What was the inspiration behind In the Hope of Rising Again?
My novel is loosely based on the life of my great-grandmother, Regina Rapier Marston. Ive always believed that she had all the makings of a tragic heroine. Born in Mobile, Alabama in 1881, her life was fraught with financial ruin and the untimely deaths of both her husband and several of her children. But as my grandmother, a great supporter of my writing, would say: If youre going to write about the South, for heavens sake, dont make it dismal like some do. There is so much more to the South than that. So while drawing from my great-grandmothers life history, I also tried to honor my grandmothers request.
Regina certainly is the perfect tragic heroine. After surviving the Depression, an unstable marriage and the deaths of both her husband, Charles Morrow, and their eldest child, she quietly triumphs by making peace with her past. How do you, as the author, make this peace believable to the reader?
For every tragedy that befalls Regina, there is a moment of sweetness, hope and joy. A book can get weighed down by death and destruction, just as a life can, and although disaster is often more fun to write, humor is one of the writers most indispensable tools. It is no accident that much of Reginas hard luck is the result of the incompetence of men; the antics of her four loony brothers, for example, serve as a much needed antidote to the pervasive tragedies that later befall her. Beyond that though, the ability to make peace with life is a quality I have come to admire in women, young and old. Regina finds this place of peace and she is generous enough to share it.
So how do the men in Reginas life factor into this place of peace?
Her beloved father, through instilling religion in her, gives her the means to find peace, but he dies early on. One by one her husband and brothers fail her. In an age where she was trained to look to men to take care of her, Regina is left with absolutely nothing. She has no choice but to come up with a plan for survival, or die in squalor. So she begins the process of becoming self-reliant. It isnt until later on in her life that she learns to rely on other women.
Thus the boarding-house?
Exactly. The boarding-house is a self-sufficient community of womenand a perfect example of Reginas new resourcefulness. The house, the traditional female milieu, ultimately becomes an incubator for a new paradigm for women.
Drawing on that, if you were to have the opportunity to speak with your great grandmother, how do you think your respective ideas on womens empowerment may align or diverge?
My great grandmother was, by all accounts, an incredibly enlightened woman: she was a suffragette and the first woman in Mobile to drive a car. I think she would be pleased at the many options women have todaywhereas women of my generation assume they are going to work and have fulfilling careers even if married with children, she never even conceived of working outside the house; once she told my mother that the ideal woman has a child every eighteen months. However, she had a very high standard of personal behavior and dress, so I think shed be appalled by the casual things that the women of my generation wear. She also believed in an incredible separation between public and private. People talk so much these days; instead of talking, she prayed.
Lets talk about that. The single greatest influence on Reginas life was her father, Civil War hero Colonel Riant, who instilled in her a deep, abiding reverence for the Catholic Church. How would you say she reconciles such things as the patriarchal structure of the Church with her own sense of self?
It would never occur to someone like Regina to question the patriarchy of the Church. Instead, she develops an approach to praying that is unique to the female experience: worshipping Mary as a vehicle to Jesus and identifying with the Rosary as more than the Mass. It suits her nature to have faith, to believe in God and pray, as it is her sole backbone in many a devastating times.
It must have been a challenge to navigate between historical fact and historical fiction to accomplish a novel so rich in both. While drawing from your great grandmothers experiences, how did you achieve such a balance?
I had the Civil War letters of my great-great-grandfather, the character of Colonel Riant, and the books of Mobile historians Caldwell Delaney and Jay Higgenbotham. I also used the Mobile Register, a St. Vincents Manual from 1858 and the Mobile Museum, as well as more general history books such as The Mind of the South and New Men, New Cities, New South. Still, I had enormous anxiety in trying to be true to the life of a woman who by all accounts was highly respected, deeply religious, and incredibly charming. But finally I had to surrender to fiction while plotting the storylineadvancing Reginas age by about 15 years, inventing Reginas courtship with Ahlong as well as her husbands lumber businessto be honest, I dont know how much is fact or fiction, true or false, anymore. That line became totally blurred for me while writing this book. Some people bemoan the rewriting of history, but it seems to me we have no history if we cannot transmit it through story. Fiction is recourse to a history we can never know.
You were born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia and currently reside in New Orleans. Your debut novel, a vivid portrayal of the South at the turn of the century, will undoubtedly establish you as a Southern writer. Do you think of yourself in this way?
Though I grew up in Norfolk and visited Mobile throughout my entire childhoodwe would stay in Termite Hall over the holidaysIve lived elsewhere: Providence, RI, New York City, Barcelona. In the end I found myself returning to the south to write. I love the South as a settingthe humor, the sometimes infuriating contradictions, the heat, laziness, relics and mint juleps of it. Certainly Im thrilled to be living and writing among the Southern writers I admire: Barry Hannah, William Faulkner, Flannery OConner, John Biguenet, Tennessee Williams, and Augusta Evans Wilson to name a few.
What are you working on next?
Im developing a private detective in New Orleans, a woman, who gets involved investigating for the lawyer of a young conductor who is arrested, thrown in jail, and later falsely accused of molesting his five-year old violin student. Its led me down the path of the witch-hunt of child abusers, the very real abuses of the Catholic clergy, and the distorted way in which children get messages from society about sex. Hopefully the private detective will end up in a showdown in Cuba but I really cant say how it will turn out.