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American author Dennis Cov­ington visited Hillsdale College for a live reading of his books. Courtesy | Rebecca Gayle Howell

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.’”

On snake-han­dling:

“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?”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    I love his direction at the end… unfor­tu­nately it seems like more and more hillsdale kids are going to take safe jobs at clas­sical schools…