A Q&A with Amy Greene
Question: You’ve lived all your life in East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, a part of the country you depict vividly in Bloodroot. How did you imbue a familiar place with such detail and even magic? What was it like to put the language you’d heard all your life into words on the page, as dialogue?
Amy Greene: There is, I think, an intimacy with the landscape that comes with living here. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, a part of my experience that emerges naturally in my writing. Bringing the language I’ve heard all my life to the page also came easily. It was instinctive to appropriate the voices of my family, friends and neighbors for the characters I was exploring in Bloodroot. The challenge was actually in dialing back the language once I had poured it onto the page, making it accessible to people who aren’t familiar with these expressions and colloquialisms.
Question: Six different character--men and women, old and young--narrate Bloodroot. Which characters or voices came to you first? Who was the most difficult to write, and who was the easiest? Did you have any particular people in your own life in mind when you came up with these characters originally? How did you invent the totally unique Ford Hendrix?
Amy Greene: I envisioned Johnny and Laura first, not as children but as young adults. I considered writing a short story about them, but realized I wanted to know more than I could learn about their lives within a few pages. I found myself creating a past for them, going back in time before their birth to discover what had brought them to such a dark place. Their great-grandmother, Byrdie, was the easiest character to write. She hasn’t changed much since the first draft of Bloodroot, probably because I’ve been surrounded and raised by women like her, my mom and my aunts and the ladies I went to church with. I was interested in exploring, through Byrdie, the stories I’d heard from them about life in Appalachia during the Depression. John Odom was hardest to write. It was difficult to show all his dimensions and his conflicting emotions--to portray him not just as a villain but also as a tortured soul. I struggled to make it believable that, at least in his own mind, it was possible for John to love Myra and at the same time, to hurt her. With Ford, I wanted Johnny to have the father figure he was searching for, but the first character I created to fit that role became uninspiring to me. I knew he wasn’t working, so I scrapped what I had written and began to imagine a character I wouldn’t grow tired of, one who would intrigue Johnny and me both enough to follow him a long way. The intriguing figure I ended up with was Ford Hendrix.
Question: Bloodroot takes place across four generations, from the Great Depression to the present-day. At times there’s a sociological aspect to your depiction of life in Appalachia--the poverty some families struggle with for years, the development of the land. But in some ways the story you’ve told seems out of time--we don’t see politics or computers, for instance. Did you consciously weave social issues into the novel? How isolated is this area of the country, and how has that changed over time? To your mind, what role does history and the passage of time play in this family story?
Amy Greene: I didn’t think about "sociology," especially not at first. I concentrated primarily on storytelling, and building the lives of the characters. For the most part, I kept the wider world out of the picture, partly to preserve the dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the writing, and also to portray the sense of isolation that comes with living in Appalachia. Often the passage of time and what’s going on outside the mountains has little impact on life here. People still grow and can their own food, get their water from wells and springs, use wood and coal for heat. There’s a feeling of separateness from the rest of the country. But as I wrote deeper into the characters, the outside world began seeping into their stories with the progression of time. In successive drafts I was able to add another layer to Bloodroot by expanding those moments already present in the narrative that addressed social issues, such as the poverty that persists in parts of Appalachia. Although the quality of life has improved here over the last few decades, there are still areas where lack of education, job training, and access to public services makes life difficult. I also thought about the possibility of hopelessness as a kind of legacy, generation after generation accepting destitution as their lot in life because it’s all they’ve ever known. But while history and the passage of time do play important roles in this story, the familial bond of the characters mattered more to me. It transcends the changing world around them--the landscape changes, their circumstances change, people move in and out of their lives. But their blood ties are permanent.
Question: Magic and mysticism run throughout the book--there are "granny women" who are like witches; spells and potions, including a visceral scene where a young woman swallows a chicken heart to make a man fall in love with her; and a special connection with animals, called "the touch," that is passed down in the family. How did these supernatural elements make their way into a story that often feels very true-to-life? Growing up, had you heard any similar legends? Does this type of folk magic--healing or curses or anything else--still hold weight for people?
Amy Greene: I’ve always seen Appalachia as a magical place. I grew up hearing stories of haints and fortunetellers and curses. One of my favorite scenes in Bloodroot to write, where Clifford blows healing wind down Byrdie’s throat, is based on a story my dad tells of his mother taking his baby sister to a neighbor man who cured her thrush the same way. My mom had an aunt who took off her warts by rubbing a stone in a circle around each one and then throwing the stones away. This kind of folk magic still holds weight here because, for whatever reason, people see tangible results from the practice of it. The thrush clears up, the warts fall off, and so they keep believing.
(Photo © Amy Smotherman Burgess)
From Publishers Weekly
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