Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Q and A with Jackie Miles
What’s the backstory behind ROSEFLOWER CREEK?
When I decided to try my hand at writing, I signed up for a class at the University of Georgia’s Continuing Education Center. The only class they had that wasn’t filled up was Murder and Mayhem for Money. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to write, but what could I do? It was the only one available. I immediately signed up.
When I showed up for class, there were thirty-five people in attendance. Most of them had substantial and multiple degrees and had been writing for years. Some were even published. Being the new kid on the block, they were curious about me. One of them asked what genre I was writing in.
I said, “John who?”
The class had a good laugh, but they let me stay on and suggested that I sign up for the writer’s conference coming up on campus that would feature editors and agents from all over the country including New York. There would be four-hundred students in attendance.
Soon, I found out we could take a portion of our work to the conference and have it evaluated by a professional. I immediately got to work on a mystery genre, creating the Kate Ferrington Mystery Series, which I billed as a Killer Series, since all of the titles had the words Kill Her in it: Kill Her Dead, Kill Her Gone and Kiss Her, Tease Her, Kill Her, Squeeze Her.
After finishing each chapter, I wasn’t sure it was what I really should be writing, but I persevered. I had nearly one hundred pages and was getting rather excited about attending the conference when I picked up the local newspaper one morning and spotted a United Press article on the front page. It went on to tell of a ten-year-old boy who had lost his life when his mother and step-father beat him to death for stealing five dollars in the lunch room.
I was reduced to tears. Having four children myself, all I could think of was how awful this was for this little boy: physically, psychologically, spiritually and mentally. Holding up the paper, I remember saying, “You poor little boy. It must have hurt so bad.”
A little voice in my head said, “Yeah, it did, and the morning I died it rained.”
I went to my computer and threw Kate Ferrington out and started writing what became ROSEFLOWER CREEK. My story was one that featured a ten-year-old girl in the 1950’s who loses her life when her alcoholic step-daddy takes things too far. I wrote the prologue, the first fifty pages, the last chapter and the epilogue without stopping.
A few weeks later at the conference, I met Ron Pitkin, the President of Cumberland House Publishing. He was enamored with the opening line: The morning I died, it rained, and asked to see the manuscript. I gave him what I had. He instructed me to finish it and send it to him as soon as possible. I finished the manuscript and sent it off. He called me a week later to tell me they were bringing in out in hardcover. I consider it a miracle. I was absolutely in the right place at the right time.
What’s your favorite line from the novel?
When Lori Jean is five-years-old, her father deserts them, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. Lori Jean’s mother Nadine, who is eight months pregnant, runs after the truck as her father drives off. Their dog Digger is running right beside her. My favorite line is when Lori Jean says: “It didn’t do Mama no good. My daddy kept on going till he was a speck the size of the fleas that drove Digger nuts.”
Who are some of your literary influences?
It started with John Steinbeck and THE GRAPES OF WRATH. That book triggered a lifelong passion for reading at a young age. I was also enamored with Carson McCullers THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING.
An author who inspired me to keep putting words down on the page was Anne Lemott with her non-fiction book BIRD BY BIRD. The book didn’t solve the mechanical aspects of my writing or lead me to a path of structural excellence, but it did spark my creativity, inspire me to write well-fleshed characters, and spurred me on when I became disillusioned. Another author who was a great inspiration was Elizabeth Berg. She wrote ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN: THE ART OF WRITING TRUE. She wrote that what you need is a “fierce desire to put things down on paper.” That I had. Her gentle nudging kept me going.
What was the hardest part about writing the novel?
The hardest part was staying true to the time and place. The novel is set in Georgia during the 1950’s. Having been raised in the north, I had to draw on all of my experiences once I settled in the south. When I wrote the novel I’d been in Georgia for thirty years, but my northern roots kept showing up and I constantly had to edit out dialogue and situations that didn’t ring true. Also, I was raised during the 1950’s, but sometimes it was hard to recall the actual events of the era and I had to do some research to make sure my scenes were “spot on”.
ROSEFLOWER CREEK is being reissued with a whole new look. Tell us about that.
When Sourcebooks bought out my publisher Cumberland House, they were enchanted with both ROSEFLOWER CREEK and COLD ROCK RIVER, my second novel. They made the decision to re-package both of them with new covers and a new launch and re-release them. I consider it a major blessing. How many novels get a second chance? ROSEFLOWER CREEK re-released May 1st. COLD ROCK RIVER re-releases July 1st.
I hope all my readers will check them out and write me back if they intend to! In the interim,
All great best and bless your reading hearts!
Cold Rock River is the parallel journey of two young women born a century apart. In 1960’s rural Georgia, Adie Jenkins, seventeen and pregnant is introduced to the diary of Tempe Jordan, a slave girl in 1863, also seventeen and pregnant. Adie is haunted by the death of her baby sister Annie. Tempe is grieving the sale of her three children sired by her white master. What’s buried in the diary could destroy Adie’s life.
Tell us about the research process.
Initially Cold Rock River was to be the story of Adie Jenkins, seventeen and pregnant and unmarried during the early 1960’s. I know today if you’re in her condition, they throw you a shower. In those days they threw you out.
As Adie’s story began I decided she would do some chicken farming to feed them when it became apparent Buck, her new husband, wasn’t going to be one she could count on. I went to the library to research Georgia chicken farming and stumbled onto the Slave Narratives. The complete collection— which contains more than two thousand first-person accounts—is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They were commissioned by President Roosevelt during the depression years, in order to record the journey of those freed slaves still alive. Writers ere sent across the nation to search for them. Their accounts are as fascinating as they are poignant. Over the years, there’s been a good deal of controversy as to their accuracy, based on the fact that some of the freed slaves were fearful or perhaps suspicious of the government—brings to mind “forty acres and a mule”—and hesitant to speak candidly regarding the treatment they may or may not have received at the hands of their sometimes still powerful former masters. The collective consensus is that somewhere amidst the vast amount of material lies the truth. After months of reading, reviewing, and re-examining all of the narratives I could locate, Tempe’s portion of Cold Rock River emerged. Her story, based on what I found, is remarkable. Everything that Tempe experiences was lifted from the lives of actual people who wore the chains and bore the scars of slavery. I won’t ever forget her; nor am I able to forget those I ‘met” through the narratives, who bravely shared their life stories so that Tempe could tell me hers. The research took over two years.
You’ve written four novels now. Do you have a favorite and why?
My favorite is always the one I’m working on at any given time. Seems I can’t help myself. I get so attached to the people in my stories. I just finished ALL THAT’S TRUE. It follows the life of thirteen-year-old Andrea St. James (Andi for short), who discovers in the summer of 1991 during the first Desert Storm War, that her father is having an affair with her best friend’s sexy new step-mother. With equal joy and equal sorrow, the book celebrates Andi’s coming of age where she uncovers the allusive nature of truth and the devastating consequences of deception. It debuts from Sourcebooks in January 2011.
What is your writing process like?
First of all I try to write every day but Sunday, not always an easy task. Life tends to get in the way. But I work hard to stay on schedule. I’m a firm believer that keeping ones fingers on the keyboard is the perfect way to ward off writer’s block.
Initially, when I begin a book, I listen to the voice of my character and what they have to tell me. Usually these characters are inspired by an incident in my own life or something that I’ve read, as in Roseflower Creek. In my second novel Cold Rock River, the story came from the time my baby sister choked on a jelly bean. She survived, but fifty years later when I was trying to go to sleep, I recalled the memory and it was fresh as newly skinned knees. I got up and wrote the opening line:
I was five-years-old that spring Annie choked on a jelly bean. She was twenty months old; she wasn’t supposed to have any. Mama made that quite clear. Sadly I wasn’t a child that minded well, so I gave her one anyway. I figured she should taste how good they were. I figured wrong.
Once the protagonist is firmly planted in my mind I keep writing until they have nothing else at the moment to say. That’s when I sit down and start outlining the story, where it’s going, the story points that will get it there and what the best possible ending might be. Often times as I’m writing I don’t end up following the initial outline, but it does give me some type of structure to follow, and if I move outside the lines, I’m not concerned. Characters do have a habit of running away with the story and I usually follow them wherever they’re going.
Toward the end, I take another look at the story arc and see if I’ve fulfilled the promise I made to the reader when they picked up the book. Will it take them to a spot where they’re happy with the story? If I am extremely pleased, I have confidence that my reader will be, too. If I’m not, I go back and fix whatever it is that I feel is missing.
Then I start the process all over again with a new book and a new premise.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on Summer Ridge, my latest. In this novel, twelve-year-old Mary Alice Munford struggles with the knowledge her mother plans to marry her father, a man who abandoned them before she was born.
Here’s the opening:
When I was very little my mother told me stories about why my father wasn’t with us. First she said he was away in the war going on in Asia. Vietnam. Then she said he was trying to heal from the wounds in his head that made him forget us. Later she said he was on assignment with the Secret Service.
“Hogwash,” Granny Ruth said. “She’s filled your head with garbage.”
Back and forth all day long. They still can’t agree on anything. They can’t decide what bread to buy. They can’t decide on which church to go to. There are many in Summer Ridge. One thing’s for sure, they don’t agree on my father. My mother insists he’s perfect.
Granny Ruth says, “And pigs can fly.”
Ours is not a happy household. There’s me, my mother, Granny Ruth and Aunt Josie, whose husband, my Uncle Earnest, fell under a combine when I was four, so I never got to know him good. The day he died, I climbed up on Aunt Josie’s lap and wouldn’t leave even when it was time to go to bed. Mama tried to pick me up.
“You been sitting there all day, sweet thing.”
“Leave me lone, Mommie,” I said. “I’m helping Aunt Josie cry.”
Visit Jack Miles at http://jlmiles.brinkster.net/