She's not shy. In her essay collection "The Redneck Way of Knowledge," Blanche McCrary Boyd shared funny and serious and acerbic observations about life in the South — in Charleston, specifically.
That book was a must-read in the 1990s, especially among the city's gay community. Here was an author being honest about it all. That collection was followed by four novels, two of which featured the wild child Ellen Burns.
Now, 20 years since her last novel was published, the third in that trilogy is out from Counterpoint Press, "Tomb of the Unknown Racist." In it, Ellen confronts head-on a cult of white supremacists in which her brother has been subsumed.
Boyd will be in town for a free public conversation hosted by The Friends of the College of Charleston Libraries and the Alliance for Full Acceptance, scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 30, in Alumni Memorial Hall (inside Randolph Hall), 66 George St.
On the occasion of the publication of "Tomb," and in anticipation of Boyd's visit, The Post and Courier posed a few questions.
Q: The autobiographical book of essays you wrote back in the 1990s, “The Redneck Way of Knowledge,” became a “cult classic” and made clear your Southern credentials and your incisive critique of life in Charleston. But you live and teach in Connecticut and have spent much of your life away from your hometown. How do you navigate such foreign terrain? What is your reputation?
A: What's my reputation? Good, I hope, excellent, I think. If you want to know more, go to blanchemccraryboyd.com ...
I moved to California, then north, because that's where the publishing action was. I stayed in New York seven years, then moved to Charleston to finish “The Redneck Way of Knowledge,” then to Connecticut, where I've been living ever since. First, I got a fabulous job that supported my writing, which morphed slowly into becoming the Roman S. and Tatiana Weller Professor of English and Writer in Residence at Connecticut College.
I'm married now, and my wife and children are Northerners who wouldn't move away from here under any circumstances. Truthfully, I'm pretty tired of the North, especially the weather and pervasive anxiety, but I wouldn't move back to Charleston in any case. I think I'd move to central Florida, which feels a lot like rural South Carolina did.
My best friends (from Charleston) live in Florida now, and I'd like to be there and around them at least part of the winter. And publishing has certainly changed a lot. My Counterpoint Press editor is in Los Angeles, the designer is in New York and the main offices are in Berkeley (Calif.). We work electronically.
Q: Your new book is "Tomb of the Unknown Racist," a novel that completes a trilogy that started with "The Revolution of Little Girls" (1991) and continued with “Terminal Velocity” (1997). In "Tomb'' readers once again meet Ellen Burns, who is older and wiser. To what extent is she an alter-ego?
A: Ellen Burns narrates “Tomb” as well as “Revolution” and “Terminal Velocity.” It's a trilogy, but the books are not sequential; they stand independently of each other, yet can be laid over each other like transparencies to give a deeper picture.
And here's the truth about Ellen Burns and me: I'm not Ellen, but I'm more like her than anyone else I know. She’s sort of my avatar. Since I wrote “The Redneck Way of Knowledge,” I've played around a lot with techniques fusing autobiographical elements into my fiction. I went to Duke, for instance, but I did not hypnotize the dean of students or try to lose my virginity in a girdle. I did, however, know how to hypnotize people in high school and college, and at Duke I got into trouble for it. I think autobiographical elements are part of what makes Ellen's voice so convincing.
All of my work has been an exploration of the sometimes blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction. ... Maybe this example will illuminate the issue? People often thought I was making up the incidents in “Redneck Way”; in my novels, Ellen has a voice that is both compelling and persuasive, an I-was-there-and-I'm-going-to-tell-you-what-really-happened voice, much like the one in “Redneck,” but I'm really not Ellen and different things happen to her.
Her story has clearer lines than my own, and she's more assertive, more aggressive than I am. And my real brother is certainly not Royce. My real brother is a real estate developer in Charleston, and his name is Charlie McCrary. I warned him about the dreadful brother in “Tomb,” and we had a good laugh.
Q: “Tomb” deals with some heavy topics such as white supremacy, and it examines America’s racial divide. What do you think about the current status of the country, the corrosive political and social divisions? What needs to happen?
A: When I was first showing early drafts of “Tomb” to friends and editors, the consensus was that the story was unconvincing, so I had to add a list of facts to the opening of the novel to show that the racist/political bones of the novel are verifiable. Of course, now that the political situation in the country has changed, people don't seem to have any trouble believing “Tomb” because the white supremacists and misogynists have now entered the mainstream.
I think that race is the elephant in the room for white American writers. How can a white writer write an important novel without addressing the deep and still festering and oozing wound of our racist history? Black writers like Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon and Claudia Rankine are blowing the top off of the literary canon, as are Native American writers like Joy Harjo and Sherman Alexie. Meanwhile, white writers continue to produce work that is, as one black writer said, primarily about sad white people who don't seem to know they're white.
Whiteness is, of course, an illusion, a construct, and no one is white, no one is black. I'm pink myself. But those of us who are so-called white had better take a hard look at structural racism and how we are embedded in it. This is a longer discussion than I can have here.
Q: In “The Redneck Way of Knowledge” you write about your experiences at the second Spoleto Festival in 1978, using it to consider the pretensions of the Old South. Since then, Charleston has changed significantly. Do you often visit? (If not, why not?) What do you think of the place now?
A: I think Charleston is more like Disneyland now, a place for tourists. Many of my real friends in Charleston have left.
Q: Do you think there is such a thing as "Southern literature"? If so, how do you define it? If not, why not?
A: Well, is there such a thing as Northern literature? I think this question has to do with setting, mostly, but perhaps also with sensibility. To my mind, relevant characteristics of Southerners are: We all tend to be great storytellers, and we are often as lush and lyrical as our landscapes; also, we don't trust much about abstract thinking.
Q: Five novels and one essay collection in the bag. What’s next? Any novel ideas? Surely we won’t have to wait another 20 years …
A: What's next? Tending to this book, trying to get it to its audience. I think it's an amazing story and that it raises a crucial question: What are white people going to do about these white supremacists and terrorists? These people are our brothers (and sisters) metaphorically, but for Ellen Burns, the issue is more immediate: Royce Burns is her actual brother.