Our Kind: An Interview with Julia Franks

Our Kind: An Interview with Julia Franks

Within the first few pages of Julia Franks’ breathtaking debut novel, Over the Plain Houses, a North Carolina mountain farm wife named Irenie Lambey slips from her husband’s bed in the middle of an early spring night and runs up to the highest ridge on her property. There, she ducks into a cave, unwraps the bones of a fox and sets them beside a collection of jelly jars filled with the artifacts of her life–her half-grown son’s baby teeth, a lock of her dead baby daughter’s hair, river stones. This nighttime flight into the woods, and the stashing of odd artifacts in a mountain cave, are Irene’s way of saving the memories that have formed her identity. Worn out from past and present hardships, she no longer wants to “spend her life disappearing.” She’s lost sight of who she was before she married her husband, Brodis, a fundamentalist preacher who’s become so rigid with religion that she no longer recognizes him. Unfortunately, Brodis no longer recognizes Irene, or wants to understand the motives behind her quietly desperate behaviors. He assumes that she’s become a witch.

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Though Irenie appears to be a specter to her own husband, this novel delivers a solid, nuanced portrait of a realistic woman trying to free herself from unrealistic gender expectations, and an unhealthy marriage. Rather than offering up a “good witch,” or an impossible goddess whose deeds her readers could never achieve, Franks has crafted a female character whose sensibilities feel at once old timey and wholly modern, a woman most readers will claim as their own kind. An Appalachian woman living in a remote town called Eakin, Irenie possesses a substantive soul highly attuned to nature. She knows the trails on her land “without trying.” She can identify the musk of foxes, and the sounds of bird call. She knows the name of every tree on the mountain. At the same time, she possesses the hard-earned wisdom that will resonate with contemporary readers: life is a series of small and complicated negotiations. If you want to change it, you must go slowly, taking small steps in order to bring about larger transformations. When a female federal government agent enters the community of Eakin, offering a public school education for the Lambey’s only son and home improvement lessons for the women, Irenie befriends the agent, and begins plotting her escape.

Set in 1939, around the onset of World War II, this novel is also a combustible tale about the conflicts that arise when the past meets the future. It is about the collisions that occur when outsiders—even the well-meaning ones—impose changes upon insiders. As the U.S. entered the war, the federal government entered Southern Appalachia and committed acts upon its own people that can’t easily be found in official historical records. Franks offers an insider’s glimpse of this time and place where “teams of city boys in shirt sleeves (were) building national parks and kicking people out of their homes and damming up rivers.” A time when Baptist missionaries “poured in from Atlanta because the church in that city was affiliated and turns out there wasn’t any call for a mountain church to call itself Baptist unless they were affiliated too.” Franks alternates between Irenie’s and Brodis’ points of view, allowing the reader to see the anger and frustrations that set a highly-principled man like Brodis on his misguided path of violence and destruction. The point of view switches also allow Franks to explore the tragic misunderstandings that occur when two people reach the point in their married lives when, as much as they once loved each other, they no longer can see or understand the people they’ve become.

Raised with family ties in North Carolina and West Virginia, Franks earned degrees from Vassar College and Columbia University. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches literature and currently runs loosecanon.com, a web service that fosters independent reading choice in the classroom.

ST: How did the idea for this novel come to you? For instance, is it based on a story that comes from family lore?  What image, or images, were pivotal for you as you began this novel?

JF: For me, novels come from questions. You have some question, or questions, that you can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop worrying over. So you start writing, and you don’t know where the questions are going to take you. I live in the Bible Belt, so one of those questions has always been, “How does a person who believes the Bible is literal truth construct a world view around that?”

But the novel really started percolating in my head in 2008. That summer a man walked into my parents’ church in Knoxville, Tennessee and started shooting, killing two people immediately and injuring several others. Like a lot of people, I became fixated on the “Why?” In this case, the church was Unitarian/ Universalist, and the shooter had written a kind of manifesto about his own ideology. But then it came out later that his wife had left him, and that she’d become a member of the UU church. I thought a lot about that. People are so complicated, really, and so fragile.

That same year my (then) husband and I bought a piece of property in the mountains north of Asheville. There was a house on the property, an old cabin built in 1865, with a springhouse and a privy nearby, but no one had lived there since 1973. The strange thing about it was that it was still full of the residents’ possessions: clothes in the dresser, boots in the closet, hundreds of jars of canned food. And the people who had lived there had clearly been hoarders of a sort. Some of it was boxes of old toys and documents and letters and diaries, hundreds of jars of canned food. But they’d also saved a lot from the natural world: hornet nests, animal skins, mammal skulls and skeletons, calcified eggs. The little boy’s room had a collection of snakeskins pinned to the wall.

A lot of it we threw away or gave to a local heritage museum, but not all of it. We contacted the son of the previous owners—I’ll call him Mr. M.—who was in his late eighties by then. He had been the little boy who’d collected the snakeskins. We brought him all the diaries and letters, and he seemed delighted to have them. We spent the rest of the day with him and his wife, listening to stories. (Unfortunately the way it’s done in this part of the world is that, in a group of two couples, the man will talk to the other man, while the hostess tries to engage the woman. So here’s this lovely lady taking me to the kitchen to show me her method for canning pears, and the whole time I’m straining to hear the stories the old man is telling my husband in the other room about his childhood.)

And yes, the two stories Mr. M. told us about his father were the story of trapping the hawk, and also the story of dynamiting the fox den.

Meanwhile, back in town, the locals had heard that we’d bought the old homestead, and they started telling us stories too. Mr. M’s parents were a fire and brimstone preacher and his nature-loving wife. He loved God, and she loved the woods, but they were sort of famous for their eccentricities and their attempt to live an older lifestyle right into the 20th century. (Mrs. M wore a splint bonnet right up to the end in 1973). And one guy was still mad about the sermons. Forty years later he still resented the fact that Mr. M. called out his wife and then came over to eat her fried chicken dinner afterward. But everyone said the same thing about Mrs. M.: “That woman was a saint.” They remembered the way the couple walked to church: she walked a few paces in front of him carrying the Bible like a platter. There was also a rumor that she’d woven a thick red braid from loose hairs salvaged from the hair brush over the decades. Several people asked me if I’d found the braid. And when I said no, they leaned in and assured me that I should “Look in the attic.”

Anyway, that was my other big question. How does a woman construct her own identity when she’s married to such a charismatic and outspoken community leader? Mrs. M. saved things and labelled them, as in, “This is the hat I wore to Claire’s graduation,” Or “Calvin’s baby blanket.” And we found hundreds of salvaged jelly jars with things like teeth, and hair, and even a fingernail labeled “Wilson’s truck door 1959.” She constructed her own world of saved objects. Whether that was enough or not, I guess we won’t ever know.

Mr. M. did die well in advance of her, and she lived a long time on that farm by herself, until 1973 when her grandsons took her to live in a facility. I bet she hated leaving her woods behind, and all the things she’d saved over the years, her world.

ST: Your biography states that you have roots in the Appalachian Mountains.  What myths were you taught when you were growing up there?  What two or three true things about your upbringing made it into the novel?

JF: The most relevant thing, of course, is the witch story, which shows up in so many forms across the Southeast. Sometimes the witch is benign, like the healer, and sometimes she’s baleful (I’m thinking of the Bell Witch in Tennessee.) One that has pre-occupied me is a version from coastal Georgia called a boo hag. In this version, she can unzip her corporeal body at night and hang it up like a coat. Without the encumbrance of her skin, she can fly around freely in the night sky. (I know. Sounds fun, right?) The problem comes if a family member finds the un-inhabited skin hanging up on a peg. That person is mostly likely going to be a husband, and if he finds that skin, he’ll know he’s married to a hag. In that situation, it’s in his best interest to get rid of her, according to the story. Do that the same way you kill a slug. Pour salt on the inside of the skin and that skin will shrivel up and die. Then, when the spirit of the boo hag comes back, she won’t have any physical body to live in. Mind you, you have to do the job all the way. It takes a lot of salt, for one thing. What you need is a ten pound bag, because if you don’t use enough, here’s what could happen. You could end up killing off only part of the skin, the legs, say, and then the spirit comes back, and she’s crippled, and she’s mad. Worse, she knows you know, and then you have that knowledge sitting there between you. And she won’t ever leave that skin unprotected again.

This myth is such a rich repository of questions. First off, what’s wrong with flying around in the sky, if you can do it? Second, does the husband have to kill the hag? What happens if he doesn’t? What happens if he continues business as usual? Truth is, he has a pretty good life with her, right? (In one version of the story, a neighbor finds out about the hag and pressures the husband to do his duty. The implication is that a husband who can’t kill a hag is somehow guilty by association.) But the main question is, from a storyteller’s point of view, how hard is it going to be to kill her? And what if he actually loves her?

ST: This is a literary thriller with a good deal of suspense and external drama; however, at least for me, the novel’s main intrigue stems from your protagonist, Irenie.  Though Irenie is still relatively young, her past and present hardships have worn away at her sense of self. She rambles in the woods late at night. She collects and hides humble artifacts from her own life in jars in a cave so that she can remember them, and “have proof” that she has lived.  These acts say so much about her need to empower herself and to re-establish her identity in a time and place where a woman’s identity sometimes was subverted by rigid gender expectations.  At one point in the book, she decides that she doesn’t want to “spend her life disappearing.”  This quest story is timeless.  It could be set anywhere, at any time.  Why did you set it in the Southern Appalachian mountains during the late Depression era?

JF: I’m interested in these moments when everything is about to change, when there’s a collision between the past and some future change that’s barreling down upon us, so, in this case, the moment before WWII. But also, Western North Carolina, even today, is full of anachronisms and unexpected juxtapositions. Some of these little towns are full of artists and vegans and microbreweries, but there are also mountain people still trying to exist the way their grandparents did. You can still find people trying to live on self-sustaining farms, “off the grid” we would say, people who want to minimize their dependence on the modern world. There’s something so hopeful, and maybe even doomed, about this attempt.

ST: How important was the role of place in the writing of this novel?

JF: These mountains are so important to me. I was backpacking them, canoeing the rivers when I was six years old. (I realize that sounds a little crazy, but my parents were both very outdoorsy, and also very cheap. Whenever a vacation came around, my friends’ families be going to the beach or to Disney World, and my family would be going backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.) So the flora and fauna, the rivers, have been with me for a long time, longer than any other setting I’ve known.

ST: Did you choose the setting of this novel, or did it choose you?

JF: I wanted a place where there was still a possibility of magic. For example, about five years ago, we had to figure out where to dig a well. If you’ve ever had a well dug, especially in the mountains, you know it costs thousands of dollars depending upon how far down they end up having to go. It’s all based upon a guess about where there might be water. So we did what the lady at the power company told us to do, which was to ask a diviner to come out and witch for water. He came out (free of charge) with a forked stick and identified the best place. So that’s where we had the well dug. That’s not how it works in Atlanta.

ST: How did you, as a writer, inhabit an historical character with such native intelligence of this landscape? How did you learn to see the world the way she did?

JF: Some of this is just straight up Girl Scout stuff. My parents were both big outdoors people and campers and scout leaders, so some of this I’ve been attuned to for a long time, like knowing the trees and their properties. But I did study up too. I’m very aware of how much basic information we modern people have forgotten about the sounds and stimuli around us. A lot of it would have been second nature for anyone living a century or more ago. Think about Romeo and Juliet trying to figure out what time it is by the birds they hear outside their window. Is it a nightingale or a lark? Because the lark means it’s time to get up. Think about Romeo telling his friends he’ll meet them by the sycamore grove. Shakespeare was a city dweller, but he still wrote about people cuing off the natural world, which was probably normal for most of human history. Can you imagine telling someone to meet you by the sycamore grove? It’s a whole vocabulary that we have mostly lost.

ST: Irenie’s preacher husband, Brodis, commits some horrific crimes against Irenie and his community.  Yet, as he commits these crimes he somehow manages to find just the right Bible quote to justify his…misdirected acts.  However, because the chapters of the novel alternate between Irenie’s and Brodis’ point of view we do see glimpses into how he became the violent and disturbed man he is.  What were some of the challenges of writing such a violent and disturbed character?

JF: For me, Brodis propels the novel more than Irenie, mainly because I have more questions about him. What does it mean to believe the Bible is literally true? Where might that take a person? I actually like Brodis, partly because I made him, but also because he’s actually very introspective. It’s just that he reaches differently conclusions than you or I might. He also follows his own rules. What I mean is that, within the ethical system he’s created, he succeeds. He puts the Lord first. Likewise, he has a clear goal of the kind of person he wants to be, and he works very hard and makes real sacrifices to become that person. And, in the end, he does become the person. How many of us can say we’ve been able to do that?

ST: Another aspect of your novel that I admire is your ability to tell a tale that is both gritty and womanly. Irenie is a survivor and a stoic, but she remains real and relatable, a character that I wanted to invest my time in throughout the book. This balancing act is quite a triumph.  Do you have any tips for how to write realistic female characters that inhabit rough, sometimes mythic landscapes?

JF: I was trying to avoid what I think of as the Scout Finch trap: the strong female character who is somehow not bound by social constraints. We all love that character and want to be her, and she appears again and again in our stories. But I don’t know many women who are actually like her, including myself. Most girls and women I know are very much bound by social and family expectations, and we don’t defy social norms, and we don’t stand up to lynch mobs, and we don’t say what we think. We’re just trying to find a way to navigate our careers and our social spheres and our families in a way that is true to who we are. I guess I’m more interested in these women.

ST: Who were the writers you were reading as you wrote this novel? In general, who are the writers who’ve most influenced you?

JF: This probably isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I’ve taught high school for many years, and in our school we have to teach certain works every year. That means there are certain authors I’ve read over and over again (Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, Shakespeare, etc.). You can’t read these canonical works yearly without certain cadences finding their way into your brain. You actually dream certain passages in your sleep.

For more information about Julia Franks and her novel, visit: www.juliafranks.com 

Susan Tekulve is the author of In the Garden of Stone, winner of the 2012 South Carolina First Novel Award and a 2013 SIBA “Okra Award.” She has also published three short story collections: Savage Pilgrims, Wash Day and My Mother’s War Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Best New Writing 2007, The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, Connecticut Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Webdelsol, Black Warrior Review, and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Scholarship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship. An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College.

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