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Seven years ago today my debut novel was published. It was September 27, 2012, and my life looked very different than it does now. For one, I had a toddler, and I was pregnant. My old trail dog, Scout, was still alive. I was a college professor slogging through graduate school, with a traveling husband.
It was a big day for me. My novel, Keowee Valley, had been a dream whose fruition I’d spent years working towards–with my mind, body, and heart. The novel was steeped in a history (the 1760s), in a place (the wild Carolina frontier), and in a people (the Cherokee and colonial settlers of Charleston, South Carolina and the Southern Appalachians) I’d spent a lifetime studying. Particularly during the two years I was researching and writing the novel, when I hiked, paddled, horseback rode across, and drove the settings in my story–not to mention the hours I spent in museums and libraries.
Many writers like to say a book or a novel they’ve written is “a love letter” to a particular place or age in their lives. But Keowee Valley really was my love letter to the South Carolina Upcountry and the Western North Carolina mountains. It was an outpouring of gratitude and awe for the place where I was born and raised, and where I still to this day feel my soul is most itself.
Here’s a bit from the Prologue. Maybe you’ll see what I mean:
My story begins before the fall, in that Indian summer time when the hills are tipped with oncoming gold, and the light hangs just above the trees, dotting the Blue Ridge with gilded freckles. The mornings and the evenings are cool, but it is the mornings I remember most: waking before the men, wrapping a shawl around my shoulders and slipping out through the fields, the dry grass crunching beneath my boots. Drifting down from Tomassee Knob the mist would spread over the Keowee Valley in great, rivering pools of gray, the sun rising in the east flecking the horse’s breath–suspended in the air before their nostrils–with slivers of shine. It was then the whole world was quiet, no crows eating my corn, the peacefulness not even broken by the bay of some wolf on the ridge, calling to the still-lit moon in the western sky. The whole world was silent then, and the Blue Ridge breathed beneath the deep purple earth. I thought I could feel it, a great heart beating in the wilderness.
I was 26 years-old when I began writing this novel, though it had percolated in my mind since I was a child. Now, I sometimes think I threw everything in it but the kitchen sink. (Probably, I’d've thrown that in, too, if kitchen sinks had been around in the 1760s.) I wanted an epic adventure story, a love story, a history story, a cultural story, a story steeped in place. I wanted horses, and Cherokee culture, and an early feminist heroine; I wanted colonial Charleston, the frontier, battles and blood and famous Americans; I wanted mixed-race heroes, humor, war. I even wanted Italy, where I’d traveled the summer before I began writing. I wanted, more than anything, to create a world so vivid readers could sink into and not want to leave.
All this is to say, there’s a chance (okay, a big chance) I was over-ambitious. First novel and all. Looking back now, there are so many things I’d do differently. There’s so much I would change if I could (including asking my publisher to place the Glossary of Cherokee Words and Phrases at the beginning of the novel, rather than the end, so readers would know it was there). This is why a novel becomes something an author must release, like a biologist releasing a wolf back into the wild after rehabilitation. The novel, like the wolf, never really was yours–it never really belonged to you–in the first place.
I was astounded by the many authors who agreed to “blurb” the book. This is a process by which a writer must beg other writers to read an advanced copy of their novel, and to say something nice about it, which the publisher then puts on the cover of said novel. I was a nobody, but I reached out to some of the authors I admired most, and they responded with nothing short of grace. Pat Conroy, Adriana Trigiani, Ron Rash, Beverly Swerling, Tommy Hays, Elise Blackwell, and the late Kathryn Stripling Byer (former NC Poet Laureate), said things I still can’t believe about Keowee Valley. New author friends with whom I’d corresponded while writing the book, like historical novelists Philip Lee Williams and the wonderful Darci Hannah wrote the loveliest things. And book reviewers–so many book reviewers–took the time to write about my books on their blogs, to interview me, and to ask the most incredible questions.
The friendships I have developed with other writers because of Keowee Valley were the greatest gift of all. If I had to
list them here, I’d run out of space with my gushing. I’ve bonded with writers from my own backyard, from states away, and from Canada. When I worry about the long span of time it’s been since I’ve published another novel–and, trust me, there have been times I’ve wanted to tear my hair out over it–I think of these friendships and the joy and comfort they have brought me.
And if I even attempted to put to words what the support from family members and friends meant to me, I’d be a weepy mess.
It hasn’t been easy since Keowee Valley was published on Sept. 27, 2012. Life, as we all know, can be about as easy to predict as a tornado. However, here I am, 7 years later, and–for now at least–writing is going well. I’m nearly finished with the first draft of a new novel. I have plans for a book of essays based on the newspaper column I wrote for five years. And I’m enjoying writing.
All of this could end tomorrow, of course: the book industry is mercurial and trends change weekly, and editors are subjective about what they decide to take on (this is a massive understatement). But this is the writer’s life, and it’s one I’ve chosen just as it simultaneously chose me.
So. In celebration of Keowee Valley turning 7 years old today, I’m giving away a free copy. All you have to do is respond in the comments here with the following: Who is your favorite (or least favorite) character from the novel, and why? I want details!
You have until 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2019 to respond. I’ll put all the responses in a hat and let my kids draw a name without looking. And we’ll have a winner.