I read Don’t Date Baptists earlier this summer and it made me laugh and cry.

I know Terry Barr personally- he is a professor at my alma mater. As such I felt like it would be best that I not formally review the book. But I did really enjoy it, and I want to help get the word out about it. Terry was gracious enough to agree to an author interview. Enjoy.

You can get your own copy of the book here.

TBF: At first, Don’t Date Baptists appears as if it’s going to be funny, full of anecdotes about life in a small southern town. But you definitely go deeper than that.  How did you find the right balance between humor and showing the underbelly of “polite society”?

I think the main thing I did, or tried to do, is to keep in mind that most of the people I knew and have written about were basically, intrinsically, good people. I know that sometimes they were harsh, and sometimes so was I in writing about them. I know that I have hard feelings about people I knew “back then,” but I also know that some of these same people nurtured me, spent much time with me, and shared with me our lives. They could be warm and funny and southern sweet, like most of us can. I didn’t have to “humanize” anyone; I simply tried to remember the very real sides to their complex characters. I tried to be authentic as far as I could remember and to the best of my memory. It helps, too, to remember that we are all products of our times: our era, our families, our peers. What if my parents had supported George Wallace? Again, sometimes I am too hard on people, but I do try, at least, to see their good sides and their humor.


TBF: I’ve never lived in a small southern town, but both my parents grew up in one, so they’ve always been a part of the fabric of my life. Do you think life in these towns is idealized?

Yes I do. Not by me so much, but I hear people say that the time and place we lived in was idyllic. Well, no, it wasn’t, though I had a great life. For instance, when you try to cram 1600 students into a school meant for 800, when that school was originally built for white people to escape zoning and integration, and when in that school you never knew who might get knifed or threatened, well, no, I don’t consider that in the golden haze of the homespun southern charm of idealized small town life. Still, I could walk to our downtown by myself or with friends. One of my friends had his own charge account at our neighborhood grocery. I got a lot of free Reese’s cups and football cards through him. We went into each other’s houses all the time and our mothers carted us around everywhere. I’m speaking of all my friends now. In Bessemer, as in other small towns, there was also great poverty and it was clear for everyone to see. Even within our friend groups there was division along class lines. It both was and wasn’t Mayberry, but I don’t remember any Andy Griffith figures who watched out over all of us.


TBF: I told you when I was reading the book that a couple of parts made me cry. Specifically a couple of stories involving race. I found them especially poignant in our current political environment.  Do you have any other thoughts you want to express about it? Or hindsight views in how what you wrote is potentially even more relevant now?

I hope these are relevant stories because what sort of society are we living in today? At PC, our opening convocation speaker this year said we are living in a “Post-Post Racial society.” We haven’t gotten past the hostilities of race, even though we know more people of other races today as friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I say neighbors, but consider: in my mother’s Lakewood neighborhood back in Bessemer, the racial makeup is probably 70-30 Black to White. She and her next door neighbor, who is Black, get on quite well. But does the neighborhood have gatherings? Is it cohesive?

Now my neighborhood in Greenville has an association that sponsors picnics, holiday open houses, and a crime watch. But there is only one mixed race family in the entire neighborhood.

At PC, we now employ 3 African-American professors. When I started back in 1987, we had just hired the first African-American professor ever. In the school cafeteria, you still see much segregated seating. We all notice, but what sort of impact do these things make on us?


TBF: Would you like to talk a bit about your writing process?

I try to write 3-4 times a week while I’m in the semester. I write in the mornings mainly, after I’ve read something nonfiction oriented, after I’ve had several cups of coffee (I order from red Rooster coffee in Floyd, VA), and after I’ve walked Max, my Carolina dog. I try to write for a couple of hours, but am happy if I get one hour. Sometimes it’s just random thoughts, but mainly I write with a certain memory or experience at the core. A few nights ago, we say Keb Mo and Taj Mahal at the Peace center, and while I was enjoying their electric blues, an image from my past announced itself and I had to do everything in my power to wait until the next morning to write.


TBF: I know you read a lot of essays from places like The Bitter Southerner, which I love and help support financially. Why TBS? And what other sites do you read regularly?

I love Full Grown People, Creative Nonfiction, Oxford American—must reads!!!


TBF: What’s in your to-read pile currently?

I am just finishing Newspaper Wars by Sid Bedingield, about South Carolina’s press, white and black, during the pre and full civil rights era. Next is Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name. For fiction, I just finished Tom Perotta’s Mrs. Fletcher, I am in the middle of Celeste Ng’s new one, Little Fires Everywhere, and am looking forward to Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach and Thomas Mullen’s Lightning Men.


TBF: What’s been your favorite thing about publishing a book? What’s the most unexpected thing about it, good or bad?

Having book signing parties!!! The most wonderful and unexpected thing was to reunite with old friends who found me again through the book.


TBF: What advice would you give to someone considering writing non-fiction, about their experiences?

To write all the memories you can first, and then get honest about how well and accurately you remember these events. I hope you have a brother and a trusted group of old friends, as I do, who can test your memory with theirs and help you check yourself!