Dennis Covington was working for The New York Times in 1991 as a stringer when he was assigned to cover the trial of a snake-handling preacher in north Alabama who had used the snakes in an attempt to murder his wife. The preacher believed his wife had been unfaithful.
Covington sat through the long and arduous trial, which he reported to his New York Times editor as uninteresting.
"There was infidelity on both sides," he said.
The trial may not have been interesting, but the people from the congregation that he met were.
"They were extremely poor, but they could quote the Bible frontwards and backwards," Covington said.
The people of the congregation asked Covington to attend a snake-handling service at their church and he did, which changed his life.
"My New York editor said that this was the book I was born to write," he recalled.
Covington became involved with the poor people in the church and the snakes, leading him to experience snake handling and even preaching for himself. Through the experience he described poor southern whites as the only people not permitted to have a history.
What he came to see in the culture of snake handling is that fame is the only power some people have.
Covington felt that power when he accepted the challenge to step forward during the snake handling service.
"I took hold of the snake with both hands and lifted it up toward the light. There is power in the act of disappearing in that experience. I knew then why they took up snakes," he said.
Afterwards, Covington flirted with becoming a preacher.
The first man who handled snakes in church was in the early 1900s after he read in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus told his disciples that they could take up serpents and would not be harmed.
Covington went on to write a book about his experience -- "Salvation on Sand Mountain" -- which was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award.
A native of Birmingham, Covington studied creative fiction writing at the University of Iowa and the University of Virginia. In addition to writing for The New York Times, he also wrote for The Birmingham Post Herald, and has taught creative writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Texas Tech and now lives in Lubbock, Texas.
Covington spent the month of January in Seaside on a writing sabbatical as one of the Escape to Create artists in residence for the month.
"I had never stayed in a place this nice before," Covington told The Sun. "It took me while to settle in and get some writing done."
But while here, Covington wrote an essay and used the time to get clarity in his life.
Before he left to return home, Covington read from his "Salvation on Sand Mountain" book for a gathering at Seaside Assembly Hall and another book that was an account of his personal life named "Cleaving," which he wrote with his ex wife.
"We had both fallen in love with other people, but we had agreed to write a book that was to be named 'Living Waters.' The editor wanted to change the title to 'Unspeakable Acts,' but settled on 'Cleaving,'" Covington said openly.
Covington has written six books and said he doesn't believe he will write another.
"My body and my relationships have given out," he said.