Welcome back to part two of our “storms” interview series with Tiffany Quay Tyson and Vanessa LaFaye. If you missed part one, you can read it here. Up today, Tiffany interviews Vanessa about her novel UNDER A DARK SUMMER SKY. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to add both novels to your “to read” list.
Vanessa says: I didn’t know what to expect from this exercise, but it’s been so interesting and enjoyable. Tiffany’s book and mine share so many elements, it’s spooky, although they’re different genres and time periods. It’s been fascinating to talk to another author about choices and background. Her questions made me think about things in new ways and reading her book gave me new insights into my own. What a great format!
Tiffany: Your novel takes place during a terrible hurricane in Florida in 1935 and it’s based on an actual event. Racial injustice and class divisions are magnified as the storm hits. I’d like to imagine things would be different today, but I couldn’t help but see parallels to the situation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina some 70 years later. Was that something you thought about while you were writing this book?
Vanessa: One of the attractions for me was the relevance of the ‘historical’ events of 1935 to today. Even with all the advances in hurricane tracking technology, a storm like Katrina can still pound the life out of one of our major cities. It’s still the case that survival depends as much on human decision-making as technology. Complacency is deadly in these situations, but the storms behave erratically and evacuations are difficult and costly. Equally, we’d like to think that there has been progress in the rehabilitation of veterans, and there has. Despite this, every day in America approximately 22 former service personnel commit suicide. And when we come to look at improvements in race relations, recent events show how much progress is still to be made. So although I was telling a story from 80 years ago, in many ways it felt very current.
Tiffany: Your book has a large cast of characters, which you manage beautifully. I grew to love many of the characters in your story—Missy the nanny, Henry the war hero, and Doc the traumatized medic, for sure—and I grew to hate a few, as well. But more than just knowing the individual characters, I learned the character of Heron Key, the fictional town where the story takes place. Did you set out to write a novel with a strong sense of place or was it a function of this particular story?
Vanessa: I wouldn’t say that I set out with that intention. I never imagined that I would write a novel set in Florida. My two books of women’s fiction were set in Britain! But once I started writing, it was like finding a huge time capsule in a dusty attic. All my childhood memories came pouring out, straight from my brain to the page, all the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of Florida. The book turned into a kind of love letter to my home state, much to my surprise. I haven’t lived there for 35 years, but I guess it’s still home, in some ways. But I really believe that I could not have written the book without the perspective and clarity gained from living far away all these years.
Tiffany: In addition to the hurricane, your characters encounter all kinds of violence. A terrifying incident with an alligator early in the book lets us know this is a dangerous place. Yet the worst violence comes at the hands of people. It seems to me the difference between violence in nature and violence in men is that men act with motivation. Nature just is. I found myself thinking about the motivations of the characters who set violent acts in motion in your novel. Some characters were careless, others malicious, others just ignorant. Do you feel like indifference is worse than hatred or better? Is it the same?
Vanessa: Very interesting question. You have to care deeply about someone to hate them. Hatred requires a big commitment of emotion, whereas indifference is the opposite. Just like cold and hot can be mistaken for each other at the extremes, so love and hate can be confused. You hear sometimes that intense love affairs can almost feel like hatred of the other person because the emotion is so consuming. Hatred is a bond, even if it’s malign. Indifference is nothing, it’s a vacuum of emotion, it’s the emptiness, the void. Indifference makes the other person invisible. So I guess that I would say, yes, it is worse than hatred because there is no connection at all. And without that connection, unspeakable things can become normal.
Tiffany: Your book ends with an Epilogue that takes place some time after the main events of the story. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I wonder if you could talk about your decision to write the ending that way. I was fully prepared to be left with a lot more questions, and found myself so grateful that you addressed the fates of some of the larger characters. Was that something you’d always planned to do? Or was it something you came to after writing the main story?
Vanessa: Endings are so hard! Although I had decided on all the fates of the characters, when I got to the final scene of destruction it seemed wrong to leave it there. Most readers have shared your opinion, that they were glad to have the Epilogue. I didn’t decide to write it until I had finished writing the main story. I had a lot of factual material about the clean-up after the storm, but it was so grim, and there had been enough grimness already. So I decided to skip to a point in time where the town was getting back on its feet, but still with a long way to go. Maybe it’s sentimental, but I wanted to end on a hopeful note. And it mirrors the opening of the book. At the beginning, we see all the characters preparing for the barbecue. In the Epilogue, they are preparing for the unveiling of the monument. I liked the symmetry of that. And, having asked the reader to invest time in caring about the characters, I felt an obligation to show what happened to them.
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Florida, 1935. In Heron Key, relationships are as tangled as the swamp’s mangrove roots. It’s been eighteen long years since Henry went away to war. Still, Missy has waited, cleaning the Kincaids’ house and counting the stars. Now he’s back, but she barely recognizes the desperate, destitute veteran he’s become ― unsure of his future, ashamed of his past. When a white woman is found beaten nearly to death after the Fourth of July barbecue, suspicion falls on him immediately. As tensions rise in the small community, the barometer starts to plummet ― a massive hurricane is on its way.
Based on real historical events,Under a Dark Summer Sky evokes what happens when people, sweating under the weight of their pasts, are tested to the absolute limits of their endurance.