The opening scene of She’s Gone Country: Dispatches from a Lost Soul in the Heart of Dixie (Vintage Books, 288 pp., $13 pb.) pretty much sets the tone of Kyle Spencer’s entire quasi-fictionalized memoir. In it, she describes herself sitting at pig pickin’ in the backyard of a mansion, a party held in her honor to welcome this East Village native as a cub reporter at The News & Observer, where she worked for about two years (presumably in the late 1990s, though she never says). “My new editor is telling everyone that I’m the most exciting thing that has arrived in North Carolina since General Sherman,” she writes. She plays putt-putt with Michael Jordan, gets a hug from Tammy Faye Bakker, and French kisses James Taylor. And she tells the unnamed mayor of Raleigh, whom she describes as “a Bobby Brady look-alike” (presumably Tom Fetzer) why she graced his city with her presence. “For me, adventure has always meant the sticks,” she announces to a cheering audience.
It’s all a fantasy, of course. But it’s hard to tell how much more of a fantasy it is than the rest of the book. Spencer opens with a disclaimer: People and events in the book are exaggerated and in certain cases manufactured. It’s a device that has gotten the author into some hot water. While about a dozen reviews of the book have dubbed it funny and entertaining, local readers have been aghast.
The News & Observer slammed it in its Sunday books section. “She’s Gone Country is silly, tacky, pathetic, and mean-spirited–all of which would make it a vastly entertaining book if it were also funny,” wrote Julia Ridley Smith. “But it’s not.”
“The South of which Spencer is so concerned is, of course, not the South of reality but of Northern ignorance and bigotry,” wrote Paul O’Conner in the Winston-Salem Journal. “It’s a string of clichés complete with characters named Bobo and people screaming ‘hee haw.’”
These reviews raise myriad criticisms: Spencer comes across as utterly self-absorbed. She reveals way too much about her parents’ messy divorce. She brags about having sex with her sources, and uses the “exaggeration” device to aggrandize her own journalistic accomplishments to the belittlement of her colleagues at The N&O. But none of these criticisms strikes quite as ringing a chord as the accusation that Spencer’s portrayal of the South is bewilderingly off-key. The charge is not so much that she is clueless about Southern culture as she is intentionally misrepresenting it, portraying North Carolina as a backwater in order to play up her urbanite sophistication.
In his review, O’Conner accused Spencer of a “lie of omission” for not mentioning anywhere in the book that she earned her bachelor’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. “Her failure to reveal her college roots is only the first of her violations of [journalistic] ethics,” he says.
“To put it bluntly,” wrote Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post (a newspaper that had apparently offered Spencer a job at the end of her N&O stint, which she turned down to write the book), “Spencer’s portrait of Raleigh rings almost entirely untrue.” Yardley stresses that a metro area of one million people is hardly country, “as she must have dimly realized” during her two years of living here. “Of the four claims made in the title and subtitle of this book, only one is accurate,” he says. “That Kyle Spencer is a ‘lost soul’ is, on the evidence she herself presents, beyond dispute. But the rest, just like about everything else in the book, is baloney.”
Spencer says she can’t understand what the fuss is about. In a recent phone interview with The Independent, she explained that the book is, after all, meant to be about her, a fish-out-of-water single-girl-in-the-city tale, and not an analysis of the South. The following represents a condensed version of that conversation.
The Independent: Can you talk a little bit about the title? Raleigh isn’t exactly the “Heart of Dixie.”
Kyle Spencer: No, I guess if you could raise a criticism for me, I would say yes, that is true. I wouldn’t consider Raleigh to be totally the heart of Dixie. But the title in general–I don’t know if you’re familiar with this Alan Jackson song, “She’s Gone Country.” That song basically makes fun of all these Northerners, like this guy who plays Bob Dylan songs in the East Village and decides that maybe he’ll make a lot of money being a country singer.
So is it meant to be self-deprecating?
Oh, totally. The idea is that people come down and are like, “I’m country now.” And I know that a lot of Southerners find that infuriating, so much so that this country singer wrote a song about it. I feel like a lot of people keep telling me, “North Carolina’s not really Southern anymore. You think you’re in the South, but you’re not in the South.” Well, if you’re a New Yorker and you grew up in SoHo, North Carolina’s Southern. Anything that’s south of the Holland Tunnel is Southern. New Yorkers are so provincial. You tell a New Yorker that you’re going to Philadelphia and they freak out. I was calling up my friends in New York and they’re like, “Come home! What are you doing there?” Or they didn’t know whether I was in North Carolina or South Carolina, to this day.
I want to give you the chance to respond to some of the reviews that you’ve gotten. Many of them have been positive, but there are a few that were extremely critical.
Someone read a little bit of the Winston-Salem Journal review to me and I said, “Stop.” I can’t read that. And I guess The News & Observer ran a negative review, but I have to confess to you, I did not read the review. One of the things that happens when you write books is, you don’t read the bad reviews. It can be painful. Not in a personal way, it can just undermine your confidence. You write the book and then you send it out there, and people have every right to love it or hate and have lots of different feelings about it. You’re certainly not going to write for the reviewers, so you just do your thing. So I know what some of the criticisms are, but I can’t comment directly on a review I haven’t read.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, the reviewer brought up the fact that you went to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergrad. Why did you omit that from the book?
I wrote an exaggerated memoir. In my book on the title page it says “based on a true story.” And on the fourth page of the book I have a disclaimer where I basically tell my reader, “Hey, I made a lot of stuff up here because I thought it would make a good story.” I didn’t write about when I was in college. I was writing just about my culture shock of coming to North Carolina. I was in Chapel Hill for 2 and a half years. I was there my freshman and sophomore years. I spent 2 and a half years in Europe and came back for six months of my senior year and graduated. You don’t get a Southern experience going to Chapel Hill, and the divide between the in-staters and the out-of-staters is so big. But that’s not important. What’s important is that I wrote an exaggerated memoir–you put in what you want and leave out what you don’t want, and that’s the way it is.
So you did that in order to make it a stronger story?
Definitely, I think it was a much stronger story. And I don’t think it matters. If I’d had some great Southern experiences while I was in Chapel Hill, then I definitely would have put it in. But I didn’t. The book’s really a fun, light read. To take it in any other way is just not in the spirit of the book. If I’d written some tome on Southern culture, I could say you might have some issues.
Why did you decide to go the memoir route instead of the novel route?
Because a lot of it’s true. I hemmed and hawed with my editors about this for a long time. It’s a really interesting issue: What do you do when you have a story that’s mostly true? I didn’t want to keep it totally true. The way that the narrative and the arc went, I wanted to have some sort of liberty to either change characters who I was concerned about their identity being known, or just to create a funnier story. I have no problem with people having an issue with that genre, with people saying, “I don’t like exaggerated memoirs. I don’t think anybody should write a half-truth.” You can definitely argue that.
I think part of the reason they were expressing this opinion is that you are coming from a journalism background, and writing about things you wrote in the newspaper.
When you’re a newspaper reporter and you put something in the paper, you have a contract with your reader. And the contract is, this is all true. All these quotes are true. These people really said what they said, and these people really exist. I think everybody pretty much understands when they pick up the paper that that’s the case. Well, when you write a book, it’s a totally different thing. I think it’s a mistake to ask somebody who is writing a book to follow the same rules that somebody who’s writing a newspaper article would follow. You really have a lot more leeway writing books than you do when you’re a newspaper reporter. Which is why I wrote the book. Because I would see these characters and think, “Oh my God, this is such a great story,” and I couldn’t get it in the newspaper.
How did the people you used to work with at The N&O respond to the book, particularly your mentor editor?
He sent me an e-mail and said that he liked it. And another woman who’s in the book came to one of my readings and said she really liked it. A bunch of people from the paper came to some of my readings.
What sort of response have you had from people who haven’t been to North Carolina, who maybe read your book and that was their impression of the place?
They love it. I think that the book is very well received by people who have more my point of view, who would look at North Carolina as an outsider. It’s interesting to look at the demographic. These two newspapers in North Carolina didn’t like it, but all these other newspapers outside North Carolina liked it, which I think is really telling and interesting. People don’t always like an outsider to talk about their place.