We’re thrilled to have Tiffany Quay Tyson and Vanessa LaFaye on the blog today as they discuss their novels, THREE RIVERS and UNDER A DARK SUMMER SKY. Both books take place in the South and center around storms that dramatically change the lives of their characters. Enjoy the interview because we’re certain you’ll enjoy the books!
Tiffany says: I’m gobsmacked by the similarities between Vanessa’s book and my own. The stories are completely different, but there are so many common details. In talking with Vanessa, the reasons for that became clearer. We both grew up in the South, but neither of us wanted to live out our lives there and we haven’t. Even so, we both have a complicated affection for the South. Probably that has something to do with the fruit cobbler, which makes an appearance in both our novels. You cannot turn your back on a place that offers up such good food. Here’s hoping Vanessa and I will trade stories over a hot, bubbling cobbler someday soon. I’ll bring ice cream.
Vanessa: Melody, your main character, has the most bad blood with her mother, Geneva, who is a piece of work! We see a lot of tenderness with her father, who was no Boy Scout either, but only memories of Geneva. Do you feel that there is hope for her and Geneva? Were you tempted to show us the big confrontation between them? Or is that for us to imagine?
Tiffany: I think there is always hope, but I don’t imagine Geneva and Melody ever having a very warm relationship. By the end of the story, they understand each other a little better. There is more compassion. As for a big confrontation, I think the content of any potential confrontation was revealed over the course of the book and I didn’t want to revisit it in dialogue. I do believe the reader can imagine how such a confrontation might go in the future, but it didn’t feel like part of this story.
Vanessa: Would you describe yourself as a Southern writer, or someone who writes about the South? And do you intend to set other books there, or was it more about the story than the setting? Do you feel part of the ‘Southern novel’ tradition (whatever that is)?
Tiffany: I left Mississippi when I was just 21, but I can’t seem to stop writing about it. In some ways, I think it’s easier to write about a place when you’ve left it behind. Distance provides perspective. The South is a place with such a fraught history, but also a place with tremendous pride in things like tradition and heritage. Southerners like to put forth this image of being pious and genteel, but there’s an awful lot of violence and corruption and coarseness on display. Those contradictions are interesting and make for good storytelling. Ultimately, though, I don’t think about any of that when I sit down to write. The stories I have to tell just seem to spring up in Southern settings and characters. Maybe that’s what makes a Southern writer. If so, I’d definitely consider myself part of that tradition.
Vanessa: I get asked a lot about my experience of hurricanes, so I’m going to ask you about floods. Have you ever experienced a major natural disaster? How much of the flood was drawn from life, and how much from research?
Tiffany: Yes, though the flood in the book is purely fictional and is much, much worse than anything I’ve experienced first-hand. Bad weather and terrible storms are a fact of life in Mississippi and in the South in general. Hurricane Camille hit Mississippi the year I was born. Tornadoes destroyed a shopping center and numerous homes in our neighborhood in Jackson. There was tremendous wind and water damage. My mother said she sat in the hallway of our home holding her brand new baby (me!) and willing it to be over. When I was about 10, the Pearl River flooded Jackson on Easter weekend. My cousins were in the path of the worst flooding and so they came to our house to ride out the storm. We hunted eggs indoors that year. It was weirdly festive.
When I was about 20 and working as a reporter for the local paper in Greenwood, Mississippi, there was a terrible flood in the Delta. I was out of town covering a change-of-venue trial. By the time I got back to Greenwood, the roads were mostly clear, but there was still standing water in the fields. I went straight from sitting in a courthouse all day to traipsing around in floodwaters shooting photos of half-submerged churches. Some scenes in the book are pulled from those memories.
Vanessa: I like that you don’t tidy up all the story lines at the end. I kept wondering about what would happen next with Melody and Obi, the drifter on the run, and Melody and Geneva. Did you leave the door open for a sequel? Or is this just because life isn’t tidy and we don’t get all the answers we want?
Tiffany: I’m not planning a sequel. Life isn’t tidy, and I don’t think every question can or should be answered in the course of a novel. However, I did work to answer the big questions, the truly fateful ones. I didn’t want the reader wondering about whether someone lived or died, but I’m okay if they are left to wonder about someone’s ultimate happiness. This story really takes place over the course of three days. There are plenty of memories on the page; the past is revealed, but the future is uncertain. Life is like that, I think.
Vanessa: What is the significance of 1990 for the setting of the book? Does it have a special meaning for you, or the characters? It seems like a very specific choice.
Tiffany: It was important for the reader to know we were in a world before cell phones were ubiquitous, before everyone had computers in their homes. My characters don’t have access to the Internet. They aren’t getting storm alerts from gadgets in their pockets. Really, it was not so long ago that someone might be surprised by the weather. It seems impossible today. I chose 1990 specifically because that’s the year I lived in the particular area where the novel is set. That year resonates with me in this setting.
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For three years Melody Mahaffey has been on the road, touring as a keyboardist with a terrible Christian pop band she can hardly stand. So when her mother calls, full of her usual dire news and dramatic pronouncements, Melody is relieved to pack her bags and call it quits. But at the sprawling, defunct Three Rivers Farm her family calls home, Melody is shocked to discover her father is dying. Even worse, her mother has abandoned the family, leaving Melody the sole caretaker of her father and brain-damaged brother. Sure that her daughter will do the right thing, Geneva leaves to seek spiritual guidance and break things off with her long-time lover.
Rain begins to fall and an epic flood threatens the Mississippi Delta. While Melody tries to get a handle on the chaos at home, a man and his little boy squat on her land, escaping their own nightmare. Obi is on the run from a horrific mistake, and he’s intent on keeping his son with him at any cost. When the storm arrives, though, they have no choice but to take shelter in Melody’s house. And the waters just keep rising.
A lifetime of lies, misunderstandings and dark secrets bubble to the surface as the flood destroys the land and threatens their lives. Set against the fertile but dangerous landscape of the rural south near the fictional town of White Forest, Mississippi, Three Rivers beautifully weaves together three parallel stories, told over three days, as each character is propelled headlong into the storm.