F. Rutledge Hammes' grandparents settled on James Island decades ago, exposing themselves to Gullah culture. Hammes, the eldest of 10 children, grew up with folklore ringing in his ears.
Years later he became a writer, and years after that, he landed a job as director of the prestigious creative writing program at the Charleston County School of the Arts, where he encourages fledgling authors to find their unique voice.
Now he's published a book, his first novel, called "A Curious Matter of Men with Wings," which pays tribute to the people and the stories he knew as a child.
Q: Your new novel — a debut! — is called “A Curious Matter of Men with Wings,” which leads me to ask: Men with wings?
A: Perhaps my favorite piece of Lowcountry — and dare I say, American — lore is the centuries-old Gullah tale that in Africa everyone is born with wings, though when Africans were kidnapped and violently forced onto slave ships, many Africans had to leave their wings behind. However, a few enslaved people managed to hide their wings and sneak them over to America. And so it is said that the descendants of those winged people still reside in the skies over the South Carolina Sea Islands.
So much of this story speaks to our shared history of those who enslaved and those who were enslaved, so much speaks to the good and the evil in our common humanity, so much to our shared human need to shake free the bonds of our lives and, at last, be free. So much of this story speaks to our need to look to the sky for the promises of what makes us better.
Q: You grew up in the Lowcountry and you were exposed from an early age to Gullah culture and storytelling. What experiences have inspired you to write this novel, or to become a writer in the first place?
A: As it often does for a writer, it all boils down to the stories I first fell in love with as a child. The love of words my mother and my father instilled in me, and the soul-echoing voice of my grandmother as she shared the tales she had heard herself on the Sea Islands.
My Grammie, Ruth Glover, moved out to James Island early in her marriage and there developed lifelong friendships with the Gullah people who lived there. Those stories were passed on to me in a way that I never forgot and now hope to shed light on.
Q: What novelists have influenced you the most and why?
A: Where to begin? Raymond Carver’s understanding of the carefully culled sentence, the simple human struggle perhaps. Dorothy Allison’s viscerally cutting images and hard-hitting plot lines. Of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s realism made truly realistic by reminding us of the everyday magic.
C.S. Lewis’ measured way of addressing the universe and convincing the boyhood version of me to seek it out in wardrobes. Flannery O’Connor’s recognition of how eternally strange and superstitious and thus unique we are as Southerners. And without a doubt, Pat Conroy, whose influence on my depictions of our home is transparent.
Q: Magic, storytelling, family, loss, redemption. These are themes of your novel. How did you find your subject and how did you go about constructing the book? What was the writing process like?
A: As the old adage suggests, I write what I know (which is not much, admittedly). I know loss, I know redemption, I know the Sea Islands and I know the waterways. And as one of eight siblings, I know family. Magic and storytelling to me are really one in the same. After all, what is a true and honest story without the magic of our everyday lives: good luck and first kisses, deja vu and strangers, a belly-laugh, a cool breeze and second chances?
But I also write what I want to know, to read a story as if recalling it. And so I constructed this book to feel like you are being told the story, instead of reading it, to feel like you are awash in magic, in the tidal movements of a dream, a story pieced together from memory.
Q: You teach creative writing at Charleston County School of the Arts. To what extent did your classroom experiences influence your novel writing, and vice versa?
A: I have long said that if an artist truly cares about their art form, they must do all they can to ensure their passion is passed on to the next generation. And I am one lucky guy because I get to work with the most talented young writers on the planet, truly the next generation of American voices, with roots right here in the Lowcountry.
I see the relationship between my own writing life and my life as a writing teacher as symbiotic. I take everything I learn in my professional life back into my classroom every day, back to my students. And by repeating and articulating the techniques and passions and failures out loud, the lessons I teach become the lessons I learn, an ingrained part of who I am as a writer.
Q: What will your second novel be about?
A: America itself, and the South in particular, has such a rich folkloric tradition that our literary canon has left largely unengaged. I love the magic of the South, and I love writing about the difficult questions we face every day as Southerners: the big universal questions of race and poverty, family dynamics and an ever-changing demographic that makes mutable so much of who we are and who we can be.
And so if I manage to survive another novel, I will continue writing in that vein. I will continue to be what I call a Southern fabulist, a Lowcountry writer who loves the fables, the beauty, the magic and the struggles of our coastal home, a writer who continues to attempt to address the important issues of our time.