A Brief Chat with
Susan Rebecca White
“I’ve had a sense of what you guys call the duality of the Southern thing ever since I can remember,” says Susan Rebecca White, the Atlanta native and author of three highly praised novels, including the remarkable “A Place at the Table,” which was published in June by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Many young Southerners become fully acquainted with the duality and its difficulties only after they grow up and leave home. But the duality was waiting for White from the day she was born.
“My parents were each married before they married each other, and I was the only biological child of my two parents, but the youngest of six kids altogether,” she says from her home in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood. “Half of my siblings grew up in a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian home in the suburbs, but we grew up in the heart of Buckhead, going to private schools and going to sort of a mainline protestant church. So there were religious differences and cultural differences in our immediate family.”
White’s mom and dad had actually grown up together in the small northwest Tennessee town of Martin, but their respective roads had taken them down different branches of the duality before their reunion and marriage in Atlanta.
I hear this story and cannot imagine what such a childhood would bring. But one thing’s for sure: White’s was the kind of upbringing that creates artists.
“It makes sense to me that I write books,” White says.
Yep. Without a doubt.
But even such an upbringing could not guarantee that White would become the writer she has, a woman whose work deals forthrightly, honestly and courageously with the conflicts inherent in the Southern thing.
“It’s a very complex identity to have — to be both proud of a place and aware of how broken the place we come from is,” she says.
The greatest Southern literature — from Faulkner on down — has dealt squarely with the broken pieces of the South. But White does this difficult work firmly in the modern age. The topics of classical Southern writing — race, class, religion — are all there, but she explores our more modern challenges, such as the acceptance of gay sons and daughters into our families, with a directness and courage that would do Flannery O’Connor proud.
Here at The Bitter Southerner, we find it a bit disconcerting that White’s work — along with that of an entire generation of great 21st century Southern female writers — is often positioned as “women’s fiction.” We think the work is too important to be contained within any artificial boundaries. (For more on that, check out this snippet of our little FaceTime conversation with White.)
It’s not only her subject matter that drives us to such an opinion. It’s the fact that White has the remarkable ability — shared by only the greatest storytellers — to let her characters be who they are, for better or worse. Her writing never leads the reader to conclusions; it lets us draw our own. Her characters confirm, through their words and actions, that Southerners are rarely as simple as the stereotypes.
“Sometimes the most toxic voices are the ones that define us, and other voices about the South don’t get unearthed often enough,” she says. “When I first started writing, I had a more propagandistic agenda. I wanted to prove a point. But in grad school, I learned to just write about people, just write about complicated people.
“It sort of fits into my philosophy, and in some ways, even into my theology,” she concludes. “People aren’t ours to manipulate. The most important thing you can do is to try to understand somebody fully.”
Amen to that.
Watch the Skype Conversation Between BS Editor Chuck Reece and Susan Rebecca White
Photo by Christopher T. Martin
Three Books by Susan Rebecca White
One things that bugs us about buying books is that the descriptions we see online often
come from an anonymous copywriter inside a publishing house. We want something
better for you, the readers of The Bitter Southerner. So we asked Susan White to write
brief descriptions of each of her three books for you. This way, you get the description
straight from the author’s hand.
One things that bugs us about buying books is that the descriptions we see online often come from an anonymous copywriter inside a publishing house. We want something better for you, the readers of The Bitter Southerner. So we asked Susan White to write brief descriptions of each of her three books for you. This way, you get the description straight from the author’s hand.
A Place at the Table
The seed of inspiration for this story came from the real-life friendship of two chefs, Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, he a young, white man from Alabama, she a black woman from Virginia 50 years his senior. It was important to use Scott and Edna's story only as a springboard, and to create new characters with their own trajectories. And so I discovered Alice Stone, a black chef with a secret, and Bobby Banks, an earnest preacher's kid from Decatur, Ga. This book starts in 1929 and ends in 1991, and it covers small town Georgia to New York City, as experienced by Southerners. It came together in unexpected ways, and I have to say I'm quite proud of it.
A Soft Place to Land
This is a book that began with a "what if." About 10 years ago my dad and I were talking, and he told me that had he and my mom died while I was still a minor, I would have gone to live with my aunt and uncle in the Bay Area, while the rest of my siblings would have been raised by their remaining biological parents. I was horrified by the thought — to lose my parents and be separated from my siblings! — but then I thought, “Wow, that would make a great novel.” While the subject matter is obviously not overtly funny, I cracked myself up several times in the course of writing it. Meaning: It's not entirely grim, not at all.
My first novel. Don't let the cover fool you; this book is weirder than it looks. This is my most overtly funny novel, an old South meets new South clash. My (now) husband Sam read it when we first met, and because of that, and because it's so distinctly Atlantan, it's probably his favorite of my three.