Photo credit: Irina Zhorov
When I was a kid, my family vacationed every summer on the Gulf of Mexico. The drive from our home in Arley, Alabama, took six or seven hours depending on traffic and how many stops we made along the way. I learned to mark our progress by certain landmarks. Downtown Birmingham rising up at the bottom of Red Mountain, the Alabama River bending past Montgomery, Bates House of Turkey, the exit for Hank Williams’s boyhood home, a sign next to a fishpond that read "Go To Church Or The Devil Will Get You!"
My favorite landmark was in Clanton — a small town in central Alabama. There on the side of the interstate stood a water tower resembling a ripe peach. Towering 120 feet and holding 500,000 gallons, the peach looms large in reality and in my memories of those vacations. No matter if Mom or Dad was behind the wheel, we never failed to take the exit after the water tower and stop at one of the area’s famous peach stands.
These open-air stands sell more than fresh peaches. T-shirts, wind chimes, jellies and pickles, wood carvings, cider, vegetables, homemade pound cake and fudge. We usually stopped at one called the Peach Park. On the wall going to the bathroom hung framed photographs of Peach Queens crowned at a yearly Peach Festival. In back you could buy homemade peach ice cream and eat it while sitting in a rocking chair looking over a little shaded park with gravel paths and gazebos and swings. For my family, no trip to the Gulf of Mexico was ever complete without buying a basket or two of peaches so juicy you needed to eat them while standing over a sink so as not to make a mess all over yourself.
In my 20s, I left home to live outside Alabama for the first time in my life. It was summertime. My mom packed as many Chilton County peaches as she could fit into a cooler along with some chicken salad sandwiches. I don’t remember if any of those peaches made it all the way to Wyoming, where I was moving to attend graduate school, but I doubt they did. One thing that makes a Chilton County peach so delicious is how long they’re allowed to hang on the tree and ripen in the sun. These aren’t peaches to be wasted on a cobbler or left sitting on the counter. They should be eaten fresh, as quickly as you can.
One day, sitting at the computer, I saw a young girl standing in the Gulf of Mexico....Her pockets were filled with seashells.
Though I came to love Wyoming, the move was tough on me at first. I missed everything about the South and spent untold hours thinking and reading and writing about it. Somewhere in my reading I came across an article suggesting historians believe the peach first came to Alabama from China via Spain during Hernando de Soto’s conquest of the South in the 1500s. I’d never considered where the fruit originated. A Chilton County peach seemed as Alabama to me as college football or pulled pork.
I didn’t know much about de Soto’s conquest, but I did recall places named after him from road trips I’d taken throughout the South. I looked up the route of the conquest and learned it was somewhat disputed. I read on, finding other gaps and discrepancies in the history that seemed to make de Soto’s journey the perfect idea for a novel.
I checked out books from the university library and opened several tabs on my browser. I was dead set on writing a fictional retelling of de Soto’s conquest, from landing on Florida’s west coast to dying in Arkansas, where his corpse was supposedly interred in the Mississippi River. This reading wasn’t holding my attention though. I’ve always had trouble if sentences don’t sing. I tried to ignore this nagging feeling and pushed ahead with the writing. I plopped my imagined de Soto and his caravan into a swamp. They were walking. And walking… And walking… They could have walked plumb to Canada before I figured out anything else.
Some writers would have really plunged headlong into research at this point. I am not that kind of writer. I can now say I do not enjoy research the way a dog does not enjoy someone blowing in its face. Trying to write a straight historical novel was painful. But I had this idea! And it was good, I thought, and I didn’t want to let go. I hadn’t left home and moved halfway across the country to fart around for two years. I was there to write a book.
Place is important in my work, but often I begin with character. One day, sitting at the computer, I saw a young girl standing in the Gulf of Mexico, sand racing out from underneath her bare feet as the surf fell back into itself. She wiggled her toes. Her pockets were filled with seashells. Another time I saw this same girl riding in the backseat of a station wagon. I buckled in next to her. I kept seeing the girl in flashes. Green eyes, dark hair. Eventually she got a last name — Treeborne — and a grandmother whom she adored. They began visiting a place not unlike the Peach Park mixed with the county fairs I’d grown up attending in fall. By this point, I realized I was more interested in the mythology of a place than in its history. My fascination with conquistadors and peaches became the fictional town’s fascination in the story I was now writing. Though Elberta is an actual town, the Elberta in my novel is its own place, named for one of the most popular peach varieties, known for its high yield.
The summer after starting this novel, which is now being published as Treeborne
, I visited Mountain View Orchards in Jemison, Alabama — near Clanton. I rode in a golf cart through the peach orchards and learned about growing and harvesting the fruit. Later, I talked to my parents and my grandmothers, taking what I could from their stories to make believable the one I was writing, which was mostly set in the 1950s and the Great Depression. I waded in my own memories too, traveling from a desk in Wyoming to the backseat of a station wagon barreling toward the Gulf Coast, and to other places that helped me understand who I am and from where I come. As a result, the novel I was writing began taking the shape of memory and how it works. Like Chilton County and its peach mythology, I took memories belonging to me and to others and I told them as stories until it became difficult to separate them.
÷ ÷ ÷
grew up in Arley, Alabama, and is the author of the novel Treeborne
, which will be published by Picador in June. He has written for the Southern Foodways Alliance
, The Paris Review Daily
, and The Bitter Southerner
, among other publications. He currently lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches while working on his next novel.