Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living and Writing in the Cape Fear

In rejecting a story of mine a British editor once wrote that if I was serious about writing horror I needed to "get away from that sunny southern coast and spend a few Februaries in the Midlands." After Googling "February in the Midlands" I decided to quit writing horror. Odds are you've seen a lot of Wilmington without realizing it. Or at least the Cape Fear, as the southeastern corner of North Carolina, where Wilmington is located, is known locally. (The way I heard it, the British naval officer charged with charting this bit of the North Carolina coast in 1662 wanted to call the area "Cape Fair" – but after a few attempted colonies failed tragically the name was updated.) The film industry came to the Cape Fear in the 1980s. One website I checked lists over 300 movies and TV series have been shot here in the last thirty years. Films like Firestarter, Weekend at Bernie's, Bedroom Window, Amos & Andrew, and Iron Man 3; TV shows that have tangled local traffic include: Dawson's Creek, Homeland, Matlock, One Tree Hill , Revenge, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, and Under the Dome.
[When I was a school teacher I earned money in the summers working as an extra. I'm seen from behind, lost in the crowd, or just out of the frame in seven movies and twelve episodes of three TV series. However, my face does appear in episode seven of Stephen King's Golden Years and peering over Brian Kerwin's shoulder several times during minutes 15-19 of King Kong Lives.]
My wife Valerie and I did not come to Wilmington for the film industry. In fact, other than my summer jobs and the traffic problems, the film industry had no direct impact on our lives. However, movies and a couple of hurricanes did change the city and its culture profoundly – which in turn affected our family.

We came here thirty years ago because of a career opportunity gave us a choice of relocating to one of three cities: Fayetteville, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. A Marine base, an Army base, or a quiet coastal town of about 50,000. Our first child had just turned two and the town on the coast sounded like the best place to raise a family. What we did not research before moving was the racial tensions in Wilmington. When we moved to the Cape Fear in 1982, we found a beautiful city between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean that had great beaches, wonderful weather, cheap houses, and the unshakable conviction that the year was 1952. Our first house was a craftsman fixer-upper in a predominantly black neighborhood not too many blocks from the river and withing walking distance of the alternative school where I taught.

Schools had not integrated until the 1970s (15 years
after it became federal law) and out of that turmoil came the Wilmington 10 – nine black men and a white woman who had been falsely convicted (and a decade later exonerated) of arson and assault. Seventy-some years before, in 1898, Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only coup d'etat in American history. Up until 1898 Wilmington was 2/3 black and was a progressive, racially mixed business and political community. That was when an organized army of 2,000 white supremacists executed a carefully planned reign of terror and – in the course of a few days – overthrew the elected government, set black neighborhoods and businesses ablaze, murdered between twenty-five and ninety "troublesome" black citizens, and drove middle class black families, black professionals, and whites who supported the black community out of the city.
[In the 1980s I became friends with Jerry Jacobs, seated far right in the picture, and was a pall bearer at his funeral. In 1998 Valerie and I were part of the 1898 Centennial Commission's "Wilmington Black and White" week of commemorative events; we conducted a seminar on racially blended families and interracial relationships.]

The aftermath of the 1898 uprising formed Wilmington's culture for the next century. It led to the resistance and violence surrounding desegregation and, at least during our first decade here, shaped how people responsed to our family. There was in Wilmington a sharp and uncrossable demarcation between white and black; between haves and have nots.

In 1984 Firestarter, the first of several Stephen King movies shot in Wilmington, put the Cape Fear on the map for major studios looking for a fresh, non-union, location. The studios began expanding and various support and ancillary companies appeared. At the time there was no pool of local workers with the skills they needed, so they began importing their own people from California – people who didn't give a damn about Southern "traditions" like racism (and expected restaurants to serve something other than barbeque, pancakes, or Calabash seafood). I don't think they were unaware of the color line, they just chose to completely ignored it – and with the amount of money they were infusing into the local economy, their behavior was more than tolerated.

In 1996 the Cape Fear was devastated by two hurricanes that hit back-to-back: Bertha and Fran. People came from all over the country to help – particularly from coastal and eastern Texas, where they were familiar with cleaning up after hurricanes. Many of these people liked what they saw (Have I mentioned how beautiful the region is?) and decided to bring their families here and settle down. Between the summer of '96 and the 2000 census, the Hispanic presence in the population in the Cape Fear went from <1 data-blogger-escaped-10="" data-blogger-escaped-2010="" data-blogger-escaped-5="" data-blogger-escaped-br="" data-blogger-escaped-census="" data-blogger-escaped-in="" data-blogger-escaped-it="" data-blogger-escaped-the="" data-blogger-escaped-to="" data-blogger-escaped-was="">
The most immediate impact of Bertha and Fran on our family was flooding – not just inundating our house, though that was serious, but the swarms of Norwegian wharf rats trying to escape the rising river. As soon as we got our house back in shape to sell, we moved out of the city to an unincorporated rural area of blueberry and strawberry farms known locally as Ogden. Our house was the first in what is now a housing development and the only strawberry farm left is a pick-your-own tourist attraction. When we moved here in 1982 there were just under 50,000 people in Wilmington and not quite 100,000 in New Hanover County as a whole. Today, thanks to the film industry and those two hurricanes, the populations are nearly 80,000 and over 200,000, respectively. The old guard of Wilmington, the racists, the southerners, still fight being dragged into the twenty-first century tooth and nail. They aren't yet the minority politically, but they are no longer the driving economic force of the region and they know – despite recent Tea Party advances – that in the long run it's a losing battle.

So how does this environment, my thirty-three years in the Cape Fear, influence my writing? Seeing a city, a region, a way of life, go through such a fundamental sea change, having been part of that change, inspires and informs my fascination with cultures in transition and with how individuals and communities cope with – and either reject or find common ground with – the Other. These themes in turn shape what I write about and how I write about it. Would I be a writer living anywhere else? Certainly. I just wouldn't be the writer I am today.


Charles Gramlich said...

I think there is horror to be found everywhere. Koontz did quite a bit with California sunshine

Jewel Amethyst said...

I just love this post. It's a beautiful narrative of the history and development of the area. I think it should make for a good backdrop for an interracial romance set in the early to mid 20th century (hint KeVin, hint).

Liane Spicer said...

I second what Jewel said. Fascinating post, KeVin. And yes, I hope one day Coastal, Carolina will see the light of day.

KeVin K. said...

Thanks, Jewel and Liane. I really hadn't consciously assessed the effect living here has on my writing. I mean I knew it, of course, I just never thought about it. So I'm appreciating this month's theme.

Jewel, Valerie has always wanted me to write romances. What Liane is alluding to is a very rough draft she saw of one of my attempts at the genre: an interracial romance set in a small town on the Carolina coast in the 1990s. Right now it's a trunk novel, but it's a trunk novel that's often on my mind. (I promise you "Coastal" was just my placeholder name for the town. I would have thought of something better. Honest.)