I can't tell you how excited I am to welcome Laraine Herring to my blog today (the launch day for Delta Girls!) I've known and loved Laraine and her work since we were in grad school together around 10 years ago. During one of our residencies at Antioch University, I had a dream that we had gone to an indoor swimming pool together. The water was full of huge sea creatures and I chose to stay safe and dry on the concrete surrounding the pool, but Laraine didn't hesitate; she dove right in. This felt like such an apt metaphor for Laraine (I even used it when I introduced her at her senior reading)--she is fearless as a writer, able to plunge in to the darkest, most painful material and emerge with something beautiful, something that holds the light. Her books about writing, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice and the forthcoming follow-up, The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice, are revelations--they will wake both you and your writing up and help you become a braver, stronger, truer writer. I can't recommend them enough.
It is through her amazing fiction that I first met Laraine, though, and I know that it is through her fiction that she most wants to be known as a writer. I am so thrilled to see Ghost Swamp Blues finally make its way to print after several incarnations that I've had the honor and pleasure of reading over the years. This book will knock your socks off; it will haunt you with its beauty, its rhythm, its power.
To win a copy of Ghost Swamp Blues, post a comment below about what haunts you, as a writer or a human being (make sure to include an email if you don't have a blogger profile with contact information.) I will pick a poster at random to receive this stunning novel.
Here's Laraine in her own words talking about her process of writing the book, and our process of sharing work. (In the spirit of sharing, I am also posting about the process of writing Delta Girls and our creative exchanges over on her blog--you can win a copy of Delta Girls if you comment there, as well.). Enjoy!
GHOST SWAMP BLUES: Finding the story through the swamp
I started writing Ghost Swamp Blues after reading Chitra Divakaruni’s novel The Mistress of Spices. I was fascinated by Divakaruni’s magical realism, and her primary character, Tilo, who operates a shop of spices she sells to customers to help them with their desires. I wanted to be Chitra Divakaruni, and, as long as we’re confessing, I’d read Beloved in undergrad school and I wanted to be Toni Morrison too. You can imagine the block I sustained trying to imitate them! Those two authors taught me that I could do something magical too, and I soon began to hear the voice of Lillian. However, my first connections with Lillian were not at all magical, and not at all filled with honeysuckle-laced desire. I had an image of a foggy island surrounded by tulips and a steep arched bridge that people had to cross to get to Lillian. Then I wrote a scene about her mixing tuna fish and mayonnaise in a white ceramic bowl. I bought books on tulips and put pictures of tulips in various stages of growth up around my house. A year later, I still didn’t have much writing, but I had established the most important element of fiction writing for me: the haunting.
My grandmother had died several years before, and she left some money that I used to go to graduate school. I had a complicated relationship with her, and found myself examining what it meant to use money from someone I hadn’t particularly liked to do something I loved more than anything. The more I thought about her, the more Lillian left her shrouded island of tulips and tuna fish and became a young girl who witnessed her brother lynch someone and then went silent. I didn’t know how all that tied into my grandmother, but I knew I’d found some spark. I worked on Ghost Swamp Blues, then titled Lay My Sorrows Down, all through graduate school, and its completion was my thesis. That thesis doesn’t resemble much of Ghost Swamp Blues in its current form except the character names and the initial inciting incident of the lynching.
I gave my senior reading, graduated, had a brief moment of believing that I was about to set the world on fire, and then dove head first into teaching freshman composition, like thousands of MFA’ers before me and after me. I posted an excerpt of the book on my website, and my soon-to-be agent found it, e-mailed me, and asked to see the whole thing. We signed in two weeks.
During the nine years it took to get Ghost Swamp Blues into print, I also wrote two other novels. I re-wrote Ghost Swamp Blues seven times in its entirety from that graduate thesis. I continued teaching and got another master’s degree. Time marched on. The manuscript had made the rounds. All the rounds. Then, the publishing industry imploded and people lost their jobs. We re-submitted to the new editors. Nothing. The characters, though, would not let me go. They would not stop whispering. Even through other novels, I heard them.
In the beginning was fog, tulips, and a lynching. A pink feathered hat and a swamp began to pull things together. Themes of racism, misogyny, family secrets and personal bigotries and shame began to surface as I re-read the drafts. I didn’t set out to write about racism in the South. I set out to answer the question Lillian posed for me: What would happen to someone who sees something horrible but says nothing to protect the person who perpetrated it?
Along the way, characters emerged who were eventually cut. Gabriel, the man who was lynched, had a much larger part, as did his father, who doesn’t appear in the book anymore. Faith had a big section of the book as an adult. Now, we don’t know what happened to her from her moment of birth to when she’s found dead by the creek. Jay Transom, Hannah’s father, slept with Hannah in an earlier version (neither knew their relationship at the time so it’s not as clichéd-Southern-bad-joke as that might sound). I cut that dimension out entirely – first when I was rewriting for a YA audience, but again when I rewrote again for an adult’s version, I didn’t think it was necessary. To that end, a lot of Hannah’s narrative also found its way to the special folder of deleted scenes. I liked a lot of the scenes I cut, especially those of Gabriel’s father and Hannah falling in love, but they didn’t fit.
Along the way of these multiple revisions, I began to notice something missing. The novel itself had no driving question. No unifying tug on the reader’s heart. I had a lot of great sentences and a lot of cool things happening, but they weren’t connected yet. I had been so immersed in my love for these people that I had forgotten the audience, the reader, needed to also be compelled into the story by more than just characterization and language. That burning question – what’s going to happen next? Who are the swamp sirens? What happens to Tommy? Who is Roberta and why did she kill herself? These questions needed to be fine-tuned, and the scenes that didn’t connect to those questions needed to go away so the important questions of the book would emerge with enough clarity to lure readers forward. I learned this not through graduate school, but through teaching creative writing in the subsequent years. By dissecting hundreds of student stories, I learned how to spot what was missing in my own. By learning to answer the questions students had, I learned my craft even better. And by falling in love with revision, I learned to let things go.
Throughout this journey was Gayle Brandeis. We met in graduate school and worked in the same group for most of the time. Gayle surprised me with her softness and her strength, and her unflagging commitment to her work. She and I and another grad-school friend spent weeks together in Venice Beach while we attended our residencies talking about all that was possible in language, all that we hoped our stories and poems could be, and why literature will continue to matter. After graduation, we stayed in touch, sent updates on our careers and personal lives, and began to send work to each other.
Gayle has been the first set of eyes on just about all of my work since grad school. Her astute eye, honesty, and kindness create a trust that is very difficult to find. I don’t do everything she recommends, nor does she do everything I recommend for her work, but we listen to each other. I know that whatever she says has merit. This is writer’s gold. Gayle was an original cheerleader for my novel and my writing. Her first book was coming out, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write while we were still in school. She inspired me. She has been a step ahead of me in the publishing world and she’s been gracious with her input and assistance. Not this, but that. More here, less there. What do you mean here? And the coveted, “I got chills” help me see my own work more clearly than I could ever do alone.
Perhaps more than any other lesson, a writer needs to realize that she will not see her work as others do, no matter how many degrees, classes, and seminars she’s taught or taken. Gayle saw my characters both as I saw them and as a reader might, and from this place, she helped me sculpt my work. I imagined her reading as I wrote. I took in everything she said. I wanted to write a book she would want to read. I wish all of you this gift. I may not have come to terms with my actual relationship with my grandmother within the text, but I did soften towards her, and I do honor that I had the opportunity to immerse myself in my art for two years, and that privilege is something I would not have been able to do without her financial support. None of us stands alone. No book is written in a vacuum.
My biggest hope is that the final product of Ghost Swamp Blues, which is not only the effort of the author, but the efforts of Gayle, my mentor Alma, my agent Linda, my editors Jenn and Molly, and the women in my first writer’s group many years ago, is a book you will want to read as well.