In the Garden of Stone: The Susan Tekulve Interview

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Not long ago I wrote here about how thrilled I was by a soon-to-be-released book winning early accolades—a novel by my friend Susan Tekulve called In the Garden of Stone. I was amazed by Susan's book, honestly. I respected, more than I can adequately articulate, her research, her care, her language, her adept way with southern legends and landscape. I asked Susan, an old friend (though she is younger than me and far more spry), if she would answer a few questions. She did. Read here to learn from a master.

In The Garden of Stone, images are handed down across the pages just as family lore and land are handed down, character to character. What image was pivotal for you as you began to think of these scenes holistically—not as stories, but as a novel?

You are exactly right to say that this kind of novel requires unifying elements beyond the chronological retelling of a family story. This novel required more, and different, unifying elements that a traditionally-structured novel doesn’t necessarily require, such as recurrent images and protagonists, and a strong sense of place. While each chapter could exist on its own, together they must rest upon each other and have the arc of a novel. I would say that the setting, particularly the image of the Italian rock garden on the family’s home place, provides the key images that unify the whole novel for me. In fact, the chapter, “Italian Villas and Their Gardens,” was the most difficult to write because I knew that every chapter before this one had to lead up to it, and that every chapter that followed rested upon the events and images set forth in this chapter. I knew the ending of the chapter before I started writing it, and it is really difficult for me to write something if I already know exactly what must happen. In fact, knowing the ending of this chapter was so crippling that it took six revisions over a course of six years to write it.

The “Italian Villa” chapter is set in the depths of the Depression. You see Caleb Sypher, a mysterious and imaginative man who is so desperate to create something beautiful in this otherwise hardscrabble place that he builds a lavish Italian pleasure garden from materials he barters for and collects down around the railroad, where he holds down his paycheck job despite the cutbacks. You see him instilling his love of beauty, his need to “have more than what we have,” in his wife, Emma, who comes from a family of Sicilian immigrant miners who spend all of their days under the earth, in another kind of stone garden, barely remembering sunlight, let alone the beautiful gardens of their home country. Emma comes from a place that darkens by midday, and remains covered by oily coal dust all year long. There wasn’t much opportunity for thoughts of beauty in her childhood, but she learns about it, eventually, through Caleb.

Then, in the middle section of the book, you see some of the second-generation characters fall tragically from this garden, while a few other characters, like Sadie, remain on the periphery, admiring it from a distance. In this second section, no matter what their previous relationship to this land was, the main characters all try to make their way back to this garden, and claim it. Finally, in the third section, you see the Italian pleasure garden fall into disrepair as the final generation of characters try desperately to hold onto the land, or, in some cases, escape from it. I didn’t necessarily think of the garden as a unifying element while I was writing this book, but the stone garden appears in every chapter, in various forms. This image turned out to be the unifying thread that “stitched” the chapters together.

Your love for this landscape and your knowledge of it awes me. Tell us a little of where you have walked, what you have seen, how the mountains move you, how you learned the names of trees, birds, flowers, ridges, bear seasons.

For the last twenty years, I have been lucky to live about a half hour from the gateway mountains of Western North Carolina. I’ve also been very lucky to know people who are willing to lend me their cabins, camp houses or their guest houses up in these mountains when I need to escape the palaver, as Thoreau famously called all those daily things that distract us from truly seeing and thinking straight.

I will say that my novel’s main setting is based upon my in-law’s home place up around Bluefield, Virginia, but when I couldn’t make the trip back to Virginia, I would stay at some friend’s place up in those North Carolina mountains, where the terrain is very similar to the mountains surrounding my in-laws’ home place. Twice, while writing the book, I was able to live in the mountains for an extended period of time. The first time, I lived in a friend of a friend’s guesthouse up on Wilderness Road in Tryon, a tiny town kettled between two mountains just across the border, in North Carolina. The original owners had named this guesthouse “The Cold Potato,” after some half-remembered bluegrass song. Beside the guest house, there was a century-old Cherokee game trail that had been re-blazed by a homesteader who lived in an old chinked log cabin beside the river that wound around the bottom of the ridge I lived on. This homesteader allowed me to walk the game trail and along the river that ran through a valley that was planted with tomatoes. I lived in The Cold Potato in early spring, so I was able to watch the spindly tomato seedlings grow into full-sized tomato plants. As late spring came, there were times when I teetered dangerously over rattle snakes that the tomato farmer would kill and lay across the road so that I would know that the snakes were in those fields, eating tomatoes. Because the trees hadn’t greened completely, I was able to observe how wild turkeys resemble patches of swirling dried leaves as they run up a late-winter ridge. I learned that the black bears, crazed by hibernation hunger, will come down from a high ridge encroached by land developers to tear off the lid of your trash can, drink the dregs of your tossed out Coke cans, or lick the cherry pie filling from the bottom of a tin pan. I learned what a bear smells like, too.

I spent several years writing this novel piecemeal while working full time, and mothering full time, but as I neared the end of writing this novel, I took an unpaid leave from my job so that I could finish it. A friend lent me her 1917 camp house that stood at the base of the Seven Sisters Mountain range, in a little town called Montreat, North Carolina. Montreat is a spiritual retreat center that was settled by Scottish Presbyterians in the late 19th century, so this place resembles a lower highland village in Scotland. There are no sidewalks here, just hiking trails that lead from the front doors of everyone’s houses and border a quiet stream called Flat Creek. The creek crossed through the town center, which is really just a small lake named, almost providentially, Lake Susan. When I went to live in this place for the whole month of September, I had the idea that I would let this mountain landscape work on me as I finished the novel. I began writing the end of the book by walking in the woods. First, I followed Flat Creek down to the lake, where I discovered that the gorgeous swans that patrolled the lake were the least elegant creatures on this earth when viewed up close. They snort like hogs. They tip over, rumps in the air, snaking their beaks underwater to swallow whole frogs. When they tip back over, I could see the frogs slowly struggling down the inside of the swans’ snowy necks. After pausing at the lake, I hiked up to the nearest trailhead that branched off into the “lower trails,” which, I learned quickly, were once wilderness trails that reached elevations as high as 5900 feet.

After a few days of hiking, (and heaving), along “the lower trails,” I began to learn how to remain quiet, and how to pay attention. I discovered that falling acorns sound like gun shots when they hit a tin roof, and that clouds rise like delicately twisting handkerchiefs from black ridge pockets after a storm passes. I learned that black bears are real comedians. If you remain still and watch them from a safe distance, they will come out at dusk to swing on the limbs of the apple tree growing beside your kitchen window. They’ll balance delicately, on all four paws, on top of your bird feeder and scoop out all the bird seed. And if you are sitting beside a window at dusk, reading, you might look up and see a doe staring in at you, taking your measure, so close you can see the veins inside her ears. If she likes the look of you, she’ll bring back her fawns the next night so that you may admire them. I don’t mean to sound like Henry David Thoreau’s direct descendent here, but I did go to the woods so that I could learn how to see and hear, and so that I could write without distraction. I finished the last third of the novel in this setting, in exactly one month.

Coal mining. Herbal healing. The madness and methods of self-educated cooks, farming lore. How did you teach yourself so much about indigenous process?

I should start by saying that I am not a trained natural scientist. I grew up roaming in the wooded hills of my earliest neighborhood just north of the Ohio River, and to this day a wooded landscape is where I feel most at home. As an adult, I learned the proper and folk names of the trees and flowers I saw while hiking in the woods. I also came to know the ridges and bear seasons down here in the Carolinas and in Virginia. I do use reference texts about herbs, wildlife, Appalachian wildflowers, Cherokee trail trees. The Foxfire books are an especially important resource for me. I keep these books close by when I write because they feature transcriptions of oral accounts by Appalachian old timers who knew everything about staying alive on the remote side of a mountain, from moonshining skills to snake lore, from planting by the signs to making nostrums from the herbs and flowers they picked.

But, like most people, I have an innate need to seek out places that resemble the landscape of my childhood because that is where my emotional landscape was formed. Another way of saying this is that even when I’m writing about a place and a people who are seemingly different from my own experience, I’m often still working through some basic emotional truths that I haven’t quite figured out, and I often will return to a place that resembles my early emotional landscape—whether it is the Southern Highlands or a village in Italy--in order to do this. Though I do a lot of book research, I also have found that I need to live with those researched details until they become a part of who I already am, so that I’m not just dumping information into my fiction, and so that the details remain in service to the story that I am telling.

You dedicate this book to your mother-in-law, and you speak of interview tapes made for you as you wrote. What two or three true things made it into this novel? What alchemy did you learn or apply as you transported the truth into fiction?

I guess there were really three women whose true stories influenced this novel—my maternal grandmother, Joy; my great aunt, Grace; and my mother-in-law, Mary. My grandmother was a rheumatic invalid’s daughter who was born after her mother was already in a wheel chair; she never saw her mother stand or walk, and she was taken out of school when she was seven to be her mother’s full-time caretaker. She never spoke of this part of her life to my mother, and she died when I was young, so my mother and I figured those details were lost to us. Then, in my late twenties, my great aunt Grace, (who was really my grandmother’s first cousin), began tape-recording stories about my grandmother’s early life and mailing them to me in South Carolina. The tapes she sent were all labeled “Stuff your mother never knew about your grandmother.” I think I received one tape every month, for a whole year. Ending around the time my mother was born, Grace’s stories were finely detailed, anecdotal. She fleshed out the true details of how my grandmother lived as an invalid’s daughter in a neighborhood north of the Ohio River called Winton Place; how my grandfather, who was ten years younger and an “Italian Catholic boy” from the river bottoms, courted her for years, finally becoming a teetotaler and Methodist so that my grandmother would marry him; how they all got through the Depression and World War II. I knew I wanted to use these details in a book about my family, but I wasn’t sure how to find my way into this story. I felt a huge disparity between the girl my Aunt Grace called Joy, and the woman I knew as my grandmother. I felt no great emotional ties to the river bottoms, where my Sicilian grandfather grew up, perhaps because that area had been cemented over by the time I was growing up north of the river. And when you don’t feel a strong emotional tie to the setting of your story, it’s hard to make your story move forward.

Around the time I was struggling to make narrative sense out of my own family’s stories, I went to live with my husband, Rick, at his family’s home place in Bluefield, Virginia. Rick is a poet, and he had the idea that we should go live in his recently-deceased grandmother’s house one summer so that he could research a series of poems that emulated the sounds of bluegrass music. While he researched bluegrass music for his poetry, I came to know my mother-in-law, Mary, through the stories she told me in her kitchen. In my memory, I always see and hear Mary in those evening hours in her kitchen, a mountain breeze blowing her dishtowel curtains in and out of the window above the sink. A quiet woman with knowing brown eyes, she spoke with the cadence of the King James Bible trembling her soft voice. My father-in-law always said that Mary’s early upbringing was so rough that the details of what happened to her as a child in that trailer could not be repeated. Though she hardly ever spoke of her childhood directly, Mary’s stories often involved quietly strong women who faced the unendurable—pain, violence, poverty—and triumphed. This was one of her favorite stories: “When I was seven, I used to walk eight miles up the mountain to fetch my baby brother a cup of milk from our nearest neighbor,” she’d say. “I did this every morning and every evening, just so the milk would be fresh.” Then she’d smile, quietly pleased by the memory of keeping her brother alive by carrying a tin cup full of milk down a mountain.

Sometimes, Rick’s father, Larry, would drive me around, acting as tour guide, telling me stories about his family. One day, he drove me down into West Virginia to see the abandoned coal camps, and he took me on a tour of an exhibition coal mine in Pocahontas, Virginia. While we were in Pocahontas, we walked through the town’s graveyard, and I noticed that one whole side of this cemetery was filled with tombstones whose epitaphs were written in Italian. After doing a little research, I discovered that the coal companies would send representatives to meet the immigrants coming off the boats at Ellis Island, promise them jobs, and then take them down to the deepest hollows of West Virginia to work in the camps. The more I traveled around this part of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia, listening to the stories of my husband’s family, the more this place and its people resonated with me emotionally. It is a place of tremendous natural beauty, and a place of tremendous economic and cultural strife. The fact that Southern Italians and Sicilians had settled here was a revelation to me, and it introduced the possibility that my Sicilian grandfather’s people could have landed in a Virginia coal camp just as easily as they had settled beside the Ohio River. Because I felt more of an emotional connection to the natural landscape in Virginia, and because it is a place filled with conflict and contradictions, it began to make better narrative sense to place the stories of my grandmother, (as told to me by my Aunt Grace), in this one place.

 Once I discovered that this was my setting, my brain began performing that fictional alchemy you spoke of in your question; I started mingling the story of my grandmother and my Sicilian grandfather with the stories of my husband’s family, and the novel began to move forward. The novel is really the distillation of my family’s stories and Rick’s family’s stories, all set in one place, and it is this place that unifies the novel and provides much of the conflict that forces it to move forward. The two women who told me many of the stories that this novel is based upon—my great aunt Grace, and my mother-in-law, Mary—died while I was finishing this book. I still believe this novel was a gift, its details given to me by these women, the finished version written for them, their strong voices leading me all the way through it.


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