Refining “Sugar”

A while back, I took career inventory. I realized that of my 31 novels (22 published), all but eight were set in the South. I’ve written historical and contemporary fiction, mystery, adventure, time travel, and nonfiction travel. The missing category, and one I’ve always wanted to explore, was Southern humor. The most appealing aspect of the genre is that it requires no research. All I had to do to write Unrefined, Sugar was to conjure my colorful  ‘50s Tennessee childhood.

The South has always claimed a hefty dose of eccentrics, storytellers and picaresque characters. I don’t know if we actually count more nut cases than other regions or just have more folks writing about them. My favorite theory comes from the late Florence King in her seminal and dazzling dissection of Dixie, Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. “Sanity has never held any charms for us; in fact, we’re against it,” she wrote. “We long ago realized that madness was the only weapon we had; if you’re crazy enough, people will leave you alone. Madness has also helped us survive the rigidly stratified, conformist society that our fear of change forced us to build around ourselves.” It’s true. The South has long struggled to insulate its distinctive food, music, humor and traditions against the homogenization of the nation. Despite those efforts, our unique past continues to erode, but with mixed results.  I see the wisdom in retiring the Confederate flag, but y’all better keep those damned jalapeños outta my Hoppin’ John!

Setting the ‘50s South apart required training from an early age. Respecting one’s elders and genteel manners were absolute givens. My mother drilled “Yes, ma’am!” and “No, sir!” into my fledgling vocabulary. She also stressed that it was impolite to stare at people who were “different” or “not right”and said to never ask questions “until we get home.” If someone committed an egregious breach of etiquette or made a total fool of themselves in public, Mother simply sighed, “Bless their heart!” Then she continued as though nothing untoward had happened. It was a shock to learn years later that those three seemingly innocent words might mask an avalanche of condemnation whispered in private. It was also a surprise to discover what I sometimes believed was the norm was anything but. Such revelations stood me in good stead when populating my fictional town of Meander, Tennessee, with characters overflowing with Southern humor, good and bad.

I readily admit to juggling and juxtaposing the names, traits and deeds of real folks from my childhood. (I learned long ago to never create characters so close to their actual counterparts that they’re recognizable. Aside from hurting feelings and outright pissing people off, some of them have guns!) Although I didn’t realize it as a kid, rather than hide them, Southerners trotted out the family loons so everyone could enjoy their shenanigans. Politely playing along could be very entertaining, but there was a definite protocol. More than once, my Father gave me “the look” after I laughed when I wasn’t supposed to. When I asked why a certain lady dressed up in her Sunday best to watch the Perry Como Show or why a man in our church held a hymn note long after the choir stopped, out came my parents’ tried-and-true mantra: “They can’t help themselves, son. Bless their hearts.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but what I do know is that those folks made growing up lots of fun.


You may not be able to go home again, but Unrefined, Sugar brought me pretty darn close.





  1. Liz
    Jun 7, 2018

    Well done, Michael. Your own refinement shines through this delightful intro to your new book.

    As for those folks who haven’t yet read UNREFINED, SUGAR – get crackin’ and enjoy the fun!

  2. Celeste
    Jun 7, 2018

    I can’t wait to read this one. I can only imagine.

  3. Richard Sutton
    Jun 7, 2018

    Unrefined, Sugar is an absolutely glorious immersion into everything you mention and more. I’m so glad I’ve been able to digest it for both the humor and for the lessons. It’s a gourmet meal! Pass those hushpuppies right over!

  4. Bebe Bahnsen
    Jun 8, 2018

    You get history and humor in this novel. It is fun and fascinating to read.

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