Lori Roy’s Southern Gothic Landscape
How the Edgar Award-winning author creates suspense in her third novel set on a Kentucky lavender farm.
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Inspired by the story of the last public hanging in the country in 1936, Lori Roy introduces a haunting novel that’s been called a return to the tradition of Southern Gothic literature. There’s a certain kind of evil that can never be vanquished, not by time, not by generations, not even by the intense aroma of the Kentucky lavender fields in Let Me Die In His Footsteps. Annie Holleran has the blight that has long inflicted the women in her family. Despite what she’s told, Annie knows it’s a curse, not a gift. She also knows about the rift between the Holleran and Baines families. A silence of almost 16 years has loomed over the lavender fields that separate the two clans, and it’s been that way ever since 1936 when her Aunt Juna played a part in the death of Joseph Carl Baine.
Annie’s small Kentucky town can’t forget the gallows — or the day Aunt Juna disappeared after birthing a baby girl. Annie’s greatest fear, as it has been all her life, is that Aunt Juna will one day come back to finish what she started.
“History does stay with us and it’s how you choose to either learn from it or not,” Roy says about the lesson of Let Me Die in His Footsteps. Her history and the memories associated with it run deep in this novel, which moves between 1936 and 1952 in parallel stories of Annie and her Aunt Juna and her sister, Sarah. Roy, who lives in Tampa Bay, Florida, manages to create suspense in the midst of a sensory, aromatic setting — just one of her talents as a writer.
We talked to her by phone about the designation of Southern Gothic, her landscape in Let Me Die and what she wants the reader to take away from this novel.
EZB: Did you set out to write a Southern Gothic novel?
LR: I did not. I really set out to write the book I want to read. That’s the best way I could describe the guideline that I have for myself. I think I certainly have been influenced by Flannery O’Connor’s work in particular, but I didn’t set out with any sort of roadmap or intention. I started with setting and that of course gives rise to many of the elements that we in turn think of when we think of Southern Gothic. But I really just set out to write the book I wanted to read.
EZB: So, what types of books do you like to read?
LR: I like a book that has great sense of setting, a book with a voice that contributes to the story. I love deeply rooted characters and themes, but then I also want there to be a plot that will make me really compelled to keep turning the page. It’s not easy to bring all those sort of more literary elements to life and at same time to keep a plot going, so that’s really what I look for when I read a book and that’s what I try to create.
EZB: How does your setting of a Kentucky lavender farm add to the suspense of your novel?
LR: That I found to be a challenge, because it’s not easy to create suspense in such a beautiful light and airy environment. After the first two books I wrote — one was in western Kansas and the other was in 1970s Detroit — I had this desire to go somewhere that was just bright and airy and beautiful and that’s what drove me to a lavender farm. It was a challenge to then create suspense, and a good part of that came when I started to understand the back story, and the back story which takes place in the ’30s is that more gritty rural landscape of Kentucky. The contrast between the two, and even in this bright, airy beautiful lavender farm, no one was safe.
Just this last week, she’s felt like a visitor might. The smell has been stronger, sweeter, thicker, like new again. She should have known it was a sign her life was about to change—same as she should have known the one warped board on the porch, and the star she saw falling from the sky last Tuesday night, and the shiver that work her this past Saturday all meant death was closing in.” – Annie, Chapter 10
EZB: You used the smell of lavender to your advantage as well.
LR: I live in Florida, where it’s beautiful and sunny almost every day of the year, but about the time you hit August, that sunlight — as beautiful as it is looking through a window — it is oppressive and draining when you’re in it day after day. I imagine that it might be like that, especially for a teenaged girl who’s feeling kind of trapped by all the things that teenagers feel trapped by, that that constant smell of the lavender might feel that way to her.
EZB: Speaking of Annie, she and several of your other characters have what you call the “know how,” and there’s debate over whether or not it’s good or evil. Did you mean it to be a sort of magical thing or more of an intuition?
LR: I hesitate to answer that, because I want a reader to interpret that as he or she would. I think part of the fun of it for me as a writer — I don’t plan it out ahead of time, the story evolves as I write it — there is the question of is it truly a gift that certain people have, is it the perception of a gift? If someone’s a little bit different there must be a reason, so we’re going to say they have this special power about them. Whether or not it’s real or it’s imagined, and for some people considered a burden to others a gift, I want to leave that to the reader.
Their own Aunt Juna was the one with evil living in her eyes, the one who turned fields to dust. She was the one all the folks of Hayden County feared. But Aunt Juna loved her family all those years ago, Mama had said. She didn’t want to leave, but she did, packed up her bags and left so peace could be made.” – Annie, Chapter 14
EZB: Your first novel was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Award and your second was a finalist for it. Are you a fan of Poe and how does it feel to be in the same category of literature as him?
LR: Yes. One of the few writers I remember studying when I was younger is Edgar Allan Poe. There’s such a poetry to his work, which I think just adds so much even beyond the words themselves. The poetry and the rhythm of his work does so much to draw you into the suspense, and I do love that about his work. It was a great experience both the first and the second. The second time when I was nominated for Best Novel, I was on a list with writers who have been favorites of mine for years: Thomas Cook, Louise Penny, William [Kent] Krueger. People joke it’s just an honor to be nominated, but it really was because I’ve respected and loved those writers for so long.
EZB: You live in Florida, but this novel is set in Kentucky. Would you say the Southern Gothic influences in those two states are vastly different or are there similarities?
LR: I think the basic elements that we think of with Southern Gothic, I would say are probably pretty similar. Obviously the environment, the traditions, those kinds of things are going to vary not only between states but just depending where you are in the state. Southern Florida is much, much different than say the Panhandle of Florida. I think the author and what they value in the work and what they’re drawn to in the work is going to probably create those differences.
And this thing, it bleeds through our shoes and through the soles of our feet and it feeds us too. It’s our histories, Grandma says. Our histories root themselves right where we stand, and they lie in wait until they can soak up into the next generation and the next. It’s what feeds us.” – Annie, Chapter 12
EZB: Do you think you’ll ever set a book in Florida?
LR: I’m working on a couple of ideas that are set in Florida for my next book. A lot of authors are much more drawn to writing about where they live and where they spend their time, but it just never fit to do that, and I think a lot of it is where I live doesn’t scream suspense. There’s palm trees and sunshine and the Gulf of Mexico, but I have found a few settings recently that started to kind of stick to my ribs so to speak.
EZB: The Guardian recently published a piece titled “Why Southern Gothic Rules the World” by author M.O.Walsh. He wrote that authenticity, vivid characters, language, landscape, violence and the tortured history of the American South are essential to the genre. Do you agree, and which of these elements would you say are most present in your novel?
LR: That is a good list. I think the idea of custom and tradition is a huge part of it. I think the tortured history of the South is probably to me what I find most compelling and living amidst that tortured history and acknowledging it. I think the one that intrigues me most as a writer is what I’ll see in a piece of history or a plaque on the side of a building that will stick with me and inspire me to write 350 pages.
Chat with Lori Roy on Friday, July 10, via Twitter from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST, 11-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit.
Vote for Let Me Die in His Footsteps as your favorite summer book cover here.