A family of German expatriates finds themselves in the sweet tea-consuming, churchgoing land of Delilah, Alabama in Genevieve Hudson’s debut novel, Boys of Alabama. Young Max is welcomed with open arms, especially when the football team discovers his talent for running. Little do they know, however, that Max has another secret gift – he can resurrect the dead.
When Max falls in with Pan, who is referred to as the local witch, he finally finds someone he can confide in about his miraculous talent. But other factors start interfering with their budding relationship, not the least of which is Max’s involvement with the Judge, a charismatic man running for office who has secrets of his own. Torn between two worlds, Max must make a choice. Both worlds contain magic, but what kind of magic does Max want to get himself involved in?
I recently spoke with Hudson about the novel’s treatment of identity, contrast, and the book’s dynamic characters. We also discussed what inspired Boys of Alabama and how the author’s own experience in Alabama shaped the work.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was the first element of this story to come to you? Was it a character, an image, a storyline?
The two main characters, Max and Pan, came to me first. I saw a deep connection that felt fated for tragedy. I wrote many early scenes with these two boys, trying to figure them out and get to know them. There is something beautiful but also tragic in the way they love each other. Their dynamic was the first thing that came to life for me. It wasn’t until years later that the rest of the book grew up around it and settled into place and plot.
In a book filled with contrasts, few are as apparent as the contrast between Max’s family’s German background and the culture of the Deep South they are thrust into. Why was it important to make Max’s family so alien to Alabama?
Alabama is where I grew up, and at times it felt like I was too close to the place to see it clearly. I wanted to introduce an element of defamiliarization. I wanted the narrator to be confronted with this new place, the Deep South, having already developed an identity outside of it. They can see the allure, the romanticism, the violence, and the contradictions as a stranger. Having this outside gaze felt important to the heart of the story.
The search for identity is integral to the story of Boys of Alabama. Max arrives at his new home as a blank slate in many ways, and the different people who wind their way through his life each shape him in some way. Who do you think leaves the largest and most lasting impression on Max, and why is their impact so significant?
Great question. I think Max is desperate for love and approval and for this reason, I am tempted to say that it is the Judge that impacts him in the deepest way. The Judge is an authority figure who is adored by his community and who has earned people’s trust. Max is attracted to his power, and I think there is part of Max that believes if someone powerful can approve of him and love him, then that is enough to make him lovable. To make him good. But Max must ask himself how much acceptance is worth and at what cost. Can he turn a blind eye to other things about the Judge if it means he is welcomed into their circle?
Where did the character of The Judge come from? What do you think makes him such a terrifying and influential figure in the story?
The Judge isn’t based on anyone real. But he was modeled after the kind of men I’ve seen whose intentions might be good, but whose fundamentalism and thirst for power eschews any kind of nuance and becomes dangerous, even deadly. I think what makes him such a terrifying figure is the fact that he is willing to put other people’s lives at risk in order to maintain his belief system as well as his power. This is also part of what makes him so influential. He is magnetic and can be kind and intuitive, but he will not listen to reason and he is ready to use his power to punish those unlike him.
Before Boys of Alabama, you wrote a collection of short stories. What inspired the shift to novel writing? Have you found it to be a drastically different process, or are there more similarities than differences when it comes to writing short fiction and novels?
I was actually working on my story collection and novel at the same time. And before writing Boys of Alabama, I tried my hand at a few other novels, none of which ultimately came to fruition. The novel is such a long process. It takes years of your life, and while there are similarities to short story writing, of course, you change so much more as a person over the course of writing a novel than over the course of writing a short story (of course some short stories also take years to write). I think those changes shape the novel you’re writing, which is interesting to see. I would often take breaks from novel writing to write short stories. Having a sense of accomplishment, of finishing something, always feels good in the midst of such a long project like the novel.
You’re from Alabama, which makes the Alabama in your story ring even more true. The way you portray Alabama is neither romantic nor disparaging. Did you find it was easier to write about Alabama once you moved away? Did writing about it bring back feelings of nostalgia, or was the writing journey one of making sense out of your former home?
Yes, I definitely found it easier to write about Alabama after leaving it. I’m glad to hear you thought my portrayal was nuanced. That was my hope above all else. I found that I missed Alabama while writing about it, and when I would go back to visit family while I was writing the novel, I would drive around and record notes, naming what I saw around me. That was a moving experience, to really look at a place that was so familiar. To see the texture of the dirt, the hot pink of the sky at dusk, to listen to the cicadas. There were other things, too, that were harder to look at, of course. To answer the last part of your question, I think writing about Alabama was both nostalgic and helped me make sense of my former home, which was not what I set out to do, but was a welcome part of the journey.
Boys of Alabama
By Genevieve Hudson
Published May 19, 2020