It takes some kind of courage to run a bookstore, and another kind of bravado to start up a literary festival in light of the current economic conditions and the overall bad news about the book industry.
None of that deterred Farris Yawn, however. Yawn’s Books in Canton, Georgia recently kicked-off the Literary Celebration in collaboration with the Canton Festival of the Arts. While the weather was less than cooperative, Yawn said that many of his customers stopped by the store the next week saying, “Let’s do it again next year.”
River Jordan and Karen Spears Zacharias were two of a multitude of authors featured on panels throughout the weekend. Join Karen as she interviews River Jordan about her stunning new release, Saints In Limbo.
Q: There is a myth in Saints In Limbo about angels falling out of heaven. Did the novel originate with this myth? Was this really something you’d heard growing up or was it something you conjured up all by your lonesome?
River: I do my best work conjuring in my lonesome. The novel originated with this image I had of Velma sitting on her porch. That was it. I knew it was her birthday and that something special, and unusual was coming in a whirlwind. The Angels fell from Heaven on their own accord. ‘Course, I think there is something about that back there in the beginning of days in the Bible.
Q: Reviewers are calling Saints In Limbo classic Southern Gothic. Was that your intent?
River: I never seem to intend anything as a writer but Lord knows, I’d like to. I guess my only intent is to really tell the story that’s asking to be told. If reviewers are saying classic Southern Gothic, I count myself in good company. I used to walk around searching for my genre the way some people do a mate. I needed genrematch.com or something. Then an editor looked at a manuscript of my first novel years ago and said the same thing – Southern Gothic. Maybe that’s the case but it was never my intent.
Q: The rock given to Velma True by the stranger at her door transports her beyond the boundaries of time and death. It has similar qualities as the Terrasact in A Wrinkle in Time, although its purposes are quite different, aren’t they?
River: When this gift was given to Velma it wasn’t clear to me what its purpose was. I don’t exactly know things in advance when I’m writing. What Velma taught me was that our lives are made up not of years, or days, or even minutes – but moments. Possessing those fully can be powerful medicine.
Q: There’s a beautiful scene of physical longing between Velma and Joe in the barn. Does it take discipline as a writer to stop short of offering today’s readers the solicitous sex they are so accustomed to? Or do readers ever express disappointment that you didn’t write such scenes in salacious detail?
River: Okay, first to be very honest, I’m laughing. People – you know, people, always say sex sells. So, I used to joke that I would start my next novel with a sex scene. But it was really a joke. Reckon I just don’t feel compelled to write them. However, I do know something about old people. I had grandparents and great-grandparents that were a huge part of my life. Both living with us and taking care of them in all manner. What that taught me was a level of understanding, compassion, and comprehension.
What I guess I’m saying is, I know something about growing old and it doesn’t take much to imagine what it would be like to be growing toward what you think are the end of your days and then to suddenly find yourself so very, much younger, newly married, and staring at your husbands naked, sweaty back in a barn. ‘Nuff said I guess so I don’t add salacious details. It’s repossessing that moment with full awareness and passion that makes it so special.
Q: Saints In Limbo is published by WaterBrook, billed as the inspirational imprint of Random House. Do you worry about being branded an “inspirational” writer? Would such a brand be an accurate description of your work? Or of this work specifically?
River: Honey, I was raised by the tribe of Eeyore. I can worry about anything and everything. As a literary southern writer, I would like my work to find it’s way to the hands of people who will embrace the story being told. In that respect, I don’t want to be branded anything that would keep any reader from picking up Saints In Limbo and discovering what lies inside those pages. So, I think that the work, my writing, can be brandied Southern Gothic more than anything else.
Often us southerners embrace the dark side in our writing but I just run my toes through it. The light is more evident in my stories. A prevailing sense of hope, of hanging onto love, if nothing else. I think that’s where the inspirational tag sneaks in.
Of course, one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever given me is, “River, you inspire me.” And I hear that frequently either in reference to a novel or to a speaking engagement. But what I inspire people to do seems to run the gamut between calling their grandmother, to going fishing, or writing their memoir. I’m just a mixed bag of stories. There seems to be something for everyone in there.
Q: The writing in Saints has an ethereal quality, very reminiscent of Toni Morrison in that haunting way. Who are the writers that have shaped your style of writing?
River: So many writers have influenced me in so many ways but I think it was listening to all those old people telling stories when I was a little girl that had the greatest influence really on my writing. It was the poetry of their words, their southern cadence, their dreams, faith, and even their superstition. It’s that dark house on a stormy night, the creek on a hot summer afternoon, and porch talk at firefly time. Moonshine under the moonlight and people who had faith in God always even in the middle of a lot of poverty and pain.
Q: The redemption in Saints isn’t in the plan of salvation or even in the magical rock, but is found in the act of surrender, of letting go of the fear. Tell us about how the title came about. What does it represent to you?
River: I flat out stole the title from a friend during conversation. I was telling her a story (surprise) and she said-“oh, like, saints in limbo, right?” And then my eyes did that cartoon bugged out thing because I was half-way through the novel and I just knew that was the perfect title.
I think we are all everyday ordinary saints and we’re all transitioning from one thing to another whether we like it or not. And a lot of times in life it seems like we are just stuck on our druthers. I think that’s when men go fishing and women dye their hair. Or vice-versa. I don’t want to give anything away because the novel really hits on the title deeper into the story.
Q: You appear to have an easy knack for phrasing. I loved your line about Rudy, Velma’s errant good-for-little son. You said “Manhood was not his number.” And that, he had “bedded a paper-chain of women.” Do you labor over such descriptions or do they rush in as you write?
River: I have to show up and be willing to listen, but they just come out like that. I’m so thankful for that.
Q: How long between the inception of a novel to a finished draft for you? River: All my life. Really. For this reason. Those voices I heard as a child come floating back up full force. Then that’s all mixed in with Dr. Yolanda Reed of the Loblolly telling me something wise, such as, “Just listen to the story, that’s all. Just listen.” And then of course Velma’s place is none other than my daddy’s old homestead, a real place that took no time to create at all.
I worked on Saints In Limbo for three years but that’s no tried and true formula. On the other hand, I have a novel I’ve been carrying around now for over seven years but it’s not the right season yet for that work. I love the process. I think the most important thing is when I get that fist little snap, something inside catches my attention, and I keep testing that image or voice to see if it’s true. If so, and the character keeps talking, then they’ve got me. I’m in there with them for the ride no matter how long it takes. Three months of no sleep and absolute solitude or ten years makes no never mind. I do start out writing on a new novel for just a few hours a day but when the story picks up momentum- I’m gone, living there in my mind all the time and might as well be writing it all down all day, all night long.
Q: What are the non-negotiables for you when deciding to commit the remaining hours of your life to reading a book? What does that book have to offer you? And how do you incorporate that into your own writing?
River: The remaining hours of my life? Okay, now I’m distracted and thinking about my funeral. I think I’ll have boiled peanuts and really good music. Maybe a live band. Okay – back to reading. I want to read something that sets my soul on fire. I want to read words that tell me what it was to have been human and to set my feet on this planet for even just a little while. I want to carry some truth away about this life that I didn’t recognize before. To connect to another person’s life in the process. To cry, fight, laugh, love, and live more passionately than when I first turned that page.
I want the story to carry me somewhere wonderful whether it’s South America, or a riverboat, or even if it’s only a backyard on a summer night. And it doesn’t matter if it’s wonderful contemporary voices southern and otherwise, or the older voices of Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee – the list goes on into eternity. Just give me that great story. Carry me away. The words can be soft or sharp, biting or butter, I just want the passion of the writer to be so intense that the words are like a white, hot light on the page.