Objects From Home:
A Sojourn With Michael Pearson,
Regarding His New Book, The South,
And What It Means To Be Home
by Jaime Groetsema
This past September, I spoke with writer, educator, and ex-New Yorker, Michael Pearson, about his nonfiction work and his soon-to-be released book “Reading Life: On Books, Memory and Travel” (Mercer University Press, 2015). Follow this link to Newfound’s nonfiction section to read a preview from his new book!
JAIME GROETSEMA: I had the great opportunity to read through a few chapters from your book, “Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary America” and must tell you how delighted I was by your prose. Particularly, the question, “How would she feel seeing her life turned into a shrine?” in the chapter on Flannery O’Connor. This question marked an incredibly significant moment for me as I was reading, in that suddenly your past and present memories of visiting Flannery O’Connor’s home combined with these various depictions of her throughout her life, including those personal reminisces you make about who she might be after she died.
The way that you seem to do this kind of memory-conjuring is by creating brief glimpses of meaningful objects; here the peacock feather that you kept for 25-years after taking it from her grounds. Could you tell us more about the role that objects, or in this case, souvenirs, play in your writing?
MICHAEL PEARSON: The physical objects of the world are a writer’s material the way stone and mortar are a mason’s. What the mason creates with those materials may have an aesthetic context, but it exists because of those materials. By the way, this writer-mason analogy comes from the fact that I spent the last two summers in the Catskill Mountains in N.Y. putting fieldstone on the cottage my wife and I live in during the summer.
The general point holds, though: narrative writing—be it fiction or nonfiction—comes from the stuff of the world—what we see and hear and feel and taste and smell. Of course, a reader can appreciate Flannery O’Connor’s work by reading her breathtaking stories, but visiting her town and her farm, hearing the cry of her peacocks, feeling the warm breeze as you sit on her porch at Andalusia, all gives me a deeper sense of where her stories come from and where they take me.
…visiting [O’Connor’s] town and her farm, hearing the cry of her peacocks, feeling the warm breeze as you sit on her porch at Andalusia, all gives me a deeper sense of where her stories come from and where they take me.
GROETSEMA: Much of what you write is nonfiction; however, when I read your work, it is impossible for me to detach the delicacy of your personal memories; your own experiences of the objects and locations that you write from—and though the subjects that you choose to write about are usually human in form, your practice still seems to be deeply historical. Could you talk about how the personal and the historical influence your writing?
PEARSON: For some reason that I have never been able to articulate fully, a sense of place—a search for home—has been an integral part of all of my writing. In one way or another, most of my books deal with a search for place—whether it is “Imagined Places” or “Innocents Abroad Too” or “Dreaming of Columbus” or “Shohola Falls.” Even my forthcoming book, “Reading Life,” seeks an understanding of the meaning of place.
If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I might say it has a lot to do with growing up in the Bronx and spending my formative years dreaming of finding a way out of that place. Early on, I found the love of my life—Jo-Ellen—and discovered a home with her, wherever we were. But something about finding roots has always fascinated me. I know your question was about historical resonances, but for me place IS history.
GROETSEMA: “The South” is a concept that you thoroughly investigate in your writing alongside the many references to esteemed southern writers like Faulkner, Welty and O’Connor. What do you think about the state of southern writing these days? Are there any contemporary southern writers that you take influence from?
PEARSON: In 1981 I left Vermont to teach in Alabama. Even though I have a place in the mountains two hours north of New York City, my home has been in the South (Ala., Ga., and Va.) for the past three decades. I still feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land, though, and Faulkner, Percy, and O’Connor helped me get my bearings over those years.
The South is still a stronghold for great writers. I work with a few that have Southern accents—Sheri Reynolds, for instance. I admire the work of Lee Smith, Mary Karr, and Richard Ford. And I’d buy any book Cormac McCarthy writes as soon as it is published. So, I think readers can feel good about the state of contemporary Southern writing.
I think readers can feel good about the state of contemporary Southern writing.
GROETSEMA: In your chapter that is titled, “A Sojourn in the South,” you recount your first impressions of LaGrange, Ga., by referencing an essay (from a collection of essays titled “Georgia”), you wrote in the early 90s about the city. You work through the subsequent criticism you received about your essay from a southern journalist, only to work through, again, your experiences in LaGrange, those leading up to you living in LaGrange and the addition of a literary inquiry into the meaningfulness (for you) of Walker Percy’s novel “The Last Gentleman.”
Your work seems to try to parse the dichotomous relationship between the old south and the new south, the people and the culture; individual experiences that seem multi-perspectival. Are the temporal layers that you seem to evoke a function of the possible duplicity of the south?
PEARSON: Certainly, the South has a split-personality. It has a sunny side with its sense of community and front-porch congeniality. But it has its dark shadows in terms of close-mindedness and tribalism. For me, a confused Northerner living for six years in LaGrange, Ga., back in the 80’s, I tried hard to make sense of my mixed feelings about the people and the place. I encountered warmth and decency, good humor and great charm, but I also saw racism and rigid conservatism. It was difficult for me to understand at times, how a given neighbor could be both a racist and a kind, loving father, husband, and compassionate friend.
Walker Percy’s novels helped me to make sense of this human paradox—his fiction dramatized for me that such apparently contradictory impulses can and do exist. My experience and my reading in writers like Percy, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor at that time made me reconsider the complexities of the South and the nature of the Southern soul. I was forced to consider the splits and fractures in my own character, as well.
GROETSEMA: Can we expect to see any writing about Norfolk in the near future?
PEARSON: The closest I’ve come to write about Norfolk—other than short pieces here and there—is a chapter in my forthcoming book on John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed factor” and the Jamestown area. For some reason, I feel compelled to write about places from my past—the Bronx or Georgia—or my present—such as my travels in Spain, Ireland, Turkey, Burma, etc.—but I have never felt compelled to write about the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, a place I’ve called home for 25 years.
There are two possible reasons for this. The first might be that my eyes open wider when I cross the boundary from the present to the past or from the known to the unknown. Or it might be that Norfolk/Virginia Beach area has a transient feel to it, like a place people are passing through on their way to someplace else. In this respect, it may be the place that I live but has never created in me the root system I associate with the word “home.”
Jaime Groetsema, Reviews Editor
“Southeast Corner. Detail of Wood Frieze Board and Cornerboard. – John C. Wood Homeplace, House, U.S. 441, Homer, Banks County, GA” by Library of Congress, used under fair use | Contrast adjusted from original