Set in Southeast Texas
Many authors choose to write fiction set in the most popular locations such as New York, London, or Hollywood. And although these settings are commonplace and perhaps overdone, they sell, according to publishing statistics regarding U.S. fiction titles compiled by Bowker, an American limited liability company that provides bibliographic information of published works to the industry and is the exclusive U.S. agent for issuing International Standard Book Numbers.
“Americans like their mysteries and romances set in the misty bogs of Scotland and London’s Trafalgar Square,” Bowker’s website states.
“Deconstructing more than 13,000 works of adult fiction published in the U.S., Bowker found that 1,550 of those with an identifiable location were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. New York topped the list of cities, followed by London, Los Angeles (including Hollywood), Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C. In addition to London, the other non-U.S. city to make the top 10 fictional settings was Rome.”
Despite these statistics, author Gerald Duff chooses to write stories set in Nederland, where he graduated from high school, or in the Pineywoods of East Texas, where he once lived in Livingston, and other locations in Texas and Louisiana, in addition to the popular settings seen in most publications.
“Every writer has one part of the world which seems to belong to him or her where you get your first impressions of what it is to be alive and what it is to live in this world,” Duff said. “That came to me growing up in Southeast Texas. That’s where I learned to be a human being in this world.”
Duff, 74, is the author of 16 books, including the 2012 collection of short stories “Decoration Day,” with settings ranging from Nederland and East Texas to Memphis and Washington D.C.
One of the short stories, “Blood Cousin,” is the narrative of a college dean named Calvin recounting his time as a youth in Nederland and his cousin, Winston, a former football star for the Nederland High School Bulldogs who had a shot to play for a big-time college but ended up dropping out of high school and doing time for murder. The story is not only set in Nederland, but also mentions Fannett, Polk County and Lamar State College of Technology, where Duff graduated from in 1961.
Duff began his education at Lamar as an engineering student but changed his major to English.
“Everybody that went to Lamar back in those days wanted to be an engineer,” he said. “My first major was electrical engineering. That lasted about two years, and I said, ‘I don’t like this stuff. What I really like doing is writing stories.’”
Although his mother was fine with his change of major, Duff didn’t tell his father.
“My father didn’t know I changed majors until I graduated,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell him. I would have had to explain too much. I didn’t want to have to argue with him.”
After graduating from Lamar with his B.A., Duff earned his M.A. from the University of Arkansas and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He taught at several institutions including Vanderbilt University, John Hopkins University and McKendree College, where he served as Provost, Dean, and Professor of English, before he retired in 2007 after teaching at the university level for 41 years.
Despite moving half way across the country (he currently lives in Lebanon, Ill.), Duff continues to write about his native home.
“Southeast Texas, as a setting, has much more of an emphasis on interrelationships between people than you might have in New York City,” explained Duff, who was born in Beaumont. “In Southeast Texas, it’s impossible to escape having to deal with other people on a regular, close-knit kind of basis. That habit of being around people and knowing a lot about them gives you insights and perspectives you can’t escape.”
Growing up in Southeast Texas, Duff said he remembers hearing stories and gossip amongst folks.
“I listened to people talk all the time, and what they talked about was each other — what happened to this person and what that person did that was wrong and what that person did that was right.”
Duff said that there is a strong sense of family belonging in the area, as well.
“There is an idea of connectedness,” he said. “If you’ve spent anytime in Southeast Texas, you’ve probably heard this happen. Someone will ask you where you are from. You might say, ‘Oh, I’m from Beaumont.’ and they might say, ‘Your name is Jones. Do you know Sally Jones in Beaumont?’ They’re always asking you about connections.”
When asked about the University of Vermont’s recent finding that Beaumont is “the saddest city in America” based on Twitter feeds, Duff said that artistic minds from the area have only used this sadness as a catalyst for their creations.
“If Beaumont’s the saddest city, its artists have made that sadness a virtue, a theme, and a celebration of the human spirit facing up to despair and disappointment,” he said.
The New York Times Bestseller list is comprised of genre works such as romance and science fiction, according to Bowker statistics. In contrast to these genres, Duff said that he chooses to write a realistic style of fiction, and believes that fantasy-based stories will not endure the test of time.
“The characters you see in romance, science fiction and fantasy might be interesting to some degree, but they’re so flat and one dimensional,” he said. “There’s no complexity to them. No one’s going to be reading books written about vampires 50 years from now. People are always going to read William Faulkner.”
Duff said he chooses to write stories about crises that humans experience on a day-to-day basis.
“You write about problems — things that have gone wrong,” Duff said. “If somebody said, ‘I’m a happy man, my wife loves me and I’ve got a good job.’ Well, so what? I don’t want to hear about that. Tolstoy said, ‘Happy families are all alike.’ Unhappy families are the ones that are interesting.”
His novel “Blue Sabine” is a saga about five generations of women set along the Sabine River and chronicles the emotional lives of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and nieces, all bound by kinship and history, according to Duff’s website.
The novel won an award from the Philosophical Society of Texas for the best book of fiction about Texas last February.
His book “Dirty Rice,” a baseball novel set in 1930s Louisiana, is a finalist for ForeWord Reviews book of the year. Duff said that attending baseball games, as a child in Southeast Texas, was an inspiration for the book.
Duff’s latest work is an e-book titled “Fugitive Days,” available for purchase at www.newsouthbooks.com for 99 cents. “Fugitive Days” is a memoir of Duff’s encounters with poets such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Andrew Lytle.
Duff said he is currently writing a book about a reenactment of Custer’s last stand.
“I’m working right now on a comedy about people who are trying to relive that time — which seems to me like a funny thing to be doing,” Duff said.
Duff, who returned to Lamar Thursday on April 18 to speak to students about his works and autograph books, said that it is important for successful authors to return to their roots and try to inspire future authors.
“I enjoy talking to students,” Duff said. “When I was a kid at Lamar, I met my first writer that actually published books. He was not a Lamar graduate, but he came to Lamar and did a reading. I always loved to read, but I had never met a guy that had written a book before. When I saw him, it was fascinating to me. It’s interesting for writers to go back and visit where they came from to see what helped shape and move them. It’s an important and fun thing to do.”
For more information about Duff and his works, visit www.geraldduff.com.