True stories, through the prism of a mighty imagination

by Vicky Dickson

Those folks who wonder how a prolific writer like Clyde Edgerton keeps coming up with story ideas got some insight from his recent reading and book signing at the Barn at Fearrington, when he told the audience that his “experience, my observation and my imagination go into the making of a fictional story.” In other words, a lot of the stuff he writes about comes straight from his own life.

Clyde Edgerton

Like the incident involving the dead chicken and the mustard-yellow shirt that inspired a poignant-but-also-hilarious chapter in The Night Train, Edgerton’s latest novel. Another episode in that book springs from the writer’s friend George’s response to being told about an elderly, long-married couple who were apparently so happy with one another that the woman repeatedly used a term of endearment to refer to her spouse.

“George said, ‘You know why she called him sweetheart? ’Cause she couldn’t remember his name.’” Edgerton claims that his friend’s insight and wit has led to George’s showing up in the author’s fiction in one way or another “for so long that I started sending him a $2 check every month.”

“Many writers, myself included, know no shame,” Edgerton says, describing how the journaling he did while his mother was dying shaped his depiction of the care that a Southern white racist named Flash shows for his invalid mother in The Night Train. But maybe that’s just a self-deprecating way of saying that he’s a writer who’s not ashamed to acknowledge the bonds he shares with humanity’s more imperfect creations. And maybe it’s that very lack of shame that enables Edgerton to create characters that are complicated and contradictory, and thus fully human.

Edgerton’s also a writer who’s never been afraid to stray from his own point of view. His first novel, Raney, is told by a young, uneducated rural white woman, and the protagonist in The Night Train is a musically gifted black teenager named Larry Lime Beacon of Time Reckoning Breathe on Me Nolan. Perhaps the confidence to enter such different characters’ heads comes in part from the fact that Edgerton was an only child raised mostly by his mother and two childless aunts – the men in the family were “kinda quiet,” he says. That experience no doubt shaped his keen ear for dialogue, and perhaps also his tendency not to shy away from dialect that some might construe as a put-down.

Edgerton knows that he runs a risk in writing about old people, and about black people, in a manner that might be seen as crossing a line. But, “For crying out loud, why can’t people be honest?” he asks. Especially when that honesty is motivated, as Edgerton’s clearly is, by a hefty dose of both empathy and compassion.

And humility. In a way, The Night Train is its author’s chance to revisit his Southern boyhood, to look at some things he couldn’t really see when he was growing up. Like the time his father interrupted an interracial basketball game in his backyard to tell his son to ask the black boy who was playing with Edgerton to leave. Edgerton can’t remember the rest of that story, and understands now that his father may have been acting out of concern for his son’s safety at a time when race relations were highly charged. But when the author incorporates the incident into The Night Train, he does so in a way that redeems his adolescent alter ego, in a very funny scene involving stowaways at a drive-in movie and the rich, racist owner of a dog-food company.

A reader might think that every book an author writes makes writing the next one easier. A writer like Edgerton, then, with 11 books now under his belt, should be able to skate through the process – but Edgerton describes the writing of each of his books as like “being dropped in the middle of a swamp.” Luckily for us, the author’s observational and imaginative skills, along with his superlative writing, provide him a flawless compass out of that swamp – and readers of The Night Train with a highly entertaining and insightful window onto a particular Southern past.

For author readings, see page 6