First, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I imagine you’re stretched pretty thin with the book about to launch. It’s a question I’m sure you’re going to get sick of answering, but since this is your debut could you give people a little background about yourself? You know, the standard “How did you come to be a writer?” question.
I started out writing doomy, self-centered, “no one understands me” poetry when I was in junior high school. I’ve talked to a lot of writers who started out this way; you listen to a couple of albums by The Doors and suddenly you understand the secrets of the literary universe. I, unfortunately, was sadly mistaken in my understanding of those secrets. I went to college and majored in creative writing so I could work on my poetry, but as soon as I got to college I realized that I was a terrible poet. I still enjoyed writing, so I decided to try my hand at fiction. I wrote my first short story during my sophomore year, and it was actually published. I thought, Man, this writing thing is a piece of cake! I was wrong. I didn’t have another story published for almost ten years, but I kept writing and I kept trying to improve.
You were raised in an evangelical church while growing up in North Carolina. In A Land More Kind Than Home, the members of the church the story revolves around handle poisonous snakes and drink poisons as demonstrations of their faith. Is that something you experienced (saw) growing up? If not, did you visit any churches where that’s practiced during your writing of the book in order to get a firsthand feel for that atmosphere?
No, I never witnessed any snake handling or poison drinking at the church I attended. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and the most charismatic thing folks did there was lay hands on each other during prayer. I’d always known about the more charismatic Pentecostal movement, and I had a couple of friends and relatives who went to churches where the congregation regularly spoke in tongues and claimed to witness miracles of one kind or another.
I really became interested in the holiness movement when I took a class in Appalachian History in college. I minored in history, and I think this was a foundational decision for me as a beginning writer because it showed me the importance of historical context. Writers do not write in a cultural vacuum; writing is the product of one’s experience, and, whether we like it or not, that experience is shaped by the world we live in. In the Appalachian History class, the professor gave a lecture on the holiness movement and explained the believers’ adherence to Mark 16:17-18:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Do you have any concern that some people make interpret your use of those rituals and the positioning of the character Pastor Chambliss as the villain as being a condemnation of fundamentalist / evangelical religion? Were you trying to make any kind of statement beyond just the telling of a story?
I didn’t set out to create an evil preacher, and in the first several drafts of the novel Chambliss wasn’t even a very important character. But, as I revised the novel, I began to like him so much that I brought him onto the page whenever I had the chance. His character is so intense and evil that he overshadows every scene he’s in. I don’t know that I was consciously trying to make a statement by portraying him as being so evil. Perhaps, from the vantage point of adulthood, I was unconsciously saying something about my own experiences as a boy raised in the church. I often felt like nine-year-old Jess feels; I watched the adults around me as they talked about the pull of the spirit and the role God was playing in their lives. Sometimes I just didn’t feel the things they said I was supposed to feel, and I always worried that I was doing something wrong or that my faith wasn’t real. There’s a line in the novel where Jess wonders if you have to think any less of miracles when you know they’re not true. I could see myself pondering this question when I was his age.
A Land More Kind Than Home is told from the perspectives of three different characters: nine-year-old Jess Hall, Sheriff Clem Barefield, and town/church old-timer Adelaide Lyle, with each bringing a unique perspective to the overall narrative. From a nuts and bolts standpoint, was it difficult to maintain the tension in the novel as you switched between narrators?
The most difficult thing about using three narrators was to keep track of what each narrator knew at particular parts of the novel. I wanted the reader’s understanding of the central event to unfold slowly as each narrator added his or her own perspective to the story. At its core, this novel is a mystery, although I don’t think I quite understood this until I’d finished it. When I looked back, I realized that each narrator knew something very important about the story, but no single narrator knew the full story.
My wife is an attorney, and she really helped me keep track of the story as the narrators “testified” in front of the reader. This tragedy is an event that affects an entire community; it only seemed right to have the community tell its own story. Otherwise, there’s no way we would have ever gotten to the truth.
The character Christopher ‘Stump’ Hall is autistic. Was there a particular reason you chose to make Stump autistic? The way the story unfolds his autism – specifically his lack of speaking – does come into play, but did that happen because you’d already decided to make the character autistic, or did his being autistic cause the story to go in that direction?
Stump is the victim here, but unlike a lot of victims, he can’t add his perspective after the crime occurs. I thought it would be interesting if he was also silent before the crime is committed. There are things he knows and there are things he’s seen that would be invaluable in solving the mystery at the center of the novel. But he can’t say what those things are. Even if he could speak, perhaps he still wouldn’t share or perhaps his father or the sheriff wouldn’t think to ask him. Jess knows things too, but the adults are too busy to question him. He only shares his knowledge of events once it’s too late. At that point, only tragedy can result.
I believe you’ve said your next book is also set in the same region of western North Carolina as is A Land More Kind Than Home. Are you to the point where you can share anything about what readers can expect from the next book?
All I can say about my new novel-in-progress is that it’s set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina and involves the kidnapping of two young sisters, a caché of stolen money, murder-for-hire, and baseball. There are a few similarities between it and A Land More Kind Than Home in that it features three narrators and unfolds over the course of a week.
On your tour to support the launch of A Land More Kind Than Home you’re making a point of donating a portion of the proceeds of book sales on certain tour stops to support libraries and literacy campaigns in the communities where the event is being held. Why is this important to you?
My dream of publishing a novel has come true, and I feel incredibly fortunate because of it. My wife and I had been kicking around ideas of how to give back to a reading community that has given us so much. One day, I was reading the alumni magazine of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, my alma mater, when I found a feature about a college friend of mine named Amanda Edwards. Amanda is the executive director of the Literacy Council of Buncombe County in Asheville. I read her story of working with illiterate adults and giving them the opportunity to gain control of their lives through literacy. I almost jumped out of my chair after reading her interview. I’ve given my life over to books, and I can’t imagine my life without them. I didn’t realize that I’d always taken my literacy for granted. I’d always taken libraries for granted too, even though I got my first library card when I was six years old and have spent my life in the book stacks. I decided to focus on raising money for public libraries and area literacy projects because I wanted to make sure that I never again overlook the value of literacy and public libraries in my life.
Thank you again, Wiley, for taking the time. I enjoyed the book tremendously and really hope it does well for you. Enjoy the launch party and your book tour, you’ve certainly earned it.