November 23, 2010 Nashville writer Tony Earley, whose critically acclaimed novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star are set in the mountains of western North Carolina, has been elected a new member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. The organization was founded in 1987 by Southern luminaries like Cleanth Brooks, Fred Chappell, James Dickey, Shelby Foote, John Hope Franklin, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and C. Vann Woodward, with the goal of “commemorating outstanding literary achievement, encouraging young writers through awards, prizes and fellowships, recognizing distinction in writing by election to membership, and through other appropriate activities.”
William Faulkner famously discovered that his own “little postage stamp of native soil is worth writing about” because there are found “the universal problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” In farms tucked high up in the hills of western North Carolina, Earley found his own Yoknapatawpha County, a place that is specific and universal at once. As any truly Southern writer must, Earley writes stories and essays that reveal a profound understanding of the nature of family, of the way our people shape us, sometimes without our knowing it, sometimes to our great cost, and sometimes despite our most violent struggles against them. It’s a fact that many of us, because we are Americans and believe foolishly in the myth of the self-made genius, don’t wish to think too much about: for better or for worse, we are inescapably formed by family, as much by who they simply are, faults and all, as by what they try consciously to teach us.
In “Granny’s Bridge,” the wonderful essay that concludes Earley’s 2001 collection, Somehow Form a Family, for example, Earley tells the disarmingly simple tale of his paternal grandmother’s ill-fated bus trip in 1953, the only real trip out of Polk County, North Carolina, she ever took in her disappointed life, and a mission entirely doomed because her intention was to bring home a runaway son though all she knew about his whereabouts was that he’d been heading for Florida.
Years later, telling Earley her version of the story, the only part of the humiliating experience his grandmother relates is a description of driving across a magnificent bridge beside an unfathomable ocean. “She did not mention…that she didn’t know where she was going at the time, or that people snickered about that adventure behind her back for years. Instead, she chose to tell me, from what she must have considered an inadequate array of choices, that she had once seen a sight so extraordinary that she had become extraordinary by seeing it. In an alchemy of will, she took a bus, a bridge, and a failed journey and transformed them into the culmination of a life. It wasn’t lying, exactly, but rather burnishing memory until it looked like hope. It was her voice crying out, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ even as it grew fainter and fainter and finally crossed out of earshot.”
Read more about the Fellowship of Southern Writers–and about Early himself–here.