Margaret Renkl on the everyday people building a better South

Margaret Renkl’s new book “Graceland, At Last” is a balm for anyone who has ever pushed back on Southern stereotypes. She has a true gift for finding unsung voices that push back on the stereotypes perpetuated by Southern politicians or national narratives. On the Reckon Interview, she offers lessons for making a better South day by day from your own backyard.

“Graceland, At Last” is available from Milkweed Editions.

If you like this episode, check out our earlier discussion with Margaret Renkl in season one.

Sign up for the Reckon Interview on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out on future episodes.

And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

John Hammontree: Margaret Renkl, welcome back to The Reckon Interview.

Margaret Renkl: Thank you for having me.

John Hammontree: We last spoke in 2019, about your book “Late Migrations.” And I just want to start out by saying how much that book meant to me. And it’s helped me during this time of pandemic crisis and grief. I’ve spent a lot more time in my backyard, like I think a lot of people have in the South in the book and all over the country, that book was real primer for how to navigate a very troubling time by looking at that nature and then finding inspiration there. So thank you for that.

Margaret Renkl: Well, thank you, that’s always kind of my favorite thing anybody could say about “Late Migrations,” is that it made them pay more attention to the natural world and their own yards, or communities. 

John Hammontree: Well your new book, “Graceland at Last,” is a series of essays that you wrote for the New York Times. This collection of essays you’ve grouped into a lot of topics that you cover very frequently for the Times: flora and fauna, social justice issues, faith and politics, and just a lot of issues that center around your home there in Nashville, but also across the entire Southeast. And the introduction that you wrote for the book feels very much like a call to arms for what so many of us are trying to do around the South. And you know, I was kind of wishing I had stolen it for my mission statement with The Reckon Interview. But at one point, you’re right, the South has always been more than its most appalling truth. But you’re also quick to point out that the fact that the rest of the country shares in the South’s greatest moral failing doesn’t excuse my region’s brutal history, or the way its vestiges still linger. And over the course of these essays, which were collected for the past four or five years, I’m curious how you balance those two ideas in your mind and in your writing.

Margaret Renkl: There was a part of me that was very found the prospect of doing a greatest hits kind of collection very appealing. The ones that I know people loved, the ones I’ve heard people tell me they loved or that did especially well in terms of traffic… But that really wasn’t going to make for a book, you want a book to be a whole and not just a collection of parts. And the only way to do that I realized was to try to make sure the book covered all the different things I wrestled with during the Trump years and since. Not the things that created the most beautiful document, but the individual pieces that spoke to each other in a way that created, as much as I could manage, a comprehensive picture, not of the South, but at least of my experience of the South.

John Hammontree: Yeah, later in the book, you have a line where you say, “What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place, and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave, of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee.” You’re writing that in an essay about Jim Ridley, a late Nashville writer and critic. But I wonder if you were also kind of talking about yourself there and your role as a Southern writer.

Margaret Renkl: Well, it was especially true of Jim, who was a colleague of mine when I wrote for the Nashville Scene. I probably shouldn’t even call him a colleague because he was head and shoulders above me. Just the most extraordinary writer and human being. And he really never left Middle Tennessee. He grew up in Murfreesboro. He went to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He started writing for the Nashville Tennessean when he was still a teenager. As soon as he was out of college, he was writing for the Nashville Scene. This was his home. He was dug in. And when I was thinking about him, because I wrote that column right after a collection of Jim’s film reviews [“People Only Die of Love in Movies”] came out. He was primarily a film critic, but he wrote about everything: restaurants and books and music. And our mutual friend, Steve Haruch, was editing this, this book that came out from Vanderbilt University Press, and it made me think about all the writers I know who are similar.

I didn’t leave the South, but I did leave Alabama. I lived in South Carolina for graduate school, I’ve been in Tennessee for 34 years. So you know, my definition of home is a little bigger, but there are writers in this region who never left their own communities. You know, Eudora Welty lived in a house she was born in or at least grew up in, and I think that’s true for so many writers. It comes across to people outside the South as a kind of bubble or a little bit insular in some ways. But I don’t think that’s true. It’s certainly not true today, where you can’t tell a highway exit in Alabama from a highway exit in Iowa. I mean, there’s still going to be a Hardee’s or McDonald’s or a Home Depot or a Walmart. The Walmartization of America is complete. We are truly one nation. So it’s not that people who live in the South are writers who write in the South are in some way buffered from the rest of the country or the world. I do think that it’s it’s a complicated question for a Southern writer, not always, but mostly people who are paying attention to the things that we regret about our homeland. And not just the things we love. But those too. But definitely me, for sure. But not, but not nearly as profoundly as that was true for Jim.

John Hammontree: One of the things that I found rejuvenating reading through this collection of essays is you do address some of those very real systemic problems that we have, whether it’s racial injustice, or climate change denial, or anti-LGBTQ sentiment from our Southern politicians. But you have a real knack for finding people on the ground, who are quietly person by person, day by day trying to make a difference and making an actual difference. Why are you drawn to these stories? And how do you find these stories?

Margaret Renkl: My sense of purpose, if there is one — not that the Times has given me any instructions on what my sense of purpose should be — but the one I feel most strongly is the need to break stereotypes. This is one thing that happens when you write for a national newspaper from a really local place is that it becomes clear to you how many people outside this place think they know who we are, and what they know are such just unbelievable stereotypes that they’ve picked up from Andy Griffith or “Dukes of Hazzard” or even just the parody of Southern politics that plays out in the national media. We’re not only those things. And so I’m really drawn to people who are quietly going about the work of making this place better in some way, who aren’t famous, who are never going to end up on the national news. And because it tells readers, I think it… My hope is that it shows readers how complex we really are. That there are people here who are doing things they couldn’t even possibly imagine. I believe that’s true of every community. They’re always unsung heroes, that you know, that never rise to the level of national media coverage. 

John Hammontree: Yeah, and I should just say, you know, anybody out there who regularly listens to this podcast, I think you would find just how much you love Margaret’s book and also Margaret’s columns on The New York Times, so please go out and find those and subscribe to them. These essays that you’ve pulled from this four year period that happens to overlap with, with the Trump administration and the Trump election… How does it feel revisiting those pieces? You know, I don’t necessarily like to go back and look at my past work. What were you right about? What were you wrong about? What did you see coming?

Margaret Renkl: First of all, I didn’t see Donald Trump coming. Let me just confess that right off the bat. I’m not a reality TV watcher, I kind of had a sense that that “The Apprentice” was something that was out there. I knew that there were that his name was associated with the birther movement during the Obama years, but I really wasn’t paying that much attention, because it didn’t seem like a very big thing. It seemed like a little, little bunch of angry people who didn’t have any power. And so what happened with when, really from the moment Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency, right up through January 6, it was for me this constant shock at what was out there that I didn’t know. And the shock of his appeal, it was mind boggling to me. It still is really. So when you ask me, what did I get right? What did I get wrong? I would say there’s kind of nothing I got right in the early days. I thought for sure that this was, like all politicians, he was making promises he wasn’t going to be able to keep or had no intention of keeping. And that eventually, the people who voted for him would realize that and abandon him en masse. That didn’t happen. Clearly that didn’t happen. There are plenty of people who did change their minds. I know lots and lots of people who changed their minds about him and changed their votes in 2016. But in general, there hasn’t been a mass exodus. Instead, it’s it’s, it’s become a movement, a political movement that goes far, far beyond Donald Trump. And it’s not going anywhere. So I wrong about that. I don’t think I was wrong about what I found troubling about his positions. And I think if I had doubted that ever, January 6 would have made it clear to me. You know, if I doubted myself in any way, well, is there something here I missed? I would have been very clear: no, I didn’t miss anything. If anything was worse than I thought. 

John Hammontree: And the way that you group these essays together, you know, you have a section that’s about politics, you have a section that’s about faith, and in the South, so many of them don’t seem to overlap. In fact, that might actually be one section, faith and politics. You write about the perception of Southern Christians, particularly white evangelical Southern Christians, as it relates to Trumpism. I’m curious, you know, you’re clearly working through issues of private faith, but also kind of faith in the public here in the south. What was that process like for you and where do you stand on it now?

Margaret Renkl: There’s a difference between faith and religion. And that’s one thing I wanted to make clear in the book, that my quarrel is not with faith. And my quarrel is with organized religion. We’re supposed to have a separation of church and state in this country. But you wouldn’t know it from many of the churches, especially many of the churches in the South. It’s incredibly troubling to think about how, just really differently somebody who identifies as a Christian, as I do, can read the Bible and come away with such a profoundly different understanding understandings of what we’re called to do. So I’m not at all troubled by what I’m called to do. I’m I’m troubled by how that got co-opted into a political debate.

John Hammontree: You wrote about a pilgrimage down to Georgia to see former President Jimmy Carter, teach Sunday school, in conversations with with John Lewis and other faith leaders with less recognizable names who are putting in the work. And even in a piece just today, you know, responding to the flooding in Tennessee, you talk about how, for all the talk about freedom and things like that parishioners are very quick to help each other out. And if they have two of something, they’ll give you one and if they have one of something, I think you write that they’ll break it in half and give you half of it. And so there is kind of that, I guess, disconnect between people’s day to day actions with their community and their overall national voting habits and politics.

Margaret Renkl: Well, that’s always been true. I don’t think that’s anything new. People have always been able to love and respect people who are different from them on a case by case basis. You know, one of my favorite stories is of the lesbian couple here in town who tried to hire a local baker to make their wedding cake. And she was very happy to make the wedding cake until she learned that there would be two brides. And I can’t remember exactly what she said when she told them in the text that she couldn’t be… it would violate her beliefs to bake their cake. You know, she said, I can’t remember exactly what she said. But it was something to the effect of, you know, y’all seem like really nice people. And I like you a lot, but I just can’t do it. And I think that’s often the case, I think that people are perfectly happy to accept the individuals, you know, that she might have not have a single— that baker might not have a single problem with the idea of having her hair cut by somebody who’s gay. But she had a policy for her bakery.

It’s not as contradictory as it sounds. What you’re able to accept on a small scale can be troubling to you on a larger scale. And I think that that’s true. across the political spectrum. There are things I have probably held my tongue about that in the past that now I think, why didn’t I say something? And it’s because on the up close and personal kind of interactions, at least for Southerners, courtesy does win out over political ideology, almost always. You see that I’m wrong about that on some things like the school, the school board meeting in Williamson County recently, where people were screaming at doctors and nurses, ‘we know where you live, we can find you,’ because they spoke in favor of a mask mandate for public schools. So people can be really rude to each other one on one. But that’s not generally the way it goes,

John Hammontree: That does seem to kind of hang over parts of this book, you know, from 2019 2018 2017. We’re just like, ‘Oh, you know, somewhere on the horizon is this pandemic event that is going to somehow throw all decorum out the window?’ Because yeah, you know, that that is one of the wealthiest counties in Tennessee. And I think it’s also one of the highest vaccinated populations in Tennessee, and everybody collectively lost their minds over a mask mandate. And it’s hard to know how much of that is performative. Because you do have people like Clay Travis, who took over for Rush Limbaugh, who does not have kids in the system, as far as I know, showing up at the school board and ranting about the mask mandates there.

Margaret Renkl: Well, this is often the case, that people with… Sometimes the people with the most to gain politically or financially are the ones who are stirring up the trouble, not the people who actually have to live with the day to day results of a decision.

John Hammontree: And another example that you write about is enforcement of immigration policy in Nashville. Nashville has welcomed a lot of immigrants and, you know, to its credit, despite being a red state, has welcomed a lot of refugees when other states in the South have not. And there’s one example that you write about where ICE had shown up, and were going to take away this father and his son and immediately step into action, and immediately encircled the car, and were bringing gas and things like that to make sure they could stay in the car so that the ICE enforcement agents could could not seize them. That one stuck out to me as a very stirring moment.

Margaret Renkl: First of all, the ICE officials in that case were breaking the law. They were lying to the man and his son in the van and telling them that, you know, they had the right to open the van, they had the right to seize them. They didn’t have any such right. So the people who were surrounding the vehicle and protecting them, they were like, these are good neighbors. They’re working hard. They’re just taking care of their kids, and they don’t cause any trouble. And so what they were doing was illegal. And these, this is a working class community in Nashville, and they were surrounding this vehicle. And it was a very heartlifting kind of display of true justice, not just social justice, but just justice. Like this wasn’t right, what was happening here, the neighbors stood up for their neighbor. And those are the kinds of stories that just make me feel better.

Like I realized that the people who are in the news most of the time, and especially the politicians, are just caricatures of who we really are. So I think if you just follow the money, what you see is that very often somebody is getting wealthy or protecting wealth, from laws or from policies that impact people who have very little. A classic example in Tennessee and in most Southern states is the failure of the state general assembly to expand Medicaid when the Affordable Care Act was passed. In Tennessee, it was set up in a way with the support of the then-Republican governor, to be a budget neutral thing to do, it was not going to cost the citizens of Tennessee one extra penny in tax dollars. And if you look at the polls, the people of Tennessee were overwhelmingly in favor of expanding Medicaid. And to this day, we still have not. Hospitals have closed, people are dying, because there’s no place in their own communities to go to for intensive care in this pandemic, doctors and nurses are nowhere to be found in their communities because there’s no work for them. Because the state has not expanded Medicaid, it’s somebody is making a lot of money enforcing these policies. And usually what it is it’s it’s money outside the state, it’s money outside the South. Often Southern politicians are doing it not because they think it’s the right thing to do, but because they’re going to face a primary challenge if they don’t, or there’s not going to be any campaign funding the next time they run. 

John Hammontree: Well and you mentioned the pandemic and stretched resources in the medical community because of that, but in the book, you also talk about the opioid epidemic and people not being able to get the treatment that they need, because they don’t have access to high quality health care in Tennessee. It is interesting, even at the beginning of this collection of essays, you know, the 2016 2017 essays that you include, the power structure was still very Republican. But it was slightly more business-minded and moderate Republican than it seems to be now in Tennessee. You know, Bill Haslam and Lamar Alexander, people like that have been replaced by people who at least run and govern more ideologically to the right than than their predecessors. Do you get that sensor or am I misreading it from afar?

Margaret Renkl: This is one thing I want to, you know, I want to be sure and point out is, you know, I live in Tennessee, I grew up in Alabama went to school in South Carolina, married a Georgia boy I’m pretty Southern through and through. But I’m not that interested in stories that are specific, certainly not in political stories that are specific to this town or this state, or the state where I grew up, or the state where I went to school. It’s more the stories I’m interested in are the ones that reflect a broader regional trend, or even a national trend. And it is definitely true that Republican elected officials are now remaking themselves in the mold of Donald Trump, and not in the mold of Lamar Alexander, or even Richard Nixon. I mean, think about it. Richard Nixon is the one who signed the Clean Air Act. Republicans didn’t used to behave like this.

John Hammontree: Well, when you point out, you know, our politicians aren’t necessarily prepared to or even interested in solving a lot of the problems that plague the region. But you do point out that individuals can make a difference. In fact, in one essay called “The Case Against Doing Nothing,” you push back on people who kind of cynically say that individual efforts won’t do anything. And even if they don’t fix systemic problems, we should do them anyway.

Margaret Renkl: There’s no difference in the effect, if you say, I’m not going to do anything to mitigate the damage done by climate change because there’s no point my efforts won’t matter. Or, I’m not gonna do anything about climate change because I don’t believe climate change is real, I think it’s a hoax. The net outcome of either of those positions is the same. So that’s one thing I would say.

The other thing is that, it is in the interest of the fossil fuel industry for people to feel overwhelmed, for people to feel that this is gone too far and there’s nothing they can do about it, or it’s too complex and they can’t understand it. It is in the interest of the people with money for everybody to feel that way. But the truth is, it’s not true that you can’t do anything about it. It’s certainly not true if everybody decided to do something about it. If every person in my neighborhood stop spraying for mosquitoes, then there would be… the impact would be immediate on our own ecosystem. It would be safer for children to play outside. It would be safer, there would be more insects, so there would be no more birds because songbirds feed their babies insects. There would be more butterflies.

The thing about especially making changes that affect the environment is that the natural world stands ready to bounce back. It will take any opportunity it can. When the little house that my mother lived in across the street from me that I wrote about in “Late Migrations,” when it was torn down and a giant McMansion built in its place, the landscaping company came through and seeded the soil with a pre-emergent chemical to keep weeds from coming up. And then it put down sod. And in… you could see you know how it does, you can always see when sod is newly laid, the seams, it looks like a little bit like a quilt or fields seen from the air. So you could see those lines, where the sod butted up against each other. And in between one of those lines, a little, a little butter weed plant popped up shortly after they laid the seed, it just took that one little, tiny bit of soil where the chemical hadn’t reached, and combined it with that little gap between the two pieces of sod laid side by side to find a way in.

Then when you see stuff like that in the natural world, do you realize, no, we’re not going to go back to where we were 50 years ago, we’re certainly not gonna go back where we were 200 years ago. But we can make a difference, we just have to decide to do it. A lot of times we decide not to do it because it’s time consuming. There’s more trouble involved in finding, say cleaning products that are not packaged in plastic bottles, or to buy milk that was packaged up at a dairy where the cows are treated humanely and that milk is certified humane. Those things cost more money. They take more time. That’s undeniable. And that’s one of the reasons that people have trouble doing it. But I do think that the more people show that there’s a market for those products, and the more they show that they want them to be more accessible and more affordable, the capitalist economy we are in will respond. It always does.

John Hammontree: At times feels like a lot of nature in the South would kill us if it had the opportunity. Whether it’s a mosquito carrying Zika or a spider or a snake. And you have essays in here that are kind of dispelling some of the rumors about snakes and things like that. But how should listeners balance that need to protect themselves from mosquito-borne illnesses with the need to protect their yards and to protect their local ecosystems by not spraying for mosquitoes and things like that?

Margaret Renkl: I think you have to ask yourself where your information is coming from. Is it coming from a mosquito control company? Or is it coming from a public health department? Because those are two really different sources of information, at least different sources of reliable information. Do you have a Zika outbreak in your community? Chances are you do not.

You know, if you’re worried about a spider bite, people are so worried about brown recluse spider bite, every house in the South has brown recluse spiders in it, every single one of them. If they’re brand new houses, the spiders will find you within six months. They’re called brown recluse spiders for a reason. They hide, you don’t know they’re there. They don’t bother you. You know, there are certain small precautions you can take. Like if you’re taking out your winter coats that have been put away for six months, maybe you don’t stick your hands right in the pockets, maybe you give them you shake them out, and you give the spiders a chance to go away.

Most of the things that people are afraid of, if they understood the relative risk, they would not even think about it, the chances of being bitten by a brown recluse spider are vanishingly small. And the chances of getting really really sick if you do are way smaller than that. And the same thing is true of being bitten by a rattlesnake. You’re more apt to get kicked by a horse than to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are shy, secretive creatures, they don’t want anything to do with you. If you accidentally step on one, you’re in trouble. But most of the time, they don’t live anywhere near where where we are. If we’re hiking on a trail, it would stand to reason that you look over a log before you step across it, things like that.

They’re just reasonable precautions that you take. We engage in many, many more frightening risks in our daily lives that have nothing to do with the natural world. And we give them no thought at all. We think nothing of hopping in the car and going for to drive somewhere. We think nothing of, you know, drinking the water from our tap, and we don’t know what’s in there. We just hope it’s okay. But often it’s not okay. My greatest advice is, you know, put the risk in proportion to the other risks you already take on in your daily life. The natural world is really not out to get you, the natural world is completely indifferent to you.

John Hammontree: You also talk about the importance of planting native species in your yard and trying to root out invasive species. Why does that matter? And how do you recommend getting started with something?

Margaret Renkl: Well, it’s a work in progress in my own little half acre yard where we’ve been for 26 years. Eradicating invasives is almost impossible without the use of herbicides and I don’t use chemicals in my yard, we’ve come to a kind of peaceful coexistence, me and the creeping Charlie. I pull it out of the flower beds, but I let it go in the yard. That’s that little purple flower ground cover that blooms in the spring. It’s really pretty and the bees like it, but it doesn’t belong here and it will take over. And it’s a an everlasting battle in my flowerbeds. But planting natives is much easier, especially now that we have the internet because you can just easily Google what are the native plants for your specific ecosystem, not just Middle Tennessee, say but Middle Tennessee, in a shady yard with a kind of acidic soil, it can be that specific and a list of plants will pop up.

But the advantage of planting for natives is is really multifarious one. It doesn’t… those plants generally don’t require any upkeep once they’re well established. You don’t have to prune them, you don’t have to water them, you don’t have to fertilize them. You don’t have to do anything to them. They are meant to be here and they thrive here without any interference.

The other benefit is to — and it’s a huge benefit — it’s the benefit to wildlife. Because as we close in on the other creatures who share our ecosystem, we cut them off from the nesting locations, and we cut them all from food sources. And it’s not just the ones we share our ecosystem with year round. It’s also the passer-throughs. There are so many birds that come through the South that don’t nest here and aren’t familiar songbirds like cardinals are or mockingbirds or robins are, the birds that we see year round. And they need fuel for the journey. They need something to eat. And most of what gets planted by yard services or most of what’s available for sale in say, a Lowe’s or a Home Depot, a big box nursery department — that they are not geared toward our ecosystem. They’re geared toward, you know a national. If you don’t have berries and you don’t have nuts and you don’t have flowers with pollen, and seeds for the creatures who share your ecosystem, they will starve here and simple.

So if you like having birds in your life, if you like having butterflies it’s important to not to set out a bird feeder — we set up bird feeders for our own convenience because it’s fun to watch birds at the feeder. But if what you really want to do is help sustain birds and help sustain the other creatures that we share an ecosystem— I’m thinking of just common creatures like skunks and possums and raccoons and rat snakes, and songbirds and foxes and owls — those creatures need food. And the way to feed them is to plant the food they love.

So, it can be as simple as leaving your hackberry tree. It’s not the prettiest tree in your yard, probably but it’s a creating an abundance of food for migratory birds. Oak trees — an acorn feeds an immense array of living things. You can plant pawpaws. They’re not pretty trees, but the the pawpaw fruit when the pawpaw tree starts fruiting, it’s incredibly nutritious for deer and for all kinds of… and they would much prefer to eat these things than to eat your hydrangeas, you know, so that if you want the non native plants, you still want them, plant the stuff they want to eat so they’ll leave your other stuff alone.

John Hammontree: You talked about having lived in that house for 20 something years, and that one essay where you read about the house across the street being torn down, you talked about how your neighborhood has changed since the city’s population started exploding in Nashville over the past couple of decades. How is that growth changing your neighborhood? But also how is it changing Nashville more broadly?

Margaret Renkl: While I’m not a sociologist, though, I think somebody else could speak more knowledgeably about how it’s changing Nashville more broadly. I can really only speak anecdotally. The interesting thing to me is how much has changed just since the pandemic started. I think that it has to do with how many people are working remotely. And it’s dawning on people that if they’re going to be working remotely anyway, they might as well be working remotely, in the case of Tennessee, somewhere without a state income tax.

So we have a lot of people coming in from all— I have neighbors, new neighbors, from Iowa, California, New York, Massachusetts. Some of these people came to take jobs, some of them came to work from a home office completely and don’t have any reason to be here except that it sounds like a fun place to live. So I think the reasons that Nashville is changing continue to change themselves.

For me, the biggest difference is that Nashville has become so much more afluent, and wealth is probably the single most dangerous thing for the natural world. Once people are wealthy, they have a different frame of reference for the outdoors than poor people do. You know they want free great… wealthy people want every blade of grass to be.. I’m not really, this is prejudiced of me to say that, it’s not all wealthy people. But the ones I live near they want outside of their homes to be as manicured as the insides are. Whereas when people are just trying to earn a living, they’re not really out there spraying for crabgrass too much.

There’s a lot of scruffy plants that other people would call weeds, but that are actually really important to maintain a native ecosystem. And the other thing is that when you tear a house down in an in an established neighborhood to put a new house in its place, you invariably kill a lot of trees. It’s just these old trees, these trees that have been here 70, 80 years, when you cut through their roots to put in a utility trench, it’s gonna kill the tree. And then that changes everything once the tree canopy is no longer fully shaded. It’s just a whole different neighborhood.

John Hammontree: The essay that gives the book its title, “Graceland, At Last,” is the one that you close the book with. And it’s about kind of an ongoing effort that you’d had for almost 30 years to visit Graceland in Memphis. I was born in Memphis. I lived there until I was six. I’ve never been to Graceland. I did not really get into the Elvis thing as a kid. And so it has been one of those things where as I’ve gotten older — and actually this year, I was thinking you know, as we’re about to have our own child — you know, should I make a pilgrimage to my birthplace and visit Graceland and things like that? Obviously the pandemic had other ideas, but I’m curious, what was it about Graceland that drew you and why did you give that title to your book?

Margaret Renkl: I don’t think I even know to this day what drew me to it. In the in the essay I describe how harrowing our trip from South Carolina and graduate school to Nashville to move here to take our first teaching jobs — how harrowing that trip over Moneygall mountain was and how the song that was playing on my portable tape player was the Paul Simon song “Graceland.” So it wasn’t really Elvis that kind of set the idea in my mind. Of course, you can’t grow up in the South without knowing who Elvis was.

But my parents weren’t country music fans. They they were older when they had my brother and sister and me, and they were really part of the big band era. That’s the music that played on the radio in the car and the music that played at home. So I didn’t have any childhood nostalgia associated with Elvis. But I just really wanted to go. And I chose that essay as the title essay for the collection because I liked the sort of echo in the background of this region, this homeland as a place of grace, or as a place that is always striving and not necessarily achieving grace.

My favorite essays in the whole book we haven’t even touched on are the ones about my family. Because in the same way that you can’t talk about the South without talking about religion, you can’t talk about the South without talking about kinship, either. We are people who are deeply connected to our people. It may be less so for people who are younger than I am, I guess, because Southerners, are like everybody else, more mobile than they used to be. But I think about my mother growing up in the same house that her father grew up in, and me growing up partly in that house too, how communities were so entrenched in their places. And for generations, how we belong to one another, much more so than people might believe, you know, not just to the people where we’re literally kin to, but to people up and down the income ladder within that community as well. And that would include people of other races. It’s just who we are, we are connected to one another. And I’m determined that we aren’t going to lose that. That’s one of our nicest things. That’s one of the nicest things about us.

John Hammontree: In your introduction, you write about how you’re putting this collection of essays together like a quilt. And in one of the essays you talked about learning to quilt from your grandmother. And then the way that you were describing the South just that you know it it is like a patchwork quilt of variety communities coming together. And so I love the way that you keep that throughline that you weave that throughline throughout the book, so to speak. And then I should also note that the last time we spoke, I didn’t notice this and I don’t know if you actually were at the time but you write about how you when you went on book tour for “Late Migrations” you were wearing your mother’s ring and I think your grandmother’s ring and your mother in law’s ring and carrying them with you. Is that is that something that you continue to do?

Margaret Renkl : Yes, I have five wedding rings on right now. Mine, and my great grandmother’s on one hand, and my mother’s, my mother-in-law’s, and my grandmother’s on my other hand stacked up each on the ring fingers.

Yeah, it was something I did… I’m not an accomplished public speaker. I had terrible stage fright even when I was a teacher. You would think that a teacher would not worry too much about standing up in front of people and talking but it’s different because, when you’re teaching you’re talking to your own community, you’re talking to people you are in relationship with, not to strangers.

I don’t know exactly how it came to me but I thought about how the things I was worried about going on book tour, like navigating my way through airports alone and carrying all this gear and — I did actually lose an iPad and a laptop and I don’t even know how many like clothes and shampoo bottles during during that book tour — but I just thought it would be a nice reminder that these women who came before me and who had survived the Great Depression, and you know, both World Wars and Korea and Vietnam, and various pandemics — all that, you know so much greater challenges than anything I was facing on a book tour I just put them on and I just haven’t taken them off.

John Hammontree: Well, what’s next for you? Are working on another book after this?

Margaret Renkl: I do. I have a book due in March to Milkweed Editions, my publisher, who did Graceland last and “Late Migrations.” It’s a collection of nature essays. It’s set up like a devotional. You read, instead of reading one entry a day, because that would be too many, you read one a week. And it follows the seasons, and it’s called this beautiful, broken world. It’ll be out in June of 2023.

John Hammontree: Great. Well, I look forward to having you back on the show to discuss that in June of 2023. Margaret, thanks so much.

Margaret Renkl: Thanks for having me, John.

John Hammontree: And that’s our show, folks. Thank you to Margaret Renkl for taking the time to speak with us. And thank you to Milkweed Editions for setting up the conversation. You can pick up the book “Graceland, At Last” from your favorite local bookstore, or, if you don’t have a favorite local bookstore, you can pick it up from Margaret’s favorite local bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. And I think if you buy it there, you might even get a signed copy. 

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.