I am rounding the bend on my second novel. The effects of the pandemic threw many hurdles in the way of steady progress, but I am making my way. It is, oddly enough, about a time when the human spirit prevailed over sickness, as the story goes… At the turn of the 19th century, Sweet P is nearly twenty and lives in a broken down farmhouse in a small town in Tennessee with her grandfather and her catatonically depressed mother. Her life changes forever when Ordelia, an enchanting, blind traveling sales-woman comes to live with them. In the age of malaria, consumption, typhoid fever, smallpox, and influenza, Ordelia works as a medicine show-woman and sells her Water of Life tonic, door to door, town to town. When Ordelia and Sweet P’s grandfather fall deeply in love, Sweet P joins them on the road and transforms from farm girl to bejeweled hustler, traveling throughout the country with Ordelia’s band of outcast performers. Ordelia takes Sweet P under her wing and teaches her about life’s grand show—the journey of suffering, sickness, secrets, promises, and love, life’s greatest balm.
Emotions, like fire, catch and grow, and Ordelia seemed to know as much about the science of human emotion as she knew about her bottled tonics, the ones that were liquid and the others as immense as the sky.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of it). I wrote the majority of this novel several years ago, then decided to set it aside for a bit to finish my first novel The Measure of Gold. I am so glad I did, because I can see the story so much more fully now, years later. The processing of re-starting the novel with the unfinished manuscript at my side has been incredibly fulfilling. This story begins in Tennessee in the 1920’s just as two hurricanes have nearly washed the rural communities of northeastern Tennessee away. Widowed, impoverished, and castaway, Lydia and her son Phineas, struggle to rebuild their life anew. However, that journey is disrupted when the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) comes to town and stakes claim to their home and land to build a dam and flood the valley to make electricity and modernize the South. As they watch their town and home submerged beneath the waters of the TVA’s Watauga Dam, Lydia and Phineas move from Butler to New Butler, relocating to higher ground in a journey of displacement, self-discovery, and resilience. Lydia’s adventures in Tennessee follow the structure of the hero’s journey, loosely modeled after Odysseus’ epic return to Ithaca.
Water -- it was always underestimated. Millions and millions of tiny droplets fell together and then pooled and spread like veins through the forest. Divide, then conquer. The hurricane waters were driven down by gravity and flung about by fierce winds, and they swept across the dark, gravelly clay and the flashing specks of micah leaving behind what’s known as the aftermath.
I’ve started my fourth novel, a story that I have been carrying with me for over a decade. Growing up in Chattanooga, I was surrounded by Civil War battlefields. It is a big part of Chattanooga’s story. It is, undeniably, a deep part of my own family’s story. My great-grandfather was a Union soldier injured on Snodgrass Hill in the battle of Chickamauga. After the war, he decided to stay in Chattanooga and build our family home in Chattanooga Valley, just miles from the battlefield where he was injured. I have decided to name my novel Flintstone. For me, the title fits. It seems to encapsulate so much of how I feel about the complexity of the South.
The Tennessee River is also, undoubtedly, a big part of my story. Even now, I live along the French Broad, a river which flows directly into the Tennessee. In fact, I see the process of writing a novel the same way I see a watershed. With this new novel, I have already determined time, place, and person. Now the trick is for me to absorb all of the other elements that flow into that story, from near and far away. That process unfolds slowly. It takes a whole lot of time, research, and silence. In the South, all streams and rivers flow towards the great Mississippi. In the South, our modern story flows directly from the injustice and horror of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War. It happened that way, as epic as any Iliad or Odyssey, and it still defines us. Flintstone begins there.