From NYC to the Low Country
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
by Suzanne Hudson
Photo (book launch party, 2003, Langham & Company, Manhattan, NYC) by Kevin D’Amico
My old friend from Brewton, Keith Langham, did it up right, by gum. A high-end interior designer with his own showroom in New York, he graciously offered to throw a fancy-pants, sure enough, fit for a bestseller (which I shall never be), NYC book “gala,” with Chippendale’s-style bartenders (bow ties, cuffs & links, no shirts, buff, you get the picture), to-die-for hors d’oeuvres, live music (thank you, Grayson Capps), and attendance by a bunch of rich folks whom I did not know from Adam. He even sent out formal invitations. “Southern in the City,” they began, and inside each envelope, along with the details, were some pine needles because, Keith said, “People in Manhattan simply won’t show up if there’s not something My old friend from Brewton, Keith Langham, did it up right, by gum. A high-end interior designer with his own showroom in New York, he graciously offered to throw a fancy-pants, sure enough, fit for a bestseller (which I shall never be), NYC book “gala,” with Chippendale’s-style bartenders (bow ties, cuffs & links, no shirts, buff, you get the picture), to-die-for hors d’oeuvres, live music (thank you, Grayson Capps), and attendance by a bunch of rich folks whom I did not know from Adam. He even sent out formal invitations. “Southern in the City,” they began, and inside each envelope, along with the details, were some pine needles because, Keith said, “People in Manhattan simply won’t show up if there’s not something fun in the envelope!”
It was my first novel, In a Temple of Trees (ergo the pine needles), in 2003, and I was so caught up in the thrill of publication of a first novel (nothing ever rivals it in thrilliness), that the showroom party was like being named princess for a day (though Keith might prefer “fairy princess”). It was a room full of well-heeled, well-dressed, well-everythinged sophisticates, right down to the skinny lady in the skinny little black designer dress with the teeny-tiny teacup dawg in her black and white Kate Spade purse. I live on a creek bank, people . . .
But it was so much fun, from the music to the people-watching--it’s kinda like Mardi Gras in New Orleans; everybody ought to do it, just once. Some old friends were there: Sonny Brewer, Tommy Franklin, Bennie Colvin, Cindy Sasser Sanders (Keith’s cousin, who rode the train up with Bennie and me, since I do NOT fly, for anyone), Joe Formichella (presciently), Jennifer Paddock . . . and some new ones, like Grayson’s lady friend Trina Shoemaker, and another one who was part of the publisher, MacAdam/Cage’s stable: Chip Livingston, a great guy. I remember drinking a good bit of bourbon, stumbling in a pothole while scrambling for a cab to the after-party, and hopping around on one foot for the rest of the late night, all exhilaration in spite of the pain. Bennie taped my ankle up like an injured football player’s for the train ride back south.
Right now, I’m sitting on a vast but cozy screened-in back porch, looking out over lush, grassy swampland, where the web of streams and canals once-upon-a-time shielded and camouflaged sea-pirates and other rogues and outliers, over centuries of South Carolina Gullah spirit, on the outer banks of life itself. One lone wind chime is a metronome to the rich variety of birdsongs and calls to the breezes, chattering, lilting, warblers, blue Jays, a buzzing of hummingbirds. The brush of wind against barely clacking saw palmetto, cattails nodding, the whispering of cord grasses and broom sedge giving a soulful, living texture to the afternoon. It is a long damn way from Manhattan.
Colin and Gail Ramsay are the travelers we befriended when we came to the late Carl T. Smith’s memorial/celebration on St. Helena Island, in the spring of 2017, hosted by his widow, Archer Lee, his son Chris, and family friends Joe and Nancy Dennis. Stories were shared, from raucous to sentimental, and Carl’s ashes were scattered to the aqua and blue-green currents off the Dennis’s pier. The Ramsays, two delightful Scots, temporarily based on these outer banks, hosted us at their home on the island. Also fans of Carl T.’s Sam Larkin low country mystery books (Low Country Boil, Louisiana Burn, Carolina Fire, Matthew’s Island), they were aware that my husband Joe had assured Carl, battling cancer, that he would complete Carl’s last novel in the series, tying up loose ends, giving satisfaction to his legion of fans, bringing his fiction full circle. “Stay here anytime,” the Ramsays said, “and work on the book, whether we’re here or not.” And so we are dedicated house-sitters in this paradise, where you don’t even have to take the trash out to the street; the dang sanitation workers come around back and even put a new liner in the can. And that’s just the dad gum trash. There are trails to ride among the grasses, live oaks drizzling Spanish moss over swamp dogwood. There are brilliant sunsets, vibrantly framing the sailboats, gulls, and egrets that wander the tides. There are spacious accommodations and a pool, so that we can get our swimming in. It’s a no-brainer, this gig, of course--would be a no-brainer even if Colin and Gail were not the kindest, most easygoing folks you can know.
It is, truly, a long way from Manhattan. And it’s been fifteen years since that first novel came out. Joe and I found each other, married, made long lasting friendships, and feel autonomous and at ease in this writing life, more so than ever, now that we are both retired from our day jobs. We’ve had some disappointments along the way, but nothing ugly enough to diminish the path we know best--creating, collaborating with other artists, making a bend of the Fish River into a place of honesty and generosity of spirit. And because of that spirit, we find ourselves in certain other places--paradises--like this one. Karma is a thing . . .
During that festive 2003 trip to New York City, a group of us authors and friends made a pilgrimage to the Algonquin Hotel, sat at the Round Table and toasted the day, the openness, the feeling of possibilities, reveling in the literary fabric, the soul of the place. We toasted Keith Langham, for his generosity and exuberance in feting li’l ol’ me--outrageous, over-the-top Keith, with the huge golden heart (not to mention a sweet Midas touch). This evening, here in this kaleidoscope of nature, on this precious land that a Carolina author rooted into his books, Joe and I will raise a glass to one Carl T. Smith, a dear friend, who did one of the most generous things ever. He entrusted his heart, his words, to my husband, who, as those who know his “process” can attest, cannot work without first having a title. Carl had neither title nor outline, just 200-odd pages of story. However, during a brainstorming session last evening, we came up with a title, kind of a perfect one: St. Helena’s Ashes. Here’s to you, Carl. And to Keith. And to every kind and generous soul in between and amongst us, who genuinely knows truth of spirit, can conceive of nothing phony or opportunistic or deceitful--nothing worth bartering a soul, a sense of self, to acquire. Here’s to you.