The Witch of Belladonna Bay author talks about infusing magic into her books and getting in touch with her Southern roots.
Scroll down for chat and giveaway details.
Suzanne Palmieri wrote most of her latest book from her home in Connecticut, but to finish up the story she traveled South to the Alabama Gulf Coast. Her father’s family has roots in both Alabama and Florida, and she spent a lot of time in those two states growing up. The majority of The Witch of Belladonna Bay takes place in Magnolia Creek, Alabama, so when Palmieri was planning her trip, she did a Google search for the town. Magnolia Springs, Alabama, popped up. She found a rent house available and drove her three daughters and the family dog down to spend a month in the real-life setting of Belladonna Bay.
She may have also brought a touch of magic with her, because it didn’t take long for fact and fiction to cross paths one afternoon. “I drive out down Route 49 and when it hit the end, we were smack dab in this wonderful little bay,” Palmieri remembers. “Bon Secour’s there and the Swift-Coles House. I basically ran straight into the big house. It was exactly the house I’d written about.”
The coincidence took her breath away and scared her a little, she admits, but it’s these types of magical experiences that Palmieri captures in her book and wants to share with readers. The Witch of Belladonna Bay could be described as magical realism, but Palmieri takes great care to make her magic believable — and subtle.
I opened my eyes and realized we were already at the twisty iron gates of the Big House, right there where Main Street ends. Paddy and I used to love giving people directions. ‘Take forty-nine until you run outta road!’ Then we’d laugh like crazy.” – Bronwyn, Chapter 5
“These mystical ideas, I think, are separate from sorcery magic,” she says, ” just magical, wonderful and unknown all at the same time. So, for someone who has a strong faith as well, it’s always been interesting to me that we would open ourselves up to one mystery and not another — the mystery of what we are capable of.”
In the book, her characters have what’s called a “shine.” Bronwyn, who fled Alabama for New York after her mother’s death and returns home after 14 years to exonerate her brother Paddy from a murder charge, describes it this way:
I’ve always thought it was instinct more than magic. Like how you can look into a person’s eyes and tell what they want to hear. It’s taken me too long to realize that instinct and magic walk hand and hand.” – Bronwyn, Chapter 1
Bronwyn’s 11-year-old niece Byrd, who she meets for the first time when she returns home, has it too, only from her mother’s side. She calls it “the sight,” while others in town refer to the child’s magic as “strange ways.” The downfall is that it doesn’t work in situations that hit too close to home, so no one knows what really happened the night Paddy confessed to killing his friend Lottie or what happened to Lottie’s son Jamie afterward.
Together, Bronwyn and Byrd seek to unravel the mystery, but the mist over Belladonna Bay just across the creek is always looming. It’s said that you won’t be the same after entering the mist, and Byrd believes that’s how her own mother Stella died.
And there’s story after story just like those. Everyone in Magnolia Creek has a story about someone who defied instinct and fell prey to the mystery. Someone who they loved who came back a different person. All filled up with miasma.” – Byrd, Chapter 4
Palmieri’s places, like the big house where Bronwyn’s family lives and once controlled the town’s main industry — the lumberyard — and the artist’s community of Fairhope, are based in reality, but she says the misted island is her fiction, inspired by the coast. “There were these little wonderful, mystical places I saw like across the beaches of Fairhope. You look out and the water just kind of melts into the sky and you wonder what’s there,” she says.
She also spent time doing research on the area’s lumber industry at the Baldwin Historical Society and talked to townspeople in Foley about their families and histories. “Everybody was just telling me stories,” she says. “It allowed me to go back and really try to recreate the feeling of that small town in the South. I would not have been able to do that without the help of all these wonderful people.”
Writing Witch of Belladonna Bay was also a sort of catharsis for Palmieri (pictured above). She admits that her earlier book Witch of Little Italy (the two are loosely related) is her momma book, while Belladonna Bay is her daddy book. In the story, Bronwyn blames her alcoholic father, Jackson, for enabling her mother Naomi’s opium addiction and escaping through drinking rather than facing the hard things in life. Father and daughter must come to terms and try to understand each other to save Paddy and bring the family back together.
“I believe that every single good work of fiction — or mediocre — is based in autobiography,” Palmieri says. “You’re so free inside of fiction to absolutely add all of these memories and these sensations and these feelings, and I think if we don’t pull from our own life, nobody can feel anything. I pull from my own life all the time, full conversations sometimes.”
Palmieri likes to create an inner world through her fiction by repeating family names and loosely linking characters, a genre she’s playfully dubbed “tragic cotton.” It’s something Faulkner did, along with more recent author Ann Hite, who Palmieri says she’s been compared to and admires. Her first two “Witch” books aren’t connected in terms of plot, but they are connected through mother Naomi’s family, the Greens. Next summer, The Witch of Bourbon Street is scheduled to be released and then her currently untitled fourth book will come out in 2016 as a generational saga of the Amore women, chronicling Stella’s family.
“I’m a reader first, and when authors connect storylines and characters, but connect them in a subtle way, I get enchanted,” she says. I feel like I know a secret.”
Join us in chatting with Suzanne Palmieri on Friday, June 27, via Twitter from 1-2 p.m. CST (2-3 p.m. EST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll be discussing more secrets of Belladonna Bay, giving away a copy of the book and maybe even a tarot card reading courtesy of Palmieri. Who knows what sort of magic will unfold …