Author Robb Grindstaff discusses a subject that informs much of his writing.
CULTURE: The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society. – Oxford Dictionary
SUBCULTURE: A cultural group within a larger culture, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the larger culture. – Oxford Dictionary
One of the questions all writers hear frequently is some variation of, “What’s your book about?” or the more general version of that question, “What do you write about?”
A brief synopsis of the plot might be in order—the elevator pitch that you would give an agent or publisher who wants to know the gist of the story in thirty seconds or less. Maybe the questioner is inquiring about the basic theme of one book.
At a higher level, the big-picture view, it can be a question that’s deeper than about one book. What does an author write about? What overarching elements or messages pervade a particular writer’s books? Mark Twain wrote about the Mississippi River and characters who inhabited that locale during 1800s America when slavery was legal. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the upper crust of society in the roaring twenties and the disillusionment with the American Dream. Jane Austen looked at the natural tension between individualism and the individual’s responsibility to society, romantic imagination versus rational reality.
In a recent interview, someone asked me what I write about—that bigger picture, overarching view that drives my short stories and novels. I stumbled through an unsatisfactory answer. That question has banged around in my mind ever since. One story of mine might not have anything in common with another. Different characters, different settings, different plots. Nope, nothing in common.
A few months after that interview, the “a-ha” moment hit. I thought of the right answer when I realized the common thread that runs through most of my work.
I write about unique, and uniquely American, subcultures. Whatever the plot of any of my stories might be, I tend to set these stories in some particular American subculture, and populate the stories with characters from that group.
For a more in-depth definition of terms, I turned to Kim Cochran Kiesewetter, associate professor of sociology at Sandhills College in North Carolina.
In Sociology In Focus, Ms. Kiesewetter writes, “Culture, in a nutshell, is everything that is not nature. Culture is the common beliefs, values, traditions, symbols, and behaviors a group of people in a given society share. Culture is big…and kind of vague.”
She goes on to describe subculture as “smaller groups of people with unique-to-them beliefs, values, traditions, symbols, and behaviors they share with one another that still function relatively smoothly within larger culture.”
In my novel Hannah’s Voice [Evolved Publishing, January 2013], a young girl grows up in a small, rural community in North Carolina within a traditional if somewhat fundamentalist Christian church. Even within that particular group, differences arise over Hannah’s situation. As the story progresses, Hannah eventually appears on a national television news program, and attends college in Washington, D.C. The differences between the larger culture (New York, the nation’s capital, TV journalism, university life, politics) and the subculture (rural south, Bible belt, close-knit families and communities) rise to the surface. Conflicts erupt between different groups of people who view the same situation through polar opposite subcultural lenses.
In my next novel, Carry Me Away [Evolved Publishing, September 2013], the main character, Carrie, is the biracial, bicultural daughter of a U.S. Marine officer and a Japanese mother. Carrie grows up as a military brat—living most of her youth abroad, on military bases and in the military environment, and also coming to terms with her Japanese roots and cultural identity. Sonoran Dreams, my self-published collection of short stories, is built on the rugged individualism of the people living in the Arizona desert.
I’ve had the great fortune in my life to live in different places, in and out of the U.S. I have lived among, and been a part of, several different American subcultures. I would argue that there is no singular “American culture” as such, but a collection of subcultures that live together in various degrees of harmony and tension, give and take, ebb and flow. Each is a colorful piece of cloth. They’re all stitched together into this marvelous quilt we call home.
Having been a part of several subcultures, I strive to dig a little deeper than the stereotypes and caricatures we often see in popular entertainment. Each subculture is made up of human beings, people with big hearts and giant flaws, wonderful, loving and kind people, as well as the selfish and greedy and deluded.
So to answer that interview question from a few months back: What do I write about? The overarching quest that drives most of my stories is to shine a light on the intriguing lives of various American subcultures.
The American quilt is complex and beautiful. Each square is a setting for a thousand stories, and contains an infinite number of real characters.
Sometimes, however, a quilt may become frayed and start to unravel.
Robb Grindstaff’s second novel, Carry Me Away, officially launches on Monday, September 23rd, but is already available at most online retailers. For more information, CLICK HERE.