This guest post is written by Ashley Mace Havird, author of debut novel, Lightningstruck, by Mercer University Press. She and nine critically acclaimed authors will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 7th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Oct. 17.
I grew up on a South Carolina tobacco farm from the mid-1950s until the early 1970s. As the main character, eleven-year-old Etta, says in Lightningstruck: “The entire year seemed like a patchwork quilt whose pattern told the story of tobacco.” Growing tobacco was like a ballet, a symphony whose final movement reached a crescendo in the end-of-season market with its “toasty smells of cured tobacco, the taste of boiled peanuts, the singsong speed-talk of the auctioneer.” The economy of the area depended on farming, and tobacco was the cash crop. During the market days, in fact, people would joke that the entire town of Mullins, with its enormous warehouses, “smelled like money.” I took for granted, as all children do, that this world would last forever.
I left home for college and never returned for good, but I visited my family often—still do. With the demise of the domestic tobacco industry accelerating in the late 1970s and early ’80s, my father and brother, like so many other lifelong farmers, gradually gave it up. The landscape of the area, its wooden stick barns already having given way to aluminum “bulk” barns, and sophisticated machines having replaced much of the manual labor—this landscape changed even more dramatically. The vast fields of green leaf vanished, and the economies of rural communities collapsed. The landscape of my memory vanished and took its people with it.
Around fifteen years ago, I was a fiction-writer-turned-poet. But I wanted to recreate this lost world in a longer form than poems afforded. So, I jumped in with what I believed was a memoir. But in the end, my life was interesting only to me. The interest, I discovered after much fumbling, lay not so much in my personal story but in the fabric of the times, the radical changes occurring on so many levels. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tobacco industry, with its hierarchy of wealthy and health-problem-denying industry leaders down to laborers who worked from “can’t see to can’t see.” There were the tensions of the Civil Rights Movement, which was finding its way even into our closed-in part of the South. The Vietnam War was ramping up. All of this occurring during a girl’s coming of age, which included painful discoveries about herself and family and society—troubles that, when purely my own, were not particularly interesting, although they could be if I could only exaggerate …These things drew me towards the novel, towards inventing. I began to see that this was the only way I could explore the larger truth I was after. Besides, my precious memoir was flat-out boring.
I had major problems to solve. What to do about self-indulgent scenes and a plot that was loose at best? The horse, which became the main source of tension in Lightningstruck, was a minor character. The story’s all-important “trouble” was vague, ill-defined.
Nothing to do, of course, but to begin the slaughter: I had to kill many darlings, nearly all of them, and create brand new ones. Without new characters, such as the eccentric civil rights activist, Miss Cass, and the young archaeologist, Dr. Raintree, the book would have been stuck like an insect in amber. I shifted the story into third person to further detach my Self from Etta, and I allowed Etta’s problems to become far more exciting than mine ever were. I was able to keep my central characters, unlocking them from their chains to actual people, and I “grew” the horse, Troy, until he haunted me and became for Etta the major antagonist he had to be.
The tearing down, rethinking, and rebuilding, added years to the novel’s progress. It was only the curiosity and passion I had for the world I was bringing back, the love for my characters, and my own stubbornness that made the final draft—once again in first person—possible. Would I have been able to complete the book if I hadn’t put myself through all these contortions? I have no idea. I’d certainly have saved myself grief and time if I’d identified the genre to begin with.
Still, there is no question but that the autobiographical elements enrich Lightningstruck. Beyond the story of Etta’s coming of age by way of a treasure-hunt with a lightning-scarred horse, the book is an elegy to a past world, an homage to people I knew and loved. It is a sort of archaeological exploration of what it means to dig for truth, beneath tobacco fields and down through layers into the past—a truth that, when found, is as much mine, and I hope the reader’s truth, as it is Etta’s.
Ashley Mace Havird grew up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina. She has published three collections of poems, including THE GARDEN OF THE FUGITIVES (2014), which won the 2013 X. J. Kennedy Prize. Her poems and stories have appeared in many journals, including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Lightningstruck, winner of the 2015 Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction, is her first novel.
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