Three Southern Authors Reveal How Their Home States Affect Their Writing

Renée Ahdieh, Ryan Graudin, and Carrie Ryan on living and writing in the South.

YALLFest is an annual young adult and middle grade book festival, and because it takes place in Charleston, SC, it’s dripping with Southern charm. It’s even right there in the name, y’all! We already found out which famous Southerners the YALLFest authors want to hang with, so now we’re going to have a chinwag with some honest-to-goodness Southern writers.

Renée Ahdieh and Carrie Ryan both live in North Carolina, whereas Ryan Graudin is a true YALLFest native from Charleston, South Carolina -- so MTV News talked with them about being GRITS (girls raised in the south), and how it impacts their writing.

MTV News: Are you originally from the South?

Renée Ahdieh: I was born in NC, and when I was two weeks old, I moved to Seoul, South Korea. My mother is South Korean, and my dad’s family is Scottish. So we lived in South Korea for a couple of years, and then we moved back to Texas for a short amount of time, and then we moved back to NC when I was nine. And I’ve been in NC pretty much ever since.

Ryan Graudin: Yes, I was born and raised in Charleston, SC. I’ve spent every year except one year of my life here in the area. I taught abroad in South Korea for a year, and that was my one venture from Charleston. We love traveling, but this is our home base.

Carrie Ryan: Yes, born and raised. Greenville, SC. I went away to college for four years up in Massachusetts, otherwise here in the South. Law school in NC, and I live in NC now.

MTV: What do you like about living in the South? And then on the flip side, what do you not like so much?

Ahdieh: I’m going start with what troubles me a little bit about living in the South. I feel like the prejudice is more rampant in the South. But there’s an honesty to it that I find sort of interesting, though not in a good or bad way. It’s this inculcated, inherent racism. I think all racism is malicious, but there’s an interesting perspective on it because I think it’s not always intentionally malicious. And while in today’s society I don’t think that’s an excuse – I think you have to educate yourself – but especially with the older guard, I think that it’s unintentionally malicious racism. But I kind of appreciate the honesty in that because I feel like it still does exist in other parts of this country, it’s just that people try to cloak it under white guilt and everything like that, so I find it very interesting.

I love the weather here. Bugs and all. Mugginess and all. I love it because I feel like you’re in air that is thick with water. And I like that, especially when it’s really hot, it has this sort of dream-like feel. When you see the waves of heat sort of emanating off of asphalt or stuff like that, I’m like, “I dig this. I really dig this.” I don’t know, I love the South and the people. I think that’s the flip side of having people who are openly themselves – they’re very openly warm. They’re not afraid to get in your business and try to help.

Graudin: Charleston is the city of my heart. It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t lived here, but you always find yourself drawn back. There’s such a beauty to the area, like the salt marshes and the historic buildings and the ocean. I love the food, of course. And my whole family is here, so it’s really nice to have that sense of community because Charleston still has that small-town feel even though it’s growing, you still know a lot of people.

One of the things I wish was different is the diversity around here. I wish we had more ethnic food, more ethnicities in general. If you go to places like NY, it’s like the world in a few square miles, but Charleston doesn’t really have that. I actually think it’s been improving over the past few years, but that’s something I miss.

Ryan: One of the reasons I live in the South is my family lives down here, so I can be close to them. I love being in a city that has all the amenities of a city but doesn’t feel like it. We’re a mile outside of the city, and we’re on a park and there’s trees and our neighborhood and trick-or-treating and all that, and I love that aspect of it.

What do I not like? The heat and humidity. That’s what everyone’s going to say. But I love cicadas. In fact, in my books, if any of them take place in summer, I always mention cicadas because I just love the night sounds of summer.

MTV: Are any of your books set in the South, and if not, do you plan to set any future books in the South?

Ahdieh: At some point in my career I do want to. One of my favorite cities in the South is New Orleans. I feel like it’s a city that’s seething in sex and mystery and all of this amazing lore, and it’s just rich. It’s a town founded by pirates. I love it. They had their own form of lawlessness. So, yes, it’s absolutely something I would like to do one day. Southern Gothics are my jam.

Graudin: None of my books are actually even set in the United States. I love travelling and have loved travelling ever since I was in college. My husband grew up overseas, and so he was very much a part of that travelling culture. We started dating in college, and I got more into taking trips. I did a six-week immersion poverty trip in Cambodia to experience the third world. It was intense. A complete paradigm shift. And that’s actually where a lot of the inspiration for "The Walled City" came from. Just falling in love with different places and communities of people – I realized the more I did it, the more it was inspirational. As a writer you can’t just be sitting at home for twelve months out of the year typing away, you need things to feed you and to help inspire. So I never really know what’s going to come out of a trip, but eventually I look at my work and am like, "Oh! That’s what helped inspire this."

But, yeah, I actually have a shelved novel that’s a Southern Gothic that’s never going to see the light of day. But, never say never. I don’t really have any specific plans to write a novel here, yet, but I feel like it’s almost inevitable at some point. Charleston has such a richness about it, a rich history, and it’s a really great setting to evoke. So, yes, at some point, but no solid plans.

Ryan: "The Forest of Hands and Teeth" never says where it’s set, but in my head it’s the forests of NC because that’s where I grew up hiking. But I left it vague so that anyone could use the forest they see in their head. But "Daughter of Deep Silence," my YA revenge thriller that just came out in May, is set in SC on the coast.

MTV: Do you feel like being from the South flavors your writing even when your books are not set in the South?

Ahdieh: I think absolutely. I love a lot of magical realist writers. Ever since I was a kid, I loved Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and her witch books. I loved those books so much. And I think what I’ve discovered in finding what it is that I love about books, and then in turn what I enjoy writing, is that I love atmospheric work. And there’s something really atmospheric about the Southeast, and I think that bleeds into everything that I do.

Graudin: I talk a lot about food. And it’s not necessarily southern food, but it’s food in general and food-centric culture, which Charleston has quickly become. I think that’s a very Southern thing in general – we really like our food. We gather around the dinner table, we’re a very family-oriented, close-knit community and food is the center of that. Yeah, I love writing about food. But even though I was born and raised here, I don’t particularly feel Southern, and I think that might be because I’ve spent so much time overseas travelling.

Ryan: I don’t think of my writing as being Southern writing. Although the first short story I ever wrote was for a Southern Literature class in high school, and so in my head that was a very Southern story. But I like bringing in parts of it, like the experiences of the South somewhat, but my books are always so removed from the real world, even if they’re set in the real world, they’re still slightly removed that I never think of them as being Southern.

MTV: Do you feel living in the South impacted your journey to publication in any way or does location not make a difference in the Internet age?

Ahdieh: I don’t think it presented any challenges at all. I have an agent who jokes, "I don’t care if you type your book in a cave through Morse code, if it’s a beautiful book, it’s a beautiful book. If I have to have it, I have to have it. I don’t care if you’re ten or ninety. None of these things matter."

What I found interesting for some of my peers was a lot of being a successful writer is being given opportunities. Opportunities to write. Opportunities to talk to the right people. Opportunities to learn. And not having these opportunities can seriously impede your progress. And I think that becomes more of a class thing than anything else. For people coming from two income households, they need to work to support their families, and that severely limits the time they have to write and learn. I felt very, very fortunate because my husband has been incredibly supportive throughout this process, and if I didn’t have that, this would have taken so much longer and been so much more difficult.

Graudin: The great thing about publishing is that most of it’s done via email, so that’s never been an obstacle in any way. I was actually in South Korea when I wrote my debut novel, so I was really far away then. My agency is actually based out of Charlotte, NC, so that’s pretty cool that they’re close. I feel there’s not that many YA authors based out of Charleston compared to other places like Asheville and Nashville, but going to writers’ retreats and conferences, we get to see each other. And the Internet has been great because a lot of being an author is being by yourself. You know a lot of us are introverts, but even introverts need people time. So places like Twitter and Instagram allow us to connect with each other and commiserate over the agony of the process of drafting books.

Ryan: With the Internet it doesn’t make a difference. It’s so surprising to me that most of my friends don’t live anywhere near me. That’s why we love coming to festivals and conferences because that’s where we get to see each other. I’m super lucky that Renée lives half a mile away, so we can have lunches and dinners together. But it’s so easy to get up to NY. If anything, I kind of like that I’m a little bit removed because I can be in my own little world, which I like.

MTV: Do you feel there is a special bond among Southern writers? Or is it more of a bond among YA writers?

Ahdieh: I can’t compare because I’ve never written anything outside of this, but I think the YA community is such a well-connected community, and it is a community of people who genuinely love what they do. If I read a book that I freakin’ love, I cannot wait to tell other people about it, and I feel like that’s the way with so many YA authors. But I do think that I have made some really close friends with Southeastern writers, and I don’t know if it’s just by virtue of their proximity or whatever it is. But there’s like a shared camaraderie with all of us. There’s a great crop of writers in NC, and they’re always so warm and supportive. And I live maybe half a mile away from Carrie Ryan, and we get together all the time. We will go to a restaurant at lunchtime, and we’ll be there until dinner just talking. And our husbands will be texting us, "Are you guys coming home?" We'll tell them, "Eventually." Then we’ll go get our nails done.

Graudin: The YA community is incredibly exceptional in that everyone is just so supportive of each other. I can’t speak to other genres, since I’ve only written YA, but there’s a level of generosity and compassion among fellow authors. It’s never a competition. As for Southern writers, I was at College of Charleston when they put the creative writing concentration into place and Bret Lott had just come back, and he quickly became my mentor. He’s one of those really archetypal Southern writers, and so I studied under him and was like, "Teach me your ways of literary things."

Ryan: I think there’s a YA bond. Whenever I talk to adult writers, they’re always a little surprised. But there really is because we have these festivals and conferences that we all end up going to, and so that’s when we see each other. When we leave these festivals, we’re not saying "bye" we’re like "when am I going to see you next?"

But there is a group of writers in the South that spend a lot of time together. We do a retreat called Bat Cave because it used to be at Bat Cave, NC, but now it’s down at the beach, and that’s all Southern writers. It’s one of my favorite retreats.

MTV: Who is your favorite Southern writer?

Ahdieh: I mentioned Anne Rice earlier, but some of her books are hit or miss for me. There are certain books that I adore and have read many, many times and others less so. I also really loved Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone with the Wind," and I love that for a myriad of reasons. You have this wonderfully unlikable heroine who’s living in this really horrible time championing a god-awful cause. Like nothing about that book should work, and yet ... It’s very interesting.

Graudin: I don’t know if I have one, to be honest. There’s some really awesome Southern writers, but I don’t know that I have a favorite.

Ryan: I love Faulkner. And I always think about Eudora Welty because she was also the author that I choose to do a report on when I was in school. But I love Faulkner. As for YA – Sarah Dessen. I love her books so much. And she is super sweet, too. She’s got such a great personality, and she’s so smart. And she’s so accessible online. I think she’s just brilliant.

MTV: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Ahdieh: "The Rose and the Dagger" will be out May 3, 2016, and there’s going to be a lot more kissing, a lot more sword fighting, a lot more intrigue. And maybe a magic carpet ride or two.

Graudin: I hope you’ll buy all my books. *laughs*

Ryan: I have movie news! *Find out the latest movie news here*