Kaylie Jones Interviews Barbara J. Taylor
To celebrate the release of Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night — the latest release in Akashic’s Kaylie Jones Books imprint, and one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Summer Books of 2014 — Kaylie Jones sat down to talk with debut novelist Barbara J. Taylor about her inspiration, her writing process, and what keeps her going:
Kaylie Jones: The first time I met you was in the cafeteria during the Wilkes University MFA residency in creative writing. You were a looking for a mentor to begin your novel. You had the kernel of an idea based on a family tragedy, and a chorus of church ladies who gave their collective opinion on how the family handled that tragedy. We talked for a long time and when I looked up, the cafeteria was empty and you’d missed your next class. What was it that personally haunted you about this family story and made you want to write it?
Barbara J. Taylor: Growing up I heard this story over and over again from my mother and my grandmother. I was a dramatic kid and I was taken by the whole tragic aspect of it—the fact that it was the day of her baptism, her dress going up in flames, the fact that she sang hymns for three days while she was dying. The little girl was my grandmother’s sister Pearl. Yet, as much as that story haunted me, I always wondered about Aunt Janet, Pearl’s sister, who was with her in the yard that day. No one blamed Janet, but I imagined witnessing this tragedy had a devastating effect on her life. Janet didn’t have the happiest life. She ended up married four times to the same two men. She lost both of her children, one in infancy and one in adulthood. She herself was burned when she lit a cigarette after oiling a machine at work. The burns on her arms healed, but I have to wonder if her heart ever did. Janet is the inspiration for my main character, Violet.
KJ: We worked together on this book for a long time. You revised without hesitation and without doubt. You and I each went through many hardships in the last seven years. Many writers with fewer obstacles in their paths lose faith in their projects and quit. What made you go on?
BJT: First of all, my mentor. That’s the truth. You never gave up on me. Also, the book was a place to go in the midst of those hardships. It was solace, a safe harbor. I really thought of the work as a love poem to the people who mattered most to me. That was reason enough to continue. And it was something that was mine, a world that I could visit no matter what was happening around me. To be honest, the thought of quitting never entered my mind.
KJ: Why do you think some writers quit?
BJT: I don’t think some people realize that writing is revision. They write a first draft and are surprised when they find out that’s just the beginning. My book took years. Sometimes I worked nonstop, sometimes I walked away from it for a while and worked on something else to gain perspective, but the whole time I kept writing. Also, I think some people get into writing expecting to be the next Stephen King, only to find out even Stephen King works really hard. It’s not about publishing, but writing. If you don’t know that, you’re not going to stick with it for very long.
KJ: When you were taking a break from this novel, what were you working on?
BJT: After I wrote the first book I realized these characters had more to say, so I started working on the second book of what I intend to be a trilogy. I have the first draft of Book Two completed, and I’m getting ready for revisions. It’s twenty years later, and it’s Violet’s story again, but now she’s a woman. I don’t want to give too much away, but the eugenics movement in America plays a vital role in the story. The third book will take place twenty years after that, in the mid 50s, during one of the worst floods in Northeast Pennsylvania. Although this is a trilogy, each book is self-contained and stands alone.
KJ: Stanley Adamski, a young boy who is forced to go to work as a breaker boy in the local coal mine, is one of the strongest characters in this first novel. But you told me later that Stanley wasn’t even supposed to be in the book. What happened?
BJT: Let me start by saying I don’t outline. I have a more organic process. Every night I’d go up to the computer, excited to find out what was going to happen next. One night I knew that Violet was going to have an encounter with Evan Evans, the local bully, but I didn’t know that Stanley was going to save her. I didn’t even know Stanley existed. Evan pushes Violet into the bushes, and I could see her struggling to get a foothold, and somebody suddenly reached in and helped her to her feet. It was this little, dirty, unpopular, motherless outcast. At first Violet was mortified to be saved by him but in time he grew on her as much as he grew on me. They became best friends and that friendship is probably one of the most redemptive and light-hearted aspects of the book.
KJ: One of the secondary characters that I find particularly endearing is Doc Rodham. He witnesses every birth and death in this family, and he treats the miners at the Scranton hospital with dignity and respect. Where did you get the idea for this wonderful character?
BJT: Whenever I heard the story about Aunt Pearl, it was always mentioned that Doc Rodham treated her burns, so it seemed natural to include him in my novel. Long after I’d written the first draft, I was doing research at the Scranton Public Library and discovered that Dr. Thomas Rodham was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s great-uncle on her father’s side. I was delighted to learn of her connection to such a decent man.
BARBARA J. TAYLOR was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University. She still resides in the “Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is her first novel.
KAYLIE JONES is the award-winning author of five novels, including Speak Now, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, the memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me, and is the editor of Long Island Noir. She teaches writing at two MFA programs and lives in New York City, and is the curator of the Kaylie Jones Books imprint.
Posted: Jul 1, 2014
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