Arts & Culture

Five Minutes With: Author Sharyn McCrumb

Modern day NASCAR and Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century work "The Canterbury Tales" seemingly don't have much to do with each other. But take a closer look and you might be surprised.

Author Sharyn McCrumb visits the University of South Carolina Beaufort on March 22 to discuss her 2005 novel "St. Dale," patterned after "The Canterbury Tales." The modern retelling is about a bus of NASCAR fans touring Southern speedways in a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.

McCrumb discusses the connection between two fallen heroes.

Question. Where did the idea come from to make the connection between NASCAR and "The Canterbury Tales"?

Answer. When we studied "The Canterbury Tales" in graduate school at Virginia Tech, I was struck with the idea of grass-roots canonization. Thomas Becket had been a Saxon in Norman England. In other words, he was a redneck. As archbishop of Canterbury, he stood up to Henry II, opposing the crown's infringing on the powers of the church.

I was sure that the common people of England viewed Becket as a homeboy saint, their man in heaven. Within decades, Thomas Becket had become the most popular saint in England. I thought that lately "the people's saints" were being popularly elected, rather than appointed by the church -- secular figures like Elvis and Princess Diana.

I toyed with the idea of grass-roots canonization for years, but I never felt moved to write the book until Dale Earnhardt died. He is a 21st century St. Thomas Becket -- a poor boy who made good in a system stacked against him and who retained his humility to the last.

In ("St. Dale") and my other books, I try to explain Southern traditions and combat unthinking stereotypes about the South. There is no sport more maligned by cultural snobs than NASCAR.

Q. Schools are now using your novel to teach Chaucer?

A. Schools in eight states that I know of use "St. Dale" with units on Chaucer. Teachers tell me it helps students understand what people in 12th-century England would have felt about Thomas Becket.

They tell me about quiet students, who suddenly lead the class discussions. Or students who had never finished a book before and who fall in love with "St. Dale" because it talks about something they're passionate about.

Q. Are you a NASCAR fan?

A. My original intention was to learn enough about stock car racing to write a credible novel. I did not expect to fall madly in love. I discovered that once racing made sense to me, I loved it.