The Serpents of Bienville is a community-based project centered on Alabama culture, history, myth, and folklore. The stories bestowed on us from generations past are just as important as the stories we are shaping with our actions today. We would love nothing more than to hear from you, the vibrant and influential artistic community, if you are open to being a part of the tale we are working hard to create. So tell us your story, share your wisdom, and help us create a community we can all be proud to call our Alabama.
Our first interview is with Carrie Rollwagen. Carrie is a copywriter and independent business owner based in Birmingham, Alabama. The Localist, based on her year-long blog about choosing independent shops over big box stores, is her first book. I have known Carrie since we went to college together at Samford University back in 2000. I always knew her as someone that was honest, and had a way with words. We were proud to have her as our first interview in this series, and she definitely set the bar. We were excited about her insight, and we think you will really enjoy it.
1. Give us an overview of your art medium and style.
I’m a writer. On my own, I experiment with all different styles of writing, but right now I only publish non-fiction, mostly about what happens when we buy from local shops and makers instead of buying from corporate stores. I’ve been blogging about shopping locally for about five years now, and last year I published a book about buying local.
2. Are you an Alabamian, born and raised? If not, what brought you here? Tell us a little about the area you are from.
I was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas, and I’m as Midwestern as it gets — polite, cynical, hardworking, etc. I had a bad attitude about moving south with my family, and I’m not totally sure I’ve ever gotten over that feeling that I don’t quite belong where I’ve been transplanted even though, at this point, living here is my choice. I think that struggle to fit in without losing your sense of self has been an asset in my writing: I don’t take for granted that my reader shares my opinions or my worldview, and I always feel a little bit like I have to prove myself.
3. How does your experience with Alabama and the southern culture influence your art, in any form?
Somewhat ironically, I think my own feelings of struggling to understand my past and present echo the struggle of the South in general. Tradition is incredibly important to Southerners, but so many of the parts of Southern history that get dragged into the public eye are shameful and reflect cruelty and ignorance. The choice then becomes either turning your back on your history and completely redefining yourself or reconciling your past and present. You see that struggle in a lot of art coming out of the South, and it’s part of my work as well.
Preparing for this article, I thought a lot about what Southern culture means to me, and I realized that most of my perspective is centered on my own extended family. My grandfather and great-grandfather were builders, and everyone in the family (including me) worked in their construction business at some point. Most of my memories involve lots of family members building something, renovating something, or — most often — tinkering with, fixing or creating something. My grandpa seemed able to fix anything with a few random (and free) household items, and it’s a skill that he passed on to most of our family (most definitely NOT including me). I also have a lot of family memories of my grandparents coming back from hunting and turning the garage into a sort of pop-up meatpacking factory with all of us up to our elbows in deer meat. It was pretty gross (I was a vegetarian for a lot of that time), but I’ll admit that it taught me not to take anything for granted — not even venison. I think those values of using what you have and finding creative solutions that I connect so much with the Southern side of my family are values you’ll find all over the South.
4. Do you have a project you are currently working on or promoting? Tell us about it and, if applicable, where we can share in this project with you (social media or website, perhaps)?
My book, The Localist, is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I’m still touring a little bit to promote that book, and I’m blogging to support it, too. I’m also very dedicated to promoting locally owned businesses and local makers whenever I can, and I use my blog and social media channels to do that whenever possible. You can find the book and blog at carrierollwagen.com, and I’m on most social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, etc.) @crollwagen.
5. Are there any community projects, festivals, or gatherings you are either a part of, enjoy attending, or think that the area is lacking and would like to see organized?
I enjoy attending several of the Birmingham festivals every year — Artwalk, Magic City Art Connection and Sidewalk Film Festival are favorites. I’d love to see a book or writing festival, especially one that included activities for all ages and even some read-aloud events designed to appeal to everyone, not just book nerds.
6. The Serpents of Bienville project came about because of our unending love for the stories that the South provides. Can you share with us your favorite story—whether it’s a ghost story, myth, fable, history lesson, or even some crazy tale an ancestor passed down—and how the story made it’s way to you.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories our parents tell us as children and the little quirks in action and language that seem completely normal within the culture of that family but seem bizarre to outsiders, and there’s one phrase that comes to mind a lot: When my sister and I were little girls and my mom or grandma would be getting us ready for bed by taking our dresses off and putting on our nightgowns, they’d raise their hands and say, “Skin the rabbit!”
When I was little, that always sounded like a cute phrase, and it made me think about Peter Rabbit. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to think about what a bizarre thing that is to say to children, and how gross and violent it is. I’ve told a few friends the phrase, and they think it’s disgusting. When I passed their reactions on to my mom, she said, “Well, that’s the way you skin a rabbit — everything comes off with the first skinning except for the head.” (The rabbit-skinning facts only made the story more terrible for my friends, a fact that probably seems obvious to everyone but my mother.)
I know a lot of people in the South say “skin the rabbit” (it’s even mentioned in Brene Brown’s fantastic new book on failure, Rising Strong), but it was more than just an expression to my mother. Her sister, my Aunt Stephanie, raised rabbits at home while she and my mom were young. To hear Mom tell it, rabbits were everywhere, all over the house, in their little hutches. My mom’s family lived in the suburbs at that point, but that didn’t stop them from building a rabbit farm in the living room. Years later, my grandpa didn’t stop when the neighborhood association banned his secret vegetable garden, either — he just put up a decorative hedge to hide it. And after a few decades passed, Aunt Stephanie didn’t let moving to Africa keep her from enjoying fresh eggs — the woman who’d skinned all those rabbits as a teenager just put up chicken coops in her African yard.
I don’t have any kids, so I don’t have to decide if “skin the rabbit” is appropriate. But as creepy as it is, I’m glad my mom said it to me, and I think it reflects what I love about my family, especially the Southerners: They’re messy and weird and sometimes off-putting, but they’re also creative and innovative. Those things exemplify the best of the South, and they’re qualities I value in myself as well.