9/10/13 – INTERVIEW WITH AMY FRANKLIN-WILLIS, AUTHOR OF THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE
When Amy Franklin-Willis’s debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, was released, The New York Times Book Review noted “the main characters are agreeably imperfect, their stories sensitively told.” The Christian Science Monitor said, “…she excels at making readers care about her characters, especially the ones who have made the biggest mistakes.”
I couldn’t agree more that characters are the soul of The Lost Saints of Tennessee, although the sense of place is powerful, too.
As I said in my review on this site on Sept. 1, I had to admire these characters for trying so hard to do the right thing, even when everything turns out all wrong. They pulled me into their stories and touched me with their humanity.
So I was delighted when Franklin-Willis agreed to answer my questions about her characters and other aspects of the novel.
Q. When you write, do you start with a character, or with a setting, or with something else entirely? What’s the first kernel of the stories you write?
A. I start with character. For fear of sounding like I’m due for institutionalization, a character blossoms within my imagination, she or he begins to take shape, and bits of who the character is start rattling around up there. Once I feel like I know enough about this character to begin writing, I do. But I’ve often lived with a character for years before setting out to begin writing the story. I equate it to the planes circling SFO at rush hour; eventually my characters get stacked atop of one another, impatient to “land” in some way more permanent than the maze of my mind.
Q. Who’s your favorite character, or is that like asking a mother to choose among her children? Which character stayed with you the longest after you finished the book? Which character was the hardest to get to know and to write about? Which one was the easiest?
A. I love Zeke. He broke my heart several times, as men can do. Lillian showed up on the page fully formed and talking faster than I could keep up. She had some of the best lines. Zeke’s oldest daughter Honora also occupied a large section of my heart. She’s at that precarious age for a girl—15—and she’s so mad and odd and really just wants to be loved. As the mother of three daughters, I felt a great deal of protectiveness towards Honora. I liked Honora so much, in fact, she’s the lead character in my next book.
Q. How have Honora’s experiences in Lost Saints shaped who she is in the second book?
A. Honora is the “star” of the new book, which picks up 23 years after Lost Saints ends. Honora as a 38-year-old woman remains “lost,” though she is married with three children and the owner of her own bakery. There is a big part of her that remains drawn to sadness, to lovers who are less than ideal for her. She is a very complicated woman and reminds me, at times, of Lillian.
Q. I read in another interview with you that the character Rosie is gay, but you had to cut the subplots that made that fact clear. How did not revealing Rosie’s sexual orientation affect the story?
A. It actually didn’t affect the story at all, which is why I had to cut it. It wasn’t Rosie’s story; it was Zeke’s and, to a lesser degree, his mother Lillian’s story. Rosie is “off stage” for most of the book. There are a lot of family secrets revealed in Lost Saints and, eventually, I had to come to the realization that I couldn’t reveal ALL of them in the page allotment I had. I’m happy to say though that Rosie is in the new book and while she again is not the main character, she is an important secondary character and the reader learns more about her.
Q. One of the strengths of Lost Saints is that you give Lillian a chance to tell her side of the story. Why do you think her viewpoint is important?
A. You can’t know a family’s story without hearing the mother’s side of things. I’m not saying the mother’s side is the “right” one, or the “truthful” one, but the mother is, many times, the person who was at the center of the family and who had a privileged perspective on many of the family happenings.
Q. Tell us about your feelings for Pocahontas, Tennessee. What was it about that environment that made you set your novel in a fictional town based on Pocahontas? I know you spent vacations and Christmases there, but tell me about how it makes you feel, why it’s so important to you.
A. I’m an eighth generation Southerner and I think pieces of this story were probably transmitted at birth through my DNA. Some of my favorite stories as a child were the ones my father would tell about his growing up in tiny Pocahontas, Tennessee. He had an endless repertoire, but my favorites were, in preferred order: the chimney & the radio antenna story, the assault with a deadly tomato story, and the Mrs. Leland’s Golden Butter Bits Comes to Town story. Modified versions of each of these show up in Lost Saints. From my child’s perspective, my father had a Huck Finn-like existence—traipsing through creeks, running wild through the woods, chasing down trains. This was very different from my own childhood in the 1970s and 1980s in a mid-size city in Oklahoma, where my mother and I moved when my parents separated.
Growing up, I spent every Christmas and a part of each summer back in Tennessee with my paternal grandmother in Pocahontas. There was no place in the world that felt more like home. She taught me how to make biscuits from scratch, how to maintain calm when twenty relatives have descended for Christmas dinner and the fridge breaks, and how to love people wholly and without judgment. She died when I was twenty-one and not long after that, her home was sold. No one in the immediate family lived in Pocahontas and the place felt like it was lost to me. In many ways, the book is a love letter to my grandmother—who inspired the character of Cousin Georgia—and to Pocahontas.
Q. Although Lost Saints begins in 1985, the story covers several decades before that. Did structuring the telling of events over that large time frame give you difficulty and did you ever consider telling the story chronologically?
A. It took me eight years of re-writing and re-writing before I sold the manuscript, and I believe that one of the main challenges for me as a writer was the structure. I absolutely tried telling it chronologically. I tried every way to Sunday. Not only did I have two timelines to present to the reader—the “present,” which is 1985 in the book, and then the “past,” which does unfold chronologically—but I also had two narrators in Zeke and his mother. I just kept trying different ways until I arrived at the most seamless flow I could.
Q. What do you think is the most important theme of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?
A. I hesitate to answer this because I feel reading is such an individual experience—that each of us brings our own history to each book we read and therefore our experience of that book is unique. Some of the most gratifying reader messages I’ve gotten have been around the theme of forgiveness and family—of trying to let go of past grievances with beloved family members and to connect with them while they are still alive on the planet.
But the single most important wish I have for my readers is that all those years of crafting a story result in their being completely transported to the world of Zeke, Carter, and Lillian for a few hours; that the story of the Cooper clan is one they feel they must read through to the end, to know how this family tries to right itself and find one another after great loss.
Q. Now that you’ve received numerous reactions to Lost Saints, is there anything about the novel that you would do differently?
A. I’m happy to say “no.” I feel like I told this story the best way that I could. Now, are there parts I’d like to re-write a little? Yes! I just did a reading the other day and was editing the words on the page as I went and wondering, how did this not get edited out?
Q. How have readers’ reactions to characters in the novel compared with what you expected?
A. I don’t know that I had expectations. I am, quite frankly, still a bit amazed that the book was published and is being read by people as far away as Australia and as near as my next door neighbor. I love hearing from readers through my website or on my Facebook page that they enjoyed the book and found it meaningful. I especially love hearing that they stayed up late reading, or skipped work to read, or left chores undone to finish the book. That’s the ultimate compliment and what I wish for when I pick up a book to read.