I feel like I’ve know author Kimberly Brock forevah and I feel like we’ve been waiting just about that long for her to be featured here at Women’s Fiction Writers. Kimberly’s debut novel is THE RIVER WITCH, and if the title and cover don’t pique your interest (as if!) then reading this interview is certain to do so. Kimberly is funny and insightful — and her answers exceeded this author/interviewer’s dreams. I have enjoyed all the interviews I’ve conducted — but I’ll admit this is now one of my all-time favorites. I bet it will be one of yours too.
Please FINALLY welcome Kimberly Brock to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Debut Author Kimberly Brocks Says Trust Your Personal Writing Process And Expect It To Make You (A Little) Crazy
Amy: Kimberly, I’m so glad to have you here on Women’s Fiction Writers, I feel like we’ve been waiting forever to do this interview!! So, let’s get down to business. Can you give us the gist of THE RIVER WITCH and tell us where or when or how you got the idea?
Kimberly: Amy, thank you so much for having me! I feel like we’ve been waiting a long time, too, but I’m so thrilled to be here! I love reading your blog and I’ve been itching to talk to you about THE RIVER WITCH and this whole Women’s Fiction business!
Getting the idea for the book was, like everything else in writing, a long, drawn-out, teeth-gnashing, crazy-making process. I was completely in love with the idea as it revealed itself to me, and lolling around my bedroom floor listening to Richard Marx, sobbing because I couldn’t get it to commit. (If you don’t know who Richard Marx is, you really need to read this book and then call me. We’ll talk.)
*No, Richard Marx is not actually in this book. That was a metaphor. I’m southern. We do that a lot.
Now, in all literary seriousness, I read this article about a couple of women who decided to open a pumpkin farm. They were holding a weekend celebration for the harvest. The pictures were gorgeous, with this long table laden with food. And everywhere, there was this beautiful, round, sumptuous fruit; these gourds and pumpkins, round and full and smooth. All these warm colors. I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures. I pulled the article out of the magazine and kept it, going back to it often. I couldn’t stop thinking how much I wanted to be there with those women. I could hear the music from the fiddle and the open-throat sound of the singers in the photographs. I could taste the fried chicken and grilled corn on the table. And it was all wrapped up in the shapes of their harvest, such a compelling illustration of the feminine divine, of sensuality and fertility and sustenance. I knew that I was going to tell a story about it somehow. In my mind, it was set in a very isolated place, a mountain or an island. I knew there was a river. I started looking into all of that and researching, learning what it takes to grow those monster pumpkins, and sketching scenes with a woman longing for her childhood home and sacred traditions wrapped up in music and stories and a bountiful table. This was Roslyn. But I couldn’t bring the ideas together cohesively.
(Yes, I did get pregnant with my third child right about then. Probably just from looking at these pictures.)
Then one day, about a year later, I saw another report. This time they were showing people floating down a river inside giant pumpkins that had been rigged up as boats. I got excited. I saw the element of water, the continuity of cycles and the ecology of a Sea Island with its rivers and marshes and the hold-outs from a disappearing culture. What would it be like to crawl inside one of those giant pumpkins on the river? Would I feel free or like I was losing everything? And then I thought, if I felt the way I felt when I looked at the women in the magazine with all their pumpkins, what would I see if I was a little girl without a mother – or a mother without a child? And then, Damascus started talking to me.
What evolved was a story about surrender. Roslyn Byrne loses a life and a gift that was sort of bestowed upon her, a sacred sort of existence that has been miserable. She is set free from her stifling career as a celebrated ballerina and loses a pregnancy that terrified her. But once she’s free from all that expectation, she realizes that she has no identity of her own. In fact, she’s afraid and unable to reconcile with herself. She goes to Manny Island, Georgia, to hide and heal and try to figure what to do with herself. She’s haunted by her grandmother, a woman who was very firmly rooted in her community and self – all things that are foreign to Roslyn. What she never expects is ten-year-old, motherless, wise, neglected and determined Damascus Trezevant, waiting for her there, ready to get all in Roslyn’s business. Their friendship will force Roslyn to grow into her full womanhood.
Amy: THE RIVER WITCH is set on Manny’s Island, Georgia — a barrier island. Have you always lived in the South? What prompted this setting and made it special for you and your characters? (When my son was little he watched a show called Gullah Gullah Island. I think it was supposed to be set on one of those islands.)
Kimberly: Yes, Gullah Gullah Island is exactly, right. Except the Gullah people live predominantly on the South Carolina Sea Islands. Along Georgia’s coast, they call themselves Sea Island Geechee. They are an ancient, evolving and fascinating culture, and a disappearing one, which you’ll find is a thread throughout the book for both the families and environment. La tee dah. Call me BARBARA KINGSOLVER. (Kimberly’s wildest dreams)
I grew up in the north Georgia foothills and lived there most of my life, with several years spent north of Seattle, Washington, and near Raleigh, North Carolina. But there’s no mistaking I’m a southern girl. If you could hear me speak, you’d hear the Tennessee hill country in my accent. I spent years in the theater trying to get rid of it, but no dice. I’ve learned to embrace it and gotten used to the fact that I typically have to prove my I.Q. is higher than a coon dog’s once people hear me speak. But they’re also charmed by the accent, I think. And we southerners know how to play that card, you sweet thing. (YouTube yourself some LEE SMITH and pretend you’re listening to me and that I have any business even saying her glorious name.)
As for the setting, I’ll show ya’ll what I mean about proving my literary brilliance right here.
I knew Roslyn’s story would end up on the island – I knew she would go into a kind of exile and I’ve always loved the Georgia coast and its history. I imagined Roslyn’s need for that kind of isolation, and her need for great beauty. And I wanted it to be a place that would keep her off balance so she’d have to struggle to understand it and meet its demands. Her memories of the Appalachian Mountains and her grandmother are her touchstone, but she feels she can’t return to that place and the loss of her grandmother is very fresh. I needed a place that Roslyn believed was a complete departure. What she discovers on the island is that the people and even the land itself are dealing with the same issues.
I’d always been fascinated by the idea that the Sea Islands shift and change, the idea of the alligators roaring season, the romance of the great live oaks, and then there was the element of superstition that lent itself to Roslyn’s haunting. The island was like going back to the mire from which we all emerge. I chose the island setting so she could fight her way back from her loss, physically and psychologically. That’s what Roslyn’s character ultimately faced – having to come out of a tragedy, transformed.
Manny’s Island is actually loosely based on an island where a friend has a beach house. There are no cars on the island and you get there by boat and yes, there is a shell ring. That was where the story of Damascus and the Trezevant family were always set in my mind. I’d written a good part of the first draft before Roslyn’s memories in Glenmary, Tennessee, began to surface. Then I understood, as with everything else in the novel, that the two seemingly contradictory environments and cultures would serve as mirrors for one another – just as the characters tend to hold up mirrors to one another. Some of this was written intentionally, but a great deal of it evolved with the story.
On a personal (and pathetic and morbid) note, I was a teenager vacationing on Jekyll Island, Georgia, the summer I learned I had severe scoliosis. I was a dancer and thought I would make a career teaching one day, but my disease changed some things and altered my journey. (It’s all good!) But maybe I chose those islands for that reason, too. Before you start feeling all sorry for me, let me add a little bit more of a cerebral explanation, because it makes me seem really smart for a southern girl.
Throughout history there have been tales of women who turned into mermaids or serpents or sirens. Roslyn’s character seemed to me this kind of woman – someone very sensual and visceral, someone who mesmerized and lured and led people without trying, and was feared and criticized for it. So I saw her as a kind of displaced, exiled mermaid and she needed the sea to heal her. Kind of corny, right? Oh, but wait and listen to this.
I’d incorporated some seriously long-standing mythology into my contemporary work. In particular, after the book was finished, I discovered shocking similarities between The River Witch and the enduring myth of MELUSINE (And doesn’t that just sound like a southern name?), a cursed maiden living on a lost island who took the shape of a serpent when bathing. This dual feminine nature – the idea of a beautiful woman with a terrible secret, an unfortunate lover, a woman with a wailing song, one who bridges the gap between known and unknown realms, who has lost her children and wanders in exile because her darker nature has been revealed – applies not only to the main character, Roslyn, but to all the women in the novel in various ways. Inadvertently, I crafted the same old myth, incorporating my own culture and environment of the Appalachian foothills and the Georgia coast. I love that! I think it stands as proof that our stories are timeless.
Or maybe the scoliosis just left me twisted and I’d had too much Starbucks (Melusine is the split-tailed gal on their logo) and needed a beach vacation. That is, after all, my natural state. See, you should have asked, “Do I see myself in any of my charcters?”
No, I did not bury my baby or anybody else’s baby with a garden spade. No, I am not a witch. Yes, I did spend my childhood with kittens popping out of the kitchen cabinets. Call me later. We’ll talk.
Amy: Your publisher is Belle Bridge Books. I’ve read quite a few of Belle Bridge authors. Can you tell us how you came to work with them and what the experience has been like with a small(er) publisher?
Kimberly: Bell Bridge is a phenomenal advocate for authors and I couldn’t have been luckier than to sell The River Witch to them. The work was submitted to all the major NYC houses and while it was received well enough, and often I got requests to see it again if I would revise, but over time and many revisions, I began to feel the story was losing its integrity. I couldn’t bring myself to change it anymore. I knew I either had to sell it or shelve it and I couldn’t stand to put Damascus in a drawer. So, I left my agent, who wasn’t yet open to submitting to a small press – which nearly put me in an early grave, I was so terrified. And I sent it to Bell Bridge because of their reputation and the growing respect for their small press in the publishing community. During the time I waited to hear back from them, I worked on a new project and queried other agents with my work in progress. It was truly a writer’s dream when I got the offer to publish The River Witch and began working with my current agent within the same week.
My experience with Bell Bridge has been one of mutual respect and such authentic enthusiasm for my work. I am very sure that I made the right decision for this book and I enjoy a candid relationship with my publisher that I’ll always treasure. I have another short piece due out in an anthology with them in late Spring 2012.
Amy: We talk a lot on this blog about the big umbrella of women’s fiction and obviously much of what’s deemed “Southern Fiction” falls under that realm. What’s your definition of women’s fiction in general? And another question, what’s the special ingredient that makes it Southern fiction? Is it just the setting or is there more?
Kimberly: The label or genre of Women’s Fiction is such a hot button right now in certain circles, with people being offended left and right. Writers are in two camps on this one. In the one camp, you’re up on a soap box about equality and women getting a fair shake, which is very relevant. These writers are embracing the genre of women’s fiction as a statement and a fact. Because, wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where all folks just said, “Oh, women’s fiction! That’s wonderful! That’s important and necessary, wise and intellectual, and tells the beautiful stories of our mothers and daughters!” Boy, do I agree.
In the other camp you have writers who get prickly and defensive because they’re writing books that are tagged as women’s fiction instead of literary or general fiction, like that’s limiting, or worse, degrading. Like being a female writing about feminine issues is going to cost you your literary prowess. I’m with you fellers and fully annoyed by this mindset. And offended that because something is quintessentially feminine that it must be less than. It’s a gravely naïve perspective and sadly offensive.
Between you and me, my nine times great grandmother was a celebrated Cherokee Indian named NANCY WARD (Look her up. Trust me.) who picked up her husband’s weapon when he fell in battle and went to war alongside the men in her tribe. People are always so affected by that story and generally say in wonder, “What a woman!” I always thought that was strange because it seems to me every woman I know is doing that same thing in one way or another, every day. What I’m saying is, it’s not a new battle, girls.
The sad fact is, writers who tackle work that is based in women’s themes are irrevocably stuck in the middle of the debate. Maybe one day the writers and stories will be valued simply because they were written, and not because of the way they were marketed.
Personally, I never set out to write any one genre, I just wanted to tell a story that gave voice to the experiences of these characters, which in my opinion, is what all writers set out to do regardless of their sex. I am a woman and I write fiction. Plenty of men write fiction from a woman’s point of view. Does it make it less than? Would my work be more influential if it were written from the perspective of a male character? I don’t think so. This book definitely and intentionally addresses women’s lives – their journeys and traditions and myths – but the novel also looks at family and broader ideas such as culture and divinity and losing the land. All human experiences. I don’t think that’s limiting at all. I think it’s powerful. If that’s women’s fiction, sign me up.
As for what makes a work southern fiction? It’s kind of a mystery, isn’t it? I think maybe it’s the accent. Oh, and bacon grease. (Girls, I tried to leave some obvious examples of true southern literary WOMEN’S FICTION genius, because ya’ll know you shouldn’t be listening to me.)
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction of all kinds?
Kimberly: Trusting the process. That’s kind of like trying to convince a woman she doesn’t really want an epidural because the natural process of labor is beautiful and rewarding, but seriously, it’s true. I keep trying to read something or watch some presentation that will give me the secret, but that’s just stupid. No one writer’s process is the same just like no two books are the same. There’s no use rushing it. And I think especially with stories about women’s experiences you’re going to be going in circles. The journey is cyclical, dizzying, and often feels like you as the author are backtracking. It’s easy to lose perspective. For me, I’m a global thinker and I always begin with this broad idea, a kind of amorphous vision of a work and I want to get to the finished piece in this neat, controlled way that just never happens. How could it? That’s just not the nature of a woman. I have to force myself to relax in the bog of my imagination until something floats to the top that I can latch on to. And all that time, I’m convincing myself I’m not crazy and secretly want to just call up KAYE GIBBONS (look her up, too, ya’ll) and beg her to go on and write the book for me overnight, because it will be that easy for her. I have to know that I’m going to come full circle, and that I am an idiot kind of writer who is going to do it all the hard way. And then I have to hope I’m eventually going to be smart enough to write the book of my dreams, because when I’m writing I always know I’m not smart enough. I have to let the book teach me something first. So my advice is: 1) Trust the process 2) Expect it to make you crazy 3) Emerge with the wisdom of your heart as the power in your story.
Writing the book will make in you the wisdom to write the book.
Until, of course, you get the idea for the next one. Then it’s just you and Richard Marx all over again, Sugar. I suggest some Starbucks and a beach vacation. Email me. I’m there.
Kimberly Brock is a former actor, special needs educator, and native to the north Georgia foothills. Her debut novel, The River Witch, is a southern mystical work set against the backdrop of Appalachia and the Sea Islands. Her work has appeared in the anthologies “Summer in Mossy Creek” and the forthcoming, “Sweeter Than Tea”. She spends her non-writing time enjoying her husband and three children, and encouraging storytelling in all its many forms. Kimberly lives north of Atlanta, where she’s made her home for the last eight years. To learn more, visit her website at kimberlybrockbooks.com