I was born and still live in rural East Tennessee. I grew up on Mountain Valley Road, surrounded by foothills and farmland, rocky creeks pouring into muddy rivers. I spent my childhood exploring the piney woods behind the house my grandfather built. I spent more than one hot afternoon working alongside my mother in tobacco fields, plucking hornworms from the plants. We East Tennesseans form a deep attachment to our land, going back to when our ancestors were sustained by what they coaxed from the soil. As a writer, both the beauty and the hardship of Appalachia have been a source of inspiration to me. In my first novel, Bloodroot
, these mountains became more than a setting. The landscape of home became like another character.
When I began a second book, once again I found inspiration in my own backyard. Long Man is what the Cherokees called the Tennessee River, with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea. I chose to give the fictional river that flows through my novel the same name. Having been raised in East Tennessee, I'm familiar with the dams the Tennessee Valley Authority built here during the Great Depression, bringing not only electricity but flood control and jobs to a part of the country Franklin Roosevelt described as "forgotten by the American people." I'd always seen the grain silos rising from the middle of Cherokee Lake, the TVA reservoir in our community. I can't remember noticing them for the first time, made from concrete the color of cinders, slimed with algae where they rose from the water, a square of shadowed window near the top where the staves were tagged with spray-painted graffiti. But I do remember the first time I ever wondered about them. I must have been 9 or 10. As we passed the silos on our way to the Smokies, the mountains a hazy chain behind their twin steel domes, my mother told me there was a town buried underneath the lake. It was decades before I thought about the thousands of families displaced in this valley for the sake of progress, before I realized Cherokee Lake is less than 10 miles from our family farm on Mountain Valley Road. Once it occurred to me, I couldn't stop thinking how my life might have been different if the floodwaters had reached a little farther.
I knew I wanted to write about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the inhabitants of a drowning town much like the one underneath Cherokee Lake. I wanted to tell an intimate story of a dispossessed family against the sprawling backdrop of the Depression. As I researched the TVA, the plot of Long Man came to me in the form of a question. What would happen if a child went missing from a town that was being flooded by one of their dams? But the idea didn't solidify in my mind until I discovered the character of Annie Clyde Dodson, the young mother whose three-year-old daughter disappears as Long Man River rises higher by the hour. I suppose imagining my own farm underwater led me to her. I would venture to say most novels have autobiographical elements, and there are certainly pieces of me in Annie Clyde. I gave her my own passions and ideals, my own resentment and fear of a big government machine that steamrolls individuals. I put some of myself into Annie Clyde's love for her child and for her land. I gave her my own attachment to home, and my own heartbreak at the thought of losing it.
There are pieces of other women as well in Annie Clyde Dodson. She was inspired partly by my grandmother, Elva McCoy, who survived the Great Depression by hunting and farming alongside her husband to support eight children. My grandmother refused to sell the 40 acres I was raised on, even when times were leanest. I drew inspiration too from my mother, who wanted to be a teacher but walked away from a chance at a college education when the University of Tennessee suggested she ask her parents to mortgage their farm in order to pay the tuition.
I discovered another real-life model for Annie Clyde in the Tennessee Valley Authority caseworker reports I read during my research for Long Man. When the first of Roosevelt's dams was finished in a small town called Norris in the summer of 1936, one woman named Mattie Randolph refused to move off the land that had been in her family for generations. She even threatened several TVA men with a shotgun. I imagined the courage it must have taken to stand against the government, especially as a marginalized Appalachian woman. I wanted to make Annie Clyde Dodson strong like that. But more than anything, I wanted to make her human.
While Long Man is a historical novel, it's also an intensely personal one. The questions that haunted me as I wrote became Annie Clyde's questions. Who would I be without this place? What if I'd been born somewhere else? What if I was forced by the government to relocate? How would I react, and what would my reaction say about me as a woman, as a human being? As these questions arose, I thought about the time I spent in Vermont, where I went to college. I got married at 18, straight out of high school, and had my son when I was 20. I didn't continue my education until he was seven, so the revelations I had up north came to me a bit late. Until then I hadn't been outside of the South. I didn't fully realize what it meant to be Appalachian. I didn't think I had much of an accent before I was so often asked to repeat myself. At graduation, one classmate brought her family over to hear me talk. I learned then that East Tennessee had traveled with me, all those miles from Mountain Valley Road, on my tongue. I've reached the same conclusion Annie Clyde Dodson does by the end of Long Man. Just because you can't see your home doesn't mean it's not there. Wherever you go, you carry it with you.