*************As promised two weeks ago, Donna Everhart generously agreed to give us a glimpse into how she developed THE ROAD TO BITTERSWEET. (If you haven't had a chance to read my review, I hope you will now. This interview will make a lot more sense if you do!) I find it fascinating to see how authors come up with their stories and I bet many of you do too.
QUESTION #1CAROL: How did you decide on the main idea for the story? Was it hearing about the flood of 1940 in Silva, NC?
DONNA: I was nervous about coming up with an idea for my second book after my debut, THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE was so well-received. It's hard to follow up a story like that, one that's gritty, graphic, and delivers such a gut punch.
One thing I did know; I wanted to write something very different, and I wanted to set the story in the North Carolina mountains, first, because I love the region, second, because it has so much history. I've stood at many a lookout on a bright day with the sun shining, staring at the peaks and valleys, watching the shadow of clouds passing over the hillsides, enjoying the beauty of the scenery, yet, I have also felt a sense of the mysterious, and an appreciation for the rugged hardiness of those who came and made a life for themselves in the area.
Back in the late 90s, my husband and I hiked to a preserved, historic cabin in Doughton Park, called the Caudill Cabin. It's maintained by descendants of the Caudill's and North Carolina's Parks and Recreation system. The hike, which totaled fifteen miles, was strenuous, but worth it. Getting to see something built in the early 1900s and that was still standing, was extraordinary. This cabin, as the signage says, is one of the only remaining structures left standing from the 1916 Basin Cove flood. It housed a total of eight people, two parents, and six children. The number of inhabitants originally was thought to have been sixteen, but someone at some point (maybe a member of the Caudill family) corrected that. The interior of the cabin couldn't have been more than about 150 square feet, and it was mind boggling to think about it sheltering eight individuals.
I am fascinated by this sort of thing, a piece of history right before my very eyes, and I have always had this tendency to want to let my mind wander about, thinking about the people who lived in it, how they managed to survive, picturing what their lives must have been like. On top of that, there was the flood that forced this family to move. I did some research on flooding in the western part of North Carolina and learned there had not only been the 1916 flood, which the Caudills were part of, but one in 1940, which was just as devastating. I began to think, "what if a family tried to make it after this sort of devastation happened?" I had to believe there were some who did, and then I began to think, "exactly how would that work? If they had nothing?"
|Pictures from Donna's hike with her husband. Look carefully at the picture on the lower right|
and you can see Donna peeking out from the cabin doorway.
The combination of my love for this part of my home state, the interesting hike to a cabin that depicted the reality of the lifestyle, and the floods all provided the inspiration. That was a LOT of material to work with, and after I settled on the 1940 event as the timeframe I wanted to write about, I began writing.
|Near Marshall, NC 1944|
CAROL: Why (and perhaps how) did you decide to make Laci autistic?
DONNA: The why likely comes from the fact I like to work in areas where I have little knowledge, to explore differences in order to better understand them. A lot of progress has been made with regard to autism, but just like those who first began to diagnose it in the 1800s, who knows where the research will be fifty years from now. The term "idiot" was used in earlier time frames for those who appeared to have strange behaviors, and seemed incapable of learning in the same way as the rest of society. I researched about autistic savants, those who have an uncanny ability for mathematics, music, or memory. We likely all think about the movie RAIN MAN when we think of an autistic savant.
According to the Autism Research Institute, "The reason why some autistic individuals have savant abilities is not known... Dr. Rimland speculates that these individuals have incredible concentration abilities and can focus their complete attention to a specific area of interest. Admittedly, researchers in psychology feel that we will never truly understand memory and cognition until we understand the autistic savant."
How I decided is the desire to include what might offer a different twist, to explore a uniqueness in a very different setting from today, to consider unusual situations a family might encounter with others, and their perspectives. I began to think what if there was a young girl in 1940 in a remote area, with extraordinary musical talents, who'd been diagnosed as an "idiot savant." What would this mean to the family dynamic, and in particular, how would it impact a younger sibling?
CAROL: Why and how did you decide to include a traveling carnival?
DONNA: Although I haven't been to our state fair in about twenty years, I do remember how captivated I was as a child when my parents would take me and I'd see all of those mysterious colorful banners and the carnies screaming about "Freaks!" and "Come see them all!" There was this air of suspense, and intrigue as I passed by the tents. My parents never allowed my brother or I to go see the Man With The Alligator Skin, or, "The Two-Headed Goat," for instance, but I sure wanted to. People who were being exploited back then, like the bearded woman, (androgen excess, or hypertrichosis) can today be explained away by a medical reason, but there is this wish as a kid to believe in the bizarre, the inexplicable, when it comes to the "attractions" that were and are so typical of those traveling shows or carnivals. Because of Laci's situation, it seemed like this would make for an interesting dynamic to the story, to have them experience something they'd never experienced before, yet to have it sort of backfire when one of their own is used for that exploitation.
Aside from that, it was also the fact this family had been through so much post-flood, and I needed some way to give them a break, a reprieve. Because they performed in some sort of musical capacity from the beginning, I felt it could work as a natural progression for the story. I actually thought about having them stick to what Wallis Ann feared - go around the countryside "begging." However, this was just coming into the post-Depression era, and while I knew people of the mountains would gladly give what they had, they wouldn't have much to spare. In reality, the Stampers wouldn't be able to do this for long and get anywhere. I could see early on if I wrote it like that, I was setting them up for more failure and when would the starvation, hardships ever end? How would I turn the story so they stood the chance to not only survive, but to recover what they'd lost?
Clogging Video by David Hoffman, shot in 1964
Come back next week for Part II when Donna shares some aspects of her research.
If you are interested in winning the audio book of THE ROAD TO BITTERSWEET (courtesy Tantor Audio) please leave me your name and email address, particularly if you are new to my blog. I'll draw a winner on June 28.
DONNA'S NEXT BOOK!
twelve year old young girl called Sonny Creech, who lives with her family in Jones County NC, on a cotton farm. Sonny has the special gift of water divination, a talent she shares with her father. After a tragic accident claims his life, she and her family become entangled with a reclusive neighbor named Frank Fowler who offers to finance that year's cotton crop. It's set in 1955.