By Weston Ochse
The thought had never crossed my mind. I’d made fun of them in junior high school. I’d stolen girls from them in high school. I was a preppy kid who wore jeans and polo shirts. What the hell did I know from rednecks? Sure, I lived in Tennessee, but I wasn’t from Tennessee.
So when I was walking across the parking lot of the Drake Hotel in Denver for WHC 2001, I didn’t know who the hell the yokel was talking to when he yelled, ‘there’s that redneck guy.’ I swear to you I turned to see who it was, and you know what I discovered? It was me.
Now more than four years later I’m cognizant that our writing styles can create a fiction in the minds of readers that we are what we write. Let me test this theory. When talking about writers, if I say Zombie Guy, who comes to mind? I knew you’d think of him. Case closed. I win.
I was raised reading all the dead white men of literature. I’d been weaned on Shakespeare since I was ten. I spent Sunday evenings watching Masterpiece Theater, stuttering through months of I, Claudius, yawning through Bronte, and sneaking peaks at Thor and Hulk while Dickens played morality plays. I was raised for better things. I was taught to never say ‘dang.’ I’ve never had sex with a cousin. So why did I become a redneck?
Because I asked for it.
Short version of a long tale. Back in 1999, David Whitman and I decided to get together and write something because our styles at the time were similar. We’d planned to do a slap-dashed chapbook with three stories that we’d probably pay people to read. But a publisher came along who happened to believe in us and asked for, not 3, but 21 stories of ultimately what was titled Scary Rednecks and Other Inbred Horrors. The book placed David and me on the literary map. People knew who we were. Doug Clegg talked smack about my writing. Richard Laymon wanted to meet me. What the hell? Is this how it was supposed to happen?
Then the redneck-seeking man stumbled across my path in the parking lot of the Drake. Then it happened again. And again. And again. Hell! They were everywhere. Sometimes I’d look to see who they were talking to. Sometimes I told them I had no idea what they were talking about. Other times I grumbled and ignored them. Sometimes I smiled and said, ‘Yep, that’s me.’ I’m not smart enough to be able to diagnose my psychosis, but I do know that I was fighting the appellation tooth and nail. I did not want to be that redneck guy. I was smarter than that.
SO THEN WHY WAS EVERYONE CALLING ME A REDNECK?!!
They told me, they being the mystical they that say everything, that because I wrote the stories and am known for the book I’ll forever be known as a redneck.
“How can that be?” I asked.
“Better writers than you have suffered similar fates,” they said as they then proceeded to tell me of Robert McCammon who was known as a HORROR WRITER but wanted to be just a WRITER. When they wouldn’t let him publish what ultimately became Speaks the Nightbird a dozen years later because it wasn’t HORROR, he quit writing. Now this shook me, because as a self respecting writer of horror, I not only knew McCammon, but had erected a shrine to him in a dark corner of my apartment where Wolf’s Hour and They Thirst were constantly caressed with the small bones of animals, only surpassed by Boy’s Life which held the place of honor and got first blood for every virgin sacrifice.
At that point I figured there was nothing I could do. So at conventions and signings when people shouted to the Redneck Man, I raised my hand and waved. I knew how to play with others. I got an A- in behavior. I could do this easy. And when an independent film company said they wanted to make a movie of my redneck story Catfish Gods I said okay. And when the sequel collection called Appalachian Galapagos was published, I grinned mightily and embraced the redneck. And now that Scary Rednecks is being republished in hardback by Delirium, I am pretty happy.
So why the turnaround? What was my epiphany? Nothing more than this– if I am the casualty of my success, then at least I’ve had success. And it was as simple as that. After four years I am embracing my inner redneck. If you call to me across a parking lot saying, “There’s the Redneck Man,” I’ll come and shake your hand proudly and ask how you’re doing.
To this day Redneck Stories comprise about a quarter of my published works. To some I will always be a redneck. To others I’ll be known as the guy who created Billy Bones who spoke in palindromes and anagram to confuse the voices in his head from the novel Scarecrow Gods. To future fans and friends I’ll be known as a the guy who created the misunderstood Hawaiian Bouncer named Kimo from Recalled to Life or Warrant Officer Rudy Ray Moore who only wanted to get rich in Iraq from Babylon Smiles. But I’m not kidding myself. The redneck will endure. Look at Ed Lee or Joe Landsdale. They are the Demi-Kings of Redneckdom. If I am but a knight, then I’m happy to be in the company of two successful, skilled and popular authors who have been able to, not only maintain the mantle of redneck, but add more mantles to their broad literary shoulders.
The Zombie Guy I mentioned earlier, did you think Brian Keene? I thought so. Brian and I are great friends. Less than twenty percent of his
work is Zombie, yet for many of you that is how you identify him. Zombie websites across the globe talk-up his Zombiefication of the genre. Nigerian book readers are probably asking for the third book of the Rising Trilogy, assuming that Keene only does Zombies. But we know better. We know how amazing Terminal was. We know that he can get as redneck as yours truly in his short stories. We know that he is more than the sum of his Zombies.
So what does this mean to you? Don’t worry about what you write. Just write well, write often, and have editors who are smarter than you advise you on how to better your craft. If people begin to identify you with your work then you’ve done something great. Doing something great is good right? So do you want to be a redneck? It’s worked for me. If not I hear Zombies are hot now.