Kat Kennedy’s novel, Flamingo Funeral and Tales from the Land of Whiskey and Tea Cakes, was published this past December. Composed of her novella Flamingo Funeral and six short stories, including Mean Woman Blues, Graduating, Ree Lambert, Glenda Blows Up, Slow Dog Fast Train, and Echoes, the collection covers the gritty side of southern life. Kennedy’s characters are not your typical Melanie Hamilton-type belles or Ashley Wilkes-type gentlemen. These characters are raw and imperfect, which makes them feel all the more real, despite the sometimes too crazy to believe events. Past the whiskey swilling, cigarette smoking, gun firing, and fist fighting, each of her characters longs for something more, whether that’s to be left alone in their perfect house like Glenda Jowcelyn in Glenda Blows Up, atonement for the sins of their grandchildren like Maudie Wilson in Slow Dog Fast Train, or a good woman to come home to like Lidge Nolan in Mean Woman Blues. In most of the stories, that longing is unfulfilled, or briefly fulfilled only to be snatched away, leaving the characters to desperately claw at the shreds left behind.
Flamingo Funeral, a short list finalist for the 2012 Faulkner Wisdom Competition, is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon. Kat Kennedy will be signing copies of the book at the next Art Walk, March 8 from 6 PM to 9 PM, in front of the Mobile Arts Council building.
ModMobilian contributor Stefanie had the chance to talk with the incredibly friendly Kat about her work.
At the conferences, workshops, and lectures I’ve attended in the area, writers have talked a lot about what it means to be a “Southern writer,” often with differing opinions of what makes someone a Southern writer. Do you see yourself as one? And how do you define it?
KK: That’s an interesting question and seems to be the question of the day. I do believe there is such a thing as a Southern writer. Southerner’s share in a history unique to our region. It’s not always a pretty history and there are many problems left us on account of it, but it is a shared history. I’ve always felt that our history hangs over us like kudzu. It creeps into the crevices and gullies of our psyche and no matter how much progress we make in cutting it back, it’s always there, vining itself around everything in our peripheral vision so we barely notice it until one day it creeps into the roadway and we have to cut it back again. We are a people who have made drastic mistakes and for the most part, we have tried and are trying to rectify those mistakes. Many of my stories are set in the sixties and seventies and deal with how a change of attitude can begin when one person realizes the system is wrong and has the courage to challenge it. I’m working on a novel, Dancing in the Cool Breeze, which deals with this theme.
Identifying myself as a Southern writer has much to do with embracing the language and culture of the South. We are steeped in a unique culture where we are taught to say
yes ma’am,” to say grace, to show hospitality. We are expected to “raise our children right.” Our way of talking is almost musical in itself, so I use dialect when I write. I try to capture the voice of my characters. I don’t think I could portray them without using their Southern dialect. “Those shoes have worn all the way through” is just not the same as, “Them shoes is worn plumb through.”
So to re-cap, yes, I see myself as a Southern writer and I define it as one who writes from a place of unique Southern culture, language and psyche.
Your characters like to drink and smoke a lot, which is fitting since the stories are set in the South, or the Land of Tea Cakes and Whiskey. What were your reasons for this?
KK: They just won’t quit. I’ve tried to educate them, but they don’t seem too interested in getting healthy. No really, I get my characters from the people I’ve known and grew up with. The life they lived and the life I lived growing up. This is just the way they are. For instance, I spent the night at my grandmother’s many times while growing up and the last thing we did before bed was to clean all the ashtrays to be sure we wouldn’t set the house on fire. And yes, she let me smoke! (But only after I was in high school.) Salems. Dreadful things.
Gus is such an incredible character, though we never get to meet him while he’s alive. Where did you get your inspiration for him?
KK: Gus was so much fun! He is a combination of my father, his brother, and several of my father’s friends, all big personalities and now deceased. I took a little truth and let my imagination run wild.
It seems like communication is a problem for many of the characters. Jen and Jim (Flamingo Funeral) have little to say to each other aside from “Fucking Gus!” Silky can’t seem to say what she wants to her dad, who uses lyrics from the Allman Brothers to say something to her that she finds to be meaningful (Graduating), and Vernon and Jolene, well, they are quite fiery when it comes to communication (Mean Woman Blues). That’s just to start. Do you see this communication problem as something that comes with southern hospitality (needing to hold one’s tongue in public)?
KK: Perhaps. I grew up in the “children should be seen not heard” era, so maybe that comes out in my writing. I think Jen and Jim are so in tuned with each other they don’t really need to discuss things. Or maybe they are afraid of where a real conversation will go. It does seem they would have much to discuss with Gus’s death and the funeral, but they just seem to take it all in without really commenting on it. (Something I could never do.) Silky does have a problem with letting her feelings show. She has tiptoed around her whole life and tried to judge her father’s moods every day to “keep the peace.” Her silence I think is more a concern of Lonnie’s reaction to her feelings. Will he understand? Will he be hurt and cry? Will he beat her? Will he go on a bender? Then there’s Jolene and Vernon. They communicate loudly and physically. There’s certainly no Southern hospitality there. So I guess in answer to your question, Southern hospitality probably has less to do with it than other aspects of those particular characters’ lives. Yet, I can’t rule it out completely. It’s something so ensconced into my way of life, it invariably plays a part in how I portray my characters without me even realizing it!
As someone who has volunteered as a victim’s advocate for a few years, I was particularly bothered by the lack of response to the abuse that Jolene delivers to Vernon. What was your choice for this and how do you see this attitude towards abuse in the South?
KK: I agree the attitude of Jolene’s abuse toward Vernon is very disturbing. Again, the abuse in the stories comes from aspects of my childhood along with some things I’ve seen happen as an adult. It would be wonderful to think that all abuse is reported and appropriately dealt with in today’s society, but unfortunately, that’s not true. Because Vernon and Jolene have a relationship in which both are guilty of abuse and they live in a small town in the South, it is even less likely their behavior will be reported. Lidge’s reaction to Jolene’s abuse of Vernon is interesting. He is appalled, but doesn’t take any legal action, even though it happens in his establishment. Why? Bad advertising for the bar? Embarrassment to Vernon? Would he have called the police if Vernon had been the abuser? One of the best complements I have ever gotten was from fellow author Carl Purdon who has a novel, The Night Train, which deals with childhood abuse. He said after he read Mean Woman Blues, he found himself thinking about Jolene and Vernon. They would pop into his head out of the blue. I have a feeling Vernon and Jolene will show up again.
I hope people will be disturbed when they read it. It is a disturbing story, and far too realistic.
Many of the stories involve Clayville, Alabama, which I was unable to locate on a map and am guessing does not physically exist. What did you base the town on and how do you feel it is representative of the South?
KK: Clayville is based on several of the mill towns in which I have lived in southeast Alabama. I didn’t want to pin my writing down to one town. I wanted the freedom to add as many churches and denominations, businesses, etc. as I wanted while writing about life in small town and rural Alabama. So along with Clayville, there is Alexville. Both towns are located in Hallton County. I like having the freedom to create the history of these two towns and the county. In Slow Dog Fast Train I give a little of the background and you find out about the feud between the two towns. I have a new novella coming out in March that is set in Alexville in the mill village along the railroad tracks. This one is about a modern day hobo who is also a Harvard graduate. I got the idea after a trip to Boston when I toured Harvard. I have always loved old Jimmie Rodgers hobo songs, so the story came together one day while I was listening to some of those old songs.
As I understand it, you created the Five Rivers Writers’ Group. What made you decide to create the group when others existed already in the area (Baldwin County Writers, Mobile Writers Guild, etc.)? How has the group grown since it was formed and where would you like it to go?
KK: Actually, Charles McInnis is the creative force behind Five Rivers Writers’ Group. He thought it would be great to have a place to go on-line for critique as we are all so busy these days. It is still a work in progress, but we are plugging along with it. I’ve been so busy with the book this last month, I’ve been a little neglectful with the site, but we will be back in full force come January and are always happy to accept new members. Anyone interested can contact me anytime and I will get them signed up. We will begin meeting again in January. Charles is active in Mobile Writer’s Guild and Pensters. Both are wonderful groups.
You also are the editor of Southern Delta Literary Magazine, which was started by the Five Rivers Writers’ Group. What can you tell me about the magazine?
KK: Again, this is Charles McInnis’s idea. The vision is to have local writers submit and publish quality work on-line. We have a proto-type up now with a few sample works on there. Our plan is to get the magazine going by spring.
I was interested to learn that you are a poet, but when I reread the stories, I saw that come out in the language you used. How do you feel your poetry background has affected your prose?
KK: I never even considered writing prose until I was well into my thirties. In fact, the story Echoes was my first prose piece. The only reason I wrote it was because we had too many poetry entries in the Troy State Dothan Anthology and they asked me to try my hand at writing a short story. I included it in Flamingo Funeral & Tales from the Land of Tea Cakes and Whiskey because I had rewritten it and thought it much better. Can you tell I was reading Faulkner at the time I wrote it? If the poetry has affected the prose in anyway, it is in the imagery. My poetry is much darker than my prose, but there are moments in the prose where I think I have caught in a line the image I really wanted to portray. The feel of a southern rain, the feeling of communion between the cousins at the kitchen table comes to mind. Those lines I was pleased with and felt they were poetic.
What drove your decision to self-publish the collection? What advice can you give to other writers seeking to self-publish?
I never considered not self-publishing. Being a poet, you get used to getting published in small press and on-line or not at all. You make your peace fairly early with the fact that you write for the sake of writing and you’re probably not going to get famous or even self-supporting from writing. After I retired from teaching, I decided now was the time to write. It just happened that the self-publishing phenomenon was taking hold. I started a Twitter account and met some people who were self-published and read their work. Some good, some bad. I also met Lauren Clark, who had published her very successful novel, Dancing Naked in Dixie (which is set in my hometown, Eufaula), and she was wonderful to give me some pointers. My thought was to get the work out there. So I started having more of a presence on Twitter, I entered Flamingo Funeral in the Faulkner Wisdom Contest (it was a semifinalist), and I started a new website and blog (Tea Cakes and Whiskey).
I would advise anyone to spend their money on a professional cover (I was fortunate in that Charles McInnis did mine). There are so many self-published books out there that have really bad covers. Also, edit, edit, edit!!!! I can’t tell you what a turn-off it is to start a book and have typos and grammar problems on the first page. This is why self-publishing gets a bad rap. I think I may have edited my book 50 times. And I even changed some things after it was put on Amazon. If you have to, hire an editor and a proofreader.
I think if you have a well-written, entertaining, well-edited work, it will be well received. BUT you have to promote it. I spend a great deal of time searching out the right people to read my work and, hopefully, be willing to give me an interview or do a book review or let me do a guest blog. When you self-publish, you also self-promote. There isn’t an agent to set up book signings or interviews, so you are on your own when it comes to that. It is time consuming. I think my biggest mistake was to not be as well-organized as I could have been at the beginning.