Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

William C. Harris Returns

Yesterday my heart rejoiced when I opened a package that I knew from the address label had been sent by a publisher. Inside was the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of the new novel from William C. Harris, Jr. [pictured left].

This is something I know many people around the state have been waiting for. Harris’s first two novels, Delirium of the Brave (1998) and No Enemy But Time (2002) were both exceedingly popular; but for the last five years there’s been nothing, nada, rien, niente!

But now the drought is over…well it will be in March 2008 when Wassaw Sound is published by Frederic C. Beil of Savannah (the original publisher of Delirium of the Brave).

Harris has appeared on Cover to Cover twice before. In April 2000 the show focused on Delirium of the Brave, and in October 2002, No Enemy But Time was the topic of conversation.

Harris is a wonderful man. Savannah born and bred, he sets his books in that fair city and along the Georgia coast that he loves dearly. He enjoys nothing more than cranking up the Admiral Graf Spee, his boat, and sailing along the waterways and inlets that feature prominently in his books.

Harris is the type of author that I admire in a special way. He, and Sandersville’s William Rawlings, are what I would call “gentleman authors"; their writing is an avocation and they have a “real” job which takes up most of their time. Both Harris and Rawlings are doctors-the former a podiatrist, the latter an internist-and might therefore be compared to the doyen of Georgia physician/gentlemen authors, Ferrol Sams.

In fact, Harris retired from medecine several years ago, and Rawlings has as many different occupations as there are gators in the Okeefenokee: physician, author, historic preservationist, estate manager, world traveler, to name those that I know about.

I remember the first time I met Harris. I was interviewing him at our studios here in Atlanta when Delirium came out. He told me that writing a novel was something he just decided to do one day when he’d become bored with a succession of hobbies and his wife warned him it wasn’t healthy for him to sit around in front of the TV every night without anything to do. So, having grown tired of clay pigeon shooting, painting model soldiers, and researching local history, he sat down at his computer and began what was to become Delirium of the Brave.

What Harris writes are not so much novels as sagas. His narratives range over decades and centuries as he tells the stories of the Irish-Catholic families who have been leading lights in Savannah for so long.

Delirium for example begins during the Civil War and concludes in the present, while No Enemy opens during World War II and travels up to the present.

Wassaw Sound spans almost 60 years of Savannah history, from the 1950’s to the present. At the center of the story is an historical event; a hydrogen bomb was jettisoned into Wassaw Sound in February 1958 by a damaged B-47 bomber. Despite an exhaustive search by the military, the bomb, nicknamed the “Tybee Bomb,” was never found.

Once again this story is structured around historical fact. As Harris says in the book’s Prologue,
Although it is fiction, Wassaw Sound is historically and technically correct; the locations in the story are all real and accessible. Most of the characters are, at least to some degree, based on actual people I have known. With some of the lesser characters, I have used their real names.
As with Harris’s previous books, Wassaw Sound may revolve around the story of the Tybee Bomb, but it’s about much more than just that; as the publisher’s letter that accompanied the ARC states, the book is about “the power of lifelong friendships, the pain of unrequited love, the fruitlessness of unfettered hatred, and the magnificence of faith and its power to overcome.”

As I mentioned earlier, the Georgia coast in the environs of Savannah has a special place in Harris’s heart. In his earlier books, readers are treated to vistas of the built environment of Georgia’s First City. Now in Wassaw Sound he reveals the beauty and splendor of the marshes, rivers, and islands that lie to the east of the city.

So be prepared for March 2008 and the publication of Wassaw Sound, William C. Harris’s new and much-anticipated novel. He is a masterful storyteller, and another three hundred plus pages of his writing are sure to please readers both in Savannah and elsewhere.

[As always, if you have comments or questions about this blog entry, please email me at Thank you for your feedback.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

October's Cover to Cover: The Sacred Place

Anyone who listened to Sunday’s Cover to Cover on GPB Radio will know that the show was recorded earlier in the week before an audience at the historic Douglass Theatre in Macon, Georgia.

My guest was Clark Atlanta University professor and novelist Daniel Black and we talked and took audience questions about Black’s second novel, The Sacred Place (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

Black first appeared on Cover to Cover in July 2006 when we took listener calls about his debut novel They Tell Me of a Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), the story of a young man's return to and reconciliation with his roots in rural Arkansas.

The Sacred Place tells a different kind of story, one that focuses on a community rather than an individual.

Set in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, the book is based on the murder of Emmett Till, an event that became one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights’ Movement.

The Cover to Cover taping at the Douglass Theatre was well attended by a diverse audience whose members were eager to ask questions. Given the nature of the subject matter, it was no surprise to me that the conversation that ensued between Daniel, myself and the audience was substantive and therefore refreshing; it was satisfying to hear race talked about with honesty and respect, something that Daniel commented is desperately needed in America.

The Sacred Place fictionalizes the Emmett Till murder and dramatizes its impact on the black community in Money. But don’t think that this book is a mere retelling of this tragic episode in American history.

What Black has given us in The Sacred Place is a text that is at once a powerful story told with conviction and nuance, and a sociological study of how attitudes within black communities all across the South toward their oppression began to change as society changed in the wake of the Second World War and events like the murder of Emmett Till.

Black weaves his story together by focusing on three different but equally important relationships; the delicately balanced status quo that exists between blacks and whites in Money; the sometimes fractured relations between members of the black community; and the relationship between black folks and God.

Jeremiah Johnson, patriarch of the family under siege by racist whites, is forced to consider closely what different courses of action might mean to himself and to his family as he strives to protect them. He knows violence will be visited upon them when members of the white community seek revenge for the perceived insult Jeremiah’s grandson, Clement, gave to a white store attendant.

Fourteen-year-old Clement was born and raised in Chicago. Visiting his grandparents in Money for the summer, he one day enters the general store to buy a soda. He makes the mistake of placing his money on the counter rather than in the woman attendant’s hand, and, when she insultingly demands he put the nickel in her hand, he walks out of the store, adding over his shoulder “Slavery been over.”

The Johnson’s know that white retribution is almost assured, and that Clement is in danger. In deliberating over what to do to protect his family from mob violence, Jeremiah visits a hidden glade in the nearby forest that had been the special place of his son older son Jerry.

Jerry had come across the glade by accident as a boy and had found in its lush green grass, wildflowers, butterflies, and scents something akin to the Garden of Eden. It came to be known as the “sacred place,” and had been a refuge, a source of inspiration and a place to commune with God for black folks.

It was also the place years before where Jerry had chosen to hang himself after seeking violent revenge on the white men who had raped and beaten his wife. He knew his violence would bring the white mob looking for him, and he took the preemptive strike of taking his own life before the mob could do it for him.

Now looking for guidance and answers in the sacred place, Jeremiah receives an epiphany that allows him to move forward and do what he needs to do.

He now understands that the only way the black residents of Money can overcome the oppression forced on them by the dominant white society is if the black community unites and acts together. That solidarity is the key to their freedom.

But perhaps more importantly, in the sacred place, Jeremiah also comes to see his relationship with God in a new way. The long-held belief that the Christian thing to do in the face of injustice is to turn the other cheek and pray, gives way to a faith embodied in action. He realizes that God can only act in the world through human agency and that the Lord is not calling his community to suffer in silence. They hold the key to their liberation: to rise up in the spirit of God and oppose those who seek to keep them down.

What Black dramatizes here is the changing zeitgeist within black communities that developed as a result of events such as the murder of Emmett Till. There was a theological transformation, think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that gave black folks the wherewithal to face their oppressors and demand civil rights.

It is precisely this aspect of The Sacred Place, that encapsulation in story of how the Civil Rights Movement began out of horrors such as the brutal beating of Emmett Till, that makes this such an important book.

The Publishers Weekly review of the book is not exactly glowing. The concluding comments state

Unfortunately, Black...stocks his novel with stereotypes—from the downtrodden
blacks to the dumb, bigoted rednecks—who speak in phonetically rendered
dialogue.... The clumsy, heavy dose of Christianity and rudimentary portrayal of
racism will also limit appeal.
I don't think the reviewer has seen the subtleties in Black's text nor fully understood the force behind the story.

Black is to be congratulated and thanked for telling these truths and engendering the kind of discussions that took place at the Douglass Theatre last week.

If you missed the program, don’t worry, it will be rebroadcast this Sunday, November 4 at 10AM on GPB Radio. Tune in to your local GPB station (except WUGA/91.7FM in Athens), or listen online at The program will also be archived on the Cover to Cover pages of the GPB site.

[As always, if you have comments or questions about this blog entry, please email me at Thank you for your feedback.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Charles Edward Flynn, May 4th, 1934-September 27th, 2007

I apologize for not having posted a blog entry since the end of September. My father passed away September 27, and I left immediately for Britain to be with my family and help arrange the funeral.

[Pictured: The Flynn family at home in 2004. Caroline (my sister), me, Dad and Mum]

Life has been something of a whirl since the day my father died, and only now am I finally getting back to some sense of normality.

I hope you will indulge me. I gave the eulogy at my father's funeral and I'd like to share the text of what I said with you so that you may get some sense of the man he was.

Charles Edward Flynn
4th May 1934 to 27th September 2007
Delivered at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church
Sawston, Cambridge
Friday, October 5, 2007

There are things in life we pray we never have to do; important things we know will be beyond our capabilities, like resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example; or little things we know will just disgust us too much, like shaking hands with a politician; or significant things that no sane person would agree to tackle because of the sheer complexity of the task at hand, like giving the eulogy at Charles Flynn’s funeral.

The only reason I’m doing this now is because I was in Atlanta last week when Dad died and they asked for volunteers to give his eulogy. I was the only person who didn’t take a step back.

My father was, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and no one in their right mind wants to try to unravel and make sense of the layers of that puzzle in front of a church full of mourners.

However, as his only son, I feel it is my duty to talk to you about Charles Flynn because I loved him and that love drives me to bring understanding to a life that otherwise some might not appreciate.

There is an adjective used often in America to describe a certain type of person. That adjective is “ornery.” It might be used in the following way, “Boy, Charles sure is ornery today,” meaning “Charles sure is acting like a complete curmudgeon today.”

I was actually quite taken aback when I first heard “ornery” used in Georgia. I had never heard the word before and so, like the good literature graduate student I was, I went to look it up in the dictionary. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the appropriate page, traced my finger down the column of words and, when I got to “ornery,” saw a picture of Dad.

One of the things I want to tell you about my father today is that he was a fun person. Humor was something that was tremendously important to him. He loved classic English comedy, first on the radio and then on television. He soaked up The Goons, Tony Hancock, Morecombe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, and Dave Allen. He read the books of Spike Milligan; he had a fined-tuned appreciation for the piano playing of Les Dawson. And he never failed to laugh when Ernie told Eric about the latest play what he wrote.

A few years ago, in anticipation of this eulogy, and knowing that I would need proof to convince the congregation at his funeral that my father was not completely ornery, I put together a set of questions and asked him to write down his answers. You know the kind of thing, those celebrity Q & As you see in OK! or Hello!

Here are the questions and my father’s answers:

Q: Favorite music? A: Anything in plainchant. It used to be Madonna until I found out it wasn’t the Madonna I was thinking of
Q: Favorite drink: Gin? Beer? Wine? Whiskey? A: All of the above
Q: Favorite wine? A: Red
Q: Favorite pastimes or hobbies? A: Performing my ablutions
Q: Heroes? A: Benson & Hedges and Johnnie Walker
Q: If you could meet one famous person from history, who would it be? A: Sir Walter Raleigh
Q: Favorite sayings? A: Semper in excremento, sole profundum qui variat [I’m always in the crap, it’s just the depth that varies]
Q: Boxers or briefs? A: Neither. I go commando!
Despite what was a developed and heightened sense of humor, Dad was always inscrutable.

Inscrutable. You could never exactly pinpoint what was going through his mind at any given moment. He was not a man given to wearing his heart on his sleeve. His modus operandi was much more subdued; there were emotions he felt very comfortable with – humor and anger, for example – but others were rarely evidenced as they were feelings he found difficult to process.

I always wished he would be more demonstrative and I spent a long time lamenting what I saw as his deficiencies. But as I grew older and experienced my father in more detail, I came to understand why he was the way he was. And I came to appreciate that, like all of us, he was a man shaped by his environment. In his case, however, I think the environment that shaped him was not as gentle as it might have been.

Born in 1934, Charles Edward Flynn was the only child of old parents, both of whom were well into their 40s when he was born. He always spoke fondly of his years as a pupil with the Sisters of Mercy at Crackley Hall outside Kenilworth. As it was wartime, the school was evacuated to Stoneleigh Abbey and Dad often used to tell us of the time he and some of the other pupils and nuns were strafed by gunfire from a German plane as they ran to take cover.

He went on to be educated at Bablake School in Coventry (as all the best and brightest are!), and was then sent to boarding school at Sacred Heart College in Droitwich. He always had many great stories to tell about his time there, and how much trouble he got into, and the friends he made, and the priests who taught him.

These stories always spoke of a zest for life. Here was someone for whom the world was an oyster, someone who came from good working-class stock and would take the very best traits from his family and parlay them into a more comfortable existence.

That he did, although not necessarily easily. The difficulties he experienced, and there were many, came from within.

In order to understand my father we have to understand that he was someone that time left behind. He spent so much of his life looking backward at what had passed and hankering for the time it would return. He was not a great lover of change and he did not adapt to it well, and while not a Luddite, he clung to modes of being and thinking that he thought would preserve that past for him.

You will have by now picked up on his love of Latin. To him this language of a long-gone age was the essence of the world he had once known and lived in comfortably. It was the language of the Church as he was growing up, and as such, it was the language of praise and worship. It was also a mystical entity, not understood by all and not appreciated by all; but for him it was the language that expressed the mysticism of faith and the nature of God. The Tridentine Mass was the rite of worship he had grown up in, and when, in the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a new form of mass celebrated in the vernacular, Dad was lost.

He stayed away from the Church for several years, and when he did return you could see in his bearing that he was yearning for the intimacy and refinement of the Latin Mass.

Latin continued as one of the threads of his life. When I was 11, I was one of the cast members of the Coventry Scouts’ Gang Show. Dad was away working in Scotland on opening night, but I remember arriving at the stage door before the show and being handed an envelope addressed to me. Inside was a telegram from Dad wishing me and the rest of the cast best wishes for opening night. He signed it “Pater Tuus,” “your father.”

There were other examples of his taste for the past. July of 1985 saw two family celebrations fall on consecutive days. July 16th was Mum and Dad’s 25th wedding anniversary and the 17th was my graduation from university.

At home Dad had been collecting 20 pence pieces. I can’t remember how long he’d been collecting the coins, but several weeks ahead of these celebrations, Dad said he thought we should cash in the coins and use the proceeds to buy bowler hats for each of us to wear at the anniversary and graduation.

The bowler hat had never been an integral part of my wardrobe, but it had for Dad. As a young, newly married accountant, he was working in Birmingham and took the train every morning to work. He wore the standard work uniform of the day: dark suit, white shirt with starched collar, furled umbrella, briefcase…and bowler hat. Of course, 25 years later the bowler hat had been eclipsed by, well, nothing. While I was not in the habit of wearing a bowler to lectures every day, I thought Dad’s idea was quaint.

He cashed in the coins and off we went to Dunn & Co. in the Coventry city centre. They had bowler hats and we selected the appropriate sizes. Dad then asked about getting them fitted. The young sales assistant looked at Dad like he was from Mars; he had absolutely no idea what Dad was on about. When the Manager came over and explained that there wasn’t much call for hat fitting these days, Dad was furious. He marched out of the shop, without the hats, and I was left to apologize.

We eventually bought the hats from a Dunn & Co. store in Birmingham.

Another of Dad’s throwbacks to the past was the pair of pince-nez he bought, presumably from an antiques shop or estate sale. For those who may not know, pince-nez were the precursor to spectacles as we know them today. Instead of two bars either side of your face that hooked over your ears, the nose grips were spring-loaded and could be pressed open and placed on the bridge of the nose where they sat. Pincer is the French verb meaning "to pinch," and le nez is the French for “nose”. This device literally “pinched your nose.”

The family went out for a meal at a restaurant one evening and Dad insisted on taking his new pince-nez with him. The frame and lenses were attached to a small gold chain which had an ear piece on the end so you could hook them over your ear and leave them dangling when they weren’t on your nose. When the waitress came to take our order, Dad took the dangling pince-nez and perched them on his nose and began to look at the menu. Not being used to wearing such an item, he couldn’t keep them on his nose, and the lenses weren’t his prescription either.

That waitress must have gone back to the kitchen with our order and said “You should see the guy at table 3. He thinks he’s Prince Albert or something.”

Dad was a faithful letter writer. He wrote to me very often when I was at university and then when I moved to the States. I still have his letters, and reading them over again I am struck by just how funny he could be, and also touched by his persistence; he would often begin by saying something like “Not that much has happened to your Mum and I since I last wrote but…” and he’d go on to mention anything he thought might interest or amuse me.

He often used to cut things out of The Times and include them in his letters. It might be a letter written to the Editor, or some piece of trivia, or an amusing anecdote. Here’s one that I’ve kept. It’s the text of a notice behind the bar at the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, on Tan Hill, Yorkshire. It reads:

“The landlord smokes, his wife smokes, all the staff smoke, most of the locals smoke, those that have made it up the hill need a smoke. If the wind is in the east the pub smokes. So if you want a smoke-free zone, go outside.”
There’s one Times cutting that really sticks in my mind because it seems to sum up so much about Dad, his love of Latin, his hankering for the past, and his strong sense of humor. The cutting reads:
Capsellarum magnetoscopicarum theca - the Latin for video rental store as given in the Vatican’s new Latin dictionary.”
Dad was notorious for his smoking. Whenever the telephone rang there was an almost Pavlovian response from Dad: he’d pick up his cigarettes, take one out, light it and then answer the phone. In a world that increasingly rejected smoking, Dad resolutely held out. He seemed to know half the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy in England because he met them after some celebration mass when they were outside having a smoke.

Dad would suddenly disappear from functions so he could go outside to smoke. He smoked for almost 60 years, and although he paid a physical price for it, he enjoyed it. So much so that when Mum, Caroline and myself went to see Dad at the funeral director’s earlier this week, we put a new pack of 20 Superkings in his jacket pocket in the coffin, so he’d have what he needed for the journey to Heaven or across the Styx.

In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if Dad were outside the church right now smoking a cigarette and thinking to himself “I never brought St.John up to be so prolix.” Would someone please check for me?

I’m just waiting to hear, through some divine prophecy or a Marian vision, about Dad’s reaction when he gets to the Pearly Gates and he’s waiting in line with his bowler hat and pince-nez and the ever-present cigarette between his fingers, and just as St. Peter opens the gate for Dad to enter, the Great Saint looks at Dad and points to a sign in Latin on the gate post which reads: Tibi gratias agimus quod nihil fumas, “Thank you for not smoking.”

I said earlier that Dad was a man that time forgot, and I think throughout his life he sought to recreate bygone eras as a way of once more getting to grips with a world he could know and understand. There were events in his life that I think left an emotional scar on him and destabilized the world as he understood it.

When he was 17 he was diagnosed with pleurisy and was confined to bed for 6 months. This obviously had an impact on his education, and perhaps on how he was treated by his parents, as there were great suspicions that “pleurisy” was a code word for tuberculosis.

Dad’s mother refused to attend his wedding to Mum. I can’t imagine what affect that must have had on him.

Several years later he found out that, despite all he’d been told, he was not an only child but indeed had a half-sister, someone he’d always been led to believe was his cousin.

These were things that shook his confidence in a world he’d been led to believe was his for the taking. The hurt he inevitably suffered he internalised, but he clung to those things that he felt could bear him up: the Church and its Latin, articles that had once been commonplace in his world such as the bowler hat or pince-nez, and of course his family.

He loved us in the best way he knew how. He wasn’t given to sentimentality, but he’d make us laugh, let us laugh at him, share in our sorrows and our celebrations, and do little things to put his stamp on things in our lives.

As a final tribute to this great man laid out before us in his coffin, I want to dig into the past to celebrate all that he was and all that he gave to me.

I know Dad was proud of the fact that I did so many years, too many years maybe, of Latin.

When I was preparing for Latin A-level, one of the prescribed texts we had to study was the poems of the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus. To this day he remains one of my favorite poets. I have even taught him in translation to my undergraduates at the University of Georgia.

One Catullus poem has always stood out for me because of the depth of sorrow it expresses. Catullus’s brother had died while on a foreign civil service posting and his funeral had to be carried out in the absence of any family. Later Catullus himself takes a post in that same region and visits the grave where his brother’s ashes are buried.

Here is that short poem, in English translation:
Carried over many seas, and through many nations,
Brother, I come to these sad funeral rites,
to grant you the last gifts to the dead,
and speak in vain to your silent ashes,
since fortune has stolen from me your very self.
Ah alas, my brother, taken so shamefully from me.
Yet now, receive these sad gifts
which by the ancient custom of our fathers,
have been handed down as offerings to the dead,
take them, soaked deeply with a brother’s
tears, and forever, brother: ‘Hail and Farewell!’
We have come from far and wide to pay tribute to my father according to the long-established rites of the Church. And as a final goodbye to this great man, let me amend slightly Catullus’s last line and commend Charles Edward Flynn to the joys of Heaven as he would want, that is, in Latin.

And so I say to you Dad,

In perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.