When his parents settled down in South Carolina, Chris Dickey left for the University of Virginia, where he met and married his wife, then went on to study documentary filmmaking at Boston University.
While the study of framing people and scenes certainly shaped his mindset for the careful crafting of a story, he went on to become a highly respected journalist and author. He’s written six books, including “Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force — the NYPD” and his 1998 memoir, “Summer of Deliverance,” which tells a difficult story of his father’s descent into alcoholism after the success of his most famous novel and the reconciliation that followed.
He is currently working on his seventh book, “The Charleston Consul,” due to be released from The Crown Publishing Group in autumn 2014. He describes the book as “a deeply researched narrative of the international intrigues and espionage on the eve of the Civil War that all but decided its outcome before it began.”
We decided to meet for a glass of wine at an art deco relic of a café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he filled me in on his fondest memories of the Palmetto State.
Q: What was your favorite part about coming to South Carolina on your university breaks?
A: When we were living in Columbia we were living on Lake Katherine, and it was nice. I would come back in the summers, and we had a little speedboat and we would go drive that around, and I learned to water ski. That was fun, and I really enjoyed that.
I couldn’t have a car at Virginia, so when I was home I would get to drive around in my car. In those days everybody in the family had a really hot car, so that was part of the fun of being there — being 17, 18 and doing that. But then I got married and had a child when I was 18, so it turned into us going down and being with the grandparents. The truth is, I was more and more estranged from my parents, and my mother died in 1976 and my father remarried instantly. So for about 20 years it was deeply uncomfortable.
I became a foreign correspondent four years later and I’ve lived overseas ever since. My father got really sick and almost died in 1994, and I started going back to South Carolina to be with him a lot, and what I discovered is that I really like South Carolina.
Q: Did you take any vacations that you were particularly fond of?
A: Oh, yeah. Remember, “Deliverance” was made at this point, so we spent a lot of time up in the mountains, way Upstate on the Chattoga River in those mountains, and it was just beautiful.
Q: How often did you go back to visit?
A: I would go back at least once a year, but when my father was sick from ’94 to ’97 I was commuting. Up until 2008 I went there at least once a year, and what I discovered is that I really love the Lowcountry. I like to go down to the Lowcountry — namely to Pawleys Island — but I haven’t been there for four or five years. Because I’ve been working on the book, I go to Charleston.
Q: You did a reading with S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth in Charleston, didn’t you?
A: I did! I did one for the dog book ("Literary Dogs and Their South Carolina Writers"). That was all wonderfully serendipitous because I was in Charleston doing work at the Charleston Library Society— I just love the library society. It’s a great place to work, the people are so helpful, and it’s great for my purposes. So that worked out great. I got to go to the library society to participate in that reading, and I also spent a lot of time in there in the back with the microfilms and the dusty old newspapers.
Q: If you weren’t working on a book, would the Charleston Library Society be a regular stop for you when you are visiting Charleston?
A: I think so, oh yeah. I really like it. I just like the people, and I love the atmosphere, it’s very relaxed and you have a real sense of history there. That part of Charleston is so historical. My book that I’m working on right now is about the period just before the American Civil War — just today I was writing about the Democratic Convention in Charleston in 1860 and thinking how central Meeting Street was in that location. The hotels, the convention center, going down to the battery — it was all on Meeting Street. I think it was like Fifth Avenue or Broadway when people go to New York — it was all right there. It was like the only street anybody knew. If you had gone to King Street, there was nothing there except this great bookstore called Russell’s Bookstore. It’s now a Victoria’s Secret.
Q: What is your favorite cuisine?
A: What can I say? Shrimp and grits! I remember when I started going back in ’94, I hadn’t really spent much time — even at Pawleys — for about 20 years, things had completely changed, and the way you ate changed completely.
Q: How was that?
A: What really happened was, because you had these country clubs and a lot of golf courses, the people wanted better food. So you had these places like Frank’s at Pawleys open up. The first time I went to Frank’s I just said, “I cannot believe this. It’s so good!” And the Rice Paddy in Georgetown is great. I haven’t been to Louis’s (Osteen) new place (Louis’s At Sanford’s,) but I used to go to Louis’s place at the Hammock Shop complex and God, I lived there. It was great. One of the reasons I used to go back to Pawleys was just to eat.
And one of the things that used to really impress me was that you could go to a place like Piggly Wiggly and get really good wine. I mean, it’s not great wine, but it’s really drinkable wine.
Q: On the occasions that you meet people in Paris who are planning a trip to South Carolina, what would you suggest that they see?
A: I’d suggest that they go to the mountains and go to the beach. And I’d strongly suggest that they go to Pawleys or Kiawah. I’d suggest they see Charleston. And then, of course, go on up to see a little of that “Deliverance” country up there.
I like sometimes just to drive up through South Carolina. Occasionally I’ll be down seeing my stepmother in Savannah, and I’ll have to drive to Columbia and I’ll take the little back roads, and you know, you’ve got the ol’ red dot liquor stores, and you’ve got that kind of whole tune.
Q: It makes you wish you had your camera on you at all times, doesn’t it?
A: I do!