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Daniel Wallace, Nic Brown and Matthew Vollmer on new Southern voices 

A gloriously ragtag choir

To sit down with Daniel Wallace, a storyteller of mythic proportions, and Nic Brown, a recently published author making his own waves, is similar to listening to two contrasting musicians trading runs. In short, you'd be wise to sit back and enjoy.

Eleven years ago, Wallace's Big Fish made its literary splash; a splash big enough to land its author, who is also a gifted watercolor illustrator, a spot in the revered, somewhat mythical Southern writers canon. Three novels and one major motion picture later, Wallace is now the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The 32-year-old Brown, meanwhile, published his debut short story collection, Floodmarkers, in July. Within weeks of its release, Floodmarkers was selected as an Editor's Choice by The New York Times Book Review.

On Saturday, Wallace and Brown will participate in a panel discussion about new writers, called "New to the Scene." Like most Southerners, the two are "sorta related" (Brown is Wallace's son's brother-in-law), and they met 10 years ago when Brown was the drummer with the Greensboro alternative rock quartet Athenaeum and Wallace was the newly published author of Big Fish.

Somewhere along the way, Brown gave up the drums and took up the pen.

"Danny made the profession seem accessible," says Brown. "Before I went to Iowa [Writer's Workshop], he demystified the act of being a real writer and leading a somewhat normal life."

Wallace laughs, and the two spar a little about what a "normal" writer might look like.

"Nic could be the poster child for writers who want to succeed," says Wallace, who calls Brown assiduously dedicated. "He did what I tell my students they have to do."

Wallace's advice to young would-be writers boils down to this: Get a day job; write every day, even on the weekends—especially on the weekends; and stay focused. Brown has done that. By day he's the communications director at Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum. He writes before going to work, while tending to his 1-year-old daughter, Frances.

Although Brown's book is, like most debut fiction efforts, a collection of short stories, Floodmarkers is unusual in that the tales are all loosely connected to a single time and place: 24 hours in a fictional North Carolina town, Lystra. The wildly unpredictable events chronicled in his tales are related to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

For Wallace, Brown represents a new wave of young Southern writers and what he calls fiction leaving its regionalism behind. He notes that despite the temptation readers might have to characterize Brown's stories as somehow typically Southern, the events in Floodmarkers could happen almost anywhere.

Wallace and Brown agree that, for better or worse, the North Carolina of, say, Thomas Wolfe, is gone. A wave of change has come to North Carolina, and the truest indication of this metamorphosis is not just seen in political polling data but in the region's emerging literature. As Wallace puts it, "North Carolina voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and left the rest of the South behind."

Wallace says that the new literature distinguishes itself in style, tone and voice as simply region-free. He attributes this changing voice to the influence of television, the Internet and accessibility to international writers.

"Regionalism always applies in regard to setting and voice, but not in regard to the universal appeal of literature," says Brown. "In this way, the best Southern writers are not Southern at all." In other words, the appeal of someone like William Faulkner is not confined to Southerners, no more than the appeal of Gabriel García Márquez is confined to those who live in Colombia.

Wallace says that changes in regional voice might make some readers grieve.

"Some people, in fact, might view this as a loss, because it abandons a distinctive voice that celebrates a unique and valuable tradition," says Wallace, who believes that good young writers recognize that simply echoing what has come before is to run the risk of becoming second-rate imitators of their influences.

For Brown, regional writing, like all writing, should simply represent truths that all readers recognize. The title "regional Southern writer" is not a label Brown ever heard mentioned or discussed among his peers. "When the label is applied, I resent it," says Brown. "It diminishes the writing and implies it's written for a particular region."

Joining Wallace and Brown on Saturday's program is another young native North Carolina author, Matthew Vollmer, a 35-year-old whose Future Missionaries of America was published last January.

Vollmer was raised as Seventh-day Adventist, in Andrews, N.C., a small town that hugs the very western portion of the state. In a telephone interview, he says he identifies with the label "mountain people" more than that of "Southerner."

"I think of the characters in my book, many of whom see themselves as outsiders and who I would definitely describe as independent thinkers and perhaps even downright strange, and I think maybe I do share some of the fascinations and obsessions of Southern writers," says Vollmer who credits the timbre of his work to the voices of such writers as Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Joy Williams and Barry Hannah, a "gloriously ragtag choir in my head ... the sound of their singing is inescapable."

Perhaps that is the point—in good writing, Southern or otherwise, the voices will sing, whether with a throwback indigenous accent or the modern one shorn of regional specificity.

Daniel Wallace will moderate "New to the Scene," a discussion with Nic Brown and Matthew Vollmer, on Saturday, Sept. 12 at 12:20 p.m., at UNC's Wilson Library.

  • Wallace and Brown agree that, for better or worse, the North Carolina of, say, Thomas Wolfe, is gone.

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