Bren McClain’s debut novel celebrates the bond between mother and child—and stars a mama cow as its heroine.
It’s no accident that Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone was published on Valentine’s Day. Her love of animals and love of writing at an early age is what ultimately led to this book, and love beats all odds in her story about the bonds between parents and their children. The cover depicting an exotic breed of beef cow offers a hint of what McClain’s story is about, but her troubled characters will win readers’ hearts just as much as Mama Red and her calf.
Growing up on a farm in Anderson, South Carolina, McClain was witness to many a birth and many a weaning from mother cows and their young. But it wasn’t until the stars aligned in the form of a secret story told to her by a neighbor on a porch and a visit back to the farm as an adult that One Good Mama Bone came to life. As Mama Red struggles to stay by her calf’s side, character Sarah Creamer is searching for her own “mama bone” after she is left to care for a baby that’s not her own.
McClain’s road to publishing has been long and includes two failed novels, many false starts and lots of notebooks filled with ideas. The fact that Pat Conroy and his Story River Books took a chance on her feels like fate though. “Think about my being ushered into the publishing world via Pat Conroy’s magnanimous heart,” she says. “This is exactly the way it should be.”
Editor Erin Z. Bass talked to her via phone before the launch of One Good Mama Bone to find out just how long and bumpy her road to publication was and ask what it means to be a good mama.
EZB: You say on your website bio that your two loves, writing and animals, were born at age 3. What happened then?
BM: My love of animals and love of writing is what happened then. My earliest memory is being in the barn with my daddy sitting on an overturned bucket milking one milk cow that I named Mama Red. I told him, ‘stop daddy you’re hurting her.’ I remember the day he sold her and we were in the kitchen and this truck with railings came around the side of the house. I remember crying and I told my daddy this many, many years later and he told me I couldn’t possibly remember, because I would have been 3 years old, but I very much remember.
That was my first deep connection with animals. At the same time, it’s when I began refusing any article of clothing unless it had a pocket in it. What I did was I stuffed paper and pencils in them. I grew up in a time and a place in this country that I didn’t go to kindergarten, but my mom said that she kept me still in church with an S&H green stamp book and that I would just simply put my pencil on that page and move it. It was kind of the confluence of those two things at age 3 that set me for the rest of my life.
EZB: This story has obviously been in your mind since a very early age, and an excerpt from One Good Mama Bone was named a 2012 Finalist for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for a Novel-in-Progress. How long have you worked on this story and how did it take shape over the years?
BM: We’re going to go back to the summer of 1993 in Atlanta, Georgia, when I was living in a rental house and the man next door called me over and said, ‘I want to talk to you.’ Very unusual, because we’d never had a conversation. This one particular night I go over, it’s in June, we’re sitting on his front porch and he proceeds to tell me about this night in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was a 6-year-old boy. Asleep in his bed, his mom makes him get up and come to the kitchen and observe something horrific that he began to describe. I’m sitting in the wicker chair and I remember squeezing the wicker and I remember the sound it was making as I was holding my breath. When he stopped, he said I turned 60 years old today and I promised my mother that I would always keep what I just told you a secret, but I can’t do that anymore, and I’m choosing you to tell knowing you’re a writer.
I was writing my first novel at that point, and I was speechless. I could not put anything down on paper about what he’d just told me. It was too horrific. It involved the birth of a baby on a kitchen table. I was writing another novel at the time. I finished that, I got an agent, but we ultimately didn’t sell it in New York. I had begun writing this story I just described, because I felt like it was something that was handed to me … in 2008, I was visiting my father in South Carolina on his farm. It was in the midst of what’s known as weaning, when mama cows and their babies are separated, typically at age six to eight months. I visited, it was on a Sunday, I went to bed, about 4:00 in the morning, their guttural sounds woke me up in his brick house, drew me outside to a gathering of mama cows at the corner of the fence. This one particular mama cow was in the deep corner and cut her eyes over at me and I knew she was asking me to bring her baby back. I just said, ‘I can’t do that, but I can tell your story,’ and therein lies the missing piece of the book that I had tried to do. It was a book ultimately that I wanted to celebrate motherhood, but I didn’t do it in that early, early draft. I knew now what the centerpiece of the novel would be, a mother cow and it would be her maternal love.
EZB: I’m glad you mentioned maternal love, because that’s what I took away from the novel. Do you have children of your own?
BM: I had the most special relationship with my mom. My mother and I, if we were not mother and daughter, let’s just say we worked together somewhere, we would have been best friends. We were bonded and connected in a way that was unparalleled in my life. The wanting to celebrate motherhood was wanting to celebrate her. I was not blessed with human babies. I certainly have a lot of fur babies.
EZB: What do you think it means to be a good mama? What did you see your mother doing to form that bond?
BM: We had fun. We just got each other. We were just nutballs, kind of farcical. I remember driving back home from town and it was sunny as it could be, and all of a sudden I just turned on the windshield wipers and kind of hunched forward like it was raining. Just playing and mom picked right up with it. We just laughed and laughed … We had a connection that was pretty electric, but to be a mom also requires making hard decisions. It’s not just fun and games, but I think it’s about being a role model. I’ll tell you another piece that’s a theme of everything I’ve written. It’s what I call the ‘loading up of kids,’ and what I mean by that is parents’ unfinished business. Think of Luther [a father in the novel]. You just load up your child with all of your stuff, your own disappointments, your own need for glory. I think that’s an atrocity. My mom didn’t do that to me though, but I see it in a lot of children.
EZB: Mama Red and her calf do everything they can to stay together in this book. Growing up on a 72-acre beef cattle and grain farm in Anderson, South Carolina, what types of interactions did you see between animals and their young?
BM: I left home when I was 18, and weanings take place once a year or so, which means that I was around 18 weanings just like that all my life. What’s interesting to me is I never heard it until that late year in my life. We also had horses back then and I remember the night the baby was born, but the interaction with animals that really shaped me is in the book. You remember Sarah going after the mama dog under the house, watching the birth of those puppies. In the sixth grade, I remember being with this one mama dog and I wanted to watch her have puppies. I was real quiet and I sat in the corner and I watched the whole process. I think I’ve just always been drawn to animals and their babies. When something is on your radar, it makes an impact. They say, teachers come when the student’s ready. I guess I heard it when I was ready.
EZB: You call yourself “a 27-year-overnight success.” How does it feel to have your debut novel published by Story River Books?
BM: It feels absolutely perfect. Looking back, I’m glad those other novels failed. This feels absolutely right to be launched right now with One Good Mama Bone with Story River Books. To think that Pat Conroy read my book and chose it. It’s a pinnacle mountaintop experience. Story River and Pat Conroy have honored exactly what I wanted to do in this book. I met Pat at his 70th birthday party and was able to thank him. He didn’t remember my name but he said, ‘what’s the name of your book?’ I told him and he flung his arms wide open and screamed ‘THE COW!’
EZB: What can you tell me about your next novel, which has already won an award?
BM: I am from South Carolina, and I used to travel to this little town Barnwell all the time. One day I stopped in a bookstore and saw kind of the history of Barnwell County. One of the chapters says “Savannah River Plant Comes to Barnwell.” On that top page was a photo of a house being moved on a trailer. I went oh my god, I never thought about the human cost of the Savannah River Plant.
When I was a little girl, we would travel from Anderson, South Carolina, down to Fripp Island to see my uncle and we always went through what we called ‘the bomb plant.’ This was in the sixties and I remember being scared to death because a guard punches this card, gives it to you, you have X amount of time to get though the other side and so I had an emotional surge in my body … so, I wrote Mama Bone and last year when I pulled out this other material, I knew instantly what the story is. It’s based on the real story of a woman named Eula Bates who was not only thrown off her land and arrested because she held a shotgun on bulldozers that were coming, but she was sent to the state mental hospital in Columbia and committed, kept for 16 years there. I’m using Eula’s story as the centerpiece for the larger one. Just like I knew when the cows came in, I know this book has something behind it, because I’ve never received such an early reception. I’m calling it Took right now.
EZB: And is it true that the animal in this book is a chicken?
BM: You know, I thought are my readers going to be expecting another animal? It just kind of naturally came. I didn’t make a conscious choice and it’s nothing like Mama Red, but there is a chicken in it named Baby Plop Plop that will be a part of Eula’s girlhood. Eula died in 1980. She was screwed and then screwed and then screwed some more, and that’s not a novel. So I loved writing fiction because I’m giving Eula something good.