Sean Dietrich is in some ways a man out of time.
Better known as “Sean of the South,” Dietrich is a Southern humorist and storyteller who writes and publishes columns on his own website (SeanDietrich.com) and hosts a podcast show with musical guests, kind of like an old-fashioned radio show.
It’s a thoroughly modern career, and yet Dietrich is a thoroughly old-fashioned human.
He’s a man who loves old folks, days past, church socials, back roads, sweet tea, front porches and “The Andy Griffith Show.”
He writes with insight, humor and fondness about Alabama, even though he’s not from Alabama.
Here’s Dietrich writing on homegrown tomatoes: “If there is a pleasure more marvelous than homegrown tomatoes, it’s probably illegal. And I don’t want to know about it since I come from Baptists who don’t do illegal things because it could lead to secular music.”
On summer vacation at the beach: “You carry enough raw materials to the beach to construct a patio, then you lug it all back. If you finish your vacation without needing spinal fusion surgery, you did it wrong.”
On speaking Southern: “The first thing to know about Southern English is that it is all about syllables. In this part of the world, single-syllable words can become fifteen-, sometimes sixteen-syllable words.”
Dietrich has self-published eight books of columns and a couple of novels. This summer saw the release of his first book from a name-brand publisher, “Stars of Alabama,” from Thomas Nelson Publishers. It’s a novel about a lost baby adopted into a misfit family, and ranges from Depression-era Alabama to Kansas and the eve of World War II.
Dietrich is also on the road a lot, with speaking engagements all over the country. He’ll be at the Ritz Theatre in Talladega on Oct. 20, telling stories and playing music.
He spoke with The Star recently about his love for Alabama, newspapers and old-fashioned typewriters.
Q: You write a lot about Alabama, but you don’t live in Alabama. You live in northwest Florida, which you once described as “where the Panhandle rubs Alabama’s underbelly.”
A: We are in the Panhandle between Destin and Panama City. We came here when I was a kid, so this is the most stable place I’ve ever been. This is my hometown. I was born in Missouri, spent a little time in Kansas, then right after my daddy died, we came down here. We’re 30 minutes from the Alabama line. Everybody here wears an Alabama or an Auburn hat.
Q: I was about to ask. Alabama or Auburn?
A: I grew up rolling with the Tide. But I’ve had such a great readership in Auburn — people have been so nice to me — part of me sympathizes with Auburn a little bit.
Q: Is there a difference between Florida and Alabama down there?
A: The thing is, this part of Florida is so close to Alabama. I have friends who live right over the line. Yes, it is Florida, but all the people are Alabama. All the people who own second homes here are from Alabama. The town of Florala says it best; it’s both. But the Gulf has always been in my background, Choctawhatchee Bay — those are big players in my life.
A lot of people, they’re like, what’s with the love affair with Alabama? A lot of people don’t get it. It’s hard to explain what it’s like living on the state line. For years, this was called L.A. — Lower Alabama.
I identify with Alabamians more than the people who live here now. It’s not like in older days. There are a lot of tourists here now. The romance is maybe that Alabama represents more what this place used to be.
Q: Your wife, Jamie, is from Alabama. So that gives you a little more credibility.
A: I can’t remember a time, it seems, before my wife. But she and her family have been extremely instrumental in my Alabama roots.
She lived in Brewton, Ala., which is pretty close to the Florida line itself. When I met her, I didn’t have a very big family. Certainly I had a broken family. Her family embraced me in a way I’d never been embraced before. They invited me into their life. I just became one of them. We spent as much time in Brewton as home. And then that town — little town of 5,000 people — kind of adopted me.
When I started writing, Brewton, Ala., sort of put me on the map. One Christmas, I self-published a book of short stories — anecdotes and vignettes. I printed up 150 copies and put it online, and said I was going to give it away as a gift for Christmas. The first copies went within two hours — to everybody in Brewton.
Then people were calling and asking me for more copies. It mushroomed straight from Brewton outward. That’s how my whole thing started.
Q: What was that first book like?
A: That was “Sean of the South Volume 1.” That went so well, there was a Volume 2. I had a ball with it. Then people started asking me to come speak. Initially I said, naw, you don’t want that. Somebody finally wore me down and I spoke at a high school, then a library. In just a few weeks, my email inbox kept getting saturated with people asking me to speak. I never told anybody I was doing that. It was just word of mouth. Soon, we were spending 80 percent of our year going to different spots — primarily Alabama, some Georgia.
Q: How about now? How much are you traveling?
A: Last year we went to 30 states. I can still hardly believe it. These are not glamorous things, either. If someone were to travel with me, they might mistakenly think I’ve hit rock bottom. I’m going to tiny places — high school auditoriums. My wife drives our little van — it’s an ugly utility van, looks like a Labcorp urine collection van — and I sit in the passenger seat with my laptop and write all day. It’s not fame and stardom. It’s just fun.
Q: Why did you pick the column as your art form?
A: I always wanted to be in newspapers. I love newspapers. I love the craft of it. I love the men and women who did newspaper work in the golden era. Where a novelist could take a year or two to produce one work — that then took a week for somebody to read — the newspaperman had to put out something every day — and get it right. When you compare the two, in my mind, the newspaperman is way more of a craftsman than a novelist or a poet. He always has a deadline. It never ends.
Q: What’s a typical work day for you?
A: I usually get my laptop and I go over to this 1958 Yellowstone camper — 22 feet long, ugly as sin, covered in mold and rust. I have gutted the inside and made it my office.
Inside are three typewriters, a stove that I can make coffee on, and a bed in the back.
I’ll start off working on whatever the long project is. There are three more books on the horizon. I’m working on two simultaneously — one fiction, one nonfiction.
Then I’ll move on to the column. I’ll write one, maybe two, rough drafts for columns. Then I will stop for the day, and I will go for a walk or a run, or I’ll go fishing. We live about a half-mile from the bay.
I’ll come back, I’ll eat, watch TV, then I will work on editing the columns — edit, edit, edit and edit — up till 11:27 p.m. on the dot every night. After 11:27, it’s over.
Q: Back up a minute. Are you actually writing on those typewriters?
A: As much as I can, I like to write on the typewriters. I feel it makes me a better writer. Not being able to stop, backspace, highlight, delete — I feel like just having to go forward helps me say what I need to say. And I’m faster.
Then I’ll either retype it in my computer, or take a picture with my phone.
I love my typewriters. My Olivetti Lettera 32 has been with me since childhood. I’ve dropped it out of the stinking car. It’s still just perfect.
I’ve played piano since I was 9 years old. It was my primary instrument, aside from accordion. Piano helped train my fingers to work in rhythm with my brain. I don’t get that same gratifying feel on an Apple keyboard as I do on a typewriter.
Q: What’s the earliest thing you remember writing?
A: I was in third grade, and I was reading “The Three Musketeers.” It was HARD. My father — blue-collar ironworker, no college, who struggled to get through high school not because he wasn’t smart but because he was having a really good time — he pushed me really hard to read.
I had to write book reports for him. He believed that anybody who read could do anything. So I read these classics for him. I read “The Three Muskeeters,” and he wanted me to write a book report for him. I went and typed it up. He read it. I didn’t know how to write a book report. We hadn’t done that in school yet.
I remember him remarking on a line I wrote — “d’Artagnan has a signature of loyalty to his companions.” I was in third grade — that was way above my pay grade. But it meant so much to him. I remember thinking, “Wow, this feels pretty good.”
Q: Your father finds his way into your writing quite a lot.
A: He died when I was young. Long story short, I dropped out of middle school. As a grown man, I made up my high school classes and finally graduated from community college. But I never quit reading.
I would go to the library, get three or four books. I read voraciously. I felt so ashamed I wasn’t in school, I overcompensated.
But my father gave me a gift. I don’t know that I would have been a writer at all, had I not been exposed to literature and the written word as a kid.
Q: I can’t let you go without asking about the dogs.
A: We have two dogs now. Otis Campbell — we call him the “alleged Labrador” — and Thelma Lou, a bloodhound. She’s 80 pounds, all arms and legs and ears. And slow and sluggish. At first glance, she doesn’t seem to have the sharpest IQ. At second glance, you know she doesn’t have the sharpest IQ.
Before that, there was Ellie Mae. She died at 13. She was the most special dog I ever had. Online, more people knew Ellie Mae than knew me.
Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or email@example.com.