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Telling Tales South of the 'Mason-Diction' Line : Books: Southerners seem to have a deep-seated need to express themselves.

November 23, 1989

"I grew up in Macon, which I am told is the exact center of Georgia, but I moved North. I moved to Maryland, which I consider the North, and it was in Maryland that I realized just how Southern I am. I missed the flavor of Georgia tomatoes; the red clay; the way rain smells on a warm street; the way you see a farmer off in a field on a tractor, and you don't know him and he don't know you, but you beep and he waves and it's just people. I had this craving for the longest time before I realized it was (for) grits."

McLaurin also referred to this craving for roots. "I'm from Fayetteville (N.C.). I'm the first in my family to go away, to go to college. I've lived in Africa, I've lived around . . . but those 70 acres are home eternal."

And he pulled a small pouch out of his pocket, and drew out a plastic bag. "My brother sent me this," McLaurin said. "It's home dirt. And I've carried it with me for eight years."

Special Moments

There were moments of awe-inspiring solemnity, such as during one seminar on the revolution in Southern historical writing. Stooped Thomas D. Clark, nearing 90, spoke with passion of seeing small black children lynched, and of the breathtaking illumination of the South by rural electric power.

But for the most part, the Southern Festival of Books ended as it began, with talk. Talk about books, talk about great themes and techniques, talk about talk, and just plain old talk.

And some of the funniest stories had to do with how everyone in the South, even those who don't write yet, think they can. Josephine Humphreys, who says she has to force herself to write 300 pages, told of being greeted by the owner of a gas station who said he had just written a 900-page novel--on "the daily life of a gas station operator."

Even more popular was the one about the retired admiral who phoned her urgently saying he needed help reorganizing a vital book he'd written about the welfare system in America.

"We have to get it out before the elections," he said. "I've got all the work done. The only problem is the form it's in--I need someone to help me edit it."

"What form is it in?" Humphreys asked.

"Limericks," he answered. "Eighty-two limericks."

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