I love Southern stories! Drifting Too Far From the Shore by Niles Reddick is about Charlotte “Muddy” Rewis, a seventy-year-old woman who can’t help but look back on her life. At the same time she looks back on America and how the country has changed. Muddy is an endearing character, and it was a pleasure to spend time with her. She proves that it is never too late to improve relationships or fall in love. It was a pleasure to interview Niles and to talk about Southern literature, family, and the need to write.
Why the name Muddy for your main character?
One of my paternal Great Grandmother’s name was Charlotte Rebecca Peacock Reddick. Her nickname was Muddy. I don’t know why they called her that, but she had a dark complexion and jet black hair. Rumor was her grandmother had been part Cherokee, but there’s no proof of that.
What does living in the South add to your writing?
There is often a love among Southern families that is deep, and while we might not be proud of everything that we know today is the right thing, we know we have to live with that past somehow the best way we can.
There’s also something beautiful and charming about the South, not the Gone with the Wind South, but the simplicity, the rurality (except the large cities), the dialects. There’s also the very hard living such as the heat, bugs, snakes, oppressed economics, crime, and so on.
There’s also a survival among Southerners, persistence among character and spirit that prevail.
You work at the University of Memphis. How do you balance writing with a demanding day job?
I get up early, usually 4 am, all excited, drink some coffee for energy, and I’m usually in my office by 6:30, so I write, or edit, or read, or work on social media until people come dragging into the office to work. By early evening, I’m tired, but I even wake up early on weekends. I usually go to the office on weekends, too. I don’t write every day, but I’m always thinking about it.
If I’m really into imagination and creativity and thinking about a story (I’m typically working on several at once), I can carry on a dialogue with someone and at the same time imagine all of this story in my head. Sometimes, I walk away and don’t even know what I just said to that person or what he or she said to me.
French readers are surprised at the nonchalance with which Muddy gives her grandson a loaded “keepsake.” No one in Muddy’s family reacts strongly to this gift. Does this specific passage in the book speak to a larger cultural phenomenon?
Well, belongings are either sold or passed down from one generation to the next, Muddy giving Claude’s guns to their grandsons would be pretty normal in the South.
A few years back, an old cousin of my dad’s, Louise Reddick, died. I think she was nearly 100 when she died. She had a trunk of letters that dated back in some cases to the 1920’s (and actually, she did live in Morven where Drifting too far from the Shore, was set). There was a lot of confederate money dating back to the mid-1800s in envelopes Louise had saved and an even a turn of the century pistol. She had been a pianist for her church and painted. So, here’s this gun and of course it’s not registered.
Most people have guns and most of them aren’t registered. No one thinks much about guns. We have all this wildlife in the South that people kill and eat, and of course, we have to kill the poisonous snakes, but most people just don’t think much about it. I have had relatives shoot a rattlesnake out of a tree that was about to fall on top of someone’s head.
The gentle humor in the book is a counterweight to Muddy’s dark moments of recollection. Can you talk about how you worked to find a balance in the writing?
I don’t know that I worked to find a balance in the book at all. I certainly didn’t consciously plan it that way. The dark moments are simply realistic in anyone’s life. Tragic events happen every day, and in fact, there are so many, big TV networks only focus on a few. So, some events may not ever be known except in local or state circles. However, for me personally, I think I always try to find the humor in the situation, even the tragic ones.
I’m a bit on the obsessive compulsive side, maybe a tendency here and there. I like for pillows to be straight, chairs to be straight, all the hedges to be clipped the same way in the landscape. I don’t go nuts of things aren’t symmetrical, but I seem to enjoy it when things are. So, for me writing is like that. I notice the things that are off kilter when people speak or in what they wear or in their personalities. And those details come out in stories all the time.
The book begins in memory of Mary Turner. Thanks to Muddy, readers learn about this brave woman, who died nearly 100 years ago. Does Muddy feel optimistic for the future? Does she believe that change is possible?
The Mary Turner story is really what prompted the first chapter and the book itself. I grew up in Southern Georgia. My family is about a seventh generation Georgia family, coming to Savannah as these poor Germans in 1737. I grew up and never heard the Mary Turner story until I was teaching an online literature class for the University System of Georgia and a student told me about it. She didn’t tell me the story. She just said, “You should look this story up and read it.”
I did and it was the most gruesome thing I ever heard. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen just miles from where I lived, at a river I had driven past all my life.
I wanted to honor Mary Turner, her memory, but I couldn’t write “her story” and certainly not from her point of view. So I had Muddy recall the story. Recollections are never completely clear either. Once I published the first chapter, I loved Muddy and thought I would do another story about another tragic event I had heard about, and then another, and so on until I realized I was writing a novel. I didn’t have time and didn’t want to, but it was as if it poured from me. I was emotionally attached to the story, and by the end, I had tears trying to end it.
I didn’t want to. I think Muddy is a pragmatist, a realist. There’s always hope in her world, and for most of us I think, but none of us has the solution to all the problems. It takes us all working together. I think her grandson having a relationship with one of Mary Turner’s descendants points to hope and change, a form of healing and reconciliation, but at the same time, she doesn’t think that will solve all the issues, and in some ways, will create new ones because humans aren’t perfect and the world isn’t either.
What books are on your nightstand?
I have too many books and on the nightstand right now are three books I plan to read and write reviews for and all three are Southern books by James Cherry, Janice Daugharty, and Susan Cushman. I love all three of them and their writing, though each is very unique.
Right now, I have about ten stories that are submitted and I’m working on a new novel. I’m about fifty pages into it, and I think it’s good, but it’s not completely Southern. I’m not sure where it will go or if it might become more of a novella. I also now have enough stories for another collection. My first collection, Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, will be re-released next year, and that will be exciting. People always love hearing stories about my eccentric family members, like my aunt who collected road kill and made art.
I enjoy writing and submitting and having stories published. There are some wonderful magazines all over the world and I enjoy meeting editors via email and working with them. Most of these publications are a labor of love because there isn’t a great deal of money in them, but for writers, it’s not really about money. We have to write whether we make a living at it or not.