Arts and Humanities
Thu August 14, 2014
A Concept of Place: Charles Dodd White's New Novel Explores Appalachian Community and Family
Award-winning author Charles Dodd White writes stories about working class characters in rural mountain communities. His new novel “A Shelter of Others” is a story of families – the kind you’re born into and the kind you choose for yourself. It’s the story of a man who returns home from prison, where he’s done time for selling pills, and is reunited with his wife. She’s stayed in his absence, serving as caregiver for his father, who suffers from dementia.
White will read from and sign “A Shelter of Others” Friday, 7 p.m., at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Frankfort Avenue.
White was born in Georgia, lives outside of Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. And he rebels a bit at well-meaning advice that would caution writers from tightly binding their work to a specific place – after all, his stories are steeped in Appalachian culture, community and landscape. At the same time, White admits that to be lauded as a “Southern writer” can sometimes feel like a back-handed compliment – like living a county over from the general literary landscape.
“I feel like it’s very easy to – condescend isn’t the right word, but certainly to diminish – Southern writing, in a sense, particularly the Southern gothic, as being somehow a sub-genre, or even somewhat formulaic,” said White. “And I think it sometimes ignores some of the innovations that people do within that type of writing or storytelling.”
And that can go double for writing specifically about southern Appalachia, a region that lacks the veil of decadence and genteel ruin that the South in general has historically claimed.
“There are two different uses of the word Appalachia, too," he said. "There are uses from insiders, who use it with a sense and understanding of what that complicated idea and concept of place is, and there’s the outside, more general sense of Appalachia, which is to reduce the region and to simplify it.”
“And [that use is] largely pejorative, rather than something that’s expansive or trying to understand the inherent complications of any kind of place, specifically one with the kind of inequities and marginalized historical element.”
So White works for his characters – striving to infuse his characters with the complexity that drives up stakes in any story, no matter where it’s set.
“For me, to bring that quiet grace and almost an intellectually-engaged portrait of the world to people who don’t usually get the privilege of that voice, that’s a hard thing to do when you’re working with working class characters who might not have the verbiage that grants them that kind of empowerment,” he said.
“That’s one reason why my stuff is third person," he adds. "I feel like if you can bring grace and dignity to a character that normally wouldn’t have it you’re doing something right.”
More by Charles Dodd White: “Lambs of Men” (novel), “Sinners of Sanction County” (short stories)
In Progress: A new novel, “Feasts of the Sun,” about an eco-terrorist in hiding in the North Carolina mountains. “I still have a great deal of writing to go, but I already have a couple of interested parties,” said White. “We'll have to wait and see.”
He Recommends: “The Sheltering” by Mark Powell (“excellent”) and “Benediction” by Kent Haruf, which he says is “a book defined by quietness and understated elegance, both in style and characterization.”