Writing Hurricanes and Conjuring Ghosts: A Conversation with J. Nicole Jones
The South of writer and essayist J. Nicole Jones’s own Low Country is not the South mythologized in old movies, not the sweet-tea South with its Antebellum fantasies, front porches bedecked by neighbors in rocking chairs. Jones’s South is a more haunted place. In Jones’s Low Country, we meet both the famous ghosts and haints of the South Carolina coast where Jones grew up, apparitions like the Gray Man, who wanders the shoreline warning townsfolk of impending storms, as well as the ghosts of Jones’s own childhood, one that shimmered with violence and broke to the rhythm of jukebox country songs—a childhood that clanged and glittered with the tinkling bells and bright lights of putt-putt mini-golf courses and hurricane sirens.
Jones grew up the only girl child surrounded by bootlegging, country-song-writing, hard-living men, uncles, brothers, fathers, and grandfathers who broke their own families but quite literally built the bright coastal tourist town of Myrtle Beach. Their lives became legends passed around from living room to living room, uttered and immortalized by the women who had to endure them.
She writes, “The ironing out of accent was a way to fool myself into believing that I could be different from those women who suffered to make me. If I could’ve painted the roof of my mouth that lovely shade of haint blue to scare away the ghosts of the women I did not want to be, the women I came from, I would have licked clean the brush.”
In her debut, Low Country: A Southern Memoir, published last month by Catapult, Jones goes back and unburies the stories of her family’s past, and the past of her hometown, like a gravedigger. We recently spoke by video teleconference about exorcising ghosts through the writing of Low Country, a book that also feels kind of like a protection spell, a circle of salt warding against those past lives we’re all clamoring to break free from, one whose sentences are as stunning and electric as a South Carolina storm, as tender as that storm’s breaking.
The Rumpus: To start, how are you feeling now that your book has been released into the world? Nervous, maybe excited, relieved?
J. Nicole Jones: I think all of those. It’s sort of surreal. I just feel so lucky and so grateful to be with Catapult, whose books I love. In my early twenties, I was sort of like, I’m going to maybe write a book about my family. I was just tinkering with the weird stories I grew up hearing. That it’s now happening, it’s one of those very surreal things.
It’s really exciting. I’m a little bit nervous. And my family is really excited.
Rumpus: Did it feel difficult to be telling the stories of Low Country while also navigating that sense of accountability to the people in your life that these sometimes painful stories are about, having to contend with the notion that your version of it is just one version?
Jones: My dad writes songs and is a writer, and I feel like I sort of grew up with a precedent of writing about the things that happened to us. Songwriting is more fictionalized maybe. The real things are interwoven with whatever rhymes, I guess, but there was a precedent for it.
I’m sure all families are this way, but especially in Southern families, everyone is constantly telling these wild stories. And someone’s always like, one day, somebody should write a book about this. For such a long time, I had to sit on this idea of, I’m trying to do that.
Rumpus: I found it hard, sometimes, to read the memoir objectively because so much of it felt so familiar to me. I’m from the South, too, and there’s so much of your family lore that I recognized. Even the cadence of your sentences has a kind of Southern lilt and lyricism to it that felt familiar to me. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing this book, and how it has maybe changed your relationship to the South, looking at it now as someone who’s made a home somewhere else?
Jones: I’m so glad that you recognized that, and that it sounds Southern on the page. When I first got to graduate school and was writing what I felt like were my first serious attempts at writing, people would come back and say, oh, your writing is so Southern, which was news to me, even though I was writing about these very Southern things, I suppose.
But it’s a complicated place. It’s a changing place. I think like a lot of people, I had to get some physical distance, some distance of age, just to appreciate some of the things about South Carolina that are so unique and special. And I’ve traveled a lot. When I was out of college, I moved to California almost immediately. I was like, goodbye to the South.
I got to the Bay Area and was very excited to be in a place that felt pretty progressive and aligned more with some of my values. But then I started driving around the more rural areas, and you’d see Confederate flags in the mountains of California. And it was a real eye-opener. I moved out there at twenty-one thinking, oh, everything is going to be great here, only to see that some of those ideas that are so harmful and awful are not contained to one region. Even driving around upstate New York, I’ve been a New Yorker for most of my adult life now, I was surprised in 2016, driving around in the fall right before the election and seeing all the signs for Trump.
So, I think that traveling around and seeing that everywhere has elements of what I really struggled with growing up in the South has been kind of an eye-opener. And I think, too, South Carolina has been changing, positively, compared with some other Southern states. It’s a complicated place, but there’s a lot of hope there.
Rumpus: Low Country is a memoir, but it’s also such a meditation on place. So much of it is spent rendering South Carolina onto the page, describing the textures and tenors of the landscape, the people, the weather, the topography. Part of that is also retelling some of the myths and mysteries about this kind of eerie, coastal landscape you grew up hearing. Can you speak to that? Did writing your memoir in any way rewrite some of these places and stories that were previously so familiar to you?
Jones: That’s a great observation. It is a very beautiful landscape, and it’s one that I feel, now, lucky to have connections to. And it was a real challenge to try and recreate some of the beauty of that landscape in the writing, the prose. There’s that beauty that is kind of built in, with the views everywhere, but then that contrasts with some of the stories, the history of that place. With the structure of the book, I hoped that it would be an invitation to collaborate on reimagining some of the legends and mythology, and even family stories that I grew up with.
Rumpus: Low Country is full of not only those local legends, but also your own family folklore. There’s this narrative tension you create between the collective history of the place, and the personal history of how you lived in that place. How do you think the histories of a place impact the people that live there? Do you think an awareness of the stories that contextualize the physical locations we grow up play their own part in shaping who we are?
Jones: I think the history of a place is inseparable from a family’s history. My upbringing was certainly one of precariousness in terms of stability, but also one of enormous privilege. So, I think that they’re inseparable. And making sure that that’s pointed out is important to me, definitely.
I did a lot of research for this book. I got a lot of local history books and I read a bunch of more formal history books, but every myth or ghost story that I included, it was important to me that I had grown up hearing it in some way. It was interesting to me to read one particular ghost written by different people and then compare all of the versions with how I grew up hearing it.
For example, the Gray Man is a really famous ghost down there. I see him linked in the Daily Mail sometimes when there’s a hurricane that looks like it’s going to hit South Carolina. And it’s very funny to see national outlets cover what I grew up with, that’s so particular to the place. There’s so many different legends about who he was.
So folk tales and oral histories do sort of become part of your family history, too. You grow up hearing them. I heard that particular story about the Gray Man from my grandmother, from my dad, from my uncle, at school. And it was important to me that all of those that are included in the book are ones that I was familiar with, orally, and then through studying history books.
In researching, I was trying to figure out, well, was there one accepted version? and usually there wasn’t. Because that’s just how ghost stories are told.
Rumpus: I loved, too, all of those little glistening threads of magic you weave throughout this memoir in your sentences. Not just the ghost stories you recount, but in the turns of phrase in the book that drew on a kind of mystical, fantastical imagery. As someone who does come from this region, I recognize that there is something both deeply haunted and tragic, as well as enchanted, here. Our dead are never really that far from us. What did you have in mind as you were drawing that out, all those haints and ghosts and mermaids and witches that play a role in Low Country?
Jones: I feel the same way. It’s a very haunted place. The South is a very alluring and otherworldly place. It’s very easy to feel completely surrounded by an invisible presence down there, for lack of a better word. Everything is very rich. The air is very heavy. The trees feel like they’re descending on you. It really permeates your physical being while you’re down there, it does.
When I was reading a lot about ghosts and what purpose they serve, and why some regions seem more haunted than others, a common theory that I came across was that places with a lot of ghost stories are often places with a lot of cultural guilt, and I certainly felt that that was true while writing the book.
Rumpus: In some ways, memoir as a form is itself a kind of haunting. You’re inviting the ghosts of the things that happened to you back into your life. You’re conjuring them back up from some lost, past place, waking up those ghosts. Did writing Low Country feel like that for you? Did writing it feel in some ways like exorcising those ghosts?
Jones: I love that description of memoir. I think it’s so true. I played around with writing some version of this, or these stories, for a very long time. And the book, mostly, in the form that it is now, I wrote to capture that place.
Before, I had a handwritten draft and a bunch of my notes stolen, along with my laptop, from our car. After that, I thought, well, I’m just not going to write this anymore. Maybe in twenty years I’ll try to turn some of this into a novel or something. I just really put it aside and put it out of my mind. It was really difficult to think about.
And then my grandmother died suddenly, about six months later. And I just sat down at her desk one day, and maybe a couple of months after, I had a draft of this book. It’s changed a lot with the help of my wonderful editor and agent, but yeah, it was a real need. It was this very overwhelming need to recapture this place of my childhood, and to recapture my grandmother’s words and stories before I forgot or lost any more of them.
In a way, it was like conjuring ghosts to exorcise them. I needed to write this to have my grandmother in this place with me, in some way. But then, you know, I didn’t feel very comfortable growing up in South Carolina. I needed to create it in a way that felt more optimistic in some way, so that maybe I could let it go.
Rumpus: Weather plays a big role in Low Country. There’s literal meteorology, with the role that hurricanes played in shaping your town and your childhood. And there’s also this mirrored, internal, emotional meteorology that happens simultaneously, that swirls around your family. Was that a parallel that you intentionally wanted to draw, or one that revealed itself as you were writing the book?
Jones: I think I was always kind of aware of that. Things always did feel very turbulent in some form or another growing up, whether it was financial instability or the relationship between my parents, or my grandfather. And when I was writing this, it was really important to me for the structure to sort of mimic that. I wanted the narrative to be elliptical, because that’s how families tell stories, and that’s how you find little bits of information. Your grandmother will tell one story. You’ll hear it from your uncle who has a slightly different perspective. Just little breadcrumbs of information you end up putting together in your head.
I wanted the feeling of reading the book to feel like that, but also I wanted there to be a counterclockwise structure, sort of like the hurricanes down there. As you’re reading the book, you’re turning the pages, but I wanted the last page to connect back to the first, almost like a hurricane. Hurricanes will redraw the landscape. You’ll need new maps for taking the boat out after a hurricane. And I sort of wanted the book to do the same.
Rumpus: I’d love to talk a bit about the women in your book, your mother and your grandmother. These women endured physical and emotional violence. They sacrificed their own dreams for their husbands and children, but they also held your family together. And while there is such a deep love that you have for these strong Southern women that comes through in the book, there’s also an equally strong clarity that you don’t want to live the lives they led.
How did writing Low Country help you reconcile some of the guilt that maybe comes from holding both of those two truths at once?
Jones: I think I feel free of that most of the time. I think you grow up and you see women taking on so many of the burdens of daily life. And then you see women’s work, and women’s anger, and women’s time not only dismissed by the people around you, like my grandfather, but you see it larger in the culture. Then I got some distance, which is what they wanted for me. I think they were very aware. My grandmother won a scholarship to a college, and then dropped out very soon after she enrolled to help her family earn money, and then she got married. So I think it was always very clear to me that my grandmother and mom wanted more opportunities for me.
But it is one of those sad things. Because if they succeeded in that, it meant that I’m not going to be in Myrtle Beach going by to have coffee every single day. I think about them a lot as I’ve gotten older. How selfless the stoking of my dreams was on their part. How even though it meant I might be farther away from them physically, or in terms of interests, or class-wise, even, they still wanted that for me. And I think also, just going back to how they were treated, I think saying that I didn’t want to be like them, there was a real reckoning of trying to unlearn the lessons that you unconsciously absorbed by seeing women mistreated or made small. Really trying to root that out and making sure that I don’t carry with me some of the things that hurt them.
Photograph of J. Nicole Jones by Ben Bromley.