History Repeats Itself

Charles McNair calls me on a rainy Saturday afternoon after I’ve left him several messages. He’s in Miami on a job, and his view sounds a lot more interesting than mine. “I’m looking out over Biscayne Bay, ” he says, after apologizing for missing my calls. “The sailboats are resting. The speedboats are not resting.”

Longtime followers of Mobile arts and letters will recall McNair’s work in the Azalea City News & Review (how I miss that paper!) and his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel “Land O’ Goshen.” His obvious love for the Port City and his lyrical prose, so grounded in the city’s long and colorful history, marked him then as a writer of real substance and promise. With his second novel, “Pickett’s Charge” (Livingston Press, paper, $18.95), now in release, I am anxious to catch up with McNair and hear about his life and latest book, as well as how Mobile continues to nourish his craft in faraway Atlanta, his home for many years past.

McNair was born and raised in Dothan. But he wasn’t a city boy at all. In fact, he says “the great gift of my life” was living on a dirt road with 100 acres of woods at his doorstep. He spent uncounted hours there “doing the things a boy does, like playing Tarzan, ” and his south Alabama accent takes on added warmth at the memories.

When I ask McNair what he thought of Mobile when he came here in the late 1970s, he sounds like Texas author Larry McMurtry comparing his first impressions of Houston to the dusty Archer City of his boyhood. “Mobile, and by extension, the Eastern Shore, might as well have been Europe, ” McNair enthuses. “Compared to the way I had lived in the past – piney woods and dirt roads – it seemed uniquely colorful and full of characters. I love the magic of that place, and that natural beauty, and that climate, and the wonderfulness of the people.”

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By the time McNair started writing articles for the Azalea City News during the early 1980s, he had already taken numerous creative writing classes at the University of Alabama with teachers such as the award-winning short-story writer Barry Hannah. But his experience as a journalist on the streets of Mobile was to prove revelatory. “One year there taught me more about creative writing than any class I ever took, ” he vows. “I wrote about jugglers, preachers and the trial of Gary Greenough.” He also met Mobile’s Renaissance man, Eugene Walter. “He was so interesting and so encouraging to those who wanted to be writers, ” McNair recalls. Walter even read an early draft of “Land O’ Goshen” and made helpful suggestions.

By the time that novel came out, McNair was embarking on a successful career as a business communications consultant. This work took him to Birmingham and then Atlanta. Among his blue-chip clients have been CNN, Delta Airlines, the Coca-Cola Company, BellSouth and Walmart. “My corporate clients allow me to keep a roof over my head, ” he says. “I come from responsible, hard-working people. I feel better indulging my dreams after working hours.” And so, around 10 p.m., he says, he will find a perch somewhere, “usually a sports bar, where I can have human contact and hear stories.” After that, it’s home to the writing desk and, hopefully, a creative burst. “I never go to sleep before 1 a.m.” Besides his novel writing, he keeps his literary side fine-tuned as the books editor for the acclaimed music and entertainment digital magazine Paste.

After “Land O’ Goshen, ” McNair immediately started work on his next novel, which even at that distant date he knew he wanted to release during the Civil War’s sesquicentennial “for the promotional opportunities.” The manuscript went through several drafts and rewrites, and prospects looked good until McNair’s longtime agent took deathly ill. When he passed away, McNair was left with a freshly rewritten and edited manuscript but no representation. The author tried shopping the novel on his own, but received only promises and endless delays for his trouble. Meanwhile, the sesquicentennial dates were upon him, and his window was rapidly closing. “It was just excruciating. You can imagine the tension.”

In near desperation, McNair called Joe Taylor at the Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. He had felt a strong connection with Taylor when they had met 20 years earlier, and now that thin hope was all he had going. Fortunately, Taylor was receptive and asked to see the manuscript. “He read it over a weekend, ” McNair marvels. “He called me and said, ‘Hell, yeah, we want this book.’” And so “Pickett’s Charge, ” a tragicomedy about the last living Confederate soldier breaking out of his Mobile  nursing home to go north and kill the last living Union soldier, has finally seen the light of day. “I missed the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, ” McNair says, “but am still within the war’s sesquicentennial.” While helpful for promotional purposes, this likely won’t matter to McNair’s many fans, who can only rejoice at the appearance of a new novel from his talented pen.

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Josh Jackson

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