I resonated both as a reader and a writer with author Richard Hoard ‘s column in the April 30 Madison County Journal. I haven’t read any of his books yet, but plan to start with his first one, Alone Among the Living, a memoir telling the story of his father’s 1967 murder. He cordially agreed that i could share his thoughts, and i hope you enjoy.
Flannery, Harper, Margaret, and Tru
People ask me at times about the writers who most influenced me. I suppose I’d have to say that Steve Maloney, whose assignments at the University of Georgia prompted my earliest chapters of my book Alone among the Living, would be primary. Also, Virgil Adams, who later read those same chapters and said, “I think you’ve got something here, Hoard.”
Those were the direct influences from people who wrote words for a living.
The question to me will then move to favorite books, and very quickly I rattle off the names of To Kill a Mockingbird, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Gone with the Wind, and In Cold Blood.
Although my undergraduate transcripts prove that I was an English minor, I did not enjoy most of the required readings which included the works of Roland and Cervantes and Swift and Forster. There was something about taking a work written to be enjoyed and analyzing it for character, theme and symbolism, as if the writer had said, “Okay, I’ve got an idea for a theme. Now where can Isprinkle in some symbolism, and what sort of flaw must I give my main character.” Heaven forbid if in those days I actually got caught up in a story and forgot to notice something symbolic.
But looking back at those books I have described as my favorites, I noticed something about the authors. Maybe you noticed it, too. They are three women and one eccentric and flamboyant male: Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mitchell, Truman Capote.
I knew nothing about Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor when I read their books. With names like Harper and Flannery, I had no idea they were women. I had no idea that one afternoon in 1964, while I was playing sandlot baseball with my friends in Middle Georgia, that nine miles away in Milledgeville, Flannery O’Conner was drawing her final breaths. I had no idea that Harper Lee lived in tiny Monroeville, Alabama and that her next door neighbor, the inspiration for her character Dill Harris, was Truman Capote. Of course, I knew who Margaret Mitchell was from having read Gone with the Wind a half dozen times and having seen the movie at least as often.
They were southern writers, all of them. I never went through the card catalogue as a young adult reader, saying, “Let me study southern authors, and in particular, female southern authors.” No, I was drawn to their words because in a way these writers seemed to speak to me. They seemed to know me. In a certain sense, they seemed to tell my own story. They dealt with murder, war, racial injustice, delusion, unrequited romance, and coming of age.
In another sense, two of them had accomplished exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell interesting stories. I wanted to tell a story through the eyes of a teenager. Well, Harper Lee had done a mighty fine job of telling a story through the eyes of Scout Finch, a child. But I also wanted my story to be a true one of a murder and its aftermath and influence on the author; Truman Capote had already done just that.
Most of all, these authors had told their stories in a way that was entertaining. Some books beg to be put down. Their books begged to have their pages turned. These writers had caught me up in their worlds because they had caught me up with their words. Imagine, helping a reader to experience a world born out of your words. I wanted to do the same.
Now the problem with wanting to do the same as such masters lies in that you, the writer, might fall into a trap. You can end up comparing your work with theirs, and of course you fall short, right along with many other good writers who don’t measure up to your personal favorites
How easy it is to fall into genuine despair. And yet, you write anyway, hoping to bring your own experiences to others, hoping that you can make readers think and feel, maybe even laugh or cry. You write anyway, hoping that maybe you can create something worth putting on a shelf next to those who influenced you.
Maybe that’s what keeps us writers writing – the hope that we will create something that outlasts our fleeting years on the planet.
Another thing you may have noticed about my list of favorite authors. They’re all dead.
And yet we still speak of them and read their works. Some of us are still influenced. Some of us still find ourselves transported in to a world which they have created, a world that still seems to be alive.
That’s the great hope for a writer, I think. And, so, I tell myself, keep at it. Maybe the next one. Yes, maybe the next one.
Richard Hoard is a graduate of the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. He was raised in Jefferson and is the author of Alone Among the Living and other books.