The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reese begins here.
Chuck Reece can’t help but share some of his favorite stories of finding new writers for The Bitter Southerner. There was the piece Cy Brown, a University of Georgia student, pitched him about A Carolina Dog.
“I don’t know about you growing up in Virginia, but in Georgia I often heard the phrase ‘He’s as skinny as an old yeller dog.’ Come to find out, the yeller dog is an actual breed. At the time it had just been recognized by the British Kennel Club as a breed and, not only was it its own breed, it was the only breed of dog that was native to the North American continent. So this story had 14,000 years of history bound up in it. These dogs found their natural habitat in the pine barrens in the Carolinas. This is a great story that’s about the loyalty and love of a dog and all his history you had no idea about.”
Mickie Meinhardt sold him on a piece that aimed to make Ocean City, Maryland a bona fide Southern town. “She sends a completed story, no pitch, and then, ‘Oh, by the way, my buddy Gunner [Hughes] is a photographer,’” Chuck says. “A lot of times that’s the phrase that you like to hear because you gotta make sure your photographer is good enough. But she said, ‘Gunner’s already got some pictures and we’ll put them in Dropbox for you now.’…damned if Gunner Whatever-his-name-is isn’t a really good photographer. It happens like that.”
And then there’s Clay Skipper, who wrote what Reece credits as the single best opening line in Bitter Southerner history:
CR: [Clay] had been working as a research assistant for Wright [Thompson in Oxford, MS] on a project and he pitched me a story. The national [college] football championship was coming up. Alabama was going [to the playoffs]. There was a shot they were going to make it to the championship game. He was like, “I want to go to [Coach] Nick Saban’s home town [in West Virginia] because it’s been devastated by the loss of the coal industry.” He went up there and he wrote this beautiful story about how football and the memories of their state championship high school teams was all [that] so many people out there had to hold onto.
So we published that and people liked it. He called me about a month after that and said, “You know what the Alabama Gang is?” I was like, “Yeah, NASCAR.” He said, “Did you know Red Farmer, who was the oldest guy in the Alabama Gang, is still racing dirt tracks in Talladega and he’s in his eighties? I want to do a story.”
I said, “Yeah, man, go for it.”
About two months later, I was driving back to Atlanta from somewhere in Alabama. I’d been over there for something and I stopped to get gas. I looked at my phone, checked my email, and I had an email from Clay with the draft of his Red Farmer story attached. I was like, “Well, I’ll pop the attachment open real quick and look at the lead.”…I pulled it up here so I could read it to you: “In the noon sun of a bitterly cold January day at the Talladega short track, an 82-year-old race car driver worries about time.”
Clay Skipper is now a columnist for GQ. He was on his way to the new job in New York when Chuck called from the gas station to tell him how much he enjoyed that opening line. Clay told Chuck that the Bitter Southerner Saban story helped land him the job.
Even from three states away I can see Chuck beaming as he tells the story.
The other great source for Bitter Southerner stories is writers who have projects tucked away that they haven’t found the right outlet for. One of the early ‘gets’ for Reece came from a long-time friend, Charles McNair.
CR: We went out for lunch one day at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, which is an old restaurant in Atlanta that’s been around for a half a century plus. I was telling him what we wanted to do. Charles himself had, about ten years earlier, tried, with one of the guys who founded Paste magazine, to start a magazine with that attitude called Scout and they’d never really been able to find the money to do it. I told him, “Well, we’ve got this digital [platform] and the cost of entry’s real low. I need stories and I don’t have any money.”
He was like, “Well, I’ll take a flier on it.” He came back with this beautiful piece called ‘Denise McNair and Me.’ Charles would have been a young boy growing up in Alabama when the 16th Street Church bombing happened in Birmingham. Charles was always sort of haunted or weirded out about that. He shared a last name with one of those little girls [who were killed], Denise McNair. He told me about that over lunch and I was like, “There’s something in it and I bet you can find it.” The story wound up revolving around the night his father who took him to a Klan rally, not to show him what he shouldn’t do, but to begin the indoctrination. The way he wrote about the contrast of those little girls and his own family…
I know that no individual story we do is going to completely warp someone’s perception style. But I hope that, over time, if people dive in and look at a random cross-section of what we’ve done they would learn a lot of things about the South that they didn’t know and they would hear the voices of a lot of people who didn’t fit the mold.
The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reece concludes on Friday…