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How Southern Culture, Ecology Mix for a Good SciFi or Fantasy Story

Local authors discuss cultural influences in their work

The history and character of the South was strong Thursday evening, as authors Monica Byrne, Delilah Dawson, Gail Z. Martin, Ursula Vernon and Alyssa Wong (T ’13) spoke about cultural influence, migrations and diversity in the science fiction and fantasy communities.

“I love the Southern Gothic — and I love how creepy it is,” Wong said. An Arizona native and Nebula Award nominee, Wong recalled that oral storytelling strongly influenced her childhood. Such oral traditions were mirrored in Southern storytelling.

Writers panel

Authors Monica Byrne, Ursula Vernon and Gail Z. Martin speak about the cultural influence of the South on science fiction and fantasy writing.

Editor and publicist Jaym Gates moderated the discussion, held in the Franklin Humanities Institute in the Smith Warehouse. More than 50 people attended the panel, which was the latest event in the SFWA Southeast Reading Series, a collaboration between Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the FHI Story Lab and Duke Libraries.

Other authors noted ways the South’s history and culture contributed to their writing.

Dawson remarked that there’s an acceptance of spirits and ghosts in the South, particularly in her hometown, Roswell, Ga.

“These things are kind of endemic — like they’ve always been there,” Dawson said.

For Martin, Southern history also contributed to a story’s setting. She described Charleston, SC, as the perfect setting for urban fantasy.

“There’s a lot of sophistication and gentility set on rivers of blood … it’s one of the most haunted cities,” she said.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Vernon knew her native land was full of history, but it was rarely visible. Moving to the South, where markers and memorials are everywhere, was a large adjustment.

“[At first] I couldn’t drive around because I would recognize names out of history books,” she said.

Vernon was also taken with the South’s unusual ecology. “You come out here and you have carnivorous plants — and that’s normal,” she said. These carnivorous plants and southern swamps appeared in her later works.

But Southern ecology isn’t all flytraps and thorns. As a central Penn. native, Byrne described her relationship to the South as much more elemental. Even the climate makes it a more fertile place for writing.

“I don’t have to work as hard to live. I don’t have to work at hard to express myself,” she said.

After the discussion, the panelists read passages from their recent works and met with members of the audience to sign books.

Below: Alyssa Wong addresses the audience. With her is moderator Jaym Gates.

writer's panel