1. What inspired you to write Keowee Valley?
I am a history nut, and nothing has fascinated me more over the years than the history of the place where I grew up: the South Carolina Upcountry. As a kid, the South Carolina Blue Ridge mountains were my playground—my family was always outside, camping, hiking, swimming. My parents own a lake house in the northwest corner of the state, and that lake bumps right up to the Sumter National Forest. I used to spend hours just wandering the woods and streams, checking out animals and plants, building forts, and dreaming up stories. Every mountain, creek, river and even road seemed to have a Cherokee Indian name. And I couldn’t help but wonder what the land would’ve been like and looked like when the Cherokee lived there.
For years I dreamed about writing about the land around my parents’ lake house, simply because it’s my favorite place in the world. I kept having this vision of a young woman in 18th century dress, standing at the crest of a high meadow, on the land where my parents’ house sits now. I was a newlywed on a definitely newlywed budget when my husband and I decided that I should attend the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop annual conference, down in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I had the chance to send in manuscript pages to be critiqued by a top literary agent or editor. As I was thumbing through the dozens of unfinished novels I’d started over the years, I just couldn’t shake that old vision from my head. I decided that I had to write about that land I loved so much, and that woman—that dream woman—whom I felt instinctively loved it just as much as I did.
I wrote 10 pages in an inspired rush, and sent them off to be critiqued. At the conference, I was paired with Duncan Murrell, who then worked for Algonquin Books. Duncan asked if I’d finished the novel, and when I sheepishly told him that those were the only 10 pages I had so far, he looked me dead on and said bluntly, “Well, in a year, when you’re finished, you need to shop around for an agent. I think you’ve got a very publishable work here.” It was just the kick in the pants I needed to dive into the novel.
2. Are the characters based on anyone you know?
Yes and no. I have an eclectic, zany bunch of family and friends, and I love to pull their best—and worst—qualities for my characters. Sometimes these are random. For example, Campbell MacFadden happens to have blue eyes just like my dad, Quinn’s mother had hazel eyes, just like my mom, and Jack tends to get annoyed with Quinn for the very same things that tend to annoy my husband about me. But my characters seem to grow very organically out of the story and out of my imagination. No character is based entirely on anyone I know.
Now, the actual historical characters—the “real” people—they’re certainly based on folks who lived and breathed. With characters like Attakullakulla, Nancy Ward, and Andrew Pickens, I tried to do the best research I could, and stay as true to the historical record as I could. But still, ultimately, they are products of my imagination.
3. Who is your favorite character in Keowee Valley?
This is like choosing a favorite child—impossible! I do have a special love for Quincy. She has so many of the qualities I’d like to have: she’s fearless, adventurous and brave, and barrels forward whole-heartedly when she believes in something, no matter the cost.
Obviously, I adore Jack. He is my leading man. But there’s something special, too, about Ridge Runner. He’s mysterious, more of the Cherokee world than of the white, certainly. He’s intensely loyal, and despite his native elegance, he’s dangerous. I think that’s an intriguing combination.
4. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Well, I’ve been telling stories—okay, lies—since I learned to talk, so it came naturally. I was an early reader: my kindergarten teachers wanted my parents to skip me a couple of grades, because of this, but my parents refused. (Which I’m so very thankful for, because I can still barely add and would’ve never been able to keep up with the math.) So my teachers in my wonderful little elementary school just collected books for me from the upper grades. By the time I’d made it to fifth grade, I’d already read the 5th grade history textbook from cover to cover. I really do think all writers begin as readers, as lovers of story. And I come from a long line of writers, on my father’s side. My grandmother was a bit of a recluse who wrote poems in the margins of books and on random pieces of envelopes, and my great-grandmother was a suffragette who used to write scathing editorials in her local newspaper about women’s rights.
One summer when I was 10 years old, I read two books that changed my life: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. (Yes, this was way too young to read The Prince of Tides, and I don’t recommend feeding it to your 10 year-old.) I’d always written poems and stories—some had even appeared in our hometown newspaper—but it was then, when I read those books, that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do what Montgomery and Conroy did.
5. What’s your writing process like? What does a typical day look like for you?
Before I had my daughter (now three years old), a typical day saw me—on the days I didn’t teach at the College where I work—going for a hike or trail run with my dog, and then coming home to several uninterrupted hours at the computer. Sometimes, when I’d hit a great writing streak, I’d forget where I was and wouldn’t even respond (except for maybe a grunt) when my husband asked me something.
Those were beautiful, halcyon days.
Since the birth of my gorgeous, willful and wild three year-old, no one day looks the same. For a while, I tried to wake early, around 6 a.m. or earlier, and get at least an hour or two in before she woke. This worked for about a month. Then, she started waking up when she heard me get up, which totally defeated the purpose.
These days, on the days I’m not teaching, I simply write whenever I can—which, sadly, isn’t often. Three year-olds are a lot of work, and they don’t tend to let mama sit in silence at her desk for minutes at a time, let alone hours. But I do write in short spurts, when she’s at preschool, on weekends when my husband takes point.
If anyone has the magic potion to being a succesful writer, teacher and mother, I’ll pay top dollar for it.
As for my process, I make a ridiculously large pot of coffee, boot up my laptop, and sit at my desk. Then I beg the writing gods to have mercy on my soul. In the winter, I turn on the gas logs in the fireplace next to my desk (my desk is in the corner of our living room). Winter is by far my favorite time to write.
6. What authors or books have inspired you over the years?
These are far too many to count, as I am a voracious reader and learned to read very early. But I’ll try to narrow it down. As I mentioned before, certainly L.M. Montgomery and Pat Conroy. As a child, I loved J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (I made my parents set up the tent I got for Christmas one year in my room, and I lived in it for a month), Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, The Green Grass of Wyoming, Little Women, anything by Mark Twain. This is getting hard, because I read several books a week—still do. Hmm… as a teenager and a college student I fell head over heels in love with Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Isak Dinesen, and the Romantic poets. These days, I’m a huge fan of modern historical novelists like Diana Gabaldon and Sara Donati. And I love reading essays, creative nonfiction and biographies by authors like Pam Houston, Robert Morgan, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Really, there are too many to list, and I know I’m leaving out a ton.
7. How long did it take you to write Keowee Valley?
All in all, it took me about two years to research and write Keowee Valley. I spent months, at first, on research, delving into libraries and online, ordering out-of-print books and pouring over old maps and colonial army records, reading ancient soldiers’ journals. I traveled all over South Carolina to do research and to get a feel for the lay of the land in my story. One of the most wonderful things about South Carolina is how entrenched we are in history, and how well-preserved so much of the state’s historical sites are. The 18th century is a tough era—it was so long ago, and so much of the landscape has changed—but I still felt like I was able to get a good idea of how things looked and worked.
Then, I got to work writing. I was teaching as an adjunct instructor at a community college, and so I had odd hours. I spent any spare time I had at my desk in this tiny side porch of the house my husband and I were renting. I decided when I wanted the novel to start, and that it would end about two years later. And that was that.
8. What made you decide to sign with Bell Bridge Books, which is a traditional but smaller press?
My literary agent spent three years trying to find a publisher for Keowee Valley. We had some great responses from many of the “big 6” publishers, but ultimately all said the same sorts of things. Things like, basically, “there are too many genres wrapped into one. No one will know where to put it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.” Or, “great voice, LOVE Quinn, but no one’s reading American frontier historical any more. Let us know if she wants to write about kings and queens in Europe!” We got very far in the process with one large publisher, but in the end they simply wanted to change the story so that it’d be unrecognizable. (And trust me that this is true, because by then I was almost willing to change anything.)
After moving through the large publishers, my agent and I began to look at smaller publishing houses. I actually suggested we take a look at Bell Bridge Books (which is an imprint of BelleBooks, a small to mid-sized press based in Memphis, TN). I knew that Deborah Smith, who is a favorite Southern writer of mine, was one of the founders. And I knew she had a particular affinity for Cherokee history. So my agent queried, and Bell Bridge Books made an offer.
I couldn’t be happier working with Bell Bridge Books. The founders are all authors themselves, many with novels on the New York Times bestseller lists, and all who’d originally published with big houses. These are smart, savvy, very funny and generous women, and they know the industry and know readers like nobody’s business. In addition, I’ve been more a part of the publishing process with Bell Bridge Books than I ever would have at a bigger house. This was important to me.
9. Place is so important to the novel. How did growing up in South Carolina affect or inspire you as a writer?
Nothing is as important to me, as a writer—and certainly, too, as a Southern writer—than place. I’m very aesthetically affected. I am a true product of where I’m from, and I was shaped and changed by the South Carolina landscape: the mountains, rivers, swamps and coastal plains. Because I’m such a lover of history (and I truly believe that history is cyclical, binding, and often freeing) I have a hard time displacing the land from what happened there. I’ve traveled many places, and I’ve been enchanted with each of them, but where I grew up—South Carolina—and where I live now—the mountains of Western North Carolina—have a good, firm grip on my personality. I could live somewhere else for most of my life, and love that place deep in my soul, but I’ll always be a Southerner.
10. What are you working on now?
Because there was such a long time between my completing Keowee Valley and its publication, and I didn’t know whether the novel would even sell to a publisher, I started work on a Civil War-era novel. This novel isn’t completely unrelated to Keowee Valley—in fact, the protagonist is the several-greats granddaughter of Quincy and Jack—but it isn’t a direct sequel, seeing as how it takes place almost 100 years in the future. When this is completed, I plan to begin work on the direct sequel to Keowee Valley, which will pick up where Keowee Valley left off, with Quinn, Jack, Ridge Runner and Rebekah in the middle of the Atlantic aboard the Queen Anne, on their way to Italy.