Today, Ed Southern marks his one-year-and-one-month anniversary as executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. But even with only a little over a year under his belt at this position, he’s hardly new to the literary world. His resume so far includes working for Borders for four years in the mid- to late-90s, helping that company to open its first store in London; then spending nearly nine years in the publishing industry at John F. Blair in Winston-Salem, NC, where he ultimately served as vice-president of sales and marketing; and throughout working as a writer and editor himself, with recent and upcoming titles on regional history, plus — on the near horizon — a book of his own short fiction, Parlous Angels.
Under Southern’s leadership, the Network is embarking on some new and exciting programs: “Writing the New South,” a web-based project debuting today, and “Talking at the Table,” a panel discussion on Sunday, February 15, featuring some of the region’s best-known food writers. He also regularly offers thoughts and news on the Network’s blog, White Cross School, which began during his tenure. And the Network continues its fine, long-standing program of conferences, workshops, etc., in addition to offering a wide range of resources for writers within the state and far beyond its borders.
Southern talks here about his first year at the Network, looks toward highlights of the coming year, and discusses his own personal projects.
Art Taylor: Over the years, you’ve worked in many facets of the literary world: on the bookselling end, in the publishing industry for John F. Blair, and as a writer and editor yourself. Looking back on nearly a full year as head of the NCWN, what have been the new — and maybe unexpected — challenges of your latest post?
Ed Southern: This is a very pedestrian answer, but my biggest surprise was the amount of paperwork that comes with being a nonprofit organization. This is my first venture into the nonprofit world (although the book business could be considered barely-profit), and while I certainly understand — even welcome — the need for grantors to know that their money is being used well and appropriately, the sheer number of forms I have to fill out was a bit of a shock.
Other than that, nothing’s really surprised me. I’ve spent almost all my adult life working with writers, as well as being a writer myself, so I speak their language and understand their needs.
What’s been your proudest accomplishment over the last year?
Getting through that year without botching anything horribly. Looking toward my second year, I’m most proud of a new program we’ve just started called Writing the New South. We’re asking our members to write brief works in the genre of their choice (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, anything) that deal with what’s going on in the state, the nation, the world right now. We’re posting them on our website, www.ncwriters.org, so we give our writers a platform for their work, and create a record of our time and place. Most importantly, we’re giving our members an incentive to write, and showing the public value of writers and writing.
Have you had many submissions so far for that project?
We launched Writing the New South on Monday, February 2, and have already received several submissions, as well as some new members. The general response has been very positive. People seem to recognize what it offers the state, and not just our members.
With the current economic climate, many areas of the publishing industry are in a meltdown of sorts, with obvious effects on writers as well. How have the events of the last year changed your sense of the mission — and the responsibilities — of the Writers’ Network and other organizations like it?
I have an unshakeable belief that the human race will always need writers, storytellers; we record what needs to be remembered, make sense of what is hard to comprehend, and — if we’re good — we entertain at the same time. The Network’s job is to bring writers together so they know they’re not
alone in what can seem a lonely task; to give writers access to excellence, opportunity, and community; and to help them figure out the new technologies and challenges that they will face if they want to publish their work.
The current economic climate hasn’t changed that mission, just amplified it.
Shifting from your work for the NCWN to your personal projects: This month, John F. Blair is publishing Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas, and you’ve also edited the volume The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614. Coming up later this spring is another book, Sports in the Carolinas: From Death Valley to Tobacco Road, published by Novello Festival press. Has history — and particularly the history of our immediate region — been a long-time interest, or is this a recent passion?
I’ve always been a history buff. My mother is a history teacher, and she always emphasized to me that history isn’t about dates and places, but about people who were living out a story without knowing how it would end. We think of Jamestown as the “first permanent English colony,” but its permanence was never guaranteed. Those colonists had no idea if Jamestown would make it, or if they would; as many as 90% of them died in the early years, and the colony was almost abandoned at one point.
We look back at the American Revolution from our current position as the world’s only superpower, but most of those who fought the war in the Carolinas were living in a wilderness, struggling to survive even before the war. They had no idea if they’d live through the next day, much less win the war. It all comes down to choices that individuals made, along with a fair share of luck or chance, maybe even fate.
Only in the past couple of years have I recognized that my fascination with history boils down to a curiosity about why and how the world turned out the way it did: Where did we come from? Why are we — a person, a family, a culture — the way we are? What happened to make us this way? That’s a
question you can chase back all the way into pre-history, really.
Quick follow-up: Which is more fun to research and write about: early American history or 20th-century sports?
Honestly, I had just as much fun with each of them, and I think both topics address that big question I just talked about. From the 20th century on, you can’t separate sports from the culture as a whole. So many people follow our favorite sports too closely, and identify too strongly with our favorite teams. Why? Where did that come from?
Finally, a quick word about another book on the horizon: your first book of fiction, Parlous Angels. Do your short stories stem from Southern roots as well? What drives you as a fiction writer?
I think all fiction comes from the writer’s roots. Even though Hemingway wrote about Spain, Cuba, Africa, Italy, his whole outlook — not to mention his prose style — was based in his late Victorian, Midwestern childhood. Dylan Thomas once said that if he’d been born an Eskimo, he’d have written
poems about snow, but since he was born Welsh, he wrote about Wales. Not to compare my work to Hemingway’s or Thomas’s, but I was born and raised in the South, so I think I’d write like a Southerner even if my stories were set in Europe. (They’re not; all the stories in Parlous Angels, except for the
last one, take place in North Carolina.)
And I realize I’m coming off like a one-trick pony, but that same big question drives my fiction: Where did we, and the world we live in, come from?