Today my good friend Tina Whittle is visiting my cyber front porch. We are talking about her acclaimed mystery series, which is set in the South and includes some of our favorite southern fiction elements: hot nekkid lovin’, murder, wicked family secrets, restless ghosts, and people who “ain’t right.” So pull up a rocker, let me get you some cyber sweet tea, and just sit a spell with us.
This is Tina’s bio. Isn’t she amazing?
Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver series — featuring intrepid gunshop owner Tai and her corporate security agent partner Trey — has garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. Published by Poisoned Pen Press, this Atlanta-based series debuted with The Dangerous Edge of Things, followed by Darker Than Any Shadow. The third book — Blood, Ash and Bone— premiered March 2013. A nominee for Georgia Author of the Year in 2012, Whittle’s short fiction has appeared in The Savannah Literary Journal, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Gulf Stream, which selected her story “Lost Causes and Other Reasons to Live” as the 2004 winner of their Mystery Fiction contest. When not writing or reading, she enjoys golf, sushi, mini-pilgrimages, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens).
Your stories are set in the South and contain many of the elements of traditional southern narratives: Powerful families covering secrets, dark secrets passed down from generations, racial identity, love of guns, all tinged with dangerous sexuality. One of your protagonists, Tai Randolph, is from Savannah, a city spared the damage of the Civil War. She was once a ghost tour guide before becoming a gun shop owner and amateur sleuth. Can you tell me a little about the importance of story and heritage in her character?
I’ll quote Tai herself for this one: she says, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in stories.” She has an intuitive understanding that we are our stories, and that even after we’re dead and gone, the stories we told about ourselves and others still live. And they can haunt as effectively as any ghost. We construct narratives out of memories, creating plot lines, casting ourselves as the protagonist. Tai does this herself as she investigates this theft or that shooting — “excellent girl detective behavior,” she says.
She’s hungry for stories because she came from a story-impoverished background. Her parents believed in the Great Fresh Start, the idea that our stories begin with us, that all that came before our existence — our ancestors, our kinfolk, the juicy details of family history — can be severed from our own lives. Tai’s bloodline is actually quite rich with scoundrels and scandal, filled with smugglers and moonshiners on one side, wealthy Southern plantation owners on the other. Her parents were firmly in the New South, however, a sanitized version of it anyway. I have always imagined that this is why she developed a taste for the Gothic folklore of the Savannah Low Country, stories of wooly-boogers and star-crossed lovers and blood feuds.
She never dreamed she’d be running a Confederate-themed gunshop, but now not only does she get to tell stories, she gets to help people relive them, literally. Many re-enactors are actually portraying an ancestor of theirs, right down to the regiment they served in, the clothes they wore, the weapons they carried. There, often on the same ground made bloody 150 years ago, they retell this story of how America came apart and came back together. They do it with words and sweat and gunpowder. And Tai is happy to be in the middle of it, even though she realizes the complexity and edges of that story.
Another theme in your books is old South and new South. Your other protagonist Trey Seaver is a former Atlanta cop. He suffers from a brain injury that damaged the areas of his brain that deal with identity and memory. He creates stories in a different way than Tai. Can you tell me about Trey and why he is more comfortable in the new South?
Trey is very good at linear, chronological narratives — A leads to B which leads to C — but not so good with tangents. Not so good with circles. As the brainy-brawny half of my crime-solving duo, Trey is useful for constructing timelines, organizing evidence, and keeping Tai focused, but he defers to her on strategy and motives and emotional judgment calls.
He’s the son of an Irish immigrant mother and a deadbeat dad, who abandoned the family when Trey was two. He grew up on the edge of poverty, a scholarship kid who learned quickly that smarts and determination could make a ladder. He’s never really acknowledged the boost he got from being a good-looking, healthy white male — in his mind, your life is what you make it, and there are clear paths of right and wrong (which is why he joined the Atlanta Police Department). Of course, that attitude got a readjustment when he crashed his car into a concrete embankment. Now he really is a self-made man, only in a very different way, literally rising from the dead, from the ashes, struggling to put his identity back together.
Atlanta is doing the same thing, and has been for over a century. Burned to the ground during General Sherman’s March to the Sea, Atlanta adopted the Phoenix as its symbol, and Resurgens — rising again — as its motto. With most of its antebellum structures destroyed, Atlanta rebuilt itself with an eye toward the future, not the past. So did Trey. He’s a city boy, comfortable in the glass and steel canyons of Downtown and Midtown, pavement under his feet. He and Atlanta complement each other very well.
You are awash in the southern culture. When you write, do you notice any element in your narrative structure or word choices that are unique to your culture and upbringing?
Lord have mercy, yes. I write mysteries, so they follow a mostly traditional arc — crime happens, suspects abound, clues are discovered, the villain is revealed. But Southern stories follow a more looping path. They divert, transgress, circle around, loop back. My stories tend to do the same. Tai is my first-person narrator, so her background as a Southern teller of Southern stories shows up in the way she goes about her investigations. She likes to peel off layers, dig a little deeper. Go off the beaten track.
Southern vernacular is a treasure trove of color and texture. Some expressions are so specific to a particular region — or even a particular community — that using one will mark your lineage immediately. Feeling froggy, showing out, fairing off — these are as familiar to me as sweet tea and fried okra. Plus, I’m on a mission to rescue “bless your heart” from the clutches of people who think it’s only used as piece of catty backhand. Like most Southern expressions, it’s a versatile phrase that can be used as an insult or an expression of empathy. Never both at the same time, and always perfectly one or the other.
Like most writers, I’m a not-so-secret eavesdropper. And I’ve yet to find a dialect richer in humor, deftness of description, and keenness of humor than Southern-American.
You said, “But Southern stories follow a more looping path. They divert, transgress, circle around, loop back.” Can you expand a bit on this and how it is reflected in your stories?
Southern stories rarely begin at some single point, and rarely end with a clear resolution (for a classic example, see Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” which has more twists than a cow path). Like the stories she’s so fond of, Tai’s life is anything but linear — she keeps returning to people and places that have affected her, trying to figure them out on the second go-round. Her own life is something of a mystery to her, and now, in her late twenties, she’s finally ready to start exploring how she came to be who she is. She’s a natural puzzle-solver, good at digging up clues and following threads, which also makes her an excellent amateur sleuth. Because what is a crime but a story with the important pieces missing?
Now we would like to hear from you. What’s your favorite story set in the South. Since it’s the first day of October, we would love a good ghost story!