This guest post is written by Julia Franks whose debut novel, Over the Plain Houses, Hub City Press, is a finalist for the 2016 Crook’s Corner Prize for Debut Fiction, the winner to be announced in January. You can meet Julia in person at the Women’s National Book Association – Charlotte’s 7th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Oct. 17.
For me, novels come from questions. You have some question or questions that you can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop worrying over. So you start writing, and you don’t know where the questions are going to take you. I live in the Bible Belt so one of those questions has always been, “How does a person who believes the Bible is literal truth construct a world view around that?”
But the novel really started percolating in my head in 2008. That summer a man walked into my parents’ church in Tennessee and started shooting, killing two people immediately and injuring several others. Like a lot of people, I became fixated on the “Why?” In this case, the church was Unitarian/ Universalist, and the shooter had written a kind of manifesto about his own ideology. But then it came out later that his wife had left him, and that she’d become a member of the UU church. I thought a lot about that. People are so complicated, really, and so fragile.
That same year my (then) husband and I bought an abandoned farm in the mountains north of Asheville. There was a house on the property, an old cabin built in 1865, with a springhouse and a privy nearby, but no one had lived there in four decades. The strange thing about it was that it was still full of the residents’ possessions: clothes in the dresser, boots in the closet, hundreds of jars of canned food. And the people who had lived there had clearly been hoarders of a sort. Some of it was boxes of old toys and documents and letters and diaries, hundreds of jars of canned food. But they’d also saved a lot from the natural world: hornet nests, animal skins, mammal skulls and skeletons, calcified eggs. The little boy’s room had a collection of snakeskins pinned to the wall.
Some of it clearly needed to go back to the family, so we contacted the son of the previous owners—I’ll call him Mr. M.—who was in his late eighties by then. He had been the little boy who’d collected the snakeskins. We brought him all the diaries and letters, and he seemed delighted to have them. We spent the rest of the day with him and his wife, listening to stories. (Unfortunately the way it’s done in this part of the world is that, in a group of two couples, the man will talk to the other man, while the hostess tries to engage the woman. So here’s this lovely lady taking me to the kitchen to show me her method for canning pears, and the whole time I’m straining to hear the stories the old man is telling my husband in the other room about his childhood.)
Meanwhile, back in town, the locals had heard that we’d bought the old homestead, and they started telling us stories too. Mr. M’s parents were a fire and brimstone preacher and his nature-loving wife. He loved God, and she loved the woods, but they were sort of famous for their eccentricities and their attempt to live an older lifestyle right into the 20th century. (Like other mountain women, Mrs. M. wore a splint bonnet right into the 1970s). And one guy was still mad about the sermons. Forty years later he still resented the fact that Mr. M. called out his wife and then came over to eat her fried chicken dinner afterward. But everyone said the same thing about Mrs. M.: “That woman was a saint.”
Anyway, that was my other big question. How does a woman construct her own identity when she’s married to such a charismatic and outspoken community leader? Mrs. M. saved things and labelled them, as in, “This is the hat I wore to Celia’s graduation,” Or “Calvin’s baby blanket.” And we found hundreds of jelly jars with salvaged objects in them. She constructed her own world of saved objects. Whether that was enough or not, I guess we won’t ever know.
Mr. M. did die well in advance of her, and she lived a long time on that farm by herself, until her grandsons took her to live in a facility. I’ve always wondered if she hated leaving her woods behind, and all the things she’d saved over the years, her world.
Over the Plain Houses is a story of a couple much like this one, living in Western North Carolina in the 1930s, when they were young, and they didn’t know yet that the modern world was about to crash in upon them.
With roots in the Appalachian Mountains, Julia has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina and West Virginia. She lives in Atlanta where she teaches literature and runs loosecannon.com, a web service that fosters free-choice reading in the classroom.
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