Hattiesburg resident David McRaney is a blogger, speaker, cat owner and author of international bestseller You are Not So Smart. He has also written and appeared in a commercial for Reebok, and released a second title last year, You Are Now Less Dumb.
GF: Has your reputation as a Mississippi writer/author helped or hindered you outside Mississippi? And inside?
DM: I don’t think I have a reputation as a Mississippi author, or even a Hattiesburg author, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Today, everything is handled through email, over the phone, and over the internet. My professional life – agent, publisher, publicist, etc. – is almost entirely handled from New York and Los Angeles, and I interact with all those wonderful people and institutions from Hattiesburg without any need for travel. As far as my writing career is concerned, where I’m from just isn’t a factor.
GF: Have you ever broken any stereotypes on purpose or by accident?
DM: Just this last week I gave a lecture at Harvard. I stayed at a hotel very close to campus, and when I was checking in the person at the front desk asked me what I was doing in town. We chatted a bit, traded some small talk. Eventually he asked me for my driver’s license so he could enter everything into the computer and make sure I wasn’t a crazy person. The second it was in his hands he said, “Mississippi!?”
I’m very used to it by now. It’s the extra baggage I have to unpack in front of strangers wherever I go when I give lectures or conduct some other business. The state in which I was born, raised, and now live inevitably becomes dinner conversation or driving conversation or waiting around conversation. It’s never something that gets a polite nod in the way I imagine revealing you grew up in California does. It also comes up in interviews, on the radio, over the phone. It’s always an issue, and I often end up serving as an ambassador of the modern Southern United States, which is fine with me most of the time, as long as I don’t feel like the people on the other side of the cultural exchange are reacting as if I were a dog playing the piano.
I totally understand it, and I’m getting better at not feeling like I must separate myself from the negative stereotypes the second the topic comes up. The South, especially Mississippi, is a mysterious place for most people, and their knowledge of it is a mishmash of inputs from pop culture. It’s season one of True Detective; it’s a long, crawling billboard in an overhead shot of slave traders in Django Unchained. It’s where Honey Boo Boo lives and Paula Deen cooks. At the same time, it’s William Faulkner and Mark Twain, Gone With the Wind and O Brother Where Art Thou? To meet a real person from the South who looks like me and isn’t some atavistic suspender snapper is a chance to connect to something that most people only experience through fiction and the parts of documentaries and textbooks that seem so unbelievable that they seem like fiction.
But on purpose? Nah. I try not to ever, ever, ever attempt to break stereotypes on purpose concerning the South or my place in it. If stereotype busting is a byproduct of having an international fan base, fine. And if not, also fine.
GF: Do you want to be known or labeled as a “Southern Writer”?
DM: I’m ambivalent. I often really, really do, want to be known as a certain kind of Southern writer. I certainly grew up wanting to be known as such. I fantasized about it as I read all the greats and even later when I discovered modern writers like Jack Pendarvis and the beautiful Southern gothic writers like Larry Brown.
I adore Larry Brown. I can’t read his stuff without feeling a deep communion. There is an intimacy in his work I can’t get from writers from other places or who write about other things. A Southerner can easily detect a phony. Remember Julia Robert’s accent in Steel Magnolias? It’s like that for us – we can hear in her pretending the same things that feel alien or askew in a story set in the South created by a brain that wasn’t shaped by it. I wanted to carry on that tradition of authenticity, of seeing things with Southern eyes, of knowing them and then communicating them. When I walk around inside Square Books, I wish my books were in there, featured on a high shelf near the entrance right next to Brown’s. My first rejection letter came from Oxford American magazine, and it was just a nice, little index card – a piece of professional stationary, which thrilled me because I was at least a part of the process. Acknowledged enough to involve stamps.
So, it’s in my bones, but I write nonfiction pop-science books. My published work right now isn’t the sort that can find purchase in that world, and that’s totally ok with me. It shouldn’t be. I’ve been invited to a few things for those kinds of local and regional authors, and I seemed and felt really out of place.
On the other hand, I gave a TED Talk in Jackson last year for their TEDx event and felt perfectly at home, so I don’t feel excluded or unwelcome. There may have been a time when all Southern writing was about life among hound dogs and whiskey, but the South has changed. Not all of it, and not all of the people, but as long as you are within a 15-minute drive to an Olive Garden, you can comfortably drive your Prius to Starbucks while listening to This American Life on your iPhone and you will blend right in, though occasionally the person in front of you at the drive-thru will be ordering from a pickup with a Confederate battle flag on a short pole resting limp above well-worn truck nuts hanging from the trailer hitch.
So, yes, technically I am a Mississippi author, and not just because my computer uses Mississippi’s electricity while I’m writing. I don’t belong on a shelf next to Larry Brown. Maybe one day, if I write from a certain perspective. Until then, I’m very happy and fortunate to be a Southern writer who writes about the sort of things that get you invited to TEDx talks instead.