It was Southern Week here on Storyboard, spotlighting some wonderful regional journalism and writing. It’s been fun tweeting out great lines from famous Southern writers, including this one from William Faulkner: “I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one cap and one period.” Amen. One of my missions here is to showcase standout storytelling that’s being done away from the big population centers of the East and West Coasts. If anyone has an idea for another regional themed week, I’m all ears.
Joe Kovac Jr. and a tale of murder, a manhunt and a midnight run. Sometimes the essay about a standout piece of writing is as good as the original piece itself. Exhibit A: Longtime narrative journalist Steve Oney on Kovac’s bravura piece for The Macon Telegraph in Georgia. I love this line from Steve’s lede, packing in great details and ending with resonance and rhythm: “The suspects, both hardened cons, one with devil’s horns tattooed along his hairline, carjacked a passerby’s Honda Civic and were in the wind.”
The soundtrack: “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” by Chris Thomas King. This comes from the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which played a prison breakout for laughs. The escape in this story was no laughing matter, but the spare blues of the song fit.
One Great Sentence
“Sometimes at noon down South on the hottest of days, when everyone is shivering inside their arctic offices, I go outside just to hear the metallic whirring of the cicadas start up in the trees on the edge of the parking lot. Their tymbals pulsate against their abdomens and the thick air reverberates with the loneliest sound in the universe.”
Will Blythe, “Five Encounters with Vegetation,” Oxford American magazine, 2015. Read why we think it’s great.
Monica Hesse and “American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land.” I can’t list all my favorite quotes from Hesse from this interview by great new Storyboard contributor Julia Shipley, but to quote Cole Porter, with your permission, may I list a few? “My goal is to tell the story how I would tell it to a friend over coffee. And if I wouldn’t tell it to a friend over coffee, then that’s sometimes a sign to me that I shouldn’t be writing the story to begin with.” “Whatever I’m writing, I’m trying to think about the meaning behind it. The Why of it all. The human experience running through it that can speak to everyone, even if they don’t care about fires, or Virginia, and even if they think they don’t like true crime.”
The soundtrack: “Streets of Fire,” by Bruce Springsteen. The only question here was, which Springsteen song would it be? “Fire”? “I’m on Fire”? “Into the Fire”? But the mood of this one worked, and so do these lyrics, which speak to the arsonist lovers, but also the broken region they grew up in: “Now I’m wandering, a loser down the tracks/And I’m lyin’, but babe I can’t go back/’Cause in the darkness I hear somebody call my name.”
What I’m reading online: “Motel Life, Lower Reaches,” by Charles Portis. I know we’ve already sung the praises of Oxford American with the One Great Sentence above, but let’s live large and sing it again. Hallelujah! This piece by the “True Grit” writer has stayed with me for three years now, and not only because he opens with a reference to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” Or even this line: “(Along Arkansas roads there are five or six ways of spelling souvenirs, and every single one of them is wrong. The sign painters in New Mexico do a little better with that tricky word, but not much better.)” No, it’s that point where memory and lyricism come together, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
“Shelter and the Storm,” by Katherine Boo. Hurricane Harvey sent a lot of us back to this story, which the magnificent Boo wrote in the aftermath of the American tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. I like how this line turns a young evacuee into a journalist, a woman who, as Eudora Welty once said, listened for stories, as opposed to listening to them: “Mattress-to-mattress living turns private lives into public theatre, and Jasmine, after settling in, began hovering in corners and doorways to observe her neighbors.”
What’s on my bedside table: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. One of the best short stories ever written. It captures the family dynamic, the pride and the squabbling, with truly tremendous dialogue. What an ear O’Connor had! And an eye for scenes like the one at Red Sammy’s barbecue joint. But it’s the chilling conclusion that keeps you awake the night after you read it, thinking about the inevitability of it all. The last three grafs, pure dialogue, are stunning.
What’s on my turntable: “Dusty in Memphis,” by Dusty Springfield. I think I might have had this on my turntable already this year, and mentioned it in on this site. But it deserved to be spinning again in honor of this Southern week. Her voice was a miracle: This British woman who sang like she’d been born in the Delta. But so was the production. Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, I am in awe.
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), I’m Storyboard editor Kari Howard, and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.