Margaret Renkl writes about the South as few other writers do: from a patient and curious inspection of her own backyard. Literally, with the animals and plants in her own Tennessee backyard, but also more profoundly within the social kaleidoscope of the indefinable “South.” With elegance and wit, Margaret tackles sticky dichotomies of the human world and natural world colliding — love and loss, hope and heartbreak (to borrow from her book titles). We’re thrilled to have Margaret Renkl as a FACE of the South while she gears up to release The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year this fall.
Instead of speaking for the entire South, you champion its complexities. Are there times when this is difficult to do?
It’s not at all hard to observe or articulate the many complexities of life in the South, but it’s often very hard to convince people who don’t live here to recognize that there’s more to this region than the stereotypes they’ve picked up from mass media. Even now, there aren’t many complex or nuanced depictions of Southerners to be found on television or online.
Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you combine the observation with the writing? Are they separate or simultaneous?
I think it’s a little of both. I’m always walking around my yard, always looking out my windows, always reading, reading, reading. When I see something (or hear something or read something) that gives me an idea, I jot it down. And I take a lot of pictures with my phone to keep the images fresh in mind. Once I’m ready to write, those notes and photos can offer a starting point. It’s a great gift to a writer to have something concrete to start with, but an idea isn’t an essay. As I’m writing, I often need to return to what gave me the idea in the first place and re-immerse myself in it again.
What were your younger years in Alabama like?
My parents moved around a good bit, so we lived everywhere, from a small town to an inner city to various suburbs and semi-rural areas just beyond the suburbs. But the steady center of my childhood was my grandparents’ farm in Lower Alabama. My brother and sister and I spent nearly as much time there as we spent at our own house.
Have the places you’ve visited and lived in the South changed or informed you as a writer?
I actually haven’t lived in very many other places outside Alabama. I spent two years in graduate school in South Carolina, where I met my husband. When we finished grad school, we moved to Nashville, and we’ve been here ever since. But we are both close to our families, and we were constantly visiting them, always on the road to Birmingham, Alabama, where my parents and my sister’s family lived; or to rural Georgia, where my in-laws lived; or to coastal South Carolina, where two of my husband’s siblings and their families lived.
I’ve spent my entire life road-tripping around the American South by highways and by backroads. And surely, that’s why I feel so much like this region is a part of me and why I write about it so often.
What’s something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
People often think I’m an optimist because I tend, as a writer, to lean hard on hope. But I’m not an optimist. I’m just a person who has learned to look for reasons to keep hope alive. If you actively look for reasons to have hope, you will always, always find them. But that’s very different from optimism.
What’s a common misconception people have about the South’s natural landscape?
In my experience, people outside the South don’t think of the Southern landscape much at all. The South isn’t a place to them. It’s just a collection of people who vote a certain way or believe a certain way.
Where can we find you on your “days off”?
With friends or with a book.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
One of my first assignments in grad school was to write three sonnets, thematically connected. I had an entire week in which to write a grand total of 42 lines of poetry, but I was completely stuck. I just could not do it. When I told my parents about it on the phone the night before the assignment was due, my dad said, “Just write a shitty sonnet, Margaret.” I’ve always remembered that. The sonnet doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be a sonnet.
Who’s inspiring you right now and why?
The young people who keep turning out in Tennessee to demand common-sense gun laws give me so much hope. These are the children who grew up with active-shooter drills in school, and they aren’t going to stop showing up on the statehouse steps until their government does something to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Besides faith, family, and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without.
Books, dogs, and flowers.
Favorite hidden gem in the South: The Mobile-Tensaw Delta
Last vacation: I’m not really one for vacations, but I love to go up to Sewanee to write. My idea of a rest is to have the chance to write without a deadline bearing down.
What’s on your bedside table?: The latest issues of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Orion, plus whatever book I’m reading. Right now, it’s a wonderful essay collection by Bill Eville called Washed Ashore: Family, Fatherhood, and Finding Home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Your go-to birthday present (to give): A book! (Are you sensing a theme here?) Books are the perfect gift because everyone I love is a reader. When I give a book, I’m delighting a friend, and I’m supporting the entire publishing ecosystem — the author, the publisher, and my own local bookstore — at the same time.
Thank you for sharing a little slice of your life and career, Margaret. We are proud to have you in the South. Read more at MargaretRenkl.com.
For more stories of inspirational women, visit our FACES archives!