The Louisiana writer’s debut novel My Sunshine Away juxtaposes the enchantment of childhood with the gripping story of a violent crime.
“There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot,” reads the opening sentence of My Sunshine Away. And thus, from the first line of this page-turner, we are immersed in the adolescent world of M.O. Walsh‘s young narrator as he doles out the facts amid afternoon cookouts, bike rides and late-night phone calls.
My Sunshine Away took Walsh, who grew up in Baton Rouge and is currently director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, seven years to write. He had two kids of his own during that time and says he worked in the mornings from about 4-6 a.m. After attempting to start several other novels, this is the one that stuck.
His focus paid off in the form of book blurbs from Tom Franklin, Kathryn Stockett, Anne Rice, Jill McCorkle and Kevin Wilson. “If you start this novel, you will not put it down,” warns McCorkle. “My Sunshine Away is a riveting, suspenseful, page-turning mystery. It is also a wise, insightful, and beautifully written novel.”
We interviewed Walsh by phone from New Orleans about the childhood story that inspired his plot, why he wanted to set the book in Baton Rouge and what he’s trying to instill in today’s Southern writers as a teacher. My Sunshine Away was released earlier this week and is available online and in bookstores now. See Walsh’s schedule of signings and events here.
EZB: What sort different forms did the story take over the years?
MOW: I actually wrote it just chronologically from page one to page 300. I’d had the story idea for a while because it was a story I’d heard as a kid about a girl in our neighborhood, and so I always just kind of had it in the back of my mind. Then, one night I sat down and got to work and wrote that first kind of chapter. The structure came out pretty quick and then after that that’s really all I did for several more years. I’ve tried other novels that didn’t really work out. I never finished them and this one was the only one that once I kind of got into the story and the characters, I never got tired of it, never got bored with it. I was always challenged by it and wanted to get back to work.
EZB: You said it was inspired by a story you heard as a kid. How close is that story to Lindy’s story?
MOW: I grew up in a neighborhood very similar to the one in the novel and when I was little I just remember overhearing my mom telling a story about a girl in our neighborhood who had been raped when she was a young teenager. I didn’t know what that word meant and so I just kind of heard it and I knew it was bad, but I went along on my way and didn’t pay much attention. And then years and years later, now that I’m a grown man and have kids and I understand obviously what it means, I just got interested in the idea that something like that could have gone on in a place that I remember as just being so perfect: my childhood neighborhood. That got me interested in her, but I never asked my mom about it or did any sort of research. I just made it all up.
EZB: That really could have happened anywhere, and I think almost anyone could relate to your story of growing up.
MOW: I hope so. I think that, hopefully, everyone has enough good memories of their youth that they can construct for themselves a good, fun upbringing of playing with other kids and all that type of stuff, but surrounding all that for everybody is all sorts of other traumatic stories, sad stories, so I enjoyed thinking back about my neighborhood that way and sort of reinventing it.
… on rare occasions, back when my father still lived with us, or later, when my sisters would come home from college to visit, my family would sit on our back patio longer than originally intended. Night would fall and there might be a piece of meat on the charcoal grill, a solo light glowing from the deep end of our swimming pool, all made comfortable by the lilt of my mother’s laugh in family conversation. It was like paradise.” – Chapter 4
EZB: You seem to defend Louisiana and especially Baton Rouge in the book. Are you hoping to change people’s minds about your home state?
MOW: I don’t know that I have any grand hopes like that. It’s a place that I love very much, and it’s a place that I’ve found myself throughout my life defending just in conversation. I’m always kind of surprised by how strongly I react anytime people are dismissive of the South or kind of pick on some of the problems we may have. I’ve found myself more than one time in my life constructing arguments that are really just from the heart more than anything else. You’ve got all your numbers that can tell you there are a lot of really deep-seated issues here, but then you’ve also got the experience of your life which is one of lots of fellowship, friendship, community. Part of me is interested in making sure that people understand that. Louisiana’s not just a postcard or a swamp. I don’t have any grand ambitions of people thinking differently of it, but I do think that sometimes a person from the South has to kind of wade through all that mess before somebody even listens to them. I feel like the narrator does that a little bit.
EZB: I don’t know that I’ve read a better explanation of what happened in Baton Rouge after Katrina than the one in your book. What are your thoughts about the city today?
MOW: It’s hard to explain because it’s where I’m from so in a weird way it’s always the same city to me. But I think Baton Rouge’s story was underreported after Katrina for obvious reasons — New Orleans gets the headlines and it should — but it profoundly affected the city. After moving to New Orleans, there’s such a difference between the cities and how they view themselves. I had written that chapter about the difference between Baton Rouge and New Orleans before I moved here and I still agree with everything in the chapter. I totally understand the love for New Orleans and I feel it too, but at the same time I feel like Baton Rouge’s story is never really told. I was hoping to do that a little bit.
You have to understand. When people think of Louisiana, they think exclusively of New Orleans. We are okay with that. New Orleans has the culture, the allure. They are the Big Easy. The Crescent City. The Birthplace of Jazz. The people of Baton Rouge don’t even have accents. Our parades, when compared to New Orleans, are amateur hour. Even our most raucous bars close at two o’clock in the morning. Theirs don’t close down at all. So, whenever people in Baton Rouge feel wild, we drive the sixty miles to New Orleans.” – Chapter 28
EZB: Can you talk about your writing style and how the book is constructed? In the first couple chapters, you’re really playing with the reader. You tell us there’s four suspects and the narrator could be one of them, and then almost all of your chapters end with a little cliffhanger. Was that intentional?
MOW: I don’t know how intentional any of it was. Most of it for me is honestly trying to get one good sentence and then another good sentence. That feels like the whole struggle to me, and that’s probably why it takes me so long. I’d never finished a novel, so I don’t really know much about plotting, but I was just intensely concerned with having a good scene and then another good scene after that, trying to make the characters real and make the sentences good.
I personally had a real anxiety about the narrator’s guilt. I knew that he was guilty of things, but I also knew he was a good person when it’s all said and done and the urge for him to talk about this was coming from a good place. I hope that my own anxiety about that maybe ups the tension in some of those chapters. I think that I would try to end with a strong line or a line of dialogue that points the reader in a certain direction, but I was never really thinking of them as cliffhangers or tricks to keep them moving.
EZB: A lot of writers stay away from that first-person narrator because it’s so hard to do. Was that technique difficult or did it come easy for you?
MOW: It’s hard for me to say because I never tried it in third person. To me, there’s something kind of natural about a confessional style. Some of the stories that I’ve written that use first person are similar in that way and that’s kind of an unloading, whether it be in the form of a letter to someone or just a confession. I think this was the culmination of lots of other shorter pieces I’ve done in a similar style. Hopefully, this is kind of a honing of that.
EZB: What writers are you inspired by, especially when it comes to coming of age stories and mysteries, both of which your book are?
MOW: It’s funny. I don’t know what mystery book I’ve ever read. I never conceived of this as a mystery. I realize now that it is, but I never sat down and thought I’m going to write a mystery. In fact, once I was 50 or 60 pages into it and I realized that’s what I had going on, I kind of got really nervous about it. I’m much more accustomed to writing about families and kind of literary fiction. I had a writer named Steve Yarbrough look at the first 50 pages and he liked it, but I was like ‘man, I’m worried because I keep talking about all this family stuff. I should probably be just sticking true to the plot.’ He was like no, this family stuff is the good stuff. Once he told me that, it really freed me up. I guess it kind of turned out to be a mystery.
There are some books I guess I modeled after in the sense they’re mysterious. When I think of mystery, I’m thinking there’s a detective in it, but there’s lots of novels like The Virgin Suicides that feel to me very mysterious. There’s things that are happening and the motivations are very mysterious that you’re kind of drawn into. For coming of age type stuff, the one that immediately jumps to my mind would be My Antonia by Willa Cather, but then a writer that I would say had the most influence on me is a guy named Lewis Nordan. He’s from the Mississippi Delta and he’s got a story collection called Music of the Swamp, which really kind of changed the way I looked at what I was doing and what Southern writers were doing.
EZB: Obviously your book title comes from Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis’s song, but why was it appropriate for this book?
MOW: The title did not come to me until after I was done with the book. It had always been the epigraph at the beginning of the book, but I never thought to use a phrase of it until it hit me at the dinner table. I think the reason it feels perfect to me is because it’s the state song and I know as a kindergartener we were always singing the song. But we only sing the chorus as kids and the chorus is this happy sounding thing. As I got older, I actually started listening to the song and I realized that the verses themselves are incredibly sad. They’re about leaving him and hanging his head and crying. There’s also a strange, almost threatening sounding verse where it’s like if you don’t love him back you’ll regret it some day. So, to me that really linked up with the book in terms of the narrator looking back at his youth, having such nostalgic feelings about the neighborhood and the place he grew up, but if you look at the details of it, there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of sadness and loss.
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
– “You Are My Sunshine” by Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, 1939
EZB: You’re currently directing the Creative Writing Workshop at UNO and doing this Yokshop in Oxford. What is it like teaching budding Southern writers today and what types of things are you trying to teach them?
MOW: I love teaching and I’m lucky now that I’m teaching people who are really excellent writers. These are people that want to do it for their career, for their life, but at the same time teaching creative writing is bizarre in that it’s such a subjective enterprise. As far as teaching Southern writers, if there’s something I’m trying to teach them it’s warning them about cliche. It’s one thing to recognize it and even to embrace it, but I think it’s a mistake to rely on it and perpetuate it. I’m in a position where I get to see a lot of stereotypical characters and I get to kind of snuff them out before they get out there. If I’m reading another story about a drunk, abusive father in the South who does nothing but drive a pickup truck and drink beer and beat his wife and kids, that type of thing has just become so stale to me that it’s become meaningless.
I think I’m probably a little bit harder on my Southern students than I am other students in terms of that, because I feel like we do have a responsibility to be open and honest. Yeah, there are people like that in the South, but there are tons of people who aren’t like that too. The South does not still only exist several decades ago. It’s happening now. People go to work in the office just as much as they do go to work on a farm. I would never tell someone not to write what they want to write, but I will tell them that I think they have a greater responsibility than they’re realizing right now in terms of being honest about the South.