Author Deb Spera on the female inspirations behind her debut novel Call Your Daughter Home and the Southern writers who influenced her.
Called an “exhilarating and important book” by Robert Olen Butler and “a bold and mesmerizing debut set in a time and place lost to history” by Natashia Deon, Deb Spera’s Call Your Daughter Home is quickly making a name for itself in the ranks of Southern literature.
Spera, who was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and currently lives in Los Angeles, set her novel in South Carolina as the region recovers from the infamous boll weevil infestation of the 1920s. Her three female characters are based on the women in her family. It was her mother’s mother, Mamaw, who raised them “like crops.”
In the book, Gertrude is a mother of four with an abusive husband; Retta is a first-generation freed slave still employed by the Coles family; and Annie is the matriarch of the Coles family and owner of Branchville Sewing Circle. Although they seem to have nothing in common, these three women unite to stand up to injustices that have long plagued their small town.
We interviewed Spera by email to ask her about her South Carolina setting, her transition from producing for the screen to the page, the real-life women who inspired her characters and what she’s reading this summer.
Erin Z. Bass: Why did you choose 1924 South Carolina as the setting for your first novel?
Deb Spera: I chose 1924 Branchville, South Carolina, as the setting for my first novel because I found myself mesmerized by the stories my mother’s mother, Mamaw, told me as I was growing up. My parents were 16 and 19 when they had me so Mamaw had a big hand in raising me. She raised us like crops, keeping us clean and fed and bathed me until I was almost 11-years-old because of her fear of worms. She believed they were caused by unsanitary conditions. It was during these baths that she’d let her feelings out in a torrent of cuss words and where I learned much about her life.
She’d sit on this little white wooden child’s chair, her ample bottom rolling over both sides, and her knees butted up against the commode. A cigarette would be dangling out of the corner of her mouth (prescribed by the doctor for nerves), and she’d move her head back and forth to keep the smoke out of her eyes as she scrubbed every ounce of dirt and dead skin off my body with nubby cotton washcloths. It was then she talked about growing up in what she called desperate times. I’d watch the cigarette ash get longer and longer, and just as it would be ready to fall into my bath water, she’d reach across her knees and tap them into the rust stained commode opposite her. It was on these nights I learned how hungry she was as a child and how she lost her teeth as a teenager due to malnutrition. Her hands bore the scars of years of cotton picking. She scrubbed porches as a child for a nickel. That nickel provided a loaf of bread for her siblings and mother. She talked about how her father died when she was young leaving her mother, she and four siblings destitute.
When I was growing up, we’d take road trips to visit my great-grandmother, Mama Lane, in Branchville, South Carolina. Mama Lane had no indoor plumbing. If we needed to go to the bathroom, we used the outhouse. If we needed water for chores or to bathe, there was a bright red pump by the kitchen door. I watched her kill and pluck a chicken for frying and helped her shuck a multitude of pecans from the four trees that peppered her yard. Every vegetable from the garden was canned, every old dress turned into an apron or dish cloth. Nothing went to waste.
EZB: You have your own television company and an executive producer title. How did that experience prepare you to write a book, and how long did you work on Call Your Daughter Home?
DS: I worked on Call Your Daughter Home for close to a year. It came out quickly once I sat down and began to work. I was afraid to write the book, having never done anything like this before. It scared me to no end so I allowed myself to write badly every day for one hour. When you give yourself permission to fail anything is possible. Failure in and of itself is a strange success because it means you’ve begun. In addition to reading incessantly, both for pleasure and work, developing television prepared me well for the writing of a novel. I’ve worked for 30 years helping other writers develop their ideas and have done close to a thousand hours of television as a producer. I consider myself a midwife to writers so I found myself employing the tools I use when I help others. I thought a lot about the book cinematically. I wanted to capture a sense of place and time. I was mindful of sights, smells and sound. I listened to Tibetan singing bowls as I wrote because they brought to mind the swamp. In a sense, they were the soundtrack to the work.
When I’m working in television, I’m always thinking character, character, character and why here, why now? The characters must drive the story and are the engine of the plot. I also sought help in learning the craft of novel writing so, in addition to reading about craft, I took online classes and worked one on one with a remarkable teacher named Robert Eversz, who guided and profoundly encouraged me every step of the way. Writing a novel has made me better as a producer. I understand a writer’s process more deeply.
It’s easier to kill a man than a gator, but it takes the same kind of wait.” – Mrs. Gertrude Pardee, Chapter One
EZB: The opening line of the book is pretty powerful and really draws the reader in. Can you talk about how you wrote it and why you decided to lead with an alligator?
DS: I wish I knew how I came up with that opening line. It found me and, when it did, I followed my nose. Who was this battered woman propped against a cypress tree in the middle of a swamp armed with a double barrel shotgun facing an alligator? I wanted to know. As the story unfolded, her dilemma revealed itself to me. I also learned an enormous amount about the female alligator and how it is the only reptile to have an attachment to its young. I began to think metaphorically about the alligator and how the women in Call Your Daughter Home were very much akin to them.
EZB: Author Mark Bowden said that you channel the women in this novel like someone who has lived inside them. How did your female characters develop and were there always three of them?
DS: Mark Bowden is a kind and generous man who is one of the most talented and prolific writers I know. I owe a great debt to him for setting off a chain of synchronicity that would make anyone’s head spin and put me right here today. The first chapter of my book was originally a short story. My agent, Duvall Osteen, was the one who suggested I expand it into a novel. All three women were present in that story, so when Duvall made that suggestion I immediately began to think in terms of how I might explore the differences and commonality between such disparate women. Gertrude, Retta and, eventually Annie, began talking to me. Annie was the hardest voice for me to capture. She took me several rewrites before I found her backbone and, when I finally did, her danger became apparent.
EZB: Your book is being called a “southern classic” and a “welcome addition to Southern Literature.” Who are some of your Southern literary influences?
DS: These compliments are very kind and I’m humbled by them. I’ve been influenced by writers from all over the world, but if I were to narrow down my incredibly expansive list of writers I love to only Southern writers, then I have to say Wendell Berry is one of my favorites. Mr. Berry captures a time, place and deep humanity in all of his characters that inhabit his books. I’ve read every book he has written. Jayber Crow is a favorite. Reading him allowed me to think about community and church in whole new ways. He moves me. All of Jesmyn Ward’s work is pure poetry and puts you in the midst of the South in a profound and magical way. Breece D’J Pancake’s portrait of West Virginia is raw and real and haunting. I wish he would have lived to write more. I have no doubt he would have been a force in the literary world. Sue Monk Kidd explores the rough edges of the South in ways that feel very personal to me. I know her characters. I feel I grew up with them. I would be remiss not to mention William Faulkner’s, Light in August and Toni Morrison’s Beloved as huge inspirations to me. These are epic works.
EZB: Since your book is on our Summer Reading List, can you tell us what you’re reading this summer and whether you have any trips planned (other than your book tour)?
DS: I’ve just finished Amor Towles’ Gentleman in Moscow, which I loved. It feels almost fable-like. Thommy Orange’s There, There was such a profound work. His voice is one I will follow wherever he leads. I loved Lauren Groff’s Florida and Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers rocked me because I lost close friends to AIDS during the ’80s. She nailed that experience. And I must mention Paulette Jiles’s book News of the World. There is a passage in the center of that book that talks about how maybe what we are in life are messengers designed to carry a message from the beginning to the end. I had to go for a hike after reading that passage.
Right now, the only additional trip my husband and I have planned this summer is taking our youngest to college at the end of August. That makes us officially empty nesters. He’s been with me on my book tour serving as my “roadie.” We’ve made little videos as we’ve gone from one event to the next and had a ball. (You can see them on my Instagram @debspera). We call this book tour our empty nester trial run, and it’s whetted our appetite for more adventure.
Call Your Daughter Home is one of our 2019 summer reads. View our entire Summer Reading List here.