The Burying the Honeysuckle Girls author talks about finding her Southern voice, using her home state of Alabama as a character and the metaphor of honeysuckle.
“Wait for her. For the honeysuckle girl. She’ll find you, I think, but if she doesn’t, you find her.”
Althea Bell is haunted by these words from her late mother, Trix, who died at age 30 like her mother and grandmother before her. Fresh out of rehab, Althea returns home to Mobile, Alabama, determined to reconnect with her dying father. The chilling revelation of a long-buried family secret puts Althea in a race against time — her 30th birthday just weeks away — to unearth her family’s disturbing history, find out what happened to the women before her and locate the mystical honeysuckle girl.
Emily D. Carpenter got her start as a fiction writer later in life, but her long journey toward publication paid off with Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. She found her voice in the Southern Gothic genre amid Alabama’s “humidity-soaked feeling of history and ghosts and human oddities.” We asked her about how stints writing soap operas and Hollywood scripts led to this compelling novel, the allure of honeysuckle, what she’s trying to say about the perception of mental illness in women and what she’s working on next.
Chat with Emily via Twitter on Friday from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST; 11 a.m.-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll also be giving away a copy of her book during the chat!
EZB: In your website bio, you say it’s been a long journey to publication. Basically you went from childhood reader to soap opera assistant, rejected Hollywood scripts, rom coms and finally creepy, Southern Gothic. Why do you think things finally fell into place with Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, and why is Southern Gothic the right genre for you?
EDC: I’m definitely a late bloomer. While most of the other girls my age were hardcore making out behind the gym at school, I was still running around in my back yard playing Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls. And I definitely found I had more to say — and felt more freedom to say it in my writing — at 40ish than I did at 20ish. In terms of genre, it took failing at a few things to find my mode of storytelling. Soaps weren’t right for me, neither were screenplays. Novels turned out to be the only way I could write exactly what I wanted, in scope and subject matter. Which, incidentally, always seems to have a tinge of Southern Gothic to it, no matter what the actual plot. That Southern voice is in my blood and bones. I grew up in Alabama, have lived in Georgia for over 20 years, and there’s just a very particular atmosphere down here. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s that close, humidity-soaked feeling of history and ghosts and human oddities. When I was young and first read Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, I was like, “Oh, yeah. These ladies are definitely my people.”
EZB: How does the setting of Mobile, Alabama, contribute to the mood of your book?
EDC: While I don’t like to romanticize the South too much — because, let’s be honest, we’ve all got a Starbucks and a Zaxby’s now — the truth is there is a certain feel to some of the towns in the book. Mobile and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa still have that unique Southern feel to them. The state of Alabama always seems like a character to me. Like a lovely woman who’s made some really, really bad decisions in the past but may be ready to redeem herself.
I climbed out of the Jetta and slammed the door. The thick, coastal Mobile heat wrapped its arms around me, welcoming me back to the land of the living, to my childhood home. I filled my lungs with the scent of river.” – Chapter One
EZB: A lot of Southerners know what honeysuckle is and have sucked the nectar out of a bloom, but for those who haven’t, can you explain the allure of the vine and why it made it into your title?
EDC: I think it’s mainly the smell. Honeysuckle is everywhere in the spring and summer down here, and the smell is heady. In my research, I learned it was planted by the government originally for erosion control. It can be a pest and really invasive. But for people who understand medicinal plants, it’s got these amazing healing properties. I found it to be this incredible metaphor for the women in Althea’s family who were powerful and amazing but had been overlooked and hidden for generations.
Word spread all across the state line to Chattanooga: Jinn Wooten, the girl whose hands always smelled like crushed honeysuckle, made an elixir that got you nice and toasty without taking a bite out of your fanny the next morning.” Chapter Two
EZB: This book is about the bond between four generations of women and how long-buried secrets have almost erased their history. Why is it so important to Althea that she learn about the women who came before her?
EDC: On a very concrete level, the women all disappeared or died on their 30th birthdays … and her 30th birthday is weeks away. She feels fragile, unstable in many ways. She’s definitely worried something terrible is going to happen to her too.
EZB: You also seem to be making a statement about women with mental illness and the way it was perceived and is maybe still perceived today? Is that true?
EDC: In terms of Althea, the lines really blur for her between her addiction, her childhood coping mechanisms and the looming threat of mental illness. She has a hard time untangling the knot and knowing what’s what. I think we do tend to look at mental illness for men and women like that, in a kind of superstitious and perhaps ignorant way. But things are changing and the reality of the brain being an organ that gets sick just like the heart or lungs or pancreas is gaining acceptance.
EZB: You sprinkle a couple of mystical elements throughout this book, from the honeysuckle girl to gold dust and a red raven. How do those contribute to the atmosphere?
EDC: I wanted those elements to increase the dread that Althea feels. She knows there must be a real-world explanation for the disappearances of these women, but there’s this tinge of the supernatural always hanging over her head, making her doubt everything, even her own sanity.
I studied the Red Raven cigar box, sitting in the center of the island, and I felt a wave of dread wash over me. I couldn’t do it anymore, this white-knuckling my way through life. I had to find out the truth. If I could find out what had happened to my mother—and to my grandmother and great-grandmother—maybe I could figure out a way to stop it from happening to me. Their stories were the only chance I had.” – Chapter Seven
EZB: What have you been hearing from readers and reviewers about your debut, and what are you working on next?
EDC: I’ve been overwhelmed at how many people are connecting to the book. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s been fantastic and so affirming. My next book is a suspense as well — set on a small island off the coast of Georgia. It’s about the daughter of a world-famous, best-selling author who agrees to write a Mommie Dearest tell-all about her terrible childhood.
EZB: Finally, what are you reading this summer?
EDC: I’ve loved All the Good Parts by Loretta Nyhan, The Drowning Girls by Paula Treick DeBoard, Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King and my critique partner’s middle-grade manuscript, which is fantastic!