Evan Williams Makes Waves With ‘Ripples’
The Appalachian author talks about apple farming, the tribalism of his native region and skipping nap time in grade school to read books instead.
When Ripples arrived on our desk for summer reading, the cover instantly stood out. A fish, possibly a shark, swimming upstream and almost glowing in the dark. The word “ripples” can mean so many things, and Evan Williams explores this idea to literary perfection in his second novel.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Williams’ ancestors settled in the Blue Ridge range of the Appalachians, and this is where he still lives. His family’s multi-generational apple growing business means he lives and writes surrounded by an orchard. The setting sounds idyllic, but Appalachia also brings religious zealots, small-town gossip, hypocrisy and “preservation at any expense,” as Williams describes it.
It’s these complicated feelings about his home and his family that Ripples main character Ben Bramley escaped so many years ago and must return to now. Growing up Southern Baptist, Ben lived a picturesque life with his grandparents next door, but eventually his faith failed him. After college, he “retreated to the wild lands, distancing himself from society before it could disappoint him further.” His only contact has been with a psychiatrist, but when Ben’s father has an accident, he must return to Williams’ fictional town of Abundance and his tormented feelings about religion and the people he grew up with.
Erin Z. Bass: I’d like to start by asking you about the title and cover. The fish in water is perfect for summer reading, but your book is set in the mountains. What do the title and cover image signify about your story?
Evan Williams: The cover design, by Olivia M. Croom, features a trout, though folks have guessed it a shark, even a koi. I love the way it pops on screen, appearing backlit with her use of highlights. She managed to capture elements of the novel which carry the basic storyline—trout waters, fishing and, above all, the ripple effect.
The title I settled on years before the manuscript was completed. It’s a reference to the consequences of an incident, which occurred in the protagonist’s early childhood. A secret fishing trip to the family farm pond with his grandmother began a cascade of events, which framed his future in unrelenting misery.
EZB: You immediately immerse us into the mind of your main character Ben Bramley, who is both lonely and sad but also funny. How did Ben develop and what has he been running from all these years?
EW: Born a precocious, highly-observant child, Ben doesn’t make it beyond third grade before his promising trajectory nosedives. As a super-serious, oldest son, he mistakenly assigns to himself the responsibility for events beyond his control and then cloaks it all with crushing self-guilt rooted in his strict, Southern Baptist teachings.
Under the microscope of literal, Fundamentalist, Holy Bible interpretation, he judges himself condemned and those in his small mountain community to be hypocrites. His only recourse is to distance himself once he comes of age. Yet, his geographic solution has its limitations and sanity is a daily toss-up sustained in large part by his frenetic, woodland marathons.
Born of a family who considered cinnamon toast to be gourmet fare, Ben longed early on for more than simple circumstances could provide. Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong relatives. Though he had worked hard to fit in, followed the rules of home and church, he remained a hulti-hued boy, cast in the black-and-white world of Abundance.” – Chapter One
In spite of living as a hermit, Ben’s avoidance techniques do no more than allow him to cope, rather than resolve his torment. He cannot escape viewing the world in the framework of Bible verses he memorized in Sunday school, nor does the voice in his head—that of Charlton Heston, from his role as Moses in the film “The Ten Commandments”—cease to quote scripture in application to everyday situations.
EZB: Ben returns to his grandparents’ apple farm, a nod to your family’s own business. Why did you want apple farming to play a part in this novel?
EW: With less than two percent of Americans living on a farm, it would seem that I have intentionally alienated nearly all of my potential reading audience. Detractors might conclude that my choice is indicative of an author writing about the familiar, taking the easy route. However, I early on saw both a family business and the tasks involved with apple growing as the ideal platform for the intricate relationships between my characters.
The everyday closeness of family members in my novel affords the feelings of security and sameness, while also magnifying every misunderstanding or slight to explosive proportions.
Ben lives next to his grandparents, interacting with them each day. At harvest time he, his mother and his brother are literally working shoulder-to-shoulder with both grandparents as they crawl under recently picked trees in order to gather the fallen apples, the ones which his grandfather has proclaimed as the true source of profit for the entire operation. Meanwhile, dad zooms up and down the rows on the tractor tending to the pickers and loading the flatbed truck with boxes of picked apples.
Everybody has to participate and participate fully—an obligation by virtue of birth.
EZB: Your bio says you write from a former apple storage shed surrounded by the orchards. This sounds like an idyllic writing life, but do you have your own struggles with living in Appalachia?
EW: Science may not confirm my premise, but the Appalachian Mountains are in my DNA. No other topographies hold the allure for me as do those soaring ranges in graduated hues of blue, rocky rivers and waterfalls under dense woodland cover.
My Appalachia is the Southern variety. However, as a region, it stretches from Alabama northward to Maine. The human element is diversely profound yet united by those ancient, rounded mountains.
For my corner of that magnificent chain, I share some similarity with character Ben Bramley regarding the prevailing paradigm of tradition simply for the sake of tradition. Southerners, especially Appalachian Southerners, tend toward tribalism. Perhaps it is a natural response to the arrival of “outsiders” going back to the carpetbaggers of post-Civil War times. Following improved railroad service, then highways, more people flocked to my scenic area often taking up residence.
In response, natives have attempted to preserve their culture, heritage and standing in the community by banding together. A direct example in my hometown is a ruling that no new construction in the downtown area can exceed the height of the dome of the historic courthouse—preservation at any expense.
The affinity for tradition that links to tribalism is likely due in part to Southerners seeing themselves as a collective punching bag for the rest of America. We find ourselves stereotyped by those who may have never set foot here—rural bumpkins, if not outright hillbillies, under-educated, racists, culturally backward, poor and proud of it. On the list goes.
I care not what conclusions outside ignorance may reach. My personal difficulty lies with entrenched thinking. It’s not easy being a free-thinker living in a conservative, Bible-belt county, one where my son feared to drive my truck to high school with it bearing an Obama bumper sticker.
Cognitive dissonance has its way in much of Southern Appalachia, a place and time where a radio personality beams and boasts that his station will soon be playing country songs from as recent as the 1990s.
EZB: Gossip, secrets and a lack of privacy play a big part in this novel. Are these just part of life in a small Southern town or something more?
EW: The smaller the town, the bigger the rumor mill. My fictional town of Abundance thrives on gossip and anything new to add to the community fabric. It is a place which some of the more daring young adults would flee for the anonymity of the big city.
Every one resident there knows all the others, their relatives, their generational history. Titillating news is the remedy for their humdrum lives. But in Abundance, it’s more complex than the latest scandal. The overarching element to their prying eyes is community conduct in compliance with acceptable Southern Baptist behavior. In other words, if I have to follow the rules, then so do you, and I’m watching to make sure of it. Though none would likely phrase it as such, they are living proof of the old maxim: Misery loves company. Or in the specific case of Abundance, misery demands company.
EZB: Ben calls “churchgoing hypocrites” the worst kind by his reckoning, and he has to deal with a lot of them when he returns to Abundance. Hypocrisy in religion is also a hot topic in today’s political climate. Can you explain Ben’s struggle with religion and does it mirror your own at all?
EW: Ben grows up in a conflict of faith and reason. He has faith that his parents and grandparents have selected the correct religious path, but he’s also observant enough to find numerous examples of a lack of compliance between the Bible, Baptist teaching and everyday life.
Time after time, the reality of personal events and the responses from local Christians don’t concur with Sunday school lessons or the messages from the pulpit. Also, small-town life affords Ben a close-up view of how church members conduct themselves outside of services, which becomes an assault on his senses. For with religion, much like his place in the family business, he is zealous to understand and comply. And despite his noble intentions, the flagrant misbehavior of others steadily chips at a faith made shaky by a sense of abandonment due to a pattern of unanswered prayers.
My first 16 years of life saw me regularly planted in a pew of a tiny, non-denominational church flanked by a Baptist church to the left and a Methodist one to the right. Add another Baptist church a few hundred yards beyond the Methodist one, and the picture is complete.
One Wednesday night “Prayer Meeting,” no later than my third-grade year of school, I tried to abate my boredom by flipping through my own child-sized version of the Bible, reading random passages. I seized upon a long menu of acceptable and unacceptable animals for use as human consumption.
Fascinated, I approached my dad with the information, knowing that he had said our church differed from the neighboring ones in that we believed all of the Bible, not simply the New Testament. However, his answer to my question about our violation of Godly dietary laws fell flat.
Another week and I dug up instructions in the writings of Moses regarding mandatory festivals to be observed in perpetuity as a sign for God’s chosen people, beginning with Passover. Yet again, my dad’s answer failed to satisfy my zealotry and the first cracks intruded on my faith.
Several years of religious fanaticism, plus one gigantic, hypocritical directive of a church leader later, those cracks widened into a giant fissure and I fell into a personal epiphany.
EZB: You entered your first writing competition in the sixth grade. What made you want to be a writer, and what other writers inspired you?
EW: My mother and grandmothers read to me long before I entered school. They fostered in me a longing to grasp the power of words, and I took to reading like a hound dog to table scraps.
A second-grade teacher recognized my passion for books and allowed me to roam the library rather than restrict me to the “Easy Section” for early readers. Further, with my desk in the back corner of the classroom, she allowed me to forego regular nap time. So, while the other students rested their heads in silence on their desktops, I got to crack the 10-feet-high Venetian blinds enough to shed scant light on the pages of my current library book.
Those library shelves laden with magical books fascinated me arriving from places and people completely foreign until I ultimately decided it impossible for books to originate in my rustic home area.
That view held until a newspaper columnist in the neighboring big city of Asheville caught my attention. His name, John Parris, and he would go on to publish multiple volumes dealing with the rich history of people and events in my beloved mountains. To date, I have collected his entire works and I give him the majority credit for the knowledge that I also possessed that ability to set words to print if I so desired.
Then along came J.R.R. Tolkien and my ambition to create stories was sealed.
EZB: What are you working on next?
EW: I’ve grown fond of the fictional county, which I created somewhere within an hour’s drive of Asheville. It’s an ideal setting for the communitywide uproar which I’m working on, though Abundance is much too small for a serious melee. This time the focus will be Groverton, the fictitious county seat, which makes appearances in RIPPLES, and perhaps some aged versions of my original characters will be included.
From the first day when an anonymous luminary arrives in town, major change is inevitable. And while the luminary is definitely a central figure, much of the story will relate to the individuals and small groups which form as either curious onlookers, devoted disciples or the enraged mob.
My goal is to present a collection of concepts previously foreign to the thinking of most residents and then track how they respond. Though not completely accurate, imagine a Zen Buddhist thrust upon backwoods Evangelicals and throw in a bunch of mini-plot lines to boot.
Ripples is one of our 2019 summer reads. View our entire Summer Reading List here.