
In the end, no one wants a book about well-adjusted adults practicing healthy conflict resolution, and South Carolina makes a hell of a setting.
Must queerness and Southernness coexist in conflict with one another?
Kelly: I don’t see how it can’t when you’ve got people out there that will fight tooth and nail to try to kill us: either through legislation or a thousand microaggressive cuts. God bless the queer folks who can live in the South and tolerate it. They’re made of tougher stuff than I am.
Gale: I agree with Kelly. A thick skin is required to live down here.
P.J.: I want to say no, but I want to be honest. My sexuality and my roots have always been in conflict.
When I came out, I received a letter from an important relative. It contained the most hurtful words I’d ever read. A laundry list of willfully ignorant vitriol to frighten me from a lifestyle. I was fated to AIDS. I received a jarring account of gay sexual practices. Choosing hell made victims of my loved ones. How could I be so selfish? It was written with guidance from our pastor–an educated and articulate man who remains a community pillar. He wouldn’t remember me, but his profound lack of empathy shaped my family relationships for years. It stoked an internal conflict that I still struggle to reconcile. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I do know I’ve let take too much from me.
Gale: Holy shit, P.J. I am so sorry you had this experience. My mother tossed me out of the house when I was eighteen claiming God would not want her to house a homosexual. I carried that wound for years but eventually I began to surround myself with friendships that were healthier and stronger than family of origin bonds.
Kelly: It’s awful to hear these stories and unfortunately all too common. Luckily, I grew up around sinners and didn’t have Bible beaters quoting scripture at me. I had a positive experience coming out. My dad said, “I don’t care as long as you’re happy. I love you.” I’m not sure my mom knew about my sexuality before she died. She was a piece of work, but I don’t believe she would’ve have kicked me out. None of us were so high on our horse that we didn’t fear our own fall and the helping hand we’d need once we were down there.
P.J.: Folks often point to the rapid progress society’s made, but we have to remember our scars. Complacency is fraught with danger.
We might be writing what we know, but Southern Gothic & Grit Lit are having a moment. How do we balance reader expectations and reality? What has the reception been from Southern versus non-Southerner readers?
For me, the difference was stark. Early readers in South Carolina focused on plot holes, narrative disjointedness, and craft stuff. But Canadian critique partners? They wanted the “South” of their imaginations. Where were the race riots and burning crosses? Turnip-eating Scarlett O’Hara swearing never to go hungry again? To them, the South is eccentric and bizarre, and they wanted it on every page. After the book was acquired, my editor helped me craft a balance. You try your best to be true, but at the end of the day, my job is to deliver an entertaining product with wide appeal.
Kelly: A woman at a reading in Boston didn’t have a question but a comment (we’ve all been there): “Arkansas sounds so backwards, so awful.” I felt defensive because yeah, it is in some ways. But it’s also my roots and it made me who I am. It’s been heartening to hear from southern readers—and those who enjoy southern lit. The thing I’ve heard most often from those readers is that Cottonmouths felt real. That’s the best compliment I could receive: they saw themselves, whether they’re from small towns or are in the closet and desperate for the love of that one person who’s awfully bad for them. It might not be a great image, but it’s an accurate reflection for a lot of folks. I feel like I’m doing my job as a writer if I can help others feel a little less invisible, flaws and all.
Gale: Most people commenting on the location simply ask me to set my next book in Florida, and I am doing that. Maybe I needed to start somewhere else in order to come home.
P.J.: The South is storied and complex, and we all experience it differently – especially as queer. What messages should readers take from this roundtable?
Gale: I’ve been out in the South for over four decades and while its ways have left scars on many of us, it’s also brought us wisdom. To quote RuPaul (who, by the way, worked the Georgia club circuits before conquering queer NYC), “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Kelly: Many people are interested in the South as a concept, or as history. They’re less interested in the New South, the one that exists outside of the litany of straight white male authors and Flannery. Every time I see an article with that typical list, I could spit. I couldn’t believe it when I spoke to a professor who taught southern literature and they’d never heard of Jesmyn Ward. I mean, come on. She’s won two National Book Awards for books set in Mississippi. If she can’t get their attention, what chance do southern queer writers have? There has to be an active effort to diversify the reading lists in Southern Lit classes across the board. That would be a good start.
P.J.: I love the South, and I hate the South. I never want to live there again, and I want to breathe my last breath in South Carolina. I am a collection of contradictions. Accomplished and insecure. Self-less and selfish. Queer and Southern. I’m the natural product of a place where paradoxes thrive and reinvention is always possible.
The undeniable truth? The South is me. It’s Gale. It’s Kelly. And whether it likes it or not, it’s pretty queer.
A South Carolina transplant in Canada, P. J. Vernon abandoned gainful employment to write When You Find Me, his critically acclaimed Southern Gothic suspense debut.
Gale Massey’s debut novel, The Girl From Blind River, is a coming of age story of family dysfunction, illegal gambling and small-town corruption. Massey lives in St. Petersburg and is a Florida native.
Kelly J. Ford is the author of Cottonmouths, named one of 2017’s best books of the year by the Los Angeles Review. Kelly is Arkansas bred and Boston based.