If you’re like me, you are always searching for debut authors who blow your mind and make you want to shout from the rooftops “How is this person a debut author and why hasn’t everyone bought their book?!” Emily Carpenter’s new novel, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, made me feel just that way. I won’t rehash my review on the book (found HERE), but needless to say I found a new favorite author. I asked her all the questions I was dying to have answered and she more than delivered! And yes, she is just as wonderfully southern in person as you are imagining. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a signed copy of her book HERE!
Burying the Honeysuckle Girls
Althea Bell is still heartbroken by her mother’s tragic, premature death—and tormented by the last, frantic words she whispered into young Althea’s ear: Wait for her. For the honeysuckle girl. She’ll find you, I think, but if she doesn’t, you find her.
Adrift ever since, Althea is now fresh out of rehab and returning to her family home in Mobile, Alabama, determined to reconnect with her estranged, ailing father. While Althea doesn’t expect him, or her politically ambitious brother, to welcome her with open arms, she’s not prepared for the chilling revelation of a grim, long-buried family secret. Fragile and desperate, Althea escapes with an old flame to uncover the truth about her lineage. Drawn deeper into her ancestors’ lives, Althea begins to unearth their disturbing history…and the part she’s meant to play in it.
1) Burying the Honeysuckles Girls is set in your home state of Alabama (“War Eagle”!). Did you choose the locations based on areas you were already familiar with and do you think the feel of the story would change if placed in another southern town?
First things first, WAR EAGLE! Even though I must confess no one would accuse me of being a football fan, I do have a soft spot for my Auburn Tigers. I absolutely loved my years there.
Now, to answer your question, the locations in the book did really rise organically from the story. I wanted Althea to go on a journey psychologically, emotionally but also, in a quite literal way, geographically. I wanted her to travel the entire length of the state in order to find these women in her family. My mother is from Mobile, and I’ve always been enamored with the city. It’s just such a beautiful and historical place with singular traditions. And, to me, so different from the rest of the state. I mean, those oak trees, the Spanish moss, the azaleas! Also Mobile’s always seemed like this romantic bubble of a town, maybe a place where you could keep some secrets, if you wanted to. At the time, my sister lived on Dog River, so I was fortunate to be able to use her house and property as a model for Althea’s home. Of course, Birmingham’s my hometown, and I’m super familiar with all those locations. Tuscaloosa was a necessary location for certain reasons that I won’t divulge, and I made up the town of Sybil Valley in north Alabama because I really wanted the freedom to create a place that worked for Jinn’s story. It’s actually very similar to Suches, Georgia, which is a gorgeous town up in the mountains.
2) When we are introduced to Althea, she has just been released from rehab and there is clear tension with everyone she encounters back home. Was it always your intention to cast a string of characters that were all considered “unreliable” to the narration, or was that inspired after the writing process had begun? I personally enjoyed the feeling of not being able to trust a single character from the beginning until the surprising conclusion.
I must say, I do enjoy an unreliable narrator in a novel! From the start, I knew Althea was going to be unreliable with her addiction problems, possible mental illness and with the fallout from the unhealthy way she’s coped with tragedies in her life. She’s been lied to by family members since day one, even her mother never told her the complete truth, so really I knew from the start that no one in her life was going to be reliable. The trick was how much each character was lying—how much they actually knew or didn’t know—and why they were lying. Was it from self-protection or fear or evil intentions? How much they were covering for insecurity or just flat out making up their own stories to fit reality? That got to be really intricate. Confusing at times. I had charts for that, definitely.
3) Your novel has quite the intricate dual narrative between Althea and her great-grandmother Jinn. How difficult was it to keep the timelines and revelation of information straight? Did you have a particular method of note-taking to keep all the details in order?
Constructing the dual narrative was a kind of messy process that I accidentally backed into. Originally the story of Jinn was only three chapters in the third act. We totally left Althea and Jay and went to Jinn. When I decided to weave Jinn’s story throughout the book, I started by just sliding in her chapters where I thought they might fit. I kind of threw the proverbial spaghetti at the wall and saw what stuck. Once I saw what was missing—where the narrative gaps were—I wrote more chapters, fleshing out Jinn’s family story and her relationship with her mother and the man she’s in love with. Which basically left me with a lot of problems to fix—inconsistencies that didn’t line up with the timeline or pacing. So that was a writer’s nightmare, puzzling all that out. But I was really happy with how it turned out.
4) Where did the inspiration for Jinn’s Honeysuckle Wine and the box of keepsakes that Trix passed down to Althea come from? Were any of your characters inspired by real people or true stories?
The cigar box came into being because, I mean, you’ve got to have clues in a mystery, you know? For Althea, they were the only mementos she had from her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She didn’t have stories—no one talked about the women in her family—all she had was this sad, falling-apart cigar box full of spectacularly unhelpful clues. But it did provide her with a jumping-off point. The honeysuckle wine was just something that was very true to that time and location. A lot of people had stills on their property. Lots of people were making their own concoctions during Prohibition and in the time after it was lifted, but Alabama still had these crazy strict restrictions on alcohol consumption and sale. I just imagined Jinn, being the resourceful woman she was, would use whatever plant was most available and plentiful—and what her husband considered to be a nuisance plant—to make her wine. She was making lemonade out of lemons, like another woman we’ve been hearing about lately!
5) Any advice for aspiring authors on the writing process and getting published as a debut author like yourself? Can we expect a new novel in the near future and if so, what genre are you considering?
No official news to report yet, but I am working on a new novel now. It’s a suspense / thriller as well, and I’m kind of in love with it. I’ve had an absolute blast writing it. As for advice for writers, I think I would say just don’t give up. Don’t give up on finishing a first draft. Write a little bit every day until you have a manuscript to tinker with. Don’t give up in your search for an agent, or a publishing house. Don’t give up learning, figuring out how the publishing marketplace works. Keep educating yourself and learning from other writers. On a more tangible level, romance writer M.J. Pullen and I have started a program called DRAFT HOUSE (www.draftyourbook.com, which is under construction as we speak) where we offer a program to provide support and accountability to writers who want to finish a novel or non-fiction book in nine months. We map out a daily word count schedule for each writer and promise to hound them on a daily basis (in a firm but loving way) until they finish and provide monthly online meetings for encouragement and group morale. We’re kind of like personal trainers for authors who maybe struggle with the discipline of reaching a daily word count, much like we all struggle with daily exercise. Our inaugural session kicks off August 2016. I’m really excited about empowering writers to reach their goals. Really excited to see what comes out of it.
EMILY CARPENTER, a former actor, producer, screenwriter, and behind-the-scenes soap opera assistant, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication from Auburn University. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous online literary journals, including Hobo Pancakes, Sweatpants & Coffee, Dogzplot, Wyvern Lit, and LongForm Fiction. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in Georgia with her family. BURYING THE HONEYSUCKLE GIRLS is her first novel. You can visit Emily online at emilycarpenterauthor.com, Facebook and Twitter.