Crowther profiles a diverse group of accomplished individuals in his essay collection, Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners (Blair, Oct.).

Why this book now? What prompted you to write it?

We live in a time now when people in high office have such low standards for morality and imagination, I thought it would be a good time to focus on people with high standards—real heroes. They are not only people I had admired, but they also influenced me. I met many of them and called several of them, like Molly Ivins and Jesse Winchester, friends.

Where did you get the title?

The publisher came up with it, but the phrase comes from Molly Ivins: “I don’t have any children, so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin.” If anyone fits that description, it’s Molly Ivins. It takes a certain kind of woman, especially in the South, to stand up against all expectations of gender, but Molly was a real freedom fighter and hell-raiser.

Is there a particular quality that somehow sets the South apart?

Well, the South has been intoxicated with its own mythology for a long time. I think it’s the only region where a whole lot of pride and energy go into making that mythology. Telling these stories stays with you all your life. The older you get, the more you become intoxicated. In one essay I write about journalist Marshall Frady, and he once said that the white Southern Christian world he had grown up in was something he could never shed. That’s a powerful statement of the way the mythology can shape you.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope they’ll study these people very carefully and see how important it is to live with moral integrity, especially in times like ours when no one in high power does. It’s also a book about excellence. It’s the attitude now that everybody can be an artist, a journalist, a musician, but that’s not right. There are people who do things extremely well, and that requires moral standards and intellectual standards.