What inspired you to write Man in the Blue Moon?
During my early years, I lived next door to my maternal grandparents. I spent a lot of my childhood in their home. Every evening my grandmother’s widowed sister would join us for supper. While the meal simmered on the stove, the two sisters would sit at the table and talk about local news that never seemed to make the newspaper. Most of the time I’d sit in the hallway, eavesdropping on their tales about the townspeople I knew and picturing the scenes I heard as a movie in my mind.
My grandfather was also a ‘talker’ and whenever he’d enter the room, he’d share in the conversation, disputing some of the women’s stories and adding details to others. He was the best story-teller I have known.
One story from my grandfather’s childhood has long fascinated and haunted me. In 1920 when my grandfather was ten, he and his older brother were sent to pick up a delivery that was arriving from Bainbridge, Georgia by steamboat down the Apalachicola River to their home in Florida. Since their father owned a mercantile in a crossroads community, such a request was not unusual. The boys were always being sent to Apalachicola, the county seat, for deliveries.
After the dockworkers in Apalachicola had loaded a crudely constructed box onto their wagon, my grandfather and his brother traveled back home guessing what was inside. My grandfather bet his brother that it was a grandfather clock.
Back at the family store with the box now unloaded from the wagon, my great-grandfather used a crowbar to pop the lid open. As a boy, my grandfather was so scared at the sight he saw that he stumbled and fell backwards, tearing the seat in his britches. A man, soiled with filth and caked with mud, climbed out of the box.
The man who had been nailed shut inside the box was shipped during the night to his cousin, my great-grandfather, for safe keeping. The man was on the run for supposedly killing his wife. Even though the court had exonerated him, the wife’s family sought vengeance. They had made it known that they would hunt him down and kill him.
My grandfather and his brothers were instructed not to ask any questions and if they were asked by the people in the village, they were told to simply say that the visitor was a worker their father had hired. After about four months, my grandfather awoke one morning and the man was gone. They never heard from him again.
That is fascinating! So how much of the story is based on truth?
Well, the framework for the novel is based on truth – a man on the run was shipped to my great-grandfather for safe passage. In the real story my great-grandfather was present. And of course, in the novel the father of the family has an opium addiction and has abandoned the family.
The other part of the novel that is based on fact is the claim that the area is the original Garden of Eden. In my research I uncovered that in the 1940s a Baptist minister tried to make such a claim about Bristol, Florida, a place not too far from Apalachicola. He used the description of the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis to make his argument. Of course, his theory never gained widespread credibility but in the novel it became the driving force for the radio evangelist to take possession of Ella’s land and turn it into a retreat.
Of course you did much of your own research on the early 1900s, including the influenza epidemic, but it’s the oral history that made it so special and your grandfather’s stories that inspired you to write the book. Do you think that form of storytelling is still important in today’s culture of social media?
My grandfather was such a powerful storyteller that through the years I used to ask him to tell the ‘man in the box’ story over and over again. Part of the reason is that it is such an entertaining story but my other reason was to try to gleam fact from fiction. He had a way of “dressing up” stories to make them more interesting. But the bare bones of the story remained the same.
As a result of my grandfather’s stories and the stories shared by my grandmother and great-aunt I have a deep understanding of who I am and where I come from. Their stories were filled with the triumphs and tragedies of the family members who came before me. They were all original Florida Crackers and the stories helped me to understand the old Florida that was a place where “an eye for an eye” type of justice was enforced.
I think it’s great that the Library of Congress has a project to record personal history. And I love the NPR show “This American Life.” I believe that show helps to keep the oral history format alive too. But I do worry that we are becoming a people where a couple of sentences on a shared website is substituting for connection. There is something about inflection of the voice and cadence that makes oral history a powerful story device.
Oral history will always have its place – even if it is recorded on an iPad and posted on Facebook. A woman who grew up in South Alabama recently told me that Facebook is the new “front porch” – a reference to the days when Southerners would beat the heat by sitting on their front porches in the afternoon and gossiping with the neighbors who happened to pass by. I love that comparison.
The setting is an integral part of the story, often echoing the themes and arcs of the different characters. Why did you choose this part of Florida?
As a fifth generation Floridian, this is the area I know best. All of my grandfather’s stories revolved around West Florida where he grew up. He lived to be 101 and during his growing up days, Florida was still a rough, untamed world. When he was a boy, my grandfather once witnessed a man walk into his father’s country store and shoot another man in the back of the head. The man who fired the shot claimed that the other man had stolen his cattle. When the charge was proven true, the crime was deemed justifiable homicide.
As I began to researching Man in the Blue Moon, I was struck by the complicated details of the area where my grandfather was reared. It was a part of Florida that had known excessive wealth before the Civil War when the port of Apalachicola was the third largest exporter of cotton —the French Government even had a consulate stationed there. Apalachicola now has around 2,500 citizens. The town is still a beautiful place with a large number of homes and buildings on the historical registry. Whenever I start a new novel, I go there for inspiration. It’s one of my favorite places and seems to find its way into almost every story I write.
One thing reviewers consistently comment on is the authenticity of the voice of your characters. Is that something you’re constantly studying and perfecting, or something that comes naturally?
Like all writers, I am always listening and observing. Sometimes when I am sitting at a restaurant or waiting in line at an airport terminal, I’ll hear someone say something in a unique way and I’ll jot it down. I have lots of paper napkins and torn pieces of paper tucked inside a shoe box. Then when I start a new story, I’ll scatter the sayings out on the floor and go through them, pulling out good ones to use for dialogue.
As a male writer, how do you develop your female characters as well as our males?
Since my first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was written in the voice of a woman I get this question a lot. At the time I wrote that novel, I didn’t know any better. Her voice seemed to fit and I just kept writing. I think a big reason I aim to capture the female voice is because I was raised around strong women. My mother, grandmother and great-aunt were each tough women but in different ways. In particular, my grandmother and great-aunt had interesting stories and as I have gotten older I have tried to figure them out – I’m still trying to figure them out, maybe that is why I keep coming back to my female characters.
Before I write the first line of a novel, I write detailed back-stories on all of the major characters. I have a list of questions I address. I look at everything I can think of -- what is the character’s darkest secret to what is her favorite color? Even though all of the information won’t make it into the novel, knowing the character inside and out helps me to navigate their actions in the story.
Pat Conroy says you’re one of his favorite southern writers. How does it feel to receive such high praise from an legendary author, surely he was an inspiration of yours growing up?
I grew up in a small paper mill town and even though I had a high school English teacher who encouraged me to write, I didn’t take writing or reading seriously. Part of the reason for this is because I thought that writers were a lofty group. I thought that writers lived in New York or Paris or if they were from the South, they were eccentric alcoholics – really that was my worldview. One summer while home from college, I literally stumbled across The Prince of Tides in my hometown library. I can still remember being in my bedroom at my parent’s house, engrossed in that story and reading well into the early morning hours. The Prince of Tides remains one of my all-time favorite books. I still read it every year. The words in that novel are so beautiful and they speak to me – especially having been in an abusive household with my biological father. All these years later to have a quote from the man who wrote one of the first novels that inspired me on a gut level is surreal. I am really honored and humbled. I am so grateful for his support.
Do you see Man in the Blue Moon as similar to your previous novels, or does it mark a departure in your writing? How so?
Even though my previous novels are not historical some of the themes are the same, such as the close ties of community in a small town and the southerner’s love affair with the land. My work tends to focus on characters who are facing “life hurricanes” and how they come out the other side of it. At the end of the day, I just want to write a novel that is one I’d like to read.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to the release of my next novel, The King of Florabama, which is about the longest serving sheriff in Alabama who must confront the circumstances behind a forty year old murder that has splintered his relationships with his children. And like the other novels, Florida plays a part in the story.