Marjorie Hudson found what she was looking for in Chatham County before she even realized she was looking for it.
She had come south to visit a old friend, and she found the quiet and beauty of rural Chatham a welcome respite from her work in Washington, D.C., where the grind and pace had taken a toll. It was a rainy day, but her friend took to her see a lovely old farmhouse in the country.
“I know this sounds crazy, but just as we walked up, the clouds parted and the sun came out and rainbow formed over the house,” said Hudson, who now lives in a Chatham County farmhouse herself. “And it hit me that I could just walk away from what I was doing in D.C. I realized there was nothing holding me there. I could move.
“I just knew that here was where healing was.”
The characters who populate the short stories in Hudson’s first book of fiction, “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas,” find, in their own ways, the same thing.
As the title suggests (in birding, an “accidental bird” in an individual found in a geographic area not normally occupied by that species), Hudson’s characters are lost souls, heartbroken women, aging retirees, even the real-life explorer John Lawson, who come from elsewhere but wind up in fictional Ambler County and the Sissipahaw River – stand-ins for Chatham and the Haw – and find there a place to begin to become whole again.
Last month, “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas” was named one of the two Honorable Mention awardees of the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Awards, which are presented annually for a first work of fiction. The award is funded by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation.
“I found out via Google Alert,” Hudson said. “Apparently they put out a press release before they’d notified me. I started hyperventilating. I went to teach my writing class in Pittsboro, and I couldn’t calm down. I had to tell the class, and I had to keep trying to find out for sure. You know, you think, ‘There must be some mistake.’”
There wasn’t. Hudson went to Boston on April 1 to attend the awards ceremony at the JFK Presidential Library. Teju Cole won the 2012 award for “Open City.” Amy Waldman (“The Submission” and Stephanie Powell Watts (“We Are Taking Only What We Need” were runner-ups, and Hudson and Chad Harbach (“The Art of Fielding”) are the Honorable Mentions.
“It’s a very exciting award to be associated with,” Hudson said. “I’ve seen it awarded to some of my mentors and teachers. It’s widely known among writers, and of course everybody knows the name Hemingway. So I’m very excited.”
Hudson wrote the stories that make up “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas” over the course of some 20 years. It was only afterward that she realized they were related.
“I had no master plan to create a mythical county in central North Carolina,” she said. “I had all these files of stories, and one day the light bulb just went off and I realized this group was connected by this place and this river, and that they were all about people moving to the South, being lost and then somehow redeemed by the web of connections or the web of nature, a gentle hammock of welcome and rest.”
Katherine Pinard, a bookseller at McInyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, where Hudson holds writing classes, recognizes that portrait. She and her husband moved here a few years ago from Cleveland, Ohio, be.
“Those stories, and that whole idea of accidental birds who get blown off course by storms or other things, really resonated with me,” Pinard said. “I’m a fairly new person here, and when I was first reading Marjorie’s book I was sitting on the porch looking out over the woods, and I realized she was describing exactly what I was seeing. And she does it with such a distinct and beautiful voice, it brought tears to my eyes.”
It is no coincidence, of course, that that sort of journey mirrors Hudson’s own.
“I realized something about myself , and that is that the theme that runs through most of my work is that of outsiders and the struggle to make a new life in a new place,” she said. “It goes all the way back to John Lawson. He came through here and fell in love with it. I identify that with.”
That theme drove her first book, the nonfiction “Searching for Virginia Dare” in 2007. The book chronicles Hudson’s quest to discover the truth behind the stories of the first English child born in America and the Lost Colony she was a part of.
“When I started, Virginia Dare was like a secret handshake that I felt like everybody in North Carolina knew but me,” Hudson said. “But the deeper I got into it, the more fascinated I became. It’s an extraordinary story, what we know and can surmise about it, and there’s this whole sort of subculture of scholarly fascination with it.”
Having completed “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas,” Hudson said she had a harder time than she expected leaving its characters behind. So she is now working on a novel that springs from some of those characters.
“The day I released the book for publication, it was like letting go of my imaginary friends,” she said. “I felt like, ‘No, no, come back!’”