Johnnie Bernhard’s Third Book is One to Love
Mississippi author Johnnie Bernard’s third novel, Sisters of the Undertow, debuts on Valentine’s Day.
The story of sisters Kim and Kathy Hodges, born 16 months apart, Sisters of the Undertow explores sibling rivalry and the idea that we can be born lucky or unlucky. As in her first two novels, A Good Girl and How We Came to Be, Bernhard writes with such humanity and genuine care for her characters that it’s tough to leave them on the page. The rivalry and differences between Kim and Kathy impact the entire course of their lives, as they get swept up in the undertow of Hurricane Harvey. Thankfully, Bernhard gives us something to hope for amid the wreckage.
We interviewed her by email about Sisters of the Undertow, the familial relationships she continues to explore in her novels and her setting of Houston, Texas.
Erin Z. Bass: Can you explain the title Sisters of the Undertow? The word “undertow” is quite powerful in terms of both relationships and nature.
Johnnie Bernhard: The title is a reference to the undertows found within bodies of water, in this reference, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Both settings play essential parts within the lives of the protagonist and her sister. The undertow of relationships is found in the protagonist’s life as she struggles with poor decisions and disappointments in love. Not only is Kim dealing with interior conflict, but she is struggling within “the undertow” or turbulence of her relationship with her sister. Sibling rivalry is never smooth sailing!
EZB: All of your books deal with complex relationships, especially those between family members. Why did you want to explore sibling rivalry and the love/hate relationship between two sisters in this novel?
JB: It is important to me as an author to write universal themes. Meaning, a reader in Ireland will understand the emotions of the novel: sibling rivalry, loneliness, lost love, family conflict, interior conflict, the same way someone in the South will. We are all humans, sharing the same desires and conflicts.
EZB: Your novel before this one, How We Came to Be, was set in Houston, Texas, and this one is as well. What it is about Houston that made you set two novels there, and how does the city play a role in Sisters of the Undertow?
JB: I love the diversity of Houston. It allows me to introduce characters from various cultures. Over 90 languages are spoken in the Houston area. I love that! I’ve also spent a lot of time in this city. I know the neighborhoods, public institutions, restaurants of this city. Authenticity of place is very important in literature. I was also very moved by this city’s response to Hurricane Harvey—so many beautiful stories of people helping each other.
EZB: You reference many books, stories and pop culture phenomenon throughout the book. Was this the teacher in you coming out or just a way to put the reader in the time period in which the sisters are growing up?
JB: Yes, a bit of the English teacher came out in the author when referring to the many books in the novel. It’s also a way of paying tribute to these great authors. Writing about the pop culture elements within the novel allows the reader to emotionally connect to the setting, time throughout the novel, as it moves through several decades in the lives of two sisters, Kim and Kathy.
EZB: One of the things I love most about your books is your sense of humanity and the way you challenge the reader to rethink preconceived notions they may have about certain types of people, the meaning of family and our place in the world. Is there an overarching message you’re trying to convey with Sisters of the Undertow?
JB: As humans, we are more connected than divided. Love and acceptance are what people long for, no matter where they live or what language they speak.
EZB: Are you doing a tour for this book and, if so, where can readers see you?
Scroll down here to view the entire schedule of events, starting with a launch party at Poppy’s in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on February 29.
Sisters of the Undertow is the final book on our Fall/Winter Reading List. It is out now from Texas Review Press. Stay tuned for our Spring Reading Picks coming up soon!