Friday, July 30, 2010

Where shadows cling to the land

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.


storyqueen said...

The story sounds very compelling!

Kudos to the author for sticking with it and getting it out there.



Wow, this sounds fascinating!

Awesome interview

Donna said...

I look forward to reading Ghost Swamp Blues. I am inspired by Laraine Herring's perseverance in getting her book in print and her optimism about new directions in publishing. Your description of the book, Tricia, makes me think it might be a companion to Susan Straight's terrific novel, A Million Nightingales, which tracks a slave girls arduous journey to freedom.

Phoenix said...

I definitely think I'm gonna check this book out. Weaving the past in with the present; ghosts; and trying to escape the sins of the generations before you all sound very intriguing! I love all of it :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wonderful interview! This sounds like an amazing book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Tricia. :-)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: I was impressed, too, with Laraine's decision on publishing. It's a wonderful book and now people can discover it.

Thanks, Victoria!

Donna: I thought of A Million Nightingales, as well. These aren't easy subjects, but they're so important to the history of our country, and both books are beautifully written.

Phoenix: It's definitely a story with depth, layers and layers, haunting the land.

Shannon: Thank you! It is a book that carries you off and leaves you with much to think about.

kathrynjankowski said...

Sounds intriguing!

Checked out the White River Press website, but I'm still a bit confused as to what is meant by "both parties contribute to the financial end of the book".

Laraine Herring said...

Hi Kathryn, what I meant by "both parties contribute to the financial end of the book" is that both parties invest in its success in a variety of ways. I probably didn't say it very clearly and it took me awhile to understand it. There are components that White River provides and components that the author provides. I only know my own situation with them -- we each contributed to making the book work. There are lots of costs to producing a book -- everything from registering the copyright, the ISBN #'s, the legwork getting it up in the distribution networks, the postage for things, getting it out for reviews, awards, etc, the design, layout, editing, etc.

White River is a collaborative press -- both parties contribute to creating the book. I would expect that, just like with any publisher, arrangements may vary from author to author. There's a contract with expectations laid out for both parties.

Something that is unique to my situation is that the founder of White River Press is also my literary agent. Part of why she created White River a few years ago is because she was seeing too many authors who had solid publishing track records being unable to get traditional contracts or publish material that was out of the mainstream. She also wanted to provide a way for books to remain in print. Many traditional publishers will not keep a book in print if the sales are not high enough. We talked for a long time about bringing Ghost Swamp Blues out this way. We wanted to make sure it was the right choice for me as an author and the trajectory of my career as well as the right choice for the book. I feel like it was the right choice for me. I ultimately wanted my work out there and I did not want to self-publish. Collaborative publishing is something I think we'll all see a lot more of in the coming years.

Suzanne Casamento said...

This book sounds intoxicating. And in the few bits you quoted the writing is beautiful. I'll have to read it. Thank you for the post!

VR Barkowski said...

Superb interview Tricia and Laraine! I just ordered my copy of Ghost Swamp Blues and can't wait to dig in. The premise really appeals, and I'm thrilled you found a way to get the book out there, Laraine.

Linda Kage said...

I love all the vivid descriptions surrounds this books. Very intriguing. Thanks so much for sharing your background.

It was nice to meet you, Laraine.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi Kathryn: Thanks for asking that question.
And big thanks, Laraine, for answering!

Suzanne: The writing is beautiful. It's a book to savor.

VR: I think you'll enjoy it. It's gritty, gorgeous and gets under your skin.

Linda: Thanks. Isn't that publishing story interesting? Collaborative publishing sounds like a great new avenue.

Unknown said...

Thanks for a great interview, ladies.
Never heard of the idea of collaborative press before--interesting.

Elle Strauss

Talli Roland said...

Sounds really compelling. Thanks -- I must check it out!

Sarah Laurence said...

Great to have the interview along with your review. I like Laraine’s concepts of the landscape telling the story and the looping nature of time. Interesting publishing story too! I hadn’t heard of White River Press. It's an innovative idea.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Elle: I hadn't heard of it either. Sounds like it could work out well for a lot of people.

Hi, Talli, thanks!

Sarah: The looping nature of time really resonated with me, too. The book flows that way, in and out of past and present.

Lydia Kang said...

This was a great interview and a look at a different way to publish. Thanks so much to both of you!

Jackee said...

Fascinating story and great interview! I love stories of authors who have found their place in publishing because they believe in their book.

Thanks for sharing, ladies!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lydia: Thank you! Publishing is becoming so varied now, isn't it?

Jackee: Lesson learned--believe, have faith in self. :) Thank you.

Sherrie Petersen said...

The story sounds great and I'm fascinated by the publishing company. There are so many ways to get your story out there these days!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Sherrie: I was so intrigued by the publishing angle, and, really, this is a book that should be out there.