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From Prose to the Pros: Swapping Stories With Author Charles McNair

By:  Jay Moye Oct 7, 2013
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Charles McNair has heard the same tired joke about his home state more times than he’d care to count.

“What’s the best thing to ever come out of Alabama?” the Pulitzer-nominated author asks, eyes rolling, before reluctantly surrendering the punch line.

“I-20.”

“I get that all the time from my friends here in Georgia,” he adds. “And it chaps me.”

After all, McNair spent the first 40 years of his life in Alabama. He was born and raised in Dothan, a town tucked in the corner pocket of the Yellowhammer State, where the Florida Panhandle and Georgia meet. Despite growing up among sportsmen, carpenters and other salty types, he preferred to pass the time with a good story.

“Reading was like stepping into a time machine,” McNair, now 59, recalls. “I opened up a book and was somewhere else. There was such magic in that.”

When he was six years old, he saw Old Yeller – one of only two movies to ever make him cry – and the next day noticed the title of Fred Gipson’s iconic book by the same name printed on the spine of a Reader’s Digest laying around his family's house.

He pulled the condensed book from its case, propped it up next to his dad’s manual typewriter and started pecking away. He typed out the first 40 pages, copying it line for line.

“I wanted to make people feel what I felt when I saw that book come to life on the screen,” he recalls. “And, if anybody asked, I told them, ‘I wrote Old Yeller.’”

A Storied Upbringing

More than five decades later, McNair looks every bit the part of a Southern fiction writer: redheaded with a touch of grey around the ears, mustachioed, bespectacled and blazered. Effusive but humble, he talks like he writes: colorfully and carefully, every word dripping with drawl.

During a wide-ranging interview this summer, we discussed his 19 years-in-the-making second novel, Pickett’s Charge and growing up in – and writing about – the South. He also shared a few nuggets about the supporting role Coca-Cola has played in his creative ritual over the years.

“Growing up in Alabama, the best things in life were red and white: Santa Claus, the Crimson Tide and Coca-Cola,” he says. “In fact, I can connect the first book I ever bought to Coca-Cola.”

It all started in the early 1960s with every-other-month family trips to see his grandfather in Troy, Ala. “Six kids and a fussy momma and daddy all in a hot car... it was an ordeal,” he says, chuckling. The treat of the trip would come when their wagon pulled in to a gas station and the McNairs piled out one by one, parched and ornery.

“We’d pull back the top of one of those old iceboxes, with steam rising out of it, reach down and pull out a short Coke each,” he says. “That was our reward for the suffering we endured.”

They held on to the 8-ounce glass bottles and cashed them in for a nickel apiece.

“My granddaddy was a yard man,” McNair explains. “He’d collect every bottle he found, most of which in that day were Coca-Cola bottles, and put them in an old, discarded bathtub behind his nursery. On Saturday mornings, we’d pour out the rainwater, pack them into crates and take them down to the Piggly Wiggly. The owner would grimace when he saw us walk through that door, because he had to go through all those bottles.”

When he was 10, his take from one particular trip was $8 – paydirt back in 1964. After heading straight to the bank to open his first account, his parents let him keep $3 to spend as he pleased.

“I got my momma to take me the next week to the book-and-art shop to buy a hardback copy of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island,” he says. “That was my granddaddy’s instruction on thrift – how you could save things you find and, if you care for them, turn them into something you love.”

Detour to the Diamond

McNair enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but left as a seventh-year sophomore and moved to Birmingham for a few years before getting married (he’d later return to finish his degree).

Then, pardon the pun, life threw him a curveball. While honeymooning in Verona, Italy, he and his then-wife were approached by a businessman named Tiziano Coppola. The conversation went something like this:

Coppola: “Are you American?”

McNair: “Yes.”

Coppola: “Do you play baseball?”

McNair: “Yeah.”

Coppola: “Well, I’m an umpire in the Italian baseball league here in Verona. If you stay and play the season with the local team and help coach, I’ll give you and your wife jobs and a free place to live.”

McNair: “Mr. Coppola, you’ve made me an offer I can’t refuse.”

Even though he hadn’t played ball in seven years, McNair’s team advanced to the league championship. “But don’t get the wrong idea,” he says, laughing. “In some of the places we played, the outfield fence was a red ribbon tied to the end of a grapevine. Anything hit over the ribbon was a home run, and and if it bounced under into the vineyard, it was a double.”

McNair’s semi-professional baseball career ended after the 1979 season upon his return home, but the experience has supplied him with countless hours of cocktail party conversation.

“On every job application I’ve filled out since, I always write in ‘third basemen for the Verona Arsenal’ as one of my titles,” he says. “And you wouldn’t believe how much discussion that has brought out.”

All Roads Lead (Back) to Alabama

McNair’s debut novel, Land O’ Goshen, was released in 1994 to considerable acclaim, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Equal parts romance, adventure yarn and horror story, it follows a boy and his friend growing up in a mythical Southern town. Not long after finishing it, he got started on a follow up.

He started sketching out ideas, shifting from the first-person to the third-person narrative. For subject matter, he returned to his roots.

Pickett’s Charge is told through the eyes of Threadgill Pickett, a 114-year-old Civil War vet who heads north from a nursing home in Mobile, Ala., in the 1960s to track down the last living Yankee in Maine. Along the way, he examines everything that led him to his long-held vendetta.

“Where I come from, people still smell the powder in the air,” McNair explains. “They fell in love with defeat. This book is an exploration of why that is – what vengeance or sense of misproportioned injustice has made an area still, to this day, so belligerent.”

McNair wrote Threadgill’s character to “emblemize what it means to be from the South.” For inspiration, he kept a picture of a relative who fought in the Civil War taped above his desk.

“He’s a cock of the walk, resplendent in his uniform and Colonel Sanders-type beard,” McNair says. “He looks like a caricature.”

Personality wise, the centenarian is “this intractable type I knew all my life on the front porches of every family reunion… the ‘forget, hell!’ kind of guys.”

Soon after he finished the book in 2009, McNair got some bad news. His agent, Fred Hill, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. He resisted the advice of friends who urged him to find new representation, opting to stand by his old friend.

But time was ticking. He hoped to release Pickett’s Charge by July 3, 2013 – the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle the book is named for – when reader appetite would reach its peak.

McNair describes what unfolded over the next four years as the “worst snake-bitten sophomore jinx you’ve ever heard.”

“It took Fred a year to get well, but when he did, he loved the book and said ‘let’s send it here, here and here,” he said, not disclosing the publishers’ names.

When “here” and “here” didn’t bite, they pitched another major fiction publishing house. A high-ranking editor there loved it, but requested a rewrite. So McNair, who was making a living doing freelance corporate writing work and teaching storytelling workshops in Atlanta, hired an editor in 2011 and, after nine months of “literary liposuction,” Pickett’s Charge was down to a svelte 350 pages.

About a month later, Hill passed away after contracting pneumonia, leaving McNair with an orphaned manuscript. “So here I am in 2012 with no agent, no publishing house, nothing,” he says.

This spring, after being strung along by two additional editors for yet another year – and with his sweet-spot window quickly closing – he found his “ace in the hole” in a tiny publishing house in, you guessed it, Alabama.

“I called Joe Taylor at the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press on a Friday and shared my story,” McNair recalls. “He said if I could send him the book by email, he’d read it over the weekend and call me back on Monday.”

Taylor kept his word and agreed to publish Pickett’s Charge. It was released on Sept. 20, barely missing that July 3 target, and is already on its second pressing.

“Some say the book will stand or fall on its own, regardless of the anniversary window,” McNair says. “A good book is a good book, you know?”

I concur, noting that the definitive Civil War novel of my generation, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, was published in 1997 without a historical milestone to lean on.

“But that’s a great book,” McNair counters. “Is this a great book? Check me in 10 years.”

'My Magic’: What’s On Charles McNair’s Desk (and In His Pocket)

Most artists admit to being creatures of habit, with self-sustaining routines that can border on the bizarre. Charles McNair is no exception.

“I’m Scots-Irish, so I’m a huge believer in signs, wonders and superstitions,” he admits.

A self-professed luddite who didn’t learn to type until he was nearly 30, McNair always keeps a pen or two within reach. “It’s genetic to me to write things down and take notes,” he explains. “I even keep a notebook by me in the car to jot down ideas.”

As far as rituals go, McNair takes his afternoon caffeine cold: “Some people have tea time… I have Coca-Cola time in the evenings. That’s my replenishment."

He also keeps a pocketful of good-luck charms on him during every waking hour. There’s a sculptee his college-aged daughter made when she was two and a Canadian coin his girlfriend gave him. A pocketknife (“because I was once told a gentleman always keeps one”) and a guitar pick (“because I love music and if I come across a guitar in my path, I’ll play it”) are also jingling around.

The remaining two items in his collection are a bit more peculiar: a pecan from a tree in William Faulkner’s backyard in Oxford, Miss., and a nut from a Caribbean sand tree in the front yard of Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, Fla.

Why? “Because they grew out of the very dirt where these writers of greatness grew,” he says. “That’s my magic.”