Ken Burger doesn’t mind getting a little dirty. And as a native son of South Carolina, the author is at his finest when the dirt is local.
Burger wraps up his Lowcountry trilogy with the release of Salkehatchie Soup on March 2. And his third novel is as muddy and murky as the obscure western South Carolina river in its title.
Burger took on 1950s and ’60s-era South Carolina, Civil Rights, and the Cold War in his first book, Swallow Savannah, which was released in January 2009. Burger then focused on the racial uneasiness of the 1970s and ’80s in the Santee Cooper region in Sister Santee, which was released in 2010.
The former Post and Courier sports writer didn’t plan on a trilogy, but the success of Swallow Savannah demanded a follow-up. “With Salkehatchie Soup, I was really able to tie things together,” he says.
Salkehatchie Soup takes place in western South Carolina in the 1990s and early 2000s and focuses on the nuclear waste that remains in the area today. “The Salkehatchie River is less a river and more a muddy swamp,” says Burger, who grew up in the backyard of the Savannah River Site, a nuclear materials processing center in Aiken, Allendale, and Barnwell counties. “The whole area is filled with nuclear waste, and I wanted to expose the waste that’s still present in our beautiful state.”
All three of Burger’s novels follow the power-hungry Adger family, while also including a healthy dose of local eccentrics that only a South Carolina native could dream up, from wily politicians and liberating reporters to deviant lawyers and greedy businessmen. His books are fast-paced and fun, and you just might learn a little something about the Palmetto State in between.
Like the best Southern tales, Burger’s stories interlace humor with tragedy, the cancer survivor and recovering alcoholic says. “I was born and raised here,” Burger laughs, when asked how he came up with some of the more outrageous personalities in his books. “I listen. And I hear crazy stories about crazy people.”
Burger’s characters are a composite of people he’s met over his entire life. “A third of this stuff really happened, a third I heard about, and a third I totally made up,” he says. “I carry my literary license along with my driver’s license in my front pocket.”
For as much as Burger’s novels expose, he has received little negative feedback. “You know, I’m telling the truth in my own way. It’s an entertaining, fictional story, but I’m telling the story of how things happened, and I was there,” Burger explains. “So I don’t get a lot of negativity from it.”
Burger believes that it’s important to remember history and to keep telling the stories of South Carolina’s past. This constant is one of many reasons Burger’s works are as popular as they are. “We’re all historians in our own way,” he says. “I’ve been in South Carolina my entire life, and I’ve seen quite a transition.”
Fellow South Carolina writer Pat Conroy says it best on the Salkehatchie Soup book cover: “Nobody picks at the scabs of South Carolina like her native son, Ken Burger.”
The man who has always written confidently and with his own voice chuckles at Conroy’s description. “It’s what I do,” he says. “And I’ve been very lucky to love what I do.”