Local legends, magical realism and the search for a missing child make up Tiffany Quay Tyson’s second novel set in the Mississippi Delta.
Starting with the title The Past is Never, Denver author Tiffany Quay Tyson‘s new novel is about as Southern as it gets. Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, Tyson follows up her first novel Three Rivers with a Southern Gothic tale that’s also an ode to William Faulkner. She says most Southerners recognize her title as the start of Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In The Past is Never—one of our spring 2018 reads out on shelves now—Tyson shows how the past can come back to haunt us, sometimes again and again. When siblings Bert, Willet and Pansy go swimming in the old rock quarry one day, they fail to heed their father’s warnings about the place being cursed. Six-year-old Pansy vanishes while swimming in the water, and their father disappears as well. Bert and Willet are left to take care of their devastated mother and try to hold their broken family together.
Years pass with no sign of Pansy or their father. Bert joins her grandmother Clementine, the town midwife, to work on the family farm and help deliver babies, while Willet finds work on a construction crew. When their mother dies, Bert and Willet decide to go in search of their father and the truth about what happened to Pansy. They drive south, deep into the Florida Everglades, but find that truth—like the past—is sometimes better left where it lies.
We talked to Tyson from her home in Denver about Faulkner’s influence, her writing techniques, the inspiration behind local legends in the book and her love of Southern food.
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EZB: Let’s talk about the title, a direct ode to Faulkner. Who came up with it and how have readers responded?
TQT: It was my idea. I’m kind of terrible at titles, but as I’m writing, I generally keep a running tally of titles I think might work. For this one, as I started exploring stories from the past and how the past influences the present and the future, that particular quote of Faulkner’s kept coming back to me. It’s so true, particularly in the South. The past is really never dead … I was a little nervous about it at first, you never want to feel like you’re comparing yourself to someone like Faulkner, but there’s a strong history of borrowing phrases and lines from poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare. Faulkner did that himself quite a bit.
In the South, most everybody knows that quote so well, so they immediately get it. In Denver, people are not as familiar with it, but some people just think it’s kind of a suspenseful title. The main responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
EZB: Why did you decide to tell the parallel stories of Bert and Willet and Clementine and Ora?
TQT: When I’m writing, I don’t set out with an idea of where something is going. I started out telling Bert and Willet’s story, but I kept writing these little scenes on the side. It’s something I do to get ahold of the characters and understand what I’m writing about. In this case, it began to take on a life of it’s own. I love books that have a complex narrative, not strictly linear in the telling. When I realized I was writing a whole lot on the side, I thought maybe that was the best way to tell this story. I started playing with the idea of puzzling all these pieces together and could explore the simultaneous threads that were happening and the way that life repeats itself. It seemed to flow together when I had both storylines.
EZB: Six-year-old Pansy disappears after swimming in a rock quarry that’s believed to be haunted. You bring in ghosts, aliens, the devil and local legends in this book. Are any of those based on things you heard or experienced growing up in Mississippi?
TQT: I think that Mississippi is a place that has a really strong legacy of superstition and hauntings. That stuff is so rich and runs through the veins of Mississippians I think. My father grew up in Natchez. I was visiting Natchez several years ago with my father and we went to the cemetery where the Turning Angel is. Her eyes will follow you wherever you go, and we went looking for the Devil’s Punchbowl, where all these terrible things have happened, some actual, some rumored and some supernatural. It’s not marked on any map, not a thing anybody’s proud of. It was used as an escaped slave internment camp.
I started thinking about all these myths and legends and the way that actual historical facts are sort of woven with reports of supernatural and haunted legends. It think it’s fascinating. I had already started playing with the idea that a place was cursed. It woke me up to the possibility. Certain places in the South and everywhere probably, we know that terrible things have happened so we assign all this meaning to them. The Bermuda Triangle, the Crossroads in the Delta. I love the idea of place as a character. It’s one of the things I really like to experiment with. I wanted this place to embody all the monumental supernatural and historical atrocities I was writing about.
The alien thing, I have known people who believe they’ve been visited by aliens, so I am open to the possibility of almost anything. I think it’s fascinating to think about. I like the idea of having a character who believes that.
He walked among the ghosts of Chickasaw and Choctaw, of Confederate soldiers and African slaves, of German prisoners and greedy landowners. They gathered around him, the sinners and the saints, and pressed close when he spotted the girl floating in the middle of the deep, dark water. Alone.“
EZB: In our interview for Three Rivers, you said you based meals on those your mother, grandmother or aunts would cook. Southern food plays a part in this book as well, with Mama cooking butterbeans, cornbread and fried okra the day Pansy disappears, and Granny Clem known for her lemon pound cakes. How does food add to this story?
TQT: I love food, and I love to cook. I worked as a baker for a little while. My parents are both very good cooks. My father’s mother was known for making the best chicken and dumplings in all of Mississippi, according to them. My other grandmother is known for her coconut cake. Women in the South are known for something. I really felt like Granny Clem deserved to have that lemon pound cake. Food is how I experience the world. If given the chance to experience the world through food, I’ll take it every time.
That meal she [Mama] was making was just an ordinary supper, but then once the terrible things happen, she stops cooking and they start existing on saltine crackers and grief food people bring over. I do think that food is something we take for granted a lot. The ability to any day of the week whip up a beautiful meal and eat without much thought to how it comes together. that’s a big ‘ole gift that we have and then when that goes away or if you’ve never had it, it’s a huge loss.
EZB: You take us from the Mississippi Delta to the Florida Everglades in this book. Why do those places lend themselves to stories about legends, secrets and families?
TQT: I just decided to use the same basic setting as the first book, because I felt like I had created this town and hadn’t finished fleshing it out. I do think that it lends itself to mystery and suspense and kind of eerie plotlines and threads. I wanted to explore that, the idea that people were trying to solve something. The Delta lends itself to that. I went to college at Delta State and worked for the Greenwood Commonwealth after, so that was a decision I didn’t think that much about.
When it came time to take the story elsewhere, I needed a place where people could disappear effectively. The book is set in the late ’70s, early ’80s, so there were more places like that in America. Nowadays not that many. The closest and most interesting to me was the Florida Everglades. The more I started reading about the Everglades during that time period, the more interested I became in it. The marijuana trade was happening in full force. I read about men who live out on Ten Thousand Islands as hermits. You’d be hard pressed to find them if they didn’t want to be found. I was interested in the idea of a place that was accessible rather quickly. I also really love the swampy weird plants and landscape and everything. I went to the Everglades when I was still making the decision about this and spent a few days kayaking and exploring the area. It was wonderful, beautiful and also scary.
We paddled through the shadowy tunnels and shallow, murky water of the Turner River. A large turtle perched on a stump. It pulled its head in when our paddles came too close. Cypress knees jutted out of the brown water and plants seemed to grow right out of the air.” – Chapter Twelve
EZB: It’s been three years since your debut novel Three Rivers. Were you working on this book the whole time or something else?
TQT: I’ve definitely been working on this book since then, even a little bit before. I’m trying to work on something new now. It’s still in its infancy. I’m playing around with Jackson, where I’m from.
Turning Angel photo by Natalie Maynor from Flickr Creative Commons.