Shirley LaPlanche

journalist / photographer / author

Write Way to Go

Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana: only four states but what fodder they produced for creative minds. Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Great Gatsby, and Running 1000 Miles to Freedom. Wealth, power, antebellum mansions, slaves, Civil War, Civil Rights, all vigorously recorded in books and movies. Come with me on my journey.

Well, here I am being driven through the streets of Savannah, Georgia after 24 hours travelling from Sydney. It’s midnight and I’m bone tired. Don’t mess with me sort of tired. The River Street Inn has been warned that a group of travel-weary Aussies is arriving and the staff and porters are there, ready with smiles and keys. “We’ll worry about your card details tomorrow”, they say as we trudge on to our rooms.

The way is via old brick walls and arches dating back to when cotton plantations were booming and this building was a thriving warehouse. Soft carpets, drapes, grandfather chairs, views over the Savannah River and a soft, four-poster bed.

I’m on a 22 day Literary Tour of the Southern States of America with a company I don’t know and people I’ve never met before except for the tour leader, Susannah Fullerton, who for years has enthralled me with her all-embracing knowledge of writers and literary talks at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Next morning I wake late and refreshed, ready to explore this city renowned for its beauty and John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When this book came out in 1995 it made Savannah and some of its characters so famous tourists arrived in droves and still do. Old buildings were tarted up, riverfront restaurants opened, mansions became elegant B&Bs, trolley cars returned to take tourists around the sites and an uprising of ghosts wafted through rooms adding that tingle down the spine that Berendt would appreciate. My favourite is at the Pirates House restaurant which claims the ghost of Captain Flint from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I don’t want to ruin a good story but Stevenson never visited Savannah and Flint is a fictitious character, so, can he have a ghost?

Savannah’s 22 town squares are little gems ringed by historic homes and shaded by truly magnificent live oaks draped in wraith-like Spanish moss. We visit the house where James William murdered his lover Johnny Hansford in Berendt’s novel, and supposedly in real life. Or did he? The guides are not allowed to talk about the murder (strange we think) and later we visit Hansford’s grave but leave Savannah none the wiser.

It may sound ghoulish but the sprawling Bonaventure Cemetery is enchanting. As I walk along its dirt paths, Spanish moss floating lightly in the breeze, an earlier sprinkle of rain sparkling on fallen leaves and the tombstones magnificent in their variety, I’m overcome by a sense of calm and people at peace.

Flannery O’Connor, a writer in the popular Southern Gothic style, was born in Savannah and her childhood home is now a museum with erudite guides. She’s a controversial read as any who have read novels such as Wise Blood will know. Her settings are often derelict and the characters deformed, deranged, delusional and so on. I’m therefore surprised to learn that her fondest memory of fame is being filmed by Pathe News because she had taught her chicken to walk backwards.

After four days we pile into a big comfy coach with power and free wifi. Tiz, our driver, and former rodeo rider, drove Susannah’s group two years ago and was so motivated by her talks that he wrote a poem to the group. In this cocoon of comfort I sit back and allow myself to be taken progressively through the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally New Orleans, Louisiana.

At Macon, where Ellen Craft wrote Running 1000 Miles to Freedom we tour the house where Tennessee Williams stayed with a friend whose father became his inspiration for “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

At Eatonton I learn that my childhood favourites Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox started life as spoken stories to slave children. Joel Chandler Harris was born illegitimate, poor, had red hair and stuttered. He was so horribly teased and lonely that he spent much of his childhood at the slave quarters listening to these stories and later created Uncle Remus, a Negro who told wonderful stories.

All the way across the South we see antebellum houses featuring Greek columns and deep verandas with rocking chairs. Some restored, some crumbling like broken toys. We know them from the novels and movies of the rich plantation owners, the Southern Belles who flirted with indolent men and the slaves who did all the work before the Civil War (1861-1865) changed their lives forever.

No novel portrays this period better than Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. She took 10 years to write this, her only novel, and cared little about it or the wealth it brought her. The debonair Rhett Butler was modelled after a dashing no-hoper she married in haste and divorced quickly and quietly. She then married the no-hopers best friend and they lived happily in a small flat in Atlanta called ‘The Dump’ (now a museum). Mitchell was born into a well-off family who lived through the Civil War but omitted to tell her that the South had lost until she was eight. Scarlett was typical of the heroines of her childhood stories and dramas.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jnr looms large in the South. One of the most powerful movies I have seen was Selma and I feel the power of this man as I stand on a pedestrian crossing of painted feet marching towards the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. When I stand on these steps (which he wasn’t allowed to stand on) I think of the thousands of nonviolent demonstrators who in 1965 did that 54-mile, 5-day walk that finally gained them voting rights. And I think of his speech the day before he was assassinated when he said he had gone up the mountain and “seen the Promised Land.” Did he have a premonition?

Every April/May in Monroeville, Alabama a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird is staged. It starts outside for the street scenes then moves inside the local courthouse which was copied exactly for the movie featuring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Much has been written about Harper Lee recently with the release of her novel Go Set a Watchman and her death in February. She grew up here and was the local tomboy while her neighbour and friend Truman Capote was an introverted boy with a high squeaky voice. In Mockingbird the character Scout is herself and Dill is Capote.

As we traverse the South archivists from museums and libraries select important documents and lay them out in private rooms for us to view. In the Emory University library, Atlanta I hold the one millionth copy of Gone With the Wind. In Montgomery I see the fingerprints of Rosa Parks, the black woman who, in 1955 wouldn’t give up her seat on a bus to a white man – and triggered the 385 day Bus Boycott. In Starkville, the Mississippi State University library has 100 cubic feet of papers, photographs and audio-visual material on writer John Grisham and 200,000 photocopies of every known letter written by Ulysses S. Grant as well as 10,000 books on him and the Civil War. It’s mind blowing and I wonder if Australia keeps such excellent records of our writers?

The only museum dedicated to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda is in Montgomery and it’s an eye opener to the outrageous life of wild extravagance and parties they lived. Of course all this flitting between America and Europe with their ‘set’ was great fodder for his most famous novel The Great Gatsby. But his heavy drinking and her unstable nature affected their marriage which lurched from storm to storm. Finally, she was put into care and he kept drinking until 1940 when he fulfilled the prophecy of his own epitaph: “Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.”

And so we come to Oxford, a lively university town and home to one of the giants of American literature, William Faulkner. In a light drizzle we go on a walking tour with Prof Jay Watson who reads excerpts from The Sound and the Fury and brings to life a writer whose style had never appealed to me. Faulkner married his childhood friend, Estelle, and together they drank their way through the depression. Fortunately, this didn’t stop him from writing and he received numerous awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Just outside Oxford, he bought Rowan Oak which he restored, Bailey’s Wood and bred horses. Rowan Oak is now a museum and I like him even more as I wander through the house, the derelict stables and the woods. Sadly it was here that he fell from a horse and later died of a heart attack aged 64.

We reach the Mississippi River at Natchez, a city that once had more millionaires than New York. It’s the home of Greg Iles a modern writer whose prosecutor character, Penn Cage, returns to his family in Natchez and finds it filled with depravity, sex, corruption and other issues that fuel a series of ripper novels. And it’s here, at the splendid Stanton Hall, that I have the crispy, tender southern fried chicken I’ve been expecting.

Finally New Orleans. I have magical memories from my first visit here and it doesn’t disappoint. The French Quarter still has narrow streets, lacy balconies, tucked away courtyards with pretty fountains, jazz groups, blackened catfish and cute buildings next to others collapsing from age and neglect. Tennessee Williams found the gay population and cheap accommodation suited him enormously saying: “people reinvent themselves here”. He and Capote were renowned for their carousing and drunkenness, as was Faulkner. Walt Whitman, John Galsworthy, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and many more fell under its spell. Anne Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles was born here.

The list goes on but my tour is over. As a writer, I’m left reflecting on how the cotton barons, slavery, Civil War and the Civil Rights movement have produced so much material for so many writers. As Faulkner famously said: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written about it.”

Our last resting place is the charming Bourbon Orleans Hotel and our last dinner is at Galatoire’s restaurant where the rich and famous dine and Williams had Stella take Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.