Photo credit: Tasha Thomas
When I’m working on a novel, I like to engross myself in my characters’ world as much as I can. So I spent a lot of time driving while singing when I was writing Southernmost
, a novel in which my lead characters, Asher and Justin, do just that during a particularly important chunk of the book. Asher, a fundamentalist preacher who makes a courageous stand for equality and loses his church and his marriage because of it, decides that he is prepared to give up everything for what he believes in. Except for his son. So he kidnaps nine-year-old Justin and they run off from the rolling green hills outside Nashville to the balminess — and balm — of Key West. Along the way they argue, talk, sing, remain quiet for long stretches, take the top off of their Jeep, and let their hands drift on the wind as the air changes from the smell of dairy farms to cotton fields to swamps to ocean.
I knew driving and singing to my very bones. Key West and kidnapping, not so much.
Immersive research is always one of the best parts of the writing process. Especially when it involves the subtropics. The first time I went to the island, I already knew I wanted to write a novel about a parent kidnapping a child and I had started creating my main characters. I saw that this would be the best place for Asher to make his escape, especially since it was so different — in climate, values, and feeling — from his home along the winding Cumberland River in Tennessee. Once I knew why he had kidnapped his son — to get him away from a mother and a church intent on teaching him that judgment trumps compassion, particularly around issues of gay equality — it made perfect sense to set most of the novel in a community that has long been known for embracing those who are ostracized in the larger culture. Key West is a place where the town motto, “One Human Family," is stamped into the sidewalks and onto free bumper stickers given away at the Visitors Center. And not only does Key West talk the talk, it walks the walk, remaining one of the major places in America to celebrate diversity, open-mindedness, and compassion.
Once I spied a couple dancing together on their porch during this hushed time.
The high season in Key West is January or February, but my character goes there at the height of summer. So I did too. The advantages to this are that the island is not crowded and everything is cheaper. The disadvantages are that insects can be legion and the heat is thick as curtains. But this was the Key West I needed to know. For scenes when my character was working outside during the hottest part of the day, so did I, in heat so thick I could feel it in my mouth when I breathed. For scenes where the violent storms of summer brewed green clouds and released earth-shaking thunder and startling lightning, I rode my scooter or bicycle through the torrents because that’s what my character would be doing. I needed to know the weather the way he did. I learned how sudden and dramatic the summer storms can be, how quickly the streets flood. I loved the way the locals came outside to watch the pavement steam once the deluge has passed. Once I spied a couple dancing together on their porch during this hushed time. You can find them, and everything I’ve listed here, in the novel.
I work as a college professor and I have a family, so I couldn’t stay for very long on the island. Back home, I had a subscription to the Key West newspaper, read its history, and did phone interviews with folks who live there. Most importantly, I climbed into the skin of my characters. I rode my bicycle around my little town, seeing the world through Asher’s eyes. One afternoon I went into a gas station and saw a state trooper in line. I panicked because I was Asher who had his kidnapped son right beside him, worrying the officer might recognize us. I took long walks in the woods and put myself into the mind of a little boy whose parents have split, seeing the world with his sense of wonder, his heightened sensitivity. I came to understand the music that spoke to my characters — Patty Griffin for Asher, My Morning Jacket and Tom Petty for Justin, and Joni Mitchell for Bell — then I listened to those artists almost exclusively. For years. My characters read Thomas Merton
, The Old Man and the Sea
, Jonah’s Gourd Vine
, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
, so I read or reread them, too.
I can only write a novel properly if I have practiced total immersion, much like the baptism into the fundamentalist church that Asher experienced as a teenager. I can only create this world if I build it day by day in my mind as I go about the busyness of living and working. I work on my characters when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, or walking my dogs, or driving fast and singing loudly. This is the joy of novel-writing. There is difficulty, too, of course: writer’s block, lack of time, creating a solid structure. The act of creation is equal measures satisfaction and pain, often simultaneously. The hope is that the writer’s immersion makes the reader feel they’re sitting in the passenger seat, singing along the whole way.
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is the author of five novels, including the New York Times
bestseller A Parchment of Leaves
. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times
and a former commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered
. House is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and is the winner of the E. B. White Award, the Nautilus Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Hobson Medal for Literature, and other honors. Southernmost
is his most recent book.