Southern Book Tour 2012
When I heard about the chance to be part of a “Southern Book Tour,” I jumped at the chance. After all, I was raised in Virginia, my novel is set in the state, and I have always considered myself a Southerner.
The place I write about—Loudoun County, Va.—and I both have a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to being part of the South.
While outwardly I qualify, I’ve never really been sure if I’m part of the club or not. On the one hand, my credentials are strong. For starters, there’s my name: Robert E. Blackwell—or R.E.B. With initials like that, my parents were definitely trying to send a signal.
We can blame my dad for that. Born and bred in Atlanta, my father impressed upon me the deep roots our family had in the South. There’s been a Robert Blackwell living in the South for more than six generations, including my great-great-grandfather, who surrendered with Confederate General J.E. Johnston’s army in 1865.
My grandfather, meanwhile, was a well respected local figure in Atlanta, helping to found the Northside Youth Organization, which is dedicated to sports (and continues to thrive today). There’s even a field named after him in Chastain Park, one of Atlanta’s most famous parks.
Even though we moved to Virginia when I was less than a year old, I was still so caught up with my Southern heritage, that I cried when I learned as a child that it was the South, not the North, who owned slaves. I really wanted us to be the good guys.
While my paternal side was strongly Southern, my maternal side was not. My mom is a Yankee from Flint, Michigan, whose family fought for the North and who tended to roll her eyes when my dad brought up—yet again—the burning of Atlanta.
Although I lived in Virginia, I found out very quickly that the rest of my classmates didn’t think of themselves as living in the South.
That’s the paradox of life in Northern Virginia, which has slowly but surely lost most of its Southern character in recent decades. Some have jokingly suggested that the entire area should secede from the rest of the state, given its different priorities, demographics, and general attitudes.
While the rest of the state is mostly rural and conservative, Northern Virginia is largely made up of liberal urban suburbanites commuting to Washington, D.C. The fact that President Barack Obama carried Virginia in 2008—the first Democrat to do so in 40 years—was due largely to the rampant population growth in the northern part of the state.
Nowhere is the Virginia identity crisis more apparent, however, than in Loudoun County. When I was growing up 30 years ago, Loudoun was considered solidly part of the rest of Virginia (and, by proxy, the South)—rural, agrarian and socially conservative.
By the time I started working as a reporter in Loudoun in 1997, however, the landscape was shifting. Loudoun was undergoing a population explosion. People were moving further outside the city—commuting longer hours in exchange for a bigger home. With several tech companies, such as AOL, taking up residence there, the area had a sudden influx of relatively well-off suburbanites.
The result, which I watched first hand, was a county in conflict.
The western part of the county remains mostly rural, including family farms and small towns like Aldie and Purcellville. The eastern part, however, has become overrun with housing developments, many catering to the upper middle-class. Places like Cascades and Ashburn feel more like the rest of Northern Virginia, while Middleburg and Purcellville feel like “traditional” Virginia. Leesburg, the capital of Loudoun, is literally both at the same time. Its historical center is now next door to a massive outlet mall.
This dichotomy isn’t really new for Loudoun. Despite the myth that the South was united during the Civil War, there were thousands of Virginians who fought for the North. Indeed, Loudoun boasts the only Union unit from Virginia—the Loudoun Rangers. This cavalry regiment was surrounded in Waterford Baptist Church in 1862, where every man was wounded. They surrendered to men who were, in many cases, former classmates (one Confederate had to be stopped from killing a Ranger prisoner—his own brother).
When I started to write my novel, Loudoun felt like the perfect setting. The book—part murder mystery, part paranormal suspense tale—wouldn’t work in an urban environment. I needed a place rich in atmosphere, with a deep sense of history, but also a nod to modernity. I like books with a strong sense of place. I wanted the setting to be a character in the story—and I wanted that character to be conflicted about who and what it was. Loudoun, and specifically Leesburg, fit the bill only too well.
But until I was asked to write this blog post, I didn’t really stop and consider that part of my fascination with Loudoun stems from my own identity crisis as a Southerner. Like me, Loudoun has a foot in both camps. It has strong roots in the South, but it is becoming more metropolitan and populated by transplants from other regions. I don’t know if it’s properly Southern anymore, but I do think it still considers itself that way.
Which, in the end, pretty well describes me too. My dad would undoubtedly declare me a Southerner, and I’ve always thought of myself as a proud Virginian. I have plenty of Yankee sensibilities, and likely would not conform to the traditional stereotype of a Southerner, but it’s how you choose to define yourself that really matters.
So do I want to be part of the “Southern Book Tour?” Hell, yes, y’all. Just tell me where to sign up.
About the author
Rob Blackwell is a journalist who currently serves as Washington bureau chief for American Banker newspaper. A native of Great Falls, Va., he has worked as a reporter for the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Eastern Loudoun Times and a columnist for the South County Chronicle.
He recently published his first novel, "A Soul to Steal," set in Loudoun County, Va. He has won several Virginia Press Association awards and was co-winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for Business Journalism. He has made several media appearances, including on NPR, BBC, CNBC and C-Span.
He lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.
About the book
You Are What You Fear
Something is stalking the citizens of Loudoun County, Va.
Is it the return of the notorious serial killer known as Lord Halloween? Or is it something worse—a figure that can cloak itself as your worst nightmare?
Kate and Quinn, two community journalists, rush to uncover the truth before a promised bloodbath on Halloween night.
The debut novel from award-winning journalist Rob Blackwell, A Soul to Steal balances mystery, suspense, romance, action and the paranormal, building to a gripping and unforgettable conclusion. For readers who enjoy Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Meyer and Jim Butcher, A Soul to Steal is the perfect autumn novel.
GiveawayCan’t handle the wait to see if you win? Buy a copy of A Soul to Steal!
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