“Alabama Noir” Celebrates the Cotton State’s Literary History

Homebound? Banish any boredom with a descent into Alabama Noir. Edited by Don Noble, the new collection joins the award-winning series of setting-based noir collections from Akashic Books. The stories here are anchored in the backwoods of northern Alabama to historic Black communities along the gulf coast. The diction varies from “What an insidious pogrom this petulant pareidolia wages against us!” to the colloquial description of a gun in the same story, “It’ll bark over here and bite over yonder.”

Noir as a genre is characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Don Noble, a retired professor from the University of Alabama, a staple reviewer for Alabama Public Radio, has edited twelve other collections, three of which are short fiction by Alabamians. Noble graciously answered my questions via an appropriate socially distant email.

This deep lush mysterious deep green in this book jacket is the South to me. I can feel the moisture, the lurking characters in the undergrowth. The stories range to the towns and the Alabama coast. Was it your first choice?

I was sorely tempted by a photo of Yellow Mama, the Alabama state electric chair, but it was too specific. It would have related perfectly to Ravi Howard’s story but not the volume in general.

You have edited three other collections of stories from Alabamians. What attracted you to create a collection of noir stories by Alabama authors for Akashic Press? Is it a genre you particularly enjoy?

I am a fan of the short story for all the traditional reasons — intensity, brevity. The volumes came naturally. New writers seemed natural. I am a great fan of comic fiction, novels and stories, British and American, so A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama (2008) was a natural. Joe Taylor at Livingston Press had done a volume by women and wanted another. He asked me to edit and I included my wife, Jennifer Horne, as co-editor. She is the Poet Laureate of Alabama and had published a volume of stories, Tell the World You’re a Wildflower: Stories (2014). I became aware of the noir series when I reviewed Franklin’s “Mississippi Noir” and applied for the job.

The musical accompaniment ends with a particularly dire song by Hank Williams, “The Angel of Death”. This is obscure compared to the other musical choices. Were there other songs you considered for the finale?

Seriously, is there a better noir title than “The Angel of Death”? That idea came from the Hank biography that I reviewed. I bought the complete Hank Williams and listened to them endlessly. The other titles I chose were his most popular.

Recently you reviewed Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, a book focused on the criminal justice system in Alabama. In “The Good Thief,” the Ravi Howard, the author, has a cook bake in the prison for a death row inmate. Comment on the author’s possible motive in writing about death row in Alabama.

Ravi had a novel about Nat King Cole. Much of it takes place in Holman prison. It was much on his mind. When you ask writers to whip you up a story you will get what is on their minds right then.

Your book reviews often focus on why writers are concerned with their subjects and how they succeed or fail in addressing issues of concern to Alabama readers. In 2000 Alabama’s constitution was finally amended to remove language prohibiting interracial marriage. Nearly 526,000 people voted against the amendment, including most voters in some rural counties. In “Xenia, Queen of the Dark” by Thom Gossom Jr., the stalker focuses on two hot issues for Alabama, abortion and interracial sex. How well does Gossom echo reality?

Interracial dating/marriage in Alabama is culturally schizophrenic as is a lot of Deep South culture. A mixed race couple in a restaurant attracts very little attention–these days no remarks or stares. In Gadsden, where I taught once night a week for 20 years, my students, white high school teacher middle aged ladies, would proudly show me pictures of their mixed-race grandbabies. They loved them perfectly. This does not mean that the folk are really OK with it or would vote FOR mixed race couples if asked. It’s complicated, as everyone knows.

Abortion may be clearer. Most Alabamians cannot bring themselves to accept women’s reproduction rights.

From your biography, it seems you came to love Southern literature living in New York and studying at SUNY, then came to UNC at Chapel Hill, and came to the University of Alabama to stay. Tell me about your love of the South.

I do not have a typical “love for the South.” If you are a born and bred Southerner, you know that one can never BECOME a Southerner. I joke (half joke) that I am here on an extended visa. A literary green card. BUT I find it endlessly fascinating, complicated, conflicted, I have lived in North Carolina and here 54 years. I have no intention of moving.

What is your next project? Are you considering editing another focused collection?

If Alabama Noir does well, I hope Akashic will contract for an “Alabama Femmes Fatale” volume. A large number of women have asked to contribute. If Akashic says no, we may do it anyway.

Looking at your body of work, I am overwhelmed by the number of book reviews, in print and on “Bookmark” for Alabama Public Radio. As a beginning book reviewer, what advice would you give me?

My first advise is DO IT. There are so few reviewers these days. Authors have a terrible time getting any attention. I do NOT read faster than other people. But one must be relentless. It is important to read every day. If you read 50 pages a day for six days, you have done a 300-page book. No magic there. Since few Alabamians want to be professional explainers of literature, this has left the field fairly wide open. When I tell my old buddies in New York that I review a book by an Alabamian every week for Alabama Public Radio, they simply don’t believe it. But it’s true. The production of fine writing by Alabamians is astounding.

Alabama Noir
Edited by Don Noble
Akashic Books
Published April 7, 2020