Dennis Covington was born in 1948 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. In college, he studied under American short story writer Peter Taylor at the University of Virginia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Covington was drafted upon graduation, and served two years in the U.S. Army before entering the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose alumni boast several influential writers, including Flannery O’Connor, Donald Justice, and Marilynne Robinson. Covington has taught at multiple universities since then, including Miles College, the College of Wooster, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Texas Tech University, where he is now Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing.
Published in 1995, “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” the story of Covington’s true encounters with snake-handling churches in Southern Appalachia, is by far the best known of his books, and was a 1995 National Book Award finalist. His most recent book, “Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World,” was published in 2016.
On journalism, and how Salvation on Sand Mountain came to be written:
Covington described how he became a stringer for the New York Times while appealing the denial of his tenure at the University in Birmingham where he taught writing classes.
“I got a shot because the Atlanta bureau chief called me one day and said, ‘There’s a really important news conference in North Alabama. I can’t get there today. Can you run up there and take notes? And if you do a good job, maybe the assignment editor in New York City will let you write the piece.
“Well the press conference — I got there too late! I had to pick up my kids at school. There was one man left, he was walking down the hall. I said, ‘Tell me what happened in there, what was the deal?’ He just reached in his pocket, took out a mini cassette, and said, ‘Listen to that.’ It was the phone call of the kidnapper to the family of the young woman he’d kidnapped, demanding a ransom. I wrote the article, and the assignment editor at the New York Times absolutely loved it.
“I followed up with articles about that case, I wound up covering tornadoes in the south, true crime, Hurricane Andrew, that kind of thing. And every week, I would give the editor three suggestions for stories. The first black mayor of Birmingham, he was under a felony indictment, and I said, ‘This is a big story.’ The second one was dual murders involved with Satan-worshippers, or something. That was really the one I wanted to cover. And the third one was this preacher, a snake-handling preacher, who was on trial for trying to murder his wife with rattlesnakes. Now I’d never heard of snake-handling. I mean, when I was a boy, I loved snakes, but I’d never heard of that in church. That was the one I didn’t want to do, because I thought that the New York Times just wanted to make fun of him. But I went up there, covered the trial, and when the article appeared in the Times, I got a call from a book editor. I didn’t know him, but he just said, ‘Mr. Covington, this is the book you were born to write.’”
On his books:
Covington has published six books, four nonfiction and two novels. By his own account, each one involves violence of some kind. Covington described the plot of “Redneck Riviera: Armadillos, Outlaws and the Demise of an American Dream,” a book about his fight with hog-hunters to claim his inheritance of “two and a half worthless acres of land” in Florida.
“I got a friend of mine, and we built this cabin that could be torn apart and put in the bed of my truck. He said, ‘I’ll go in there and I’ll survey that land, I ain’t scared of them rednecks.’ And we did it: Eddy went in there and surveyed, sure enough, it was my land. The day before hunting season opened, we erected this cabin.
“The next day they all came in saying, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t build!’
And I said, ‘Oh really, I can’t do it? Do you know who’s land this is?’
‘No, nobody knows whose land this is.’
‘This is a survey: it’s my land. Git. Off. My. Land.’
“So they wound up shooting up the cabin, eventually. They torched my Jeep. One day a line of men showed up, some of them were a SWAT team from the local police department, and there were FBI agents. The FBI guys said, ‘Are you Dennis Covington?’ I said, ‘Yeah, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well our agents came across your cabin down there in Florida, and we just wanted to find out whether you were still alive.’ So that became a great time.
“I remember when I suggested the book project to my editor, he said, ‘Now Dennis, I’m sure that’d be a lot of fun, but no bullets, no book.’ When I called him to tell him, I said, ‘They shot up my cabin, they torched my Jeep, they’re trying to kill me,’ he said, ‘Great! You got the contract.’”
“I was under the influence of the Holy Ghost at the time, so there was no fear.”
Advice for young writers:
“I used to tell my students, ‘Just go to the most dangerous place you can get to, and write about it.’ And they would say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ And I would say, ‘Because there’s no competition.’
“You go to the most dangerous place, there’s not gonna be a lot of other people trying to cover it! That’s what I did. El Salvador was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists when I went. Juarez, Mexico was the most dangerous place for journalists when I went. Syria, by far, was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists when I visited. They were being kidnapped, beheaded. I heard about a young woman who was being kidnapped and tortured by ISIS, nobody else knew.
“But anyway, that’s what I always would tell them. Then, one of my students came back, and he had gone to Mexico in the middle of the drug war, and interviewed a drug cartel hitman on the second floor of an abandoned warehouse. And he did a great piece! But that’s when I stopped saying that.”
“You know what’s the most dangerous of all, though? Love. That’s a different thing entirely. Love? What do you do with love? Who even thought about that?”