Writing a book is no easy feat, not to mention writing an entire novel while still in high school and having it published before graduating from college. But that is exactly what Derek Berry did. Berry, who hails from Aiken, S.C., and is a senior international studies and political science double major in the Honors College, used his insights as a South Carolina native to conjure a fictional Palmetto State town, its inhabitants, and their misadventures in his novel, Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.
The book tackles themes of Southern culture, personal identity, and racism. The main character, Declin Ostrander, moves to the town of Lickskillet with his father, who is the lawyer for the alleged murderer of the town’s first black mayor. Berry completed the novel the summer before entering his freshman year at the College and has been working on his second and third novels over the past couple years, each unrelated to Heathens and Liars.
For his first novel, Berry searched for a publisher for nearly two years before signing with Georgia-based P.R.A. Publishing. Berry disclosed that he is not currently interested in writing sequels for his first novel. However, his second novel will also be set in the South but this time in Charleston. This book is about “a college student [who] struggles to navigate her relationship with her conservative father after coming out as queer…the role of history in everyday life, and the slow forgetting of Gullah Geechie culture,” said Berry. The book also features ghosts, he adds. Berry’s third novel is still under wraps as it enters its second draft.
Berry’s love for words also extends to poetry, as he is a spoken word poet who co-hosts and organizes for The Unspoken Word, a Charleston youth-centered poetry movement. The most rewarding thing about writing for Berry are the challenges presented from his writing and how they help him grow as a writer. Yet the young writer refuses to be confined to fiction and poetry—he was also a freelance journalist for The Verge magazine, published in Augusta, Ga.
“I’m not interested in tackling the same subject matter again and again. I think it’s important, especially early on in your career, to diversify and challenge yourself,” said Berry.
The College of Charleston has been an encouraging environment for Berry’s writing. “Because my college experience has introduced me to a variety of interesting people, I am confronted constantly by interesting stories, and I try to listen to my peers and mentors,” he said. “Furthermore, the College has incredibly cool resources for creative writers.” Berry has discovered mentors and inspiration through writing courses offered at the College. Currently enrolled in a fiction writing class, he said, “The professors at CofC really know what they’re talking about and I want to show up every day to listen.”
His time at the College also taught him valuable time management skills as he’s juggled his academic responsibilities and his writing. Since Berry says he’s typically inundated with papers and projects, he has to create his “own time to work.”
As he approaches graduation, Berry has been reflecting on where writing will fit into his future. He is certain that he will never stop writing, and though he is a double major, Berry is determined to make a career out of writing.
“I want to become a novelist as not just a hobby but as a profession,” said Berry. “If I want writing fiction to be my job, I must treat it as a job now.”
Berry’s passion for writing is undoubtedly strong as he prepares to enter the professional world. When asked if he will continue writing after graduation, he said, “Of course I will write. It is not even a question of whether anyone will buy my books or publish them. If I were on a deserted island, I would still be writing short stories and poems, shoving them into glass bottles, and lobbing them into the sea.”
See below for a quick look at Berry’s Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County:
In Lickskillet, I was nobody. For now, driving through town, I was only Declin Ostrander, son of a lawyer who worked for the Knights of Southern Heritage.
If no one knew who you were, you could be anyone.
A week before we arrived on a muggy August morning, a jogger took the running trail in Golden Oaks, zipped inside her nylon warm-up suit, plodding along with new running shoes. These health nuts, the retiree runners, they’re going to be pretty disappointed to outlive all their friends. I was too young to care about immortality. I planned on dying long before I was old enough that people would shrug and say, “It was his time.”
Running with an iPod in one hand, this old lady didn’t even see the body dangling there. Tied up in a tree that stood at the end of someone’s backyard, he hung from a noose and swayed. Five thirty in the morning, this woman was fiddling with the play menu so she could listen to a Sir Mix-a-lot remix. Her head bumped into a pair of heavy shoes.
To read more from Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, visit Derek Berry’s blog.
This article was written by Aleah Ralph, a junior from Fort Mill, S.C., majoring in communication at the College of Charleston. She is a writing intern for The College Today.