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Kevin Lynn Helmick on What is Southern Gothic?

Driving AloneEarlier this year, we (Jared, in this case) got to blurb a novella for Blank Slate Press, Driving Alone by Kevin Lynn Helmick.

Blank Slate are doing consistently brilliant work, quietly turning out great stories from Midwestern authors (woohoo!). Now Driving Alone is out, so we asked Kevin to swing by and share a few words about what it means to write "Southern Gothic".


Jared requested that I explain to some of you there across the pond, just what is a Southern Gothic, I had to take a breath. You see I’m not from the American South. I grew up in the Mississippi River Valley true enough, but on the borders of Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, and that’s not South.

I now live, and have for many years, just north of Chicago, which a Louisiana bartender in South Padre Island, Texas was once quick to point out, “Oh, hell yer a god damn Canadian.” I laughed at that, even though there was an insult somewhere in her tone when she said it. That should give you some idea how most American Southerners feel about the rest of America, and how some might even feel about me introducing or describing Southern Gothic.

That’s alright, just the way it is.

When I started writing Driving Alone in early 2012, I wasn’t really thinking about North or South or Southern Gothics or any genre at all really. I never do. I was just doing what I do, and I picked the setting because I wanted heat, humidity. I wanted a relentless late summer sun to slow cook the story in. If any of you have been in the American Deep South in the late summer, you know what I mean. It’s hot, so hot you can fry an egg on the black top, and that’s the truth. There’s a kind of demented desperation that goes along with that and it seeps into and influences the literature, language, music and sex, as well as the snake charming Baptist, Voodoo magic and all kinds of other weird shit.

The American Deep South has an ambiance like no other place in world.

I’m not going pretend to be an expert, but as far as Southern Gothic as a genre of writing, it’s really a sub-genre, and belongs only to the American South. That land where Blues and Jazz fused with Gospel and gave the world Rock and Roll.

I guess I don’t really like to define my own writing or anybody else’s literature for that matter. To me it’s like looking a wild animal in the eye. It’s an invitation to get bit in the face. But where Gothic literature tends to be a kind of horror fantasy, Southern Gothic is more realism, and common themes are… deeply flawed characters, grotesque decay, poverty, racism, the underbelly of society and culture in America.

I’m probably going hear some shit about that last one from my southern readers but I write it now with all the affection in the world, besides, most of that was lifted from Wikipedia, not my words.

If any of you are familiar, and I’m sure you are, with William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Conner, the early works or Cormac McCarthy, and the best, in my opinion of Southern Gothic, Tennessee Williams, then you know what I’m talking about. I don’t need to define it.

God, I love A Streetcar Named Desire, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But for Driving Alone, and for some reason that escapes me now, I wanted that one to be in the South. I wanted the language too. The American South has its own language, if you didn’t know, and it’s a tough one to get on paper. The dialogue, and editing that dialogue, was probably some of the most difficult writing I’d ever done. I don’t know how other writers work a story but all those styles, usages, definitions and methods, I might analyze later in the final draft, or not at all and let the readers do it for me, but I never think about it during creation. I just let it be what it wants to be, and hope for the best. And Driving Alone wanted to be Southern Gothic.

It’s a small book but one I’m really proud of as a story, and one I feel is a fairly fine piece of literature. I’ll leave you all with a short excerpt and heartfelt thanks for stopping by. I hope you check it out; it would be great to hear what you think of it:


That’s the least that can be said about that. The most was said in secret whispers with a wink of an eye that the devil himself stayed clear of the Deep South in those desperate dog days of summer. The poor souls down there had already been tortured past their use anyway, so the devil did his hunting north of the Mason Dixon. It wasn’t true of course, but that’s what they said. Another saying goes that he was seen in the park, near the local cemetery, sitting under shade trees and wiping his brow and praying for a little rain, or at least a cool breeze. That one might have been true, either way it was the better of the two tales and the one Billy liked the most growing up. Anybody he’d see in the park or on the street during that time of year, wiping their brow or sitting under a shade tree for a little relief, Billy knew was him. Hot, tired and beaten by the south, and Billy was safe, at least until the summer was gone.

Thanks again, talk soon.


Links, links, links! You can learn more about the author (and get your copy of the book) directly from Blank Slate Press. Kevin's blog (for more extracts, interviews and general musings about writery) is here. He's on a book tour across a few different blogs right now, so if you're keen on reading more (and possibly winning a copy or two), check them out.

And, hey, if you want the immediate gratification of an Amazon purchase, who am I to deny you?