Today’s post is an interview with a Man of Letters. Lane Osborne is a Lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University, creative writing fiction MFA student, and Southern gentleman who is one of my classmates at Warren Wilson. I am very much a Northerner in my sensibility and in the places I’ve lived, so I thought it would be interesting to get a broader perspective on the literature from a different region of the United States. I read a number of Southern writers during my second semester, which was a necessary part of my literary education, as I had read very little literature by Southern writers before.
SS: If I remember correctly, you are originally from Ohio, as am I! What took you to the south, and how did you get interested in Southern literature?
LO: My parents worked for the federal government, so two of my brothers were born in Africa, one in Alabama, and I was born and raised in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio. I moved to South Carolina, where my mother’s side of the family is from, to attend college and have lived here ever since. I think my interest in writers in and around this area was simply born out of a desire to understand and appreciate the place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years now—no different than enjoying the local arts, cuisine, or coastal landscape.
SS: It’s always hard to generalize characteristics about a group of people or an artistic movement. But are there some commonalities or characteristics you would note about literature from the South? Obviously, one would be the geography and the place. But what does “Southern literature” mean to you?
LO: Well, “southern,” by definition, does speak to a particular geography, but it’s more than that.
I see place as not only the given topography, but also its history and culture. I generally tend to resist thinking of literature in regional terms, though, because I find it, like any label, a little limiting, especially for those writers whose work is so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that it transcends beyond those borders. However, if there’s one distinction that tends to set Southern writers apart from other writers, it may well be that they’re inherently good storytellers. The oral tradition is still time-honored in these parts.
SS: I think that’s what makes the literature so rich. Who are, in your mind, some of the best Southern writers and why? And are there some great writers who capture the South who aren’t originally from the region?
LO: I admire the work of canonized writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, but there’s also a strong contingency of contemporary writers from the South I really enjoy too like Tom Franklin, Ron Rash, and Jesmyn Ward, whose work Michael Parker introduced me to—himself, by the way, a writer from the Carolinas whose work I also admire for its attention to language and sense of place. And maybe Cormac McCarthy might qualify as a non-native “Southern writer” whose work I’ve enjoyed. He was born in Rhode Island, but grew up in Tennessee, and, I think, still lives in El Paso, where he’s been for years.
SS: What changes have you seen in Southern literature over time? Like, say, if you were to compare 19-century works with 20/21st century ones?
LO: That’s a great question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer for. I can certainly attest that the landscape of the South has evolved in the time I’ve lived here, so it stands to reason that the literature produced in this area has along with it. But it’s not something I’ve been attuned to enough to offer any valuable input.
SS: And of course, there is the elephant in the room: the issue of race and slavery. What can you tell us about that?
LO: Well, they differ slightly in that slavery is a historical feature principally found in the South, while racism remains a current, cultural feature of the entire American landscape—found in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in a Yale dormitory, outside an Airbnb in Rialto. I feel as though we have a responsibility as writers to address those issues, among others, in our work, irrespective of what region of the world we’re from.
SS: Well said! We tend to label the South as the only region with racism when really, it is widespread. Also, the South is known as the “Bible Belt.” How does religion play out in the literature?
LO: I suppose it depends on the story, the writer, and what he or she hopes to accomplish as to whether or not religion plays a role. I’ve read stories where faith is central in the telling of the tale, and others where there’s no mention of it at all.
SS: Thank you, Lane, for taking the time for this interview!
LO: The pleasure was mine!