Denise Hildreth Jones: Southern Voices, by Annie Downs

“I feel like I’m just a storyteller.” That’s quite an oversimplified statement coming from Denise Hildreth Jones. Author of seven fiction novels, including the popular Savannah series, Denise has repeatedly crafted characters and stories that perfectly exemplify a section of Southern American culture. If you live in the South, you feel like Denise’s novels could happen on your street. If you don’t live in the South, her books make you feel like you do.

Writing her first novel, Savannah from Savannah, in 2002, Denise entered the Southern fiction/inspiration market and has left an indelible mark. Full of Southern charm, these books have filed out, one by one, over the last decade. In 2011, Denise released two books—Flying Solo, a nonfiction memoir of her first year after a painful divorce, and her seventh novel, The First Gardener. As a prominent voice in this genre, Denise uses her personal experiences, research, and faith to craft stories that reveal the depth of beauty, humor, and heartbreak found in the South.

What is Southern fiction to you? Why did you choose to write it?

When I sat on my back porch and got the idea for my very first book (Savannah from Savannah), I thought back to once hearing that you should write what you know. So I asked myself the question, What do I know? All my nonfiction had been rejected hundreds of times. So what did I know? I know the South, I know crazy people, and I know rigged beauty pageants. And out came Savannah. It was all I knew. If you made me write a book set in New York, you would throw it across the room, saying I had blasphemed all the Northern states.

What makes for a strong Southern fiction book?

First, it’s the characters. Their characters run so deep and so wide that you just can get lost in them. There is an element of crafting to them. I’m very visual, so I see my characters before I begin writing them. When I wrote Savannah, she just took a life of her own. I had never written before; I just like to read books. I had never studied writing. I had written songs before, but never a story. She just came to life for me on the page. And Victoria [Savannah’s mother] came to life for me on the page. And once I got into them, they just kind of crafted themselves. I would fine-tune them as I went, and sometimes when I start they’re nowhere near as fleshed out as they will be by the end.

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