For those of us who are born and raised in the South, it is refreshing to have a Southern transplant embrace our culture as their own, with all the beauty and thorns that the Southern culture brings with it.
Lydia Peelle is one such transplant. As a noted author who now lives in Nashville, Peelle was raised in New England and, from all observations, still has a strong bond and connection to that part of our country, describing to singer/songwriter Gillian Welch in an interview with BOMB Magazine her childhood home. ”[My] parents have lived in the same neighborhood since before I was born, and the same house since I was three. I did a lot of exploring as a kid, walked around a lot, and I’d like to tell you that I knew everything about the place, every street and tree.”
However, her new bond with the South is present in her literary works, having come to Nashville as a young bride with her husband Ketch Secor, lead vocalist of Old Crow Medicine Show. It seems as if Peelle was expecting a hybrid of “Gone With the Wind”-meets-Eudora Welty. As Peelle described her expectations to Welch, the two Southern transplants chuckled over their first misconceptions of the modern South. “I moved to Nashville when I got married, having never been in the South before. I came with this idea in my head that it was going to be just like a Faulkner story…that there’d be, you know, donkeys downtown and horse pulling carts and old general stores…”
Her keen perception of the South, both old and new, have been successfully transformed into her literary works. As an award-winning short story author, Peelle has enjoyed critical success and acclaim for her works. Her first published short story “Mule Killers” received the 2006 O.Henry Award, a prize awarded for the best short story published each year. Designed to strengthen the art of the short story, the O.Henry Award has been awarded to many notable authors since its inception almost 100 years ago in 1918. Previous winners have included noted authors John Updike, Saul Bellow, Stephen King and Alice Parker. Peelle is certainly in good company.
Two other recipients of this noted award are ones who have frequently been mentioned when describing Peelle and her complex workings of the American South. Both Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, two authors whose hold on the Southern culture with its pain and splendor is unheralded, have frequently been used to describe Peelle’s writing. BOMB magazine’s Betsy Sussler described Peelle’s work thusly. “Peelle’s stories in ‘Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing’ carry a memory of the Southern past that we might find in a short story by Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. A memory that, mixed with the present, becomes something that couldn’t have existed back then but that in all its forlorn glory and hope-riddled despair brings us to the understanding that the past, as Faulkner knew so well, never dies.”
Peelle’s first published collection of short stories, “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing,” was published in 2009 to critical acclaim. As with “Mule Killers,” Peelle’s story collection also received awards noting its exceptional nature. The New York Times named it one of their Editors’ Choice books, and it was a finalist for the Orion Book Award, among other notable awards. Awarded the 2010 Whiting Award, Peelle also received acclaim for her works from the National Book Foundation. Honored in 2009 as one of the “5 under 35” authors, Peelle has quickly gained a deserved reputation as one of America’s best writers.
As Peelle continued in her interview with Welch, she says of the South, “But the thing is, that other world, that older world, the mystery of that, is still here. You just have to look for it.” As she continues, she says, “History is so present in this landscape. Stories. Walking, exploring old barns and abandoned houses, you can feel them, see them, almost hear them.”
We can tell that Peelle is a rare gem, and we are happy that she has seen the beauty and truth that the South contains within it. Her own words in her conversation with Welch say it best. “When you’re new to a place, you are so much more attuned to the physical landscape, as well as to the way people talk, the way they communicate, the way everyday life unfolds.”