Josephine Humphreys loves this place. South Carolina, especially Charleston, has served as the backdrop for three of her four novels and she credits it for providing the inspiration that has propelled her to local and national acclaim.
She is a native Charlestonian, and though she has traveled the world, admits that she could never see herself straying too far from the salty, warm air and delightful town folk of her beloved city. She believes in the beauty and charm of her native state and aspires for it to achieve the artistic pinnacles she knows South Carolina is capable of reaching.
To hear her speak is to delve into the world of a writer who is circumspect and thoughtful with unbridled enthusiasm for the place that she loves.
Recently Humphreys met with Phil Noble to discuss among other things, writing, inspiration, and the true essence of South Carolina.
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NOBLE: I read a piece that you wrote for Smithsonian about Charleston. It’s a wonderful piece and I think everyone from South Carolina should read it. One of the lines that really struck me was, and though it’s about Charleston, I think it applies to all of South Carolina; you said, “I count myself lucky to have been born in a town that’s rife with contradictions; a difficult place in constant need of retelling and real characters. That’s us. That’s South Carolina.
HUMPHREYS: That’s how I think of it. And I do think I’m lucky to have landed in the middle of it. I feel lucky as a writer. It’s a gift; especially our complex history, although I was not an eager historian in my youth. Now I am.
NOBLE: As you write, what is it about South Carolina, beyond Charleston that inspires you?
HUMPHREYS: The landscape itself is important; it’s beautiful. And it has such connections to my memory that it’s a treasure trove to me. But the real thing that inspires me, that I write from is the people; their stories. I think we have an amazing sense of humor and I love that. I think South Carolinians know how to tell a good story and it’s important to them. I think it’s a way of bringing people together. The fact that we’re all sort of bound together in this network of storytelling makes the community that I’m interested in. The other thing is the racial history of South Carolina and the rest of the South. A lot of our culture today, we owe to the African American influence and we don’t really realize that, and that’s kind of visible sometimes in our language. When we talk about Southern writers, we’re almost always meaning white Southern writers, and when we talk about the Southern Gospel, we mean white Southern Gospel. It’s always exciting to think about how much more we have to learn. It’s a gift to a writer to be in a place that has a complex, difficult history, because it’s a lot of puzzles. It’s a lot of things to untangle and think about it.
NOBLE: What does the world see in you, your art and this culture that we have and what do you think that means for us as a state?
HUMPHREYS: I think it changes over time. Clearly what non-Southerners think of the South and what non-Carolinians think of the Carolinas is very changeable and I would say quite different than what it was when I was younger. We have here in our state and in the towns, a unique place that people are recognizing and I think these places are going to play a big part of our future. These are going to be places that people are going to want to move to. These are places that people are going to want to move their factories to and want to be part of. I think that we need to think about how we’re going to manage that influx and manage that growth and also provide what’s going to be needed in that sort of future.
NOBLE: You obviously are an active proponent of the Arts and artistic pursuits. How do we nourish the Arts in South Carolina so that we truly achieve the level of “World Class” that we desire?
HUMPHREYS: Art should not come only from the Department of Education. We have to value it. We have to love it. If we don’t, I think it’s just going to be that way. We have to really want these things for our children and for our lives. As for the children themselves, I know that the thing that helped me most as a young person, when I wanted to be a writer was encouragement and praise. The fact that somebody liked what I had done was of immense importance. And it was almost a revelation of “Maybe this is an important thing to do. Maybe this is a good thing to do.” So what we can do as members of the public is go to the concerts. Go to the art shows. Be a part of that life and try to make it a bigger part of our whole culture than just a class in the afternoon or whatever that we’re doing now. There is a lively spirit of creativity at work now. The Charleston music scene is exciting. And that’s all coming from kids who are in their twenties. And I think it’s a huge addition to city life.
NOBLE: What is your advice to aspiring writers here in South Carolina?
HUMPHREYS: Go forward into the world with great excitement and curiosity and generosity and less focus on your own success.
Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina
Education: A.B. Duke University; M.A. Yale University and University of Texas
Occupation:Novelist, Humanitarian Educator
Other Notables:Has authored four books: Dreams of Sleep (1984), Rich in Love (1987). The Fireman’s Fair (1991), Nowhere Else on Earth (2000)
“I think it would be helpful if we stop thinking about the arts in school as play. It’s not recess time.”
Video: An interview with Josephine Humphreys