I just finished reading a book which stunned me with its honesty and atmosphere. In Ghost Swamp Blues, the sins of the past haunt the present with spirits who emerge from the walls, wearing pink feather hats or rope burns from lynchings. But even though this story whispers and hollers about horrific events tied to slavery and racism, it is more about accountability and familial and cultural nooses that strangle the truth. It's about families torn apart and glued together.
Author Laraine Herring kindly did an interview, which I've included along with some snippets. Herring has masters degrees in creative writing and counseling psychology and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her nonfiction.
The story travels back and forth from the 1850s to 1970s, weaving a web of intrigue through the voices of Roberta Du Bois, a plantation-owner's wife who walks into a snake-infested swamp in 1859, leaving behind her brutal husband and slave-born half-sister; Lillian Green, who swallows her voice in 1949 rather than reveal the terrible event she witnessed; Hannah Green who leaves letters to her mother around the house, but her mother prefers to talk to ghosts.
This tale lures you into its depths and won't let go.
Here are some snippets, followed by the interview.
Roberta: Time looped around me, caught me in its square knot, and held me tight. Held me here. Watching all of this madness unfolding in front of me, unwinding like snakeskin, dragging everyone along.
Lillian: The earth under my feet was so soft I felt the whole world was sinking. Mother and Daddy's shadows danced in the picture window, faces close, bodies apart. I knew without seeing that Mother's lips were disappearing and that Daddy's mouth was getting bigger, his lips puffier and redder with his rage at Mother's silence.
Hannah: If the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons for seven generations, what, then, is the fate of the daughters?
Q: The atmosphere in this story is so evocative of the deep South, not only the physical descriptions but the sense of hidden histories, secrets and torments. Is this a story you've long wanted to tell? How difficult was it to go so deep into this painful past?
Laraine: I didn’t know this particular story/plot was one that I wanted to tell, but I have always known that the South is a part of who I am as a writer. I have tried to write novels set in the Southwest (where I currently live) and haven’t been very successful. To me, the landscape is essential to telling the story, and I haven’t been able to access the high desert landscape in the same way as I can access the South. I remember when I was a girl sitting on the porch at my grandmother’s house (the property of Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation is loosely based on her property) and listening to the wind in the trees and all the sounds from the creek and the woods and hearing people whispering all around me. I’ve always felt very lucky that my parents didn’t think I was crazy & put me on meds. :-)
Q: Which character stepped out of the shadows first? How did the story develop from there?
Laraine: I first heard the Swamp Sirens singing. I didn’t know who they were singing to or why they were singing, but I knew where they were and that they were there in some important context in the story. Then, I saw Gabriel in the woods being chased by Tommy. I knew that was going to be the driving question for Lillian even before I knew what her arc might be. Once I had that question and that inciting incident, I just followed it to see what would happen. I didn’t know the ending until I got there. The book went through more rewrites than I can count, but if I got stuck, I always tried to maintain that authenticity with the characters and with the setting and the situation.
Q: What do you hope people come away with when they read Ghost Swamp Blues?
Laraine: I hope they’ll come away feeling they’ve been transported into the world of the story. I wanted the landscape to wrap around the reader and pull him or her into all of its complexities. I also hope that they may come away with a greater respect for and appreciation for the looping nature of time. I hope the world really won’t appear so black and white — that the nuances of what it means to be human will create some space for readers within their own hearts.
Q: Your book is published non-traditionally. Can you explain why you chose this process and what it's given you?
Laraine: This novel is actually the book that got me my agent back in 2001. While trying to sell this novel, we went on to sell three other books. This one just wasn’t hitting. We’d get great rejection letters, and many very, very close calls, one so close it still makes my heart twinge! But it’s hard for editors to take a chance on a new novel, and we also noticed the publishing industry changing so much in the last decade. We continued to love this book, and I even rewrote it as a young adult book two years ago and we sent it out that way.
After so many years, we decided to consider other ways of putting it out there. I’d already had three non-fiction books out through traditional channels and I really wanted to be able to give readers some of my fiction.
White River Press is a collaborative press — meaning both parties contribute to the financial end of the book. Both parties are invested in its success. White River only works with previously published authors, and they provide distribution, ISBN #’s, and other things that are very hard for an individual to get. I feel like I was able to get the book I wanted and not compromise on the quality or the content. I also feel like this is one of the new models of publishing for the future. The traditional model is gasping for breath. Many authors are choosing alternative ways to get their work out and to start to take some control over the income from their books.
I look at it like shopping for clothes – if the jeans aren’t fitting, I can either get depressed or take matters into my own hands and have something tailored to fit me.
I think the next decade is going to be very exciting with literature and books. There are so many more possibilities and avenues for authors. There will always be a place for good writing. People will always want to be swept into a story.
I hope Ghost Swamp Blues carries them off to a place they’ve not seen before.
Thank you so much, Laraine! I hope everyone finds this as fascinating as I do.