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Just what will people think?

The Dixie Diva

A major New York publisher sent a review copy of a much touted novel called “If Jack’s In Love.” Because I write about the South and because this book had won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, the book’s publicist followed up with an email.

Since this column runs in Yazoo City, Miss., hometown and burial site of the Morris, I decided to give the book a look in deference to the Southern literary legend. Surprisingly, it was the author’s biography that caught my attention rather than the sprawling words between the pages. I must share it with you:

A high school dropout, Stephen Wetta, grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, drank, used drugs, got in financial trouble, and spent far too much time reading and writing. He knocked around for years at different jobs, didn’t like any of them, and got sober without wanting to. Somehow he wound up with a Ph.D. and worked for ten years as an adjunct. His academic career was singularly undistinguished, and he was eventually hired full time by a school that couldn’t get rid of him. Shortly afterward he was jailed for tax evasion. If Jack’s In Love is his first novel.

This is the bravest, boldest, most original biography of any kind I’ve ever read, especially for an author. Usually author bios, especially those of literary writers, are buttoned-up and scholarly. I applaud a man interesting enough to compose a bio like this. However, I doubted its truth. I figured that the bio was another product of good fiction writing.

The director of publicity for the book’s publisher, Berkley, is an acquaintance so I emailed him and asked, “Is this true? Was he really jailed for tax evasion?”

Yes.

My admiration for his honesty about his dishonesty grew. But I have this to say: His mama must not be alive. Wetta, raised in Richmond, Va., is Southern so I assume his mother was, too. And, this much I know: Southern mothers care deeply about what other people think about their children. One of the great philosophies that Mama raised us by was, “What will people think?” If she ever thought we were contemplating something untoward, she would put her foot down and say, “No, you’re not. What will people think?”

One Sunday when I was about 15, we were going out to lunch after church. For some reason, we stopped by home first. I headed toward my bedroom, saying, “I’m going to change clothes. I’m gonna put on pants.”

Oh my. Mama hit the ceiling. She charged into my room and said, “No, you’re not. You leave your dress on. Do you hear me? You’re not changin’ into pants.”

I was completely puzzled. “Why?”

Hers was Southern motherly logic. “Because everyone who sees you will think you haven’t been to church.” Women and girls did not wear pants to church in those days. “I care what people think.”

“Well, I don’t. I’ve been to church, I know I have and that’s what matters.” That is what my mama called “sassing” and it, like wearing pants to church, was not permitted. I stayed in my dress and Mama left the room, mumbling, “What will people think?”

A few years ago when I appeared on a television segment about Southern women, I told a funny Mama story. I thought nothing about it until I saw the segment on the night it ran. It didn’t seem as funny as it did when I said it. “Uh oh,” I muttered. I called Mama, who, too, had seen it.

“I’m gonna pinch your head off,” she said, half teasing, half serious. “I can’t believe you said that on television.” She paused. “What will people think?”

Knowing how Southern mothers are, I just don’t believe that Mr. Wetta’s mama is still alive. If she is, though, I am clapping and cheering for him.

He’s even bolder and braver than I thought.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin’.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.