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Arts & Culture

Novel ‘How Fire Runs’ Looks At White Supremacy In Appalachia

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Racially motivated terrorism spurred by white surpemacists is on the rise in America, according to a U.S. State Department report released this summer.

In a fictional story based in eastern Tennessee, author Charles Dodd White explores this issue in his new novel “How Fire Runs” which looks at what happens when a group of white supremacists come to town. The twist is, they aren’t there to march and protest, but to attempt to gain local political power while setting up their own “racially pure enclave.”

White spoke with Eric Douglas by Zoom to discuss the novel and the inspirations behind the story.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Explain to me the premise behind “How Fire Runs.”

White: “How Fire Runs” is a novel that essentially imagines what it would be like for white supremacists to come into a contemporary east Tennessee community. One that has, like much of the southeast in general, a checkered history, racially speaking, and yet is kind of forward thinking to a degree. It looks at how you reconcile that when you're confronted with this really ugly manifestation of the kind of the worst parts of the American original sin of racial crimes.

How does that community essentially try to save its own soul? How do they fight these individuals who are not just these kind of errant people out on the periphery, but are actually trying to come in and gain political power? Obviously, we're seeing this, we're seeing exactly that sort of story playing out. Neo-Nazis and white power movements are in the news on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Douglas: When did you start writing this?

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White: I started writing it right after the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. People are really more confidently and precisely calling white supremacy, white supremacy. But we started to see a lot of things about white nationalism and Christian nationalism, these kind of code words for this kind of extremist ideology. It seemed to be something of the moment, but it was also something that bothered me. I mean, for obvious reasons. I always feel like good fiction comes from the things that bother the writer. What are the things that will compel them to explore the different aspects and really make it reflect the world truthfully?

Douglas: What's been some of the reaction? You said this is in eastern Tennessee, where you live? What's been some of the reaction to the story?

White: It's been very positive. As far as the reviews, they see it as being very reflective of things as they are today. I think maybe one of the reasons people were hesitant when the book came out in October, was that it was right before the presidential election. I've been asked about that. Was that on purpose? I knew it was coming out then, but I don't think that these problems are limited to November. If anything, I think a lot of these subterranean tensions are maybe more activated now more than ever.

Douglas: Have all of your previous books been this sort of political thriller?

White: No, this is the first one to kind of wade into this. I mean, they've all been set in Appalachia, in the southeast. This is my second book in East Tennessee, and before that, I had a couple that were in western North Carolina, but the same general neck of the woods. Political life was usually a little bit more buried. I think that this was a case of a book that very much came out of being upset or dissatisfied with the way that the country was going.

Douglas: What do you want your readers to take away from the story?

White: I think the main thing I would want them to take away would be essentially that nothing is fixed, that as dark as the future, or the present, may seem at times, that there are ways that we can do better, there are ways that we can make amends. And I don't even think that it necessarily has to be really that upsetting as soon as you just kind of change your way of looking at the world and understanding that.

Taking Faulkner's quote that “The past is never dead. It's not ever even past.” I think that may be true, but it doesn't mean the future has to be the past as well. I think that we have a way of moving forward and really following our best instincts.

Charles Dodd White lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he is an associate professor of English at Pellissippi State Community College. The book is available through the Ohio University Press.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.


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