Chicago's been pretty good to Todd Dills. Since he moved here from South Carolina eight years ago, he's earned an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College, founded a successful literary broadsheet, The2ndHand, gotten married, and written his first novel, Sons of the Rapture, published by local Featherproof Books in mid-September. Yet just at the point where he could sit back and savor his status as a respected player in the local literary scene, he's leaving to move back down south. Last Thursday he started his drive down to Birmingham, Alabama, where he's taken a job as senior editor in charge of several trucking trade magazines.
It's a phenomenon many from Dixie encounter: no matter how much one grows to love an adopted home, the south always rises again. Ever since Dills started seeing his future wife--Nashville native Susannah Felts, whom he met when she profiled him for this paper--the two talked about moving back. (Dills later worked for the Reader as an editorial assistant.) But it took leaving the south to make its peculiar hold clear. Like Billy Jones, the protagonist of Sons of the Rapture, who's left his southern hometown for Chicago, "I didn't much think about the differences or even really think about belonging to a tradition or anything like that until I left," Dills says.
Subtle distinctions between Yankee and southern culture soon caught his attention, such as what he calls the "outward menace" of northerners. "In the south everyone is nice to you," he says. "Here I feel like everyone's real attitudes are kind of out-front. There's a menace to everyday life that's on the surface. But that's real. People are not always in a good mood." He also notes, with some amusement, that "people don't think about the Civil War up here. It doesn't even cross their minds." At home, "it's just a part of the language that people use."
Despite the south's grand literary history, as a beginning writer Dills didn't find it terribly fertile ground. As a student at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he started a zine that failed after only four issues. "It probably had as much to do with what we were trying to do as it did with the place, but I got really down on my hometown," he says. Although The2ndHand will continue to be based partly in Chicago, where coeditor Jeb Gleason-Allured remains, Dills is hoping his move will be a chance to increase its readership as well as to infuse it with new voices.
"One thing about Chicago that is occasionally frustrating to me is that it's really easy to surround yourself with people who are exactly like you," he says. "Where we're moving, to Birmingham, by the nature of the place you're going to have to get out and make friends with people that you may not have ever been friends with otherwise." His new job will no doubt ensure that he'll run into some new characters. But Chicago has definitely left its mark.
"I'm very suspicious of what people are doing or what they're really thinking," he says of that southern graciousness. "We'll see how that goes when I go back."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.