Interview: Amy Greene
Conducted April 2014
Issue No. 4 – June 2014
Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her second novel Long Man was published by Alfred A. Knopf on February 25, 2014. Her first novel Bloodroot is available in bookstores and online.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: There’s this division running through much of your first novel Bloodroot between the almost mystical freedom of the Appalachian landscape – reflected in the spirit of the untamable horse Wild Rose and the backwoods cunning-folk magic of the granny women – and the more grounded tragedy of domestic violence, civic intervention and family protective services. This thread carries over to your second novel Long Man in Annie Clyde Dodson’s homespun rebellion against the federal government’s forced relocation program. What’s the basis for this sort of “Don’t Tread on Me” mentality? Or would you frame it more as a communal pushback against the threat of homogenizing “outside” culture?
AMY GREENE: I do think there was in the 1930’s, and there is today, a push-back in Appalachia against the threat of “outsiders” moving in and taking over. We’re descended from the Scots-Irish, who crossed the ocean and settled here for the sake of freedom, so I would say there’s rebellion in our blood. I think as well, partly due to the isolating effect of these mountains, East Tennesseans form a deep attachment to the land, going back to when our ancestors were sustained by what they could coax from the soil. In Long Man, Annie Clyde Dodson’s stand against the government is motivated more than anything by her love of home, and her fear of a big government machine that steamrolls individuals.
BA: Much of Long Man can read like a forgotten history, like the deathbed record of an outmoded way of life. Contemporary accounts tend to consider the Tennessee Valley Authority’s damming operations as one of the great successes of the New Deal campaign, but here you focus on its underserved victims. As a Tennessee native, did you feel any special obligation to pursue this topic? Was there an element of personal history at play?
AG: While Long Man is a historical novel, to me it’s also an intensely personal one. My family’s forty-acre farm was spared by the floodwaters that drowned a portion of East Tennessee during the Great Depression, but the lake that inundates our part of the valley – Cherokee Lake – is less than ten miles from the house my grandfather built. In the process of writing Long Man, I couldn’t help thinking how my life might have been different if the water had reached a little farther. When the lake is low in winter, you can see silos rising from its middle. Growing up, I was fascinated by the idea of a town buried underneath the water. As an adult, I began to think about the sacrifices that must have been made for the sake of progress here in East Tennessee. When I started doing research for my second novel, I learned land that had been in families for generations was lost underwater. The bones of loved ones were disinterred and moved, historical landmarks were destroyed, thousands of families were displaced. At first, I felt only the compulsion to tell a story, but along the way my compulsion became to tell the story of this moment in East Tennessee’s history that I’m not sure the rest of the country knows much about.
BA: Both of your novels possess a well-developed sense of the past. How much research goes into writing about places like Yuneetah, 1936 – only a lifetime removed from our own experience, yet still a place in many regards bound to nineteenth century customs? To what extent do you feel like you’ve “lived” in your writing?
AG: I have a bit of an aversion to research, a fear of letting it bog down the writing process. But since I found myself working on this historical novel, I had to try and paint an accurate portrait of the Depression here, out of respect to those who lived through it. I visited a few TVA-built dams near my home, which was helpful, but in the interest of bringing the story’s humanity to the forefront, I spent most of my research time poring over caseworker interviews and pictures, getting to know the faces of those who experienced the TVA displacement. I studied Dorothea Lange’s work and WPA photograph books, documenting the TVA’s dam-building progress across the valley. More than anything, those images gave me a sense of having lived what I was writing about.
BA: We were very struck by Amos, the enigmatic one-eyed drifter at the center of Long Man’s greatest conflict. What can you tell us about the manner in which this figure developed?
AG: Amos evolved from stories my father tells about a hobo who roamed his Johnson City neighborhood when he was a boy in the 1940’s. This drifter’s name was Tanglefoot, and he was a sort of town legend, always making mischief. In the very first draft of Long Man, Amos’s name was Tanglefoot, but my editor thought the moniker was much too “folksy” and I came to agree with her. In successive drafts I changed his name but not much else about him. He came to me almost fully formed and became in a way the heart of the story, the character I couldn’t stop thinking about. Even as part of a disregarded town in a region that Roosevelt called “forgotten by the American people” Amos is an outsider, mistrusted not only because of his mysterious origins but because of his disfigurement. He’s the embodiment of all those deemed by society as unloveable and disposable. Though some of the townspeople see Amos as a supernatural being, in the end his basic motivation is a human need for acknowledgment and validation. As a boy Amos forces those neighbors who turn their heads when he passes to look at him by causing trouble in Yuneetah. As an adult his anger at being devalued manifests as an opposition to all forms of hierarchy and authority. His stand against the dam isn’t motivated so much by any ideology or conviction as it is by his resentment of “the men in suits” who consider him nothing–a resentment so great that he’s willing to risk his life to get the government’s attention, even if his act of violence is no more than an obstacle to their end result. Having been born silenced, Amos’s driving desire is to be heard.
BA: Bloodroot took many critics by surprise at its release in 2010. Not many authors could come flying out of the gate as you did, marking your debut publication with such an intricate blend of character and prose. How did Bloodroot come about? How did the process differ from your follow-up performance with Long Man?
AG: I began writing Bloodroot back in 2006, when I was a student at Vermont College. It took almost a year to finish the first draft, trying to form a coherent narrative from a messy collection of character sketches and scenes I had accumulated. When I was almost finished with the manuscript, although I was nervous about sharing it, I felt a need for feedback. I applied to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2007 and had the opportunity to learn from Jill McCorkle, one of the authors I admire most. She saw promise in my rough draft of Bloodroot and offered to put me in touch with a literary agent once it was ready to be submitted. Things moved quickly after that. Within a few months of leaving Sewanee, I found myself working with my brilliant editor at Knopf, Robin Desser. It was a whirlwind experience, and still hard for me to grasp sometimes. The process of bringing Long Man to publication took much longer, despite having an agent and an editor. Since Bloodroot is primarily a character-driven novel, I didn’t do much research before beginning. But with this second novel, I had a more difficult task since the scope is much bigger. 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 about to be flooded by a TVA dam? I knew I wanted to pursue the idea, but then the challenge became to incorporate suspense into this historical novel, to tell against the sprawling backdrop of the Great Depression an intimate story about a family dealing with tragedy. Long Man went through six intensive edits before Robin and I were satisfied. I would definitely describe it as a labor of love.
BA: Do you have any plans to release short fiction in the future?
AG: Unfortunately, I don’t write short fiction. I tried my hand at short stories when I was a student and found them near impossible. The novel is my favorite, and only, medium.
BA: Call it Southern Gothic, Appalachian Gothic, Heartland Gothic (heck, maybe there’s a Rocky Mountain Gothic?), but the long American literary journey into the horror and majesty of our own interior continues. We’ve got Karen Russell and movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild discovering the supernatural in our swamplands and delightful maniacs like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock running up the body count in the Midwest. Cormac McCarthy was no stranger to your region in The Orchard Keeper. Even Buffalo Almanack has had the honor of publishing two fine American Gothics in Daniel Woodrell and Robert James Russell. Why makes this tradition so valuable and persistent? Where do you see your own work fitting in?
AG: Speaking of push-back, I wonder if maybe the Southern Gothic tradition is a way of resisting romantic stereotypes in Southern literature and calling attention instead to the struggles of the oppressed, the working poor, the outsiders that authors like Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee wrote about. As far as how my own work fits into that tradition, I can’t say. I’m often asked if I object to being called a “regional” writer. The other day I asked a friend who writes about Northern Minnesota the same question, since I’m never sure how to answer. His response was perfect, I think. He said he doesn’t worry about what kind of writer he is, or where his work fits in. It’s readers and publishers who give us labels. We just write the stories that come to us.
BA: What’s something wonderful about Tennessee only a local would know? Do you have a favorite place we ought to check out?
AG: I grew up near a tiny town in Hawkins County, Bulls Gap. There’s a restaurant there called the Dairy Dream that makes the best cheeseburger you’ll ever put in your mouth. I had one yesterday, with a chocolate milkshake. The fried pickles are excellent, too.
BA: Any plans yet in store for your third book?
AG: Yes, I’m working on a third novel about an East Tennessee woman’s struggle to bring to light the truth about the industrial accident that killed her family and left her orphaned.