North Georgia-based journalist and iconic free-lance writer Candice Dyer's work appears in anthologies and periodicals including Georgia Trend, Atlanta Magazine and Garden and Gun. She is author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers and Rebels with a Cause, a history of music in Macon, Georgia. A popular speaker, her exploits can be followed on her blog, "Antics in Candyland".
On a recent visit to Sandtrap, Candice paused on the dove porch to brandish her sharpened quill over mimosas and fuzzy navels, the latter being Phil's.
|Peepers, dove muse|
Candice: What's the meaning of life?
Phil: Good Lord! I thought this was gonna be easy.
Don’t be fooled by my reputation.
Do I get a "do over"?
OK, you are a Southern writer in a long tradition of Southern writers. The wellspring of your creativity -- describe your Muse, please. And I don’t mean his abs.
Yes, my muse comes shirtless, generally posing as one of the Village People. He forces me to pantomime "YMCA" to the doves' amusement. Creativity comes in dreams. My subconscious works overtime. People I meet in the supermarket inspire me. I'll talk to anybody. Reading, but rarely TV. Off-the-cuff exchanges that "click."
Is that where your Sandtrap sketches come from?
Yeah, often. Sandtrap is that fictional place that never existed, but should. It taps into growing up in a rural community within a drive of urbanity. Country folk seem more rooted in common sense. As a teen whatever I needed to know about sex -- animal, vegetable or human -- I counted on country peers, not the clueless urban Einsteins.
Agreed. Country folk are closer to the Earth; basic biology does not make them blush. Forget 'Sex & the City' -- I'm waiting for 'Sex & the Country.' Manolo, meet Carhartt. So, you write about sex?
Did I say that? If so, I was quoting Gertrude Stein. She said, "Literature unconcerned with sex is inconceivable." Something like that. And here's to "show, don't tell."
Why do you write?
Three reasons. To engage the voices inside my head in conversation as opposed to chatter, to connect with the stories of those who've gone before and to give myself the illusion of triumph over life's absurdities.
|Phil Comer, Home place, Sandtrap, Jawja|
You've certainly honed a unique Southern "voice." What sort of things do you write?
I'm a scientific writer and editor by training. By avocation, I write all manner of stuff, fiction long and short, slice of life essays, novelty poems. Those are where that "voice" kicks in, slightly snarky, ironic. I've finished my first novel Ruby Cheeks, the initial installment of a comic Southern noir saga. Humor and the human condition are integral to my work. I find it hard not to be funny.
How does one write "funny"?
Most of my humor is inadvertent. Irony rather than satire.
The glancing blow rather than the stick in the eye. What's the difference?
The best irony isn't planned; it's the mundane confronted with unexpected opposition. Satire is deliberate. I'm not above pratfalls, which are situational.
Watch out for that banana peel… Why blog? Why now?
Common wisdom dictates writers must blog. It's one more way to connect with readers. My "All Write By Me" blog is not opinion, just content. Shorter things, entertaining, I hope. A virtual magazine of my work, and that of a few friends. I want people to read, respond and enjoy. It's not a "how to" blog, but I'd love to engage in Q & A with readers and friends.
Tell me more about the novel you're querying.
Ruby Cheeks is the first completed of a trilogy. The title character Ruby abandons her son, the narrator, in childhood only to reappear forty years later as if nothing happened. His relentless quest to sort out the ghosts of her past unleashes "Southern-fried calamity," as they say. Of course, there's a supporting cast of "hothouse flowers," as Tennessee Williams called those eccentrics who flourish in the South, such as the flamboyant Sheldon Smoot, a spy in Occupied Japan who subsequently dressed in getas and kimono drag. He’s a hoot. A trio of ancient old-moneyed spinsters with pastel rinses, dubbed the "Easter Egg Ladies," holds the crux to the mystery. Old betrayals and deceptions that long entrapped Ruby crumble under an onslaught of revelation, but the biggest discovery for the narrator involves himself.
|Ruby Cheeks, a novel by Phil Comer|
Your work in progress?
The second installment of the trilogy Sapelo Queen includes cross-over characters from Ruby Cheeks but takes place on Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast. In the delirium following a drinking jag, the narrator Sport Model inadvertently summons the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead. The Geechee/Gullah culture of the Sea Islands is imbued with “spirits and shades,” so Sport’s conjuring Tallulah's ghost becomes a connection between traditional and modern cultural beliefs. Tallulah is fun to write, and I hope a good read. She chews up the scenery, and the Lowcountry is a fragile environment, so I'm continually having to send her away.
Finish the sentence: Most people don't know...
I owned a bar while I was in graduate school in college? For three years, The Last Resort in Athens, Georgia. It was a funky wonderful little folk-jazz-blues club. Now the place, same name, is fine dining. An amazing, raw experience I've never written about. But being around music and musicians infuses my work, not unlike your own. Your book on Macon music is stellar, Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Revels With a Cause.
Therein lies a cautionary tale. What do you fear as a writer?
The next generation of writers may be ill-equipped to examine reality. So much at the moment is fantasy, paranormal and sci-fi "world building." We're kinda stuck with the world that's been built and the inscrutable forces that propel it. Let's tackle those while we can.
What do you treasure?
Family, friends and beta-readers. I'm indebted to those who read my work and tell me how to make it better.
Beta, meta. I think you’re alpha! How would you characterize your writing?
Like you just said: Characters characterize writing. Characters who create their own dilemmas, are victims of their own vanities. I like older characters, because they allow time-travel into their pasts.
You've recently been acknowledged in two major works of nonfiction, David Kirby's biography Little Richard, the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll and Richard Jay Hutto's sordid true-crime A Peculiar Tribe of People. How did that come about?
Both books (Kirby's Little Richard bio and Hutto's Peculiar Tribe) reviewed brilliantly by you, I might add. David Kirby is a phenomenal poet, writer and professor at Florida State. My partner Rob (Duck in the Sandtrap stories) & I met him and his wife writer Barbara Hamby at a house party on Alligator Point on the Gulf. He was researching a book on Little Richard, and I planted the seed that he couldn't write about Little Richard without coming to Macon, Georgia, Little Richard's hometown.
As you document in your book, Macon is arguably the birthplace of three genres of music: Rock & Roll (Little Richard), Funk-Soul (James Brown and Otis Redding) and Southern Rock (The Allman Brothers Band). Within two weeks of that conversation, David Kirby was in Macon, and he hasn't stopped writing about Macon music since.
Yes, Kirby is one of those astute observers who appreciate Macon’s glories and grotesqueries. Speaking of… How about Rick Hutto's intriguing book?
In Rick's phenomenal true mystery, a closeted gay man in 1960 has a perfect alibi but apparently murders his rich wife. The family parrot may, or may not, have been the only witness. The bird met a similarly mysterious death. I had recorded an interview with the parrot's veterinarian discussing the bird and the crime. I shared that with Rick Hutto.
How'd you get the tape?
After living and working in the Midwest, I recorded interviews with elderly gay men when I came back South. They led such fascinating and complicated lives. Glad I caught them when I did. They're gone now. In addition to the acknowledgments in Rick Hutto's and David Kirby's books, I was also basis for a character in Alix Strauss' novel The Joy of Funerals.
You're kidding. How does a writer become a character (aside from embarrassing shenanigans resulting from too-much-hooch writers' conferences)?
Alix Strauss is a fabulous writer based in New York City. She's written a bunch of stuff, fiction and nonfiction, Death Becomes Them, Based Upon Availability. She tagged along on one of my cemetery rambles; then we went out for coffee. She complained of the absence of good coffee in the South. I felt the same when I moved to Chicago. Midwest coffee tasted like dishwater. Months later, a signed copy of Joy of Funerals arrived with the note, "You're Tom." She nailed my idiosyncrasies. Not that I admit to any.
I’ll be placing an order for that book. What is it with you and cemeteries?
Good question. Why waste energy in cemeteries now, when there'll be time to kill for eternity?
Generations of my family were buried way out in the country. Sunday afternoons, instead of football on TV, we drove to remote graveyards to visit dead relatives and tend graves. It was story time. I felt I knew all those people, when there was no way I could have. My mother had Native American blood. Cousin Ouu-Loo-Loo, a Muscogee woman kept old ways back in the woods. I remember her well, the cabin, how it smelled, and she looked, but now, I suspect she died long before I'd been born. Memory is a frail servant.
Hence your dusky good looks. The past is never past, is it, especially in Macon? You have played Chester Burge, the protagonist of Hutto’s book, at Rose Hill Cemetery and function as one of that grand, old cemetery’s historians, correct?
Chester Burge and his murdered wife Mary are next door to Rose Hill at Macon's Riverside Cemetery, and I've had a ball playing his "spirit." I lead rambles of Rose Hill Cemetery. Such a beautiful place. Great stories to tell. My Rose Hill research has taken me to archives all over the state.
|Historic Rose Hill Cemetery overlooks Macon, GA|
What's a "ramble"?
It's part of Southerners' infamous "sense of place." It's a guided walk or drive reflecting upon what may or may not have happened on the ground upon which we stand. Rambles are part of oral tradition and generally check out true 99 percent of the time.
Your day job is as a scientist. Say something in science.
I have earned my footnote. I discovered the mathematical relationship between changes in food consumption and weight gain in lab rats. Nutritionists and worldwide regulatory agencies always assumed the relationship was linear, one-to-one. Evaluating rat growth for a client, pouring over fifty or more studies in the literature, I realized the relationship was not linear, but allometric. Lots of changes in biology and nature are allometric, meaning those first small increments have greater consequences than larger changes later on. On a graph, it looks like a hockey stick, not the straight line that had been assumed.
I proved the math and convinced the client, but they rightly pointed out, "Who's gonna listen to you?" So we enlisted a former head of food safety at FDA and a professor of nutrition at Harvard to be first and second authors on the manuscript with me third (Flamm et al., 2003). That paper got attention, and scientists now view the relationship between food consumption and weight gain in lab rats as allometric, not linear. No one's done the human studies, but no reason the same shouldn't hold: the smallest changes in food consumption will have the greatest long-term impacts on body weight, up or down, say as opposed to periodic binging or fasting.
So I should avoid that first bite of cheesecake altogether and abandon my purging regimen. I know you are rooted in and nourished by the South. Do you enjoy travel?
I'm fortunate to have traveled with work, on cultural exchanges and for pleasure. One can't visit Italy often enough. Love the UK, I traveled to England with work. First time I set foot in London, it was like a previous life experience. I knew my way around -- except for which direction to watch for cars as a pedestrian. Most amazing manmade thing I've seen? Petra in Jordan, a city carved in place from Technicolor sandstone. Most amazing nature? Staying at a treetop eco-camp in the Amazon, although I give high commendations to south Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.
If not the U.S., where would you live?
New Zealand. People there worry about the right sorts of things. Rob/Duck wants to live on the road in a motorhome or Airstream. I could do that and write about it.
How would you recommend writers hone their skills?
Apart from writing and reading, go to all the writers' workshops and conferences that you can afford. I've never been to a conference that I didn't meet someone who became important to my journey. Not necessarily in terms of big industry types, but creative, sympathetic fellow travelers. Writers are very helpful people.
You are helpful and inspiring. And just the right amount of naughty. We all will be waiting to see what you write next. I would suggest a personal memoir, along with those Southern Gothic novels.
Thanks, Candice. Refill?
Candice Dyer's interview with Phil Comer (back to top)
Alicia Caldwell's interview with Phil Comer (go)
Video linked to title: "Walk Like an Egyptian" by the Cleverlys (go)
Copyright © 2011. Author photo provided by subject. Phil Comer photo by Gary Cutrell. Ruby Cheeks photo by Maryann Bates, models Jessica Walden and Anthony Ennis. Petra photo by Phil Comer. Unless stated otherwise, photos and links outside this blog are not the property of the author.