Dothan-born author Charles McNair has just published his newest novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s a quirky tale of revenge and ruin set in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, and it chronicles the efforts of 114-year-old Threadgill Pickett, the last surviving Confederate sympathizer, to seek out and murder the last surviving Union soldier.
Weld: What inspired you to tell this story? Is the premise based on an actual event?
Charles McNair: The genesis of this story was in another story, one that my dad told. When he was a boy, he grew up in Troy, Alabama, and he met a man who was a living Confederate veteran. When my dad told me that he met that old soldier, it started forming in my mind: What must that old man have seen? What must that old man carried in his memories? What were his regrets? His grudges? Somewhere in all of that came the notion for this story.
Weld: As an Alabama resident, how did local Civil War history affect you during childhood?
CM: There weren’t Civil War battles [fought where I lived], but just about every single person that you knew growing up had relatives who had served in the war. Because the South had lost, they carried very close to them the notion that they had been treated badly or done wrong by those “damn Yankees.” Now if you were black, you actually won the Civil War, so there’s a whole different part of Civil War history going on there. All of those things combined to create the society where I grew up, a society of men and women who bore this tremendous grudge towards the North. I think it’s gradually fading away in certain places, like in the big metropolitan areas [that are now] melting pots because there’s so many different kinds of people from all other the world. The racial barriers have gradually begun to be permeated. I think that change is coming, but change is slow. There are places where people still cling to the old ideas of how it always was, how it always should be.
Weld: You mention in your essay, “Denise McNair and Me,” that you grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. How did it affect you personally?
CM: It began the very first questioning in my mind of the indoctrination I had been born into. I don’t want to impugn the family that I know and love, and the ancestors of mine that I knew and loved while they were alive, but I will say that there was a general attitude about race that raised a person into believing certain things about black people and white people. When the [Sixteenth Street Baptist] Church blew up, and there was a little girl [Denise McNair] in that church with my name, it really started the first wheels turning. Maybe that little child was my blood and kin in some way. I’d come from people for whom blood kin was everything. Why did that terrible thing happen to that little girl? She had my name. That couldn’t be right.
Gradually from that, I unmoored myself from old beliefs that most people held around me in those days. It was very hard to move away from that. You were taught, where I come from, to do as your daddy does, and to honor your father as the Bible says. When you have to decide the right way for you, that’s hard to do. A lot of people never are able to make that separation. They don’t have the courage or the will to confront the issue, say, “Well maybe all the people in society around me are wrong.” That’s how the Civil Rights Movement changed me. It woke me up to the fact that things I’d been led to believe were maybe not the right things for me.
Weld: This story dabbles more in fantasy than in realism. What made you decide to take the route of magical realism?
CM: Why do magic realists write in that style? I think it’s because they believe they can express something universal and truthful more easily in that medium than by using normal explanations. What I’ve done is I’ve written a tall tale, so my question is, what about a tall tale is real? If you read Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan stories, or even David Crockett legends, the stories are certainly preposterous and hyperbolized. Why do people need those kinds of stories to talk about their culture? I couldn’t really write a story about a 114-year-old man who set out to write an old wrong because there isn’t an old man who could possibly do that. By stretching the truth and making this a yarn, I’m able to talk about the South and the characters here in a way that I’m not limited by straight, factual storytelling.
Another thing to note is I’m very influenced by the 1960s. There was a great collective nervous breakdown of society going on at that time. There was the hippie culture, the race culture, the space race, Vietnam. The writers who wrote then wrote in a style that was influenced by psychedelic drugs. I’m a great fan of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Psychedelic drugs really influenced his style, and I really admire his style so much, I thought I would try and capture some of that in my story. It seemed to be a tool that I could use to enhance the vividness and the kind of craziness of those times by writing in a sort of psychedelic style.
Weld: During the story you cite many local landmarks and city names that will be recognizable to local residents. Do you feel Threadgill’s story is universal enough to appeal to those outside the Southeast?
CM: I didn’t write a “Southern” book at all. I wrote a book that is a work of literature, and if it were read in China or Gambia, the people would understand the motivations of an old warrior, and understand the journey of redemption that he goes through. I believe that any reader anywhere would be able to appreciate this book. Look at Flannery O’Connor. She wrote about Milledgeville, Georgia. Those stories are read internationally, because she’s not writing about a place at all, she’s writing about human emotions that are in those places, and that won’t change no matter where you go. People are brave, people are sinners, people are good-hearted, people are weak. People make mistakes, people try hard, and so that’s what I wrote about. It’s not a story about a place. It’s a story about the people, and what they go through.
Charles McNair will be signing copies of his book at the Little Professor Book Center in Homewood on October 3 from 6-8 p.m.