Ask any book club member in Birmingham or Charlotte, Nashville or Atlanta, and you’ll discover that a good read is as integral to the South as sweet tea and monogrammed tote bags. As an Alabama native, Katherine Clark was steeped in this tradition, and she began nursing her own literary dreams as early as 6 years old — though her path to noveldom was anything but straight. Here, the author of The Headmaster’s Darlings and All the Governor’s Men discusses her transition from penning oral histories to writing fiction, the complexities of (good) character development and the future of publishing. Today, we’re thrilled to welcome Katherine Clark as our FACE of the South.
Your novels poke fun at Southern culture a bit. Do you think Southern women take themselves too seriously?
When I was growing up, Southern society taught women to take themselves seriously mainly as objects of beauty and desire, whose role would be to serve the needs of a husband and family. It did not encourage women to take themselves seriously enough as individuals with all sorts of potential to fulfill a role of their own choosing, suited to their best abilities. But this has changed in the South since I grew up, and this is one of the transformations I hope my Mountain Brook [AL] novel series can portray as I continue to write.
So would you say the South is your biggest source of inspiration for your books?
Yes! After reading a lot of Southern literature, I realized that I had experienced a part of the South that had not been explored fully in fiction. Many Southern settings in novels depict the post-Civil War South, the small-town South, the rural South and the Civil Rights South. I grew up in a well-to-do Southern suburb and did not think this part of Southern society had been completely captured in fiction. So I feel like I have a way to make a meaningful contribution.
So do you think you’d ever write a book that wasn’t set in the South, or didn’t have Southern characters?
I sometimes toy with the idea of setting a novel in the Northeast, where I lived for four years during college. At age 17, when I left home as a sheltered Alabama girl to plunge into the urban environment of Harvard Square and Cambridge, MA, I experienced a culture shock that still reverberates in me to this day. Essentially, Northeastern society struck me as so much less humane than the culture I grew up in. The fierce competitiveness and constant striving of intensely driven students infected the whole campus. People didn’t smile, wave, make eye contact or otherwise greet each other when walking across campus. This apparent unfriendliness was devastating, although I’ve come to realize no one intended to be rude. I’ve thought about depicting this clash of cultures and its effect on an individual, especially because using a setting outside the South, with a Southern character in exile, would provide a different and useful angle for looking at the South itself.
Your biographies were so well received, at least in part, because of the epic personalities they featured. How do you develop the characters in your novels, and do you feel pressure to create characters who are as compelling as Eugene Walter and Onnie Lee Logan?
My first novel, The Headmaster’s Darlings, has an epic personality based on the epic Martin Hames, my 500-pound high school English teacher in Birmingham. It has been great fun to write the Norman Laney character based on Mr. Hames, and readers seem to love him like I do. But I’m conflicted about having an epic personality at the center of every novel. On the one hand, a character like that is an instant crowd pleaser who draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning. But on the other hand, most people in life are not epic, and novels need to reflect the spectrum of human nature. So in my subsequent novels, Norman Laney is a secondary character, and I’ve focused on more “everyday” personalities. Making these compelling involves creating composite characters — drawing from the traits of maybe half a dozen people I’ve observed to come up with one interesting but not epic character.
You once said that writing fiction was much more difficult than writing nonfiction. Has it gotten easier as you’ve written more novels?
Yes, it’s become much easier. That first novel is the hardest. But meeting that new challenge for the first time shows you two things: 1) You can do it, and 2) how to do it again. So the other novels come much more easily. You have some confidence and experience.
You also said that your first novel was rejected by New York publishers because they didn’t think readers would be interested in an obese protagonist. How did landing at a small Southern press shape or impact your writing and career going forward?
Finding a home at Pat Conroy’s Story River Books imprint has been a godsend to my writing career. Although this imprint has every intention of making money, its primary mission is to publish quality Southern fiction. That cannot be said about any of the big commercial publishing houses. Story River does not need me to become an immediate blockbuster bestseller. So I can write what I want, the way I want, and my publisher is committed to nurturing and supporting my career during the time it usually takes a writer to find an audience.
There has been much talk about the state of the publishing industry, with the increased popularity of ebook sales and the losses many publishers are taking on books. What is your take? And where do you see your career in the next five or 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope I’m still publishing my Mountain Brook novels at Story River Books. I think small and independent publishers are serving a cause that the big publishers are abandoning. Story River Books wants to publish literature. The New York publishers need to please shareholders with profits on each quarterly report. Only the kind of books that can ensure this immediate short-term profit are likely to find a home with a big New York house. Both writers and readers will need to gravitate to the smaller and independent publishers to find places devoted to producing works of quality.
It’s said that 80 percent of the population wants to write a book. What is the best piece of advice you can offer to women who dream of writing but are afraid to begin?
Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for a contract. Don’t wait for a sign from the universe. Don’t wait for a good time to do it. Just do it. Do it now.
Other than writing, what is your favorite creative release?
Reading, reading, reading
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Good food, good wine and great books
Thank you, Katherine for sharing a look inside a novelist’s mind! And thank you to Randy Hamilton for today’s beautiful photographs of Katherine. See more of his work here.
Read about even more inspiring Southern women in our “FACES of the South” series. Click here to get started! And to see what sort of Southern culture inspires us, follow us on Instagram, @StyleBlueprint.