Finally, finally, I am off the highways and back at my cluttered desk, back in my little farm house, back in my cozy corner of the world. Charlottesville, Virginia, is a writers' town if ever there was one: John Grisham
owns about a thousand acres on the edge of the county; Mark Helprin
is said to live somewhere near Monticello; Rita Mae Brown
, the woman who writes about cats, has a house just down the road. Faulkner
spent some time here, too. Seems to be a place for people who want to think of themselves as southerners but need easy access to northern cities when book award season comes around.
As for me, I'm an accidental southerner. When I first crossed the Mason-Dixon a few years back, looking for stories of strange American religion to include in Killing the Buddha, I had no idea I would end up living among my material. There's a cloistered convent down in the valley just west of our house, for example, and whenever we can we buy our vegetables from a Mennonite family that sets up a stand on the roadside.
We don't see much of the nuns (that's what a cloister is for, I suppose) but groups of Mennonites turn up in the strangest places: Kmart, Target, Sam's Club??? apparently they like to buy in bulk. I once spotted a few young women from one of these clans standing slackjawed before a wall of televisions at Wal-Mart. Dressed in bonnets, aprons, and sensible shoes, they stood transfixed before two dozen flashing screens showing promotional videos for the new Dukes of Hazzard movie, including Jessica Simpson's wet-n-sudsy version of "These Boots Are Made for Walking."
Which is exactly what I love about the south. It's a place where competing mythologies are constantly bumping into each other. Take that scene in Wal-Mart: What was I seeing there but the dual fictions of the south as both pure and unrestrained, pressed up against the hard windshield of Mennonite reality? And more importantly, where might my own mythology fit in? Can one write about religion without writing about sex? Has the fact that I was just interviewed by Nerve.com made me think of my work in a whole new way?
Like I said, it's good to be home. In Boston these are questions we don't get to ask.