Geneva is hardly a typical romantic heroine, but we can't help but like her. Did you intend for the reader to love or hate her?
I hoped that readers would identify with her, laugh at her, then eventually love her. She is one of those girls that other girls love to hate-you know, really pretty and full of herself, but we have the advantage of seeing her vulnerability so soon that it's hard to hate her. Her pretentiousness is so ridiculous, and she pays so dearly for it, I hope people find her funny rather than hateful. I mean, really, how can you take someone seriously who insists her parents are pronouncing their family name wrong?
Why do you say the reader might identify with her?
I think many women have had the same fantasies that Geneva has-otherwise Romance novels wouldn't be so popular. But the world is hardly a romantic place, and I think most women know the humiliation that comes when they try to act like the heroine in a Romance novel. Something always happens to thwart our most romantic impulses, to borrow a line from the book. I can remember trying to do things to appear cool or sexy--or just competent--and being embarrassed because I flubbed it. The scene when Geneva tries to cavalierly spin out of the driveway, and the car dies? And then she's looking at the handsome guy in the rear-view mirror and drives into a ditch? Or carefully arranging herself to look a certain way so that John would see her looking oh-so-fine? Or get caught in a lie or an embarrassing situation and go to great lengths to cover it up? I've done all that. And I bet you have done things like that, too. I wanted to create a character that causes us to laugh at our own silliness when we try to put on airs.
Have you talked to women who identify with Geneva?
Oh yes! In the very early days, when I was sending out the first draft to friends to get their feedback, one of my best friends, whom I consider very practical and down-to-earth, and never one to be haughty, got mad at me because she thought I had patterned Geneva after her. I was shocked. But most women admit to sometimes being as silly as Geneva is. And not just women. Of course, men admit to such silliness, too.
Tell me about your writing process. How did you conceive this novel?
My background is in theater, so I tend to see scenes, so the scenes come before the story. The first thing I saw for Sinner was the image of John saying things to ruffle Geneva, then leaning against the counter and mildly offering her a cup of coffee. The story grew out of that one image.
That's a pretty prosaic image! What is your favorite scene?
I love the scene where Lenora tells the tale about her sister and Geneva's grandfather. Not only do I get glimpses of a story from flashes of images, but also from flashes of the sound of voices. I heard the rhythm of Lenora's voice, and I loved the music of it, but it also has such a solid practicality about it. It made a good foil for the tragic and disturbing nature of the tale. Her story should offend our sensibilities, but she tells it with a straightforward honesty and love that makes it seem just human and not at all perverse. I think most people are moved by it and don't judge because of the way Lenora tells it
Speaking of images, you describe the mountains as if you know them intimately. Did you grow up there?
I am a bone-fide hillbilly. My right leg is a little shorter than my left, and my husband says that's because I always ran in the same direction around the hills. My family has lived in East Tennessee for many, many generations. I lived in the mountains until I was in my 20s, when I moved to Baton Rouge to get my PhD at LSU. We moved back to the Durham area 29 years ago, and while I love it here, I still haven't gotten over the pain of leaving the hills. They are in my blood, and I see them in all my hopes and daydreams.
There are some interesting characters in the book. Which one do you like the most?
I love them all, even Lilly, who is not well-fleshed out, and who seems to have no redeeming qualities. But I love her because of her desperation. Her situation seems hopeless, and she knows it. But if I have to say, I guess I like Sally Beth the best. She ends up being quite a surprise with the depth of her character. I have high hopes for Sally Beth and think she will do great things. I wish I could find a story for her.
What about Holy Miracle? Where did he come from?
Years ago, my father told me about a wild mountain man who lived in the woods. He was so shy he never approached anyone, but if someone wandered into his neck of the woods, he would stand far away from them and shout, asking for tobacco. Holy Miracle's first words to Geneva and John sounded exactly the way my father told his story. And then, of course, there was the image of the old mystic living in the woods, communing with God and Nature. All that white hair in the dappled shade, with the sun lighting him up like he has a halo. His spirituality grew out of that image.
There is a lot going on in most of the scenes. Geneva's internal thoughts often conflict with the events that are happening, and there is a sense of tension between opposing elements. For instance, when Geneva is truly heartbroken, and at the same time Sally Beth is trying to remember where Bourbon Street is while fixing Geneva's hair, Lamentations is chasing his tail, and Myrtle is shooting at them. There are many of these absurd juxtapositions of thoughts and actions throughout. Were these deliberate? What made you put so many in?
That's life, isn't it? Even though they seem absurd, that's pretty much the way things happen. We rarely experience a single pure emotion; never are things totally wonderful or totally awful. I became fixated on this idea many years ago at my father's funeral. I had never known such grief in my life, and I didn't think I would survive it, but right in the middle of it, my sister's baby suddenly cried out, "Mama, I'm hungry!" It was such a life-affirming moment in the midst of despair, and ever since then, I have been constantly aware of how many random and oppositional things come together in any given moment. We laugh as much as we cry at funerals, we see rainbows in the midst of a thunderstorm, we say one thing while we are thinking something entirely different, our stomachs growl while we are making love, we trip and fall on the way down the aisle to receive an award. Absurd, but real.
Why are there two Howards?
They represent the divided nature of Geneva. One represents the city, one the mountains, but they are both men, both human, both in love with Geneva. More alike than different. By giving them the same name, the reader can see that underneath all the superficiality, we all are basically alike despite the differences in cultures, speech, or how much education we have.
You said it took you 25 years to write this. How much did it change over the years?
Quite a bit. I thought I had it finished about 20 years ago, but that's because I didn't know how to take it further. I just thought I would let the reader decide what happens after Geneva has her epiphany. Then I got sidetracked when I started a new career as a financial planner-I was so busy raising children and working 80 hours a week that I just quit writing altogether. But it kept niggling at me, and I finally decided to give it a more concrete ending so we would at least know what happened to Geneva, so about 4 or so years ago, I wrote an epilogue that takes place 30 years later, and THEN I thought it was finished. But when I handed it around to friends to read, not many of them liked the resolution; they thought Geneva deserved better. I couldn't see how to make it end right, though, without writing another 10 chapters until recently my editor, Elizabeth Turnbull, came up with a brilliant idea which made perfect sense. As soon as she suggested it, I saw the last scene where crazy things happen, and it all fell into place. I think it took me about 3 weeks to write the last few chapters. I'm so glad she pushed me to find the right happily-ever-after for Geneva.
I also was glad the rewrite gave me a chance to develop Sally Beth and Holy Miracle more, and to let us see more of Howard Graves as a real person, a decent human being, not just the bad guy that Geneva makes him out to be. It was also nice to bring Lenora and Ike back into the picture. I got to spend some more time with my favorite characters.
Is there a sequel in the works?
I don't know. As I said, I would like to find a story about Sally Beth. But I'm also thinking I might find a story about Gaynell, Geneva's mother, or maybe Neecy Lenoir, Geneva's grandmother who was the rival of Lenora's sister, Laurel. I have the first line, and I have a few images stewing around. But there are some other things I would like to do, too. My daughter, Mary Elizabeth, began a novel for middle schoolers that takes place in Thailand, but she's an artist and has declared she doesn't want to finish writing it-she wants to illustrate it. It's very good, and I would love to finish it. It's exciting and fun, and I think it will be fun to collaborate with her. I also am thinking of writing a tale that is told from the point of view of a dragon. I'm just waiting for more images to come to me.