Could you give us a bit of background information about yourself and did you always want to be a writer?
I was always a reader and the writing came second. I always used to read and disappear into books. So from reading so much I felt that maybe I should write. I tried at first to be a poet but I was really bad because I was always trying to tell a story, so I asked myself, why don’t you just write a story and it all started from there. I would say ultimately I am a storyteller.
For someone who has not read the book how would you describe it if you were trying to persuade them to read it?
The novel is about the repercussions of extreme faith in a small community in the mountains of North Carolina. It has infidelity, addiction, violence and heartache but ultimately closes with redemption.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
When I was studying for my PhD, I took a course in African American literature, and one day my professor brought in a news story about a young African American boy with autism who was smothered during a church healing service in a storefront church on Chicago’s South Side. The story of the young boy’s smothering was clearly tragic and I couldn’t help but feel compelled to write about it. But when I thought about sitting down at my desk to begin the story, I knew I’d face several insurmountable problems:, I’d never been to Chicago’s South Side, and I knew nothing about the experience of growing up in the city’s African American neighborhoods. It was impossible for me to attempt to speak for a cultural experience that existed so far outside my own. So, I placed the story in North Carolina, the place I was homesick for whilst I was studying in Louisiana. A Land More Kind Than Home is told from the point of view of multiple first person narration.
What made you decide to write the book this way and what was the biggest challenge that you encountered?
I decided to write the book through three characters to represent the different views within the community because the story belongs to the community and the different voices within it. The biggest challenge was keeping track of the knowledge that each character had of events at each given time. This problem was amplified by the fact that the novel takes place over six days. This tight schedule didn’t allow for a lot of summary or exposition.
With the myriad of narrators, whose story do you actually think this is?
This is definitely Jess’s story, a story of the two brothers. Jess is key, as he knows more truth than any other character does. He’s the one who carries the largest burden for the tragedy that befalls the family; he’s the one who sees something he shouldn’t have seen; he’s the one who keeps the secret. It is this that leads to the ultimate tragedy.
Whilst A Land More Kind Than Home is part gothic novel, part crime novel it also deals with family, relationships, belief, brutality, innocence and a hefty dose of evil. Do you believe in evil and how did you manage to deal with all these other issues without allowing one to overwhelm the other?
Yes, I would say that I do believe in evil. I’ve met people before that I’ve had a strange creepy feeling about. There are places I’ve been to where it hasn’t felt right, even churches where I’ve felt uneasy, as if I really shouldn’t be there. All of the other issues of family, relationships, belief and so on make my characters interesting and more real. We all have conflicting beliefs and dueling perspectives on life, every day we all feel overwhelmed by these conflicts but that is what shows the character’s balance, it makes them well rounded. Their histories are made up of these feelings making them interesting, their background is built up of a connect the dots of sorts.
What made you decide to set the novel in North Carolina and was it difficult to capture the voices properly?
I decided to set the novel in North Carolina because it’s the place I know best, I grew up there. When I was studying in Louisiana, I missed the mountains, the fresh water and the seasons. In Louisiana it’s summer most of the year so setting the book in North Carolina gave me an excuse to go back home. To drive into the mountains, capture the music, food and the beautiful change in seasons. I lived in two places at once, and it was wonderful. The voices in the same way were easy to capture because they’re based on the voices I grew up with. So say there is a real similarity between my dad and Clem Barfield, also Adelaide Lyle has the same tones and accents as my paternal grandmother.
What part did your own religious upbringing factor into your writing A Land More Kind Than Home and how comfortable are you talking about religion, as it can be a sore topic with some?
Like politics, religion and my personal beliefs aren’t something that I feel totally comfortable talking about in the company of people I don’t know but yes there is some similarity between my experiences of religion as a child and Jess’s. I remember being 9 years old sitting in church and being exposed to parts of adult life that I shouldn’t. The church was very conservative and asked people to stand up and confess issues such as sex before marriage and infidelity to everyone else. Children shouldn’t be exposed to hearing such adult things. Like Jess, I would also often find myself sitting in church and waiting for something to happen. I was promised that I would recognize my salvation when I felt Jesus move inside my heart; however, like Jess, I attempted to rationalize the mysteries of Christianity.
The novel is set in the eighties which was a period that was characterized by Ronald Reagan, Swatch Watches as well as the misbehavior of some Southern evangelists did this have an influence on the storyline?
This period of the eighties makes me think of the glorious facades, the face that was shown to everyone, like Ronald Reagan smiling on TV with the Enron crisis unfolding, seeing televangelists taking up mistresses and stealing money through the TV at the same time. Even the gaudy Swatch timepieces that made time an accessory, a fashion statement when time at the end of the day is nebulous. It was all about covering the reality and the face that you present to the world. This is something that was important for Chambliss’s character.
Which is for you the most important? Character, plot, or do you feel that it has to be an equal measure of the two?
For me, character is the most important. As a writer, I want interesting characters. With ‘A Land More Kind Than Home’, right at the beginning of the story the reader already knows what happens and it is just the trajectory that is set not a strict plot. Each character is set on a course that will lead to the ultimate tragic scene but the emphasis is on how the characters react in certain situations, which organically propels the story on.
What makes a character real for you? Must you work everything out about them beforehand or do you just let it flow?
I’m not sure what makes the characters truly real for me. I suppose it’s when they do things that I don’t want them to do. I found writing Jimmy Hall very difficult because he was so unpredictable and self-interested. Jimmy was hurting so many people; it was difficult to keep him on the page. Good heroes are much easier to right but those conflicted and hesitant heroes are much harder. Clem Barfield was hard to write as well because of his heavy baggage, having lost a son. It was hard to write from the perspective of a man who believes that it takes a lifetime to build equity in loss, that only parents can fathom the pain of losing a child, seeing as I do not have children and have not experienced that loss in my life. And no, I don’t plan what the characters are going to do; I put them in different situations to see what happens.
A sense of place certainly comes across in the novel, how much of a role did it play for you whilst you were writing the novel?
A sense of place was really important to me for this book because North Carolina is where I grew up and I needed to do it justice. I bought books on North Carolina photography; I listened and still listen to North Carolina musicians, and fall asleep each night after reading the words of North Carolina writers, it was so important to get it right. Actually, a friend I have who lives in Chicago read an early draft of the book and asked me whether the mountains in the book were the Rockies or the Appalachian Mountains. When I said it was all based in North Carolina he told me that I needed to really describe those mountains in detail and make the reader really feel what it was like to live near them because they’re so different to anyway else. It was great advice, not to assume that everyone else would know what I was writing about and helped develop that sense of place that is so important to the novel.
Who is the first person to read your work, your wife or your editor?
My wife Mallory has always read my work first. She has been a driving force behind my writing from the start. I actually had an agent before my current one who spotted the potential in my writing. We spent a year and a half working on the novel and by that time, I’d almost given up on it. Mallory was the one who said to keep going, if I finished 20 pages of revisions she’d then read them and give feedback and it was actually through this that she had the idea to bring that first scene forward in the book. There was a funny story that I’ll always remember when my wife and I were reading in bed. She’s reading the manuscript of my novel, and I’m reading a book on Abraham Lincoln. At one point, she lays the pages on the bed in front of her, sighs, and says, “This is amazing! This is how you write a novel!” I’d never felt such pride in my life. When I looked over, I saw that she’d been reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was a humbling experience.
How difficult has it been to juggle your writing commitments with your teaching commitments and do you think that you have managed to find the right balance?
When I was writing the book, it was difficult as I was teaching grad classes and taking them as well. When I was making the revisions, I was teaching four grad classes with committee work as well. I’d get up at 6am to write for a couple of hours, head in to teach class for the day, grade papers in the evening and then maybe fit some more work in before bed. The summertime was when I got a lot of work done but this is when everyone wants to enjoy themselves. I decided that I had to make the sacrifice, its saying no to another beer or turning down a ticket to the big game or staying at home and not going away for the weekend. The low residency teaching that I now do makes writing and also book promotion much easier.
Where is the best place that you ever held a book launch?
The best place was Ashville in North Carolina. We held an event in an independent bookstore called Malaprop’s down the road from where the book was originally set. We had around 120 people there and there were lots of friends there. One thing that I have been doing with my US book tour is touring only independent bookstores in the cities of Southeast States (there was maybe a Barnes & Noble in a town that didn’t have an independent). At each event, we’ve been raising money for literacy charities, which will pay for the printed materials needed to teach a course supporting the work that the teachers do. So far, we’ve raised over 200 dollars that wouldprovide these materials for at least 40 people.
A Land More Kind Than Home has been very well received. It is a New York Times bestseller and has been shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger. Have you been surprised about how well it has been received? In hindsight, is there anything you would change?
Yes, I’ve been really surprised at how the book has been received. Mallory and I decided from the beginning that the goal was to have the book published, that was the pinnacle. Everything else has been crazy. I try not to let the bad stuff get under my skin and keep my feet on the ground for the good stuff. So, no there wouldn’t be anything I would change at all.
Is there a book you wish you had written and if so why?
There are two debuts that I read last year that I really enjoyed, ’The Art of Fielding’ by Chad Harbach and ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes. Both novels had characters that really stayed with me once I finished the book. This year another debut novel I’ve read and admired is ‘The Evening Hour’ by Cater Sickels, which is in the simplest sense at crime fiction novel that revolves around drug dealing, family, big business and the American landscape, but it’s also about the mining in the Virginian mountains where the entire top of a mountain is blasted away to facilitate the coal mining business. It’s a well-written book based in West Virginia that talks about something that not many people know about and highlights the real environmental damage that it is doing.
Do other books and authors influence your writing and if so what other types of writing and authors are you attracted to? I believe that Ernest J Gaines has had some influence.
Yes, for a sense of place Ernest J. Gaines has been my mentor. In our workshops back when I was studying at university, Gaines helped me learn to write better stories; how to strip away unnecessary language until your writing is terse and clean, how to use dialogue to reveal characters, when to rely on exposition and when to rely on scene but he also showed me what those stories would be about. I’m currently reading Anna Karenina and I’ve been inspired by the open countryside, the fields and the peasants working on the land contrasting with life within the cities. I read Ron Rash who’s a novelist and poet who also grew up in North Carolina. Southern writers like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, but also Western American writer s like Bret Harte in 19th century have been influential.
Do you have a specific place where you do your writing and if so where?
I sit at a desk at home and write on a desktop computer that does not have access to the internet. My desk is under a large window and if it’s nice outside and I always like to keep it open for fresh air. I’ve always lived in very quiet communities, especially now that I live in West Virginia, but I’ve often written with earplugs inmy ears to shut out all the noise. There’s something about hearing only one’s breath that is very meditative. I’ve consciously blocked the internet out of my computer to make sure that I concentrate. Writing is like any other type of work, like grading essays or even going to the gym, it may not be the thing that you really want to do at the time but you never have a feeling that it’s ever time wasted once you’ve spent time on it.
What problems (if any) do you find yourself coming up against when you are doing research?
I’ve been lucky as I haven’t had to do a huge amount of research for this book because it’s set in North Carolina, a place that I’ve known all my life and the voices have come from people I’ve grown up with.
Do you consider yourself a “Southern Writer” and what is it about Southern Literature that is so compelling?
Yes I’d consider myself a Southern Writer because I feel I’m based in North Carolina and I write about it. It’s also the idea that I think is central in Southern writing, that its identity is centered on loss. This part of the country was devastated after the civil war. The Southern states were like third world countries watching places like New York and Chicago thrive. It’s an identity that’s built on angst but also a fierce southern pride. I don’t set out with an agenda when I write but you can see with characters set and based in this region of America that they’re proud people, proud of their struggle to make the best of times when things aren’t their best, which lends itself to romanticizing the feelings of loss. That’s why people love novels like ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Without giving too much away, could you tell us a bit more about the second book?
I know that it involves baseball, kidnapping and some stolen money. It’s about a washed up minor league pitcher who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and like ‘A Land More Kind Than Home’ has three narrators, set over a period of 10 days.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I’m always reading but otherwise I love sports. I watch basketball, American football, baseball but I also really enjoy travelling, which this book has allowed me to do. It’s been great to meet lots of people, widening the circle of people I now know.
Anything you’d like to add?
My wife has visited the UK before but this is my first trip to the UK and I’ve been overwhelmed by how nice everyone has been, how warm and receptive people have been who really didn’t have to be including readers, publishers, bloggers, and agents that I’ve come into contact with.
You won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger in October 2012, did you expect to win and how important is receiving the recognition of your peers?
No I didn’t expect it at all; I didn’t think that I’d be long listed. This award is really important for me because I didn’t even realize that these writers and this community would be my peers. To be part of this great English tradition of crime writing makes me feel like I’m one of the cool kids without even knowing it. It’s as if when you’re a kid and you’re sat in the cafeteria and the cool kids ask whether you’d like to sit at their table. Also, to be American and be accepted, it’s like asking a UK athlete to play in the NFL. I’m really honored to have won.