Welcome to Book Puke! Today is the third day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!
“Maybe they do it,” another said.
“They might,” one agreed.
“Mite’s on a chicken’s ass,” another said, promoting several to laugh.
—Man of Clay
I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas in the Mississippi River Delta. It’s a place that maintains its own sense of gravity, one that’s difficult to break free of. The region could be insular, and generations of this insularity have led to certain peculiarities in stories, beliefs, and in language. I grew up using certain sayings I’ve never heard anywhere else, because of this.
When I was younger, I was embarrassed by these colloquialisms because they revealed that I was Southern, rural, poor, all sorts of unsavory stuff. We’ve all seen cheezy attempts at Southern accents in movies and on TV with trite euphemisms no Southerner would ever actually use, but I thought folks would lump me in with those fakes. (One of the biggest clues to a fake Southern accent I’ve heard is the pronunciation of “can’t,” which in natural Southern speak tends to rhyme with “ain’t.”) When writing Man of Clay, I relied on the natural speech patterns of my family, friends, and neighbors as a starting place to maintain authenticity, even though the novel is set a 150 years in the past. The funny thing is that a lot of the sayings I grew up with date back that long or longer.
One of my favorite sayings is to describe something by saying it, “ain’t much pumpkins.” Pumpkins are considered mostly a decorative squash, and as such, aren’t terribly vital; therefore, comparing something to pumpkins is to say it isn’t of much use or value. A little research shows newspaper usage dating back right around the Civil War era.
My father described a particularly industrious person as “A goin’ Jesse.” It’s difficult to nail down the saying’s origins, but the best theory I’ve heard is that it’s a play on a Biblical story, as many of these sayings actually are. Originally, the saying seems to have meant “to beat or thrash,” and sort of morphed into “thrashing” a particular task. It comes from a line in Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." So, the “rod,” is lineage, as in the branch of a family tree. But the saying makes a pun on the rod growing from the tree, as a switch. So the rod as a Jesse (think of it like a last name), and he was a real go-getter.
Of course, a couple well-placed sayings aren’t enough to make a convincing character or novel. Authentic language isn’t just about dropping “g’s,” either. It’s more about getting to the heart of the cultural milieu that spawns these sayings. I don’t know if you have to live or have lived in Arkansas to write about it, for example, but I suspect this is the case. This made a real problem for me, because I’m a white, modern guy writing about black slaves 150 years ago. When I wrote Man of Clay, I didn’t want to perpetuate lazy stereotypes in the way they pronounced words, which often leads to presenting the characters as stupid, which is different from being uneducated. My purpose wasn’t to present convincing slave stereotypes; it was to present convincing people. My primary goal was to be respectful and as authentic as possible.
Share some of your favorite local idioms in the comments section of this post!
CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.
Tomorrow the tour stops at The Next Best Book Club where you can read an interview with the author!