Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Voice of Black Mountain

Beginning tomorrow April 30th my selected Black Mountain Stories will be featured in The Dead Mule. I’ve been asked by several people what is your process? How do you sit down and write everyday? How do I come up with the Black Mountain characters? This is as close as I could come to answering those questions. 

For a decade I spent my energy outrunning my southern upbringing. I wanted no part of tall tales, superstitions, and folklore. I think some of my attitude stemmed from my grandmother, who was the first in her family to move from the country to the city. But mostly I was like a lot of others in Atlanta. My goal was to erase the old south out of my life and become chic and worldly.  Gees!

I published my short stories in a variety of small literary magazines, but these pieces never rang true. There was nothing about these creations that reflected me, that reached way down to the bone. In May of 2004, my husband took me on a long weekend trip to a small mountain community, where they just happened to be celebrating the area’s 150th birthday. The weekend was filled with storytelling, bluegrass music, and art. Something about the whole trip seemed familiar. 

And then I thought of those Sundays once a month spent at my great aunt’s farm in the country. We’d sit in the living room with its high ceilings and homemade furniture and sip syrupy ice tea in jelly jar glasses from the depression era. I’d find a corner next to one of the large potted plants and sit quietly until I became part of the rose wallpaper. Soon the women—there was always a roomful of grown cousins—began to cast their spells. My great aunt would pull out her spittoon and offer my grandmother a dip of snuff, which she would take to my fascination. The talk would turn to the real stories. One of my favorites was how my great grandfather brought my great grandmother home from a trip to Atlanta not feeling well. She felt so bad she went straight to bed at two in the afternoon. Two days later her whole head turned black, and she died. Folks believed my great grandfather had a spell placed on her so he could marry a new wife, which he promptly did three months after my great grandmother’s death.

The celebration in the mountain community jogged me to connect to my past.

A few days after returning home from our trip, I stood at the stove cooking hamburgers, and a voice shot through my head. I know it sounds crazy.

“Mama warned me against marrying Hobbs Pritchard. She saw the future in her tealeaves, death.” 

Thank goodness for writing notebooks. I grabbed mine—I keep it with me all the time to angst of my family—and wrote down what I heard. I knew instantly that this character’s name was Nellie, and she did marry Hobbs Pritchard, whoever he was and even though taking this character serious went against everything I was trying to do in my writing, I was hooked on her.

Nellie showed up in my dreams. She spoke to me on my day job. She told me all about her childhood while I attempted to write in my journal. Finally I gave in and wrote her story, Ghost on Black Mountain. This piece poured out of me in one sitting during my lunch hour at work. What would we do without laptops? I knew it was something special. I had found what many writers call their ‘voice’. You could have knocked me over with a finger. This southern, rural mountain girl had shaken my writing upside down.

In a matter of six months, more characters than I could count had popped up. All of them not only had a story to tell, but lived on Black Mountain. Eighteen stories were born. Black Mountain had become a subtle character in the background in each of these pieces.

The stories attracted an agent at a writers’ conference. I signed on with her in late 2006. She is currently shopping my novel, Ghost on Black Mountain, starring non other than Nellie Pritchard.

So have I developed a process in which to invoke new characters and their stories? Does a southerner use bacon grease to cook with? Thanks to some decent successes with essay publications and a wonderful husband, Jack, who said go for it, I write fulltime, a luxury I value.

Each morning at eight I begin with my iced cappuccino. I answer all emails and do what surfing on the internet that I need to do. Promptly at eight-thirty, I turn off my wireless router downstairs so I’m not tempted to check email and begin my writing time by journaling. Much of what I write is whining about the day, year, or decade, but with this out of the way, I address my expectations of the workday. Then I dive into my current project. Right now that would be my second novel, Beautiful Wreck.

I write until 12:30 without a break. This writing can involve keying into the laptop or writing in my notebook. I will write in longhand when I can’t get my hands around what the character wants to say. Longhand always works. It takes me closer to the character, kind of nose to nose. Before I break, I pick up my journal again. I spend some time writing about what was accomplished during the writing session. Many times this reveals where the next section is going or what problem has me stuck.

After lunch I go back and enter the longhand from the morning into the computer. I then take a long walk. Long walks are one of the most important tools I utilize. A walk allows me to meditate and most often many solutions and ideas appear. This is the only time I don’t have my writing notebook with me, but I do carry an index card and pen.

Why do I use both a journal and a writing notebook? My journal is a beautiful book that holds my thoughts and allows me to take myself seriously as writer. My writing notebook is the opposite. It is always a spiral notebook with different designs on the cover. I don’t take my writing life too serious in these books. They are invaluable to me. First drafts often pop up here.   

My writing takes place most of my waking hours. I might write a first draft while my daughter takes her bath. This way I capture the idea as it enters my head. Writing is more than a career for me. It is a way of life. Thank goodness my family loves and supports me, offering all sorts of advice. Ella, my eight year old daughter, says I should write a children’s book about Black Mountain and its ghost. Maybe she’s right. You never know what I might get myself into next.


Ann Hite

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