Interview by: John Wisniewski
Your father is celebrated author, James Dickey. Did this influence you to become a writer?
Of course! I grew up in a household surrounded by books — walls and walls of them; thousands of them — and I was encouraged from the time I was a very little boy to play with words and ideas. Our games were about puns, rhymes, limericks, haikus. There was a lot of reading aloud. My children’s books were not really children’s books, but my father’s favorite adventure stories from his own childhood and adolescence, some of which I am sure would be deemed quite unsuitable for today’s eightyearolds. (The Pellucidar series and the Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance; John Collier’s very scary but weirdly funny short stories like “Evening Primrose” and “Bird of Prey”; Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”; Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus The Ants.” And the inimitable Doc Savage. (Some enterprising grad student could make an interesting study of the relationship between these books and my father’s poetry and novels, I’d think.)
And of course there was a lot of poetry and, for fun, memorization: A.E. Housman for starters, Coleridge, Yeats, bits of Milton and Shakespeare — poems and speeches I still recite to myself frequently. I put my grandson to sleep with “Kublai Khan.” We loved to play “what’s the best poem?” and “who’s the best poet? Yeats? Rilke?” and so on.
My father was a great teacher of creative writing, as any of his many students will attest. And as a father hewas a great teacher as well. The bottom line is that when I was in university and then in the early days of looking for a job, I discovered what I did with the greatest facility was write. Precisely because he was, by then, quite famous, I thought I should do something else. I wanted to be a film maker, in fact. I loved photography and cinematography. But even in that world, what people wanted from me was my writing. So, when I got an entry level position at The Washington Post at age 22, writing is what I did, and have been doing ever since. (I would add that my father used very much the same approach with my baby sister,Bronwen, who, no surprise, also is a writer, and a very accomplished one. My brother, more athletically inclined as a kid, got a bit less of the literary treatment, and is now an accomplished physician.)
Who are some authors who are influential to you?
When I was a boy, I was fascinated by 18th century novels and poetry. The first complete adult novel I ever read, when I was 12 or 13, was Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; then Defoe’s Moll Flanders; I loved Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” started reading the great essayists of the late 18th and early 19th century (Charles Lamb particularly). And these took me toward some of the political writings of the time like The Federalist Papers. My parents were pretty easy going when it came to my burgeoning adolescent interest in girls and sex when I was twelve or thirteen, and I was also into some of the racier writers available, including Henry Miller and Frank Harris, and of course Ian Fleming, whom I started reading for the sex and wound up reading for the spying. That interest led me to John Le Carré, whose works remain a strong influence.
At university in the late 1960s, the ancient gods were still Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the new ones Wolfe and Joan Didion, and I learned from all of them, but the first thing I learned was to imitate none of them. The single writer who has had the greatest influence on my thoughts about style and on my thinking generally is George Orwell, especially the collected essays. My father used to read parts of “Politics and the English Language” to me. (He was particularly amused by the example of egregious mixed metaphor, “The Fascist octopus has sung its want song.”) But more importantly there was a four volume complete edition of Orwell’s essays that came out in 1970 or so, edited by Sonia Orwell, that was like a Bible. I think it had a great influence on many writers of my generation and the generation before. Certainly I have seen it on many of their bookshelves.
Why did you choose to write “Our Man in Charleston?” What attracted you to this story?
In the book’s acknowledgments there is a long explanation of how I came to write “Our Man in Charleston.” But the short answer is that I love good, true spy stories, and while I was researching another book I came across the troves of documents in Britain that made it possible to tell this one. It’s also true that the Civil War runs in the blood. My uncle, Tom Dickey, was such a Civil War enthusiast that he went all over the old battlefields of the Confederacy with a WWII mine detector digging up shot and shell from a century before, cataloguing, displaying and, only occasionally, defusing the various pieces. He liked to say that if his suburban Atlanta house ever caught on fire, you’d hear the last shots of the Civil War. (You should probablytake a look at this: http://bombsinthebasement.blogspot.fr )
While I was at the University of Virginia I became more aware of the complicated uniqueness of the South as a culture, if not a nation, apart. C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History, and The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash were big influences. And over the years, as a journalist in the United States and abroad, it seemed to me that some of the most problematic aspects of “the mind of the South” were working their way into the mind of America, particularly the way in which selfish elites exploited fear and prejudice to convince people to act against their own best interests.
In the person of Her Majesty’s Consul Robert Bunch, our man in Charleston, I discovered an outside observer writing secret and confidential dispatches that cut through the rationalizations about slavery, States’ rights and Southern civilization that many Americans still consider historical verities. He saw the mind of the South for what it was in 1860, and what he saw was deeply disturbing to him as, indeed, it should be to us.
What was it like growing up in the South? Did this influence or become important to your writing?
Although I have traveled for much of my life, and lived abroad 90 percent of the time since 1980, my ties to the South are strong. My father’s family is from Atlanta but his roots are in the corner of Appalachia where Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina come together, with South Carolina not too far away. My mother’s family was from West Tennessee, near Memphis.
From the time I was four until I was eleven — seven very formative years — we lived in Atlanta and I was surrounded by memories of the Civil War as fresh, it seemed, as if it that conflagration had taken place a few days before. These were years, 1955 to 1962, of huge changes and huge reaction in the South: the burgeoning of the Civil Rights movement coincided with the centenary of the Civil War, the Lost Cause was taught in all white schools while “We Shall Overcome” was sung in the streets; Lester Maddox handed out axe handles at his Pickrick Restaurant while Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Ralph McGill was writing brave and wonderfully literate anti-segregationist columns for the Atlanta Constitution. What did I know of all that as a little boy? Nothing clear or well defined. It all formed a nervous background of fear and anger as I went about my daily life. I remember during air raid drills (a common feature of Cold War school life) sitting under tables with other boys in fourth grade teaching each other the defiant words to “Good Ol’ Rebel” that told us this “glorious Union” was “dripping with our blood.”
And then there was my father’s brother, Tom Dickey, who spent his weekends and every spare moment he could find prowling Civil War battlefields with a World War II mine detector discovering, digging up, displaying, and occasionally defusing artillery projectiles from the big guns of the North and the South. To visit his rec room and basement was to be surrounded by immediate, tangible memories of the fighting that had gone on all around where we lived. Later, after some time in Europe and the West Coast, I went to public high school in Loudoun County, Virginia, and college at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where, once again, Southern history and mythology loomed large.
All this, still, remained more or less unassimilated until, at university, I read C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History, about the distinctive impact of occupation on the Southern consciousness, and W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, which identified the way pride, ambition, race and fear had been used to enlist in the cause of the slaveowning elite the loyalty and the blood of those many dirtpoor Southerners who fought and died to defend the plantation owners’ interests.
In the last couple of decades, with the rise of groups like the Tea Party, and even occasional talk of secession(!), we’ve seen the revival and intensification of those old mindsets that used to seem unique to Dixie: the hatred of the federal government, the attempt to deny (or nullify) its ability to collect taxes, the resentment of imposed “equality,” and not a little thinly veiled racism. The modern Tea Party has much less to do with the Sons of Liberty in Boston in 1773 than with South Carolina’s “nullifiers” of the 1830s and “fireeaters” of 1850s. They were a minority, but their approach to politics — rule or ruin — served their cause. They destroyed the Democratic Party in 1860, handed the election to the Republicans, then demanded secession rather than be ruled by Abraham Lincoln.
To this day, when I am in South Carolina, I hear people say with real conviction that the War Between the States or, better still, the War of Northern Aggression “was not about slavery,” it was “about States Rights” and about taxes and tariffs. But, in fact, it was always all about slavery. The ordinances of secession in one Southern state after another made that clear. The State’s Right that was being defended was the right to hold negroes in permanent bondage. To defend that right, the south seceded, and to prevent secession, the North went to war.
What was the experience like Chris, writing the memoir about your life with James Dickey?
I think I write about this toward the end of the memoir. I had thought at first it would be a book that my father and I would collaborate on — literally about The Summer of Deliverance — but as we talked and as I interviewed him and as he was dying in front of my eyes, it became much more than that. Then, after he died, it took me months before I could start writing.
There were some distractions because of the demands reporting for Newsweek from Paris (the death of Princess Diana being one of them), but the truth is that I just couldn’t bring myself to write about my father and family then, and I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to do that. My wonderful wife spent that time transcribing the recordings of the interviews to try to help get me started. But my father was fading into a shadow in my memory, like a landscape covered with ash. Then my wife suggested that we go to Positano in the autumn of 1997, a place that held so many intense memories of childhood and family from the few months we lived there when I was ten years old that I had never gone back. And then, there I was, 46 years old and walking the alleys and roads and beaches of Positano again, and memories just started to flood onto the page. That was in October 1997. I finished the manuscript in February while on assignment for Newsweek in Tehran. It must have been about three in the morning. As sometimes happens with writing, as well as reading, I had not been able to put it down.