Editor's Note: It's not often newspaper readers get a chance to listen in on a conversation between two established writers discussing literature and the South. That these writers are Billy Baldwin and Sam Savage, both with McClellanville roots, and that the occasion for the conversation is the publication of Savage's fourth novel, "It Will End With Us," is reason enough to perk up our ears.
Savage, 74, is a Camden native, Yale graduate, former literary magazine editor, role-up-his-sleeves handyman and, in recent years, a writer of thoughtful fiction. From 1980 to 2004, Savage lived in McClellanville.
He is author of "The Criminal Life of Effie O" (2005), "Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife" (2006), "The Cry of the Sloth: The Mostly Tragic Story of Andrew Whittaker, Being his Collected, Final, and Absolutely Complete Works" (2009), "Glass" (2011), "The Way of the Dog" (2013) and now "It Will End With Us."
BY BILLY BALDWIN
Special to The Post and Courier
Q: You were born and raised in Camden, and on first glance your new novel, "It Will End With Us," appears to be set there. But I see references to Lowcountry duck hunting and the dust jacket photograph is of a road on Edisto Island, a broad stretch of country. But Sam, for this, your fifth novel (and it is a fine one), you have at last come home.
The Taggarts are a family of some breeding now fallen on hard times, one who in their eccentricity and sense of loss are so familiar to the South they have reached the status of myth. There is such an elegant remembering going on here ... I'm tempted to accuse you of nostalgia. Then in the final pages, a more expected darkness settles. Is tragic collapse the price we pay for expecting happiness?
A: I am nostalgic for certain moments of my childhood, or maybe just for childhood itself and the vividness and immediacy of experience that belongs to childhood. I am not in the least nostalgic for the epoch itself.
I think no one should ever expect happiness. That would be like expecting grace.
Q: Though it was set in Boston, your first novel, "Firmin," was written while you were still living in McClellanville where you'd been for 25 years. At one point, you attended the University of North Carolina. Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
A: I think of myself as a Southerner, very definitely, but I don't think of myself as a Southern writer. I think in all good fiction, however imaginative, there is a limit to invention. At some point, you have to reach into yourself and draw on your own experiences. They are all you have, they give a novel its pulse of life. Some, and some of the most vivid, of my experiences belong to the South, but as writer, I don't think of myself as belonging anywhere.
Q: Your first novel sold close to a million copies, but almost all were in translation. You had a European best-seller. "It Will End With Us" is already being translated into French and Turkish. Should I have asked, are you, despite your residency here, an expatriate writer?
A: People have said that I write European novels. I'm not sure what that means. Maybe just that they are short, skeptical, and more concerned with what people think than with what people do or say.
Q: Spring Hope is the name of the Taggarts' home place, the gradually collapsing house with its unkempt acreage. It was also the original title of the novel. You have a sister named Hope and a daughter named Hope. Does Hope spring eternal?
A: For some, maybe, but not for me. Hope is a family name, going back many generations. We had other such names in the past - Prudence, Charity, Faith - but Hope is the only one to survive into the 20th century. I won't speculate about what that means.
Q: And while I'm at it, what exactly is a soul? I see at one point you connect it to the word "home." Is the South more conducive to the resurrection of hope?
A: I don't know what a soul is, or if there is any such thing. I don't see the South today as conducive to anything in particular. There is a reason I called the book "It Will End With Us." I lived through the last of what we could still call the Old South, imprisoned in heat and injustice. With the advent of civil rights and air-conditioning, that South has gradually almost died away. You know it is dead when tradition becomes a deliberate parody of itself and is called "heritage."
Q: "It Will End With Us" is your second novel to have a female protagonist, and in both cases the female was a solitary woman obsessed with writing. Eve Taggart and her mother are passive characters, ones acted against and resisting in the classic Southern way with passive-aggressiveness. The father and sons in the Taggart family act, and sometimes in a brutal way. The women are stationary. The men go places. Has that been your experience? Race relations are touched on, but given the same emphasis as other elements in the Southern experience. But in real life, your father Henry Savage's stand against the Ku Klux Klan brought death threats against your family, and he finally had to move everyone north for their protection. So much of this novel seems autobiographical. To what degree is it your family?
A: Many small things are autobiographical. A toad under a tree root, wisteria on a porch, the smell of creosote on bridge pilings. ... Other things, I'm sure, but transformed, distorted, half-invented. My family bore scant resemblance to the Taggarts.
My male characters tend to be angry, harsh, vituperative. The women, as you note, tend to be passive, reflective, stationary. This wasn't a deliberate choice on my part; it was just how the characters came to me. But you are right. I think it does reflect to a certain extent their classic roles in Southern life.
Race relations are touched on throughout the novel, but the black population is distant, taken for granted, never reflected on, like elements of the landscape, like trees and chairs, not as full human characters, because that is how it was to a child of that epoch. They were the Other, masked and, in a sense, unknowable. Even Faulkner, who could imagine the thoughts of all manner of white people, never told a story as seen through the eyes of a black character. That, if you think about it, is a damning fact, a measure of the injustice with which we so innocently lived.
Q: "It Will End With Us" is filled with references to birds and other wildlife and to the Audubon Society and the National Geographic Society. At one point you refer to the National Geographic magazine as the saddest thing I have ever read. And I see one reviewer pointed out that Eve Taggart shares the name with God's second human and that you are commenting here not on the decline of the South but the decline of the entire planet, that you are suggesting that the planet is dying. Is that so? Are you and is it?
A: I am. I don't know if the planet is dying, but I do think it is in great peril, in danger of becoming a place where we don't want our descendants to have to live. I am reminded of the rabbits that were placed on a luxuriant tropical island, where they flourished for a time, multiplying, as the saying goes, like bunnies. They gradually ate all the vegetation down to the last blade of grass, and the final rabbit starved to death on an island of naked rock. That is a true story.
Q: "It Will End With Us" is a novel about forgetting. Over and over sentences begin with "I remember." Here's a quote from the Czech writer Milan Kundera: "This is the private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus, what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within. ... But forgetting is also the great problem of politics." Are we a country that is forgetting?
A: We have always forgotten. The great myths that have sustained this country have depended on forgetting. Remembering, I want to say, in this crucial historical moment, is incumbent upon us, though whether we can live as a nation with eyes wide open is not clear to me. So I would expand on Kundera and suggest that remembering can also be a great problem of politics.