Spotlight: Writer Roger Pinckney
Roger Pinckney lives on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, one of the last free and wild barrier islands, where he writes and works diligently to preserve land and culture. He graduated from the University of South Carolina and earned an MFA through the Iowa Writers Workshop. His novel, Little Glory, has been purchased by a Hollywood independent film maker. He is a two-time winner of the SC Fiction Project and the Orion Writer’s Circle Award.
Q) Some of your books take on a David and Goliath feel: traditional small town folks coming up against big government, however they are individually unique. Tell us about each one: The Beaufort Chronicles, Blue Roots, The Right Side of the River, Signs and Wonders, Little Glory, Seventh Son, and Reefer Moon, plus give us a peek at your latest, Blow the Man Down, releasing this week.
A) Little David was the inventor of rock and roll. He took a rock and rolled a giant.
My first book was The Beaufort Chronicles, photos and narrative about the Beaufort SC Historic District. My childhood friend, Beekman Webb, was an historic preservation contractor and he published the book as a way to show off his work. It sold several thousand copies and made a little money. Long out of print, used copies fetch a healthy sum online.
My daddy was county coroner when I was growing up and his good friend, Ed McTeer, was sheriff. McTeer was a witchdoctor, The White Prince, who used voodoo to enforce the law. Daddy saw many people killed by black magic and wrote the code “dead of undetermined natural causes” on the death certificates. Growing up in a community where such magic was afoot led me to document it in Blue Roots. I thought the magic was fading away and I wanted to get it all down before the last of the true believers passed. I was a damn fool. It ain’t passing, it’s stronger than ever. Blue Roots sold nearly 50,000 copies, perhaps half of them stolen from their owners. I like to think it is the most stolen book in American literary history.
Just after Christmas, 1998, I moved to Daufuskie Island and chronicled the rather unusual lifestyle here in The Right Side of the River, which is what locals call this place, inferring that entire North American continent is “the wrong side.” It ran through 6,000 hardbacks and now is still selling well in trade paper/print on demand. People tell me it’s my best written work. Sometimes I agree. This is the David and Goliath theme you picked up. We went after Halliburton and Club Corp and won 2 out of the three fights. The one we lost, the developer dropped stone dead, his building is falling down and subject to lawsuits so maybe we didn’t lose that one after all.
I fictionalized the witchdoctor sheriff in my novel, Little Glory, which has been optioned by a Hollywood indie. It was much fun to write and from the first word “Jesus” to the last word “Jesus” took me just 13 weeks. In between the two Jesuses there is murder, witchcraft, a war, a riot, a provocative bathtub masturbation scene (with a kid looking in the window) sundry fornications. Little Glory has been criticized for my generous use of the “n-word” but that was the way many people—black and white—talked in the 1940’s. Now when the sheriff picks up the newspaper to read the war news on June 12, 1943, I researched and knew exactly what he would have been reading. So why should I be any less accurate with the language?
Next I collected some of my best magazine pieces into the collection, Signs and Wonders, which caused one reviewer to gush, “Roger Pinckney’s interactions with creatures of the wild—fur, feather, and human—provide fascinating reading for lovers of the outdoor world and students of human nature.” My essay, “Burying Miss Louise,” is a little gem.
I followed Signs with another collection, Seventh Son on Sacred Ground, which, apart from the stunning cover art, is likely my least favorite book. While it contains some really good work, like “When the Fish Crow Called My Name,” all of it does not rise to the standard of the best.
Reefer Moon, is my second novel and most recent book. It too has been optioned for film. While I call it fiction, this smuggler’s love story actually happened, though not necessarily to the same people and not necessarily in the order portrayed. And of course, when you write about such stuff, it is advisable to change names to protect the guilty. Reefer Moon is fast becoming a cult classic among “Reefer Moonies,” hardcore Lowcountry folks. We got a music CD by Wendell Matthews, a talented singer/songwriter, Reefer Moon caps, tees, drinking glasses and even Reefer Moon rolling papers.
Q) Which is your crowning jewel, which one would you never write again, and why.
A) Rox, honey, I don’t think I’d ever want to write any of em again. But I do wish I would have waited another year to get all of Seventh Son as good as the best.
My newest, a sex and cocaine novel, Blow the Man Down, is technically my best, it’s fast, clean, mean. I’m very proud of it.
Teaser for Blow the Man Down: “Grayson Devoe is plagued by ghosts. He’s a treasure diver from Folly Beach, South Carolina, a honky-tonk town that lives up to its name. The wreck of a Spanish ship lies somewhere just beyond the breakers, and Grayson aims to find it. But his business partner has other ideas and sends Carmela Morales, a beautiful young cutthroat, to make sure Grayson follows orders.”
Q) You’re a native South Carolinian, yet I read that you lived in Minnesota as a stop on your way to Alaska, and eventually gave up traveling to the extreme northern territory. What compelled your exodus, why migrate back, and why drift to Daufuskie Island?
I wrote a deer hunting story, “Things that Vanish” which won a fiction award at Carolina and an assistantship at the Iowa Writers Workshop. After my MFA, I was accepted into the PhD program at UA, Fairbanks. Another assistantship, teaching freshman English. Living on Folly Beach in the interim, I took off for Fairbanks in a truck old enough to vote. The engine come un-crunked outside St Paul and when my mail finally caught up with me it seems there was some trouble with the legislature over my paycheck but “come on up and we’ll work something out.” The Alcan was 1200 miles of gravel, the ferry was expensive and winter coming on. I reckoned to winter over, save up and light out again in the spring.
But I run up on the blue eyed freckled thang at a new friend’s party. I said, “Honey, are you Norwegian?”
“I’m half Norwegian.”
“Well, which half is Norwegian?” I asked.
”The best half,” she smiled.
You can imagine how it went from there.
Those girls passed me around amongst themselves and it took me twenty-five years to bust loose. And I remain Almost Dr. Pinckney to this day.
I came to Daufuskie in 1953 with my daddy, who had the contract to string power lines all the way cross 14 miles of river and marsh. We boarded at Jolly Shores, dollar a meal and a dollar at night, and Daddy had a girlfriend just the other side of the cove. I couldn’t live here once they closed the Little White School and there was always that problem on the far side of the cove, but I did spend some of the happiest days of my childhood here. And the grand-daughters, and yea, the great-grand-daughters of the other side of the cove, still wink and wiggle when me meet at Marshsides.
Towards the end of my Minnesota sojourn, I was doing a lot of commuting, spending months in the Lowcountry, then going up to the lake to write. I would lodge with Beekman Webb, the same who published my first book. Beekman had the restoration contract on First Union African Baptist and bought a house to lodge his crew. A thousand a month, big money back then. By then I’d had my quota of Norwegians and would have swapped any three of them for a pretty colored gal, which I almost got away with one time in New Orleans, but that’s a whole nuther story.
I sold or gave away what I could not carry and headed south. I reckon to leave feet first or in handcuffs. They did handcuff me once, but I got loose (once again) and bummed a ride home from this county employee who took great sympathy in my plight.
Been a wild ride.
Certainly has, thanks, Roger! Can’t wait for Sunday’s release of Blow the Man Down!