Where are you from?
Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., a blue-collar Piedmont city. My dad worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Lived most of my adult life in Carrboro, N.C., an old mill town that became the South’s most liberal village.
Who are your favorite writers?
Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
Wallace, the obscene, hilarious, unsurpassingly insightful portrait of George Wallace in the ’60s by the underappreciated Southern journalist Marshall Frady. And Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which proved that political reporting could be more honest than polite.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
I used to be a competitive golfer, and still follow the game with a shameless and sad avidity. I am also an ardent hiker, and I collect political memorabilia. If anybody needs a few extra Fred Thompson ’08 buttons and pamphlets, give me a holler.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
On my first paper, The Independent Weekly in North Carolina, we had a reporter who always got the most amazing quotes. I asked her how. “You have to convince people that you have never wanted to hear anything as much as what they have to say,” she said. It works.
What is your favorite quote?
H. L. Mencken: “The only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.”
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
It’s some variation of this: “Don’t you understand how intractably conservative these Southerners really are?” To which I can answer with a whole bunch of statistics from the book showing how progressive even older white Southerners can be on economic and environmental questions, and showing the demographic trends toward more influence for more progressive younger whites, blacks, and Hispanics. But I also answer by noting that nobody in the United States has been asked to change more than Southerners, white and black, in the forty-four years since the Civil Rights Act. And nobody has changed as dramatically, in the right direction, on their attitudes toward race. An apartheid society has turned into a peacefully biracial society—with more black elected officials and middle-class blacks than any other region of the country—in a pretty short time. That shows some serious capacity to change.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I have been a politics junkie since I was nine years old, stretched out in front of the TV for the 1972 elections, with a particular jones for Southern politics. I’ve grown increasingly mystified, through the decades, about the national Democratic Party’s aversion to competing in the South—and I wanted to explore the roots of that aversion. By the time I decided to write Blue Dixie, though, the demographic and ideological profile of Southerners was changing enough that I could also write about the Democrats’ undeniably bright future in the region.
Where do you write?
I write best on airplanes and in hotel rooms, preferably while chewing Nicorette and swilling Red Bull. If it weren’t for 727s and Holiday Inns I would not have had a book.