The Mississippi native and debut novelist talks about what it means to tell a Southern tale in Three Rivers.
Over the course of three days, Tiffany Quay Tyson explores familial obligation through three shifting perspectives: a former Christian pop singer, a flaky mother and a drifter on the run with his son. Tyson’s story begins with Melody, on tour with band the Holy Rollers, who receives a message from her mother, Geneva. Melody’s father is dying and she must come home. Upon her return, Melody finds her mother gone to seek guidance from mystic Pisa, her father on his deathbed and her brother, brain damaged from a botched baptism, left in charge.
Meanwhile, drifter father Obi and his son, Liam, find themselves on the run after a horrible accident. Geneva gives them permission to camp on her land, but as flood waters rise and Pisa predicts trouble on the way, Obi is desperate to protect his son at all costs. In a story that pits man against nature, Tyson’s characters converge inside Melody’s farmhouse to ride out the storm.
A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Tyson attended Delta State University and has had her short fiction published in The Tulane Review and Peeks & Valleys: A Southern Journal. She currently lives in Denver, where she serves on the board of directors for Lighthouse Writers Workshop and as the communications director for Reach Out and Read Colorado. We interviewed her by email about her debut novel, writing about Mississippi from afar and finding humor in religion.
EZB: This is your debut novel. How long have you been writing, and how long did you work on this book?
TQT: I’ve always been a writer. I wrote short stories in college, and I worked as a journalist straight out of college. I’m always writing something. As for how long it took me to write this novel, it’s hard for me to say how long I’ve worked on any particular thing. I don’t write in a linear fashion. I’ll write a scene here and a scene there and eventually start putting them together. The first scene I wrote for Three Rivers was the baptism scene in chapter seven. It was inspired by a newspaper article I’d read a few years earlier. My intention was to write a short story, but I kept writing more about the characters and bringing in new storylines. Eventually, I knew I was working on a novel. I read that newspaper article 10 years ago, so that gives you some sense of the length of time between inspiration and publication.
EZB: You set Three Rivers in your home state of Mississippi. Where did the idea for this book come from and are any of the characters based on people you knew growing up?
TQT: As I mentioned, the idea for the first scene I wrote came from a newspaper article I read about a baptism gone wrong. The characters are purely a result of my imagination and are not based on particular people. That said, I certainly drew on my experiences of the South and of Southern people, especially in trying to capture the rhythms of speech. Also, the food in the book is particularly Southern. Both my parents are good cooks and some of my favorite meals are simple meals with cornbread and peas and cobbler for dessert. When Melody cooks that meal, she is cooking just like my mother or my grandmother or my aunts would cook. Ditto for Obi’s deer stew and fried catfish.
Before long, there were a dozen people in Obi’s camp. Many brought something to share—a bottle of whiskey or jug full of lemonade or a salad of wild, bitter greens. Obi’s stew was delicious and Samuel’s fish was just right. Everyone made a fuss over Margie’s cobbler, and more than a few people wished for ice cream.” – Chapter Five
EZB: Amy Franklin-Willis said Three Rivers has all the necessary ingredients for a grand Southern tale: complicated families trying to love each other better, epic weather and a spiritual quest. Do you agree with her, and what does writing a Southern story mean to you?
TQT: Well, I’m certainly not going to argue with such a generous assessment of my novel. I’m humbled and flattered that Amy Franklin-Willis described it that way. I do believe most Southern stories have complicated families at their core. Spirituality and religion certainly play a big role in Southern fiction, and epic weather is a fact of life in the South. In general, I think writing a Southern story is just like writing a story set anywhere in the world; you want to get it right. I didn’t want my characters to dissolve into hokey stereotypes. I didn’t want to rely on old assumptions about the South, nor did I want to paint an overly rosy picture. I wanted to get it right. I hope I’ve succeeded for the most part. I hope people will forgive me when I’ve failed.
EZB: Your main character Melody is the black sheep of a Christian rock band, and you pepper this book with many other humorous references to religion. Is there an overall message you’re trying to impart about spirituality and finding a higher power?
TQT: I’m not really trying to impart a message, but I was interested in exploring religion, spirituality and mysticism as facets of the same type of belief system. I like using one set of spiritual beliefs as a mirror for another. And I do find humor in religion. Some of the myths we accept without question would make a person sound crazy if he came up with them today. Plus, religious beliefs do seem to shift to reflect the times. I find humor in a lot of things. It’s not that I am making light of anything, but I believe humor does a better job of reflecting truth than strict seriousness might.
EZB: Who are some of your favorite Southern writers and who would you list as influences?
TQT: Currently I’m a fan of Wiley Cash and Jesmyn Ward and M.O. Walsh. I loved Jamie Kornegay’s debut Soil. As for influences, I was obsessed with Ellen Gilchrist in high school and college. I think Flannery O’Connor is one of the best American storytellers ever. Predictably, I love the women writers of the South: Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Eudora Welty, Beth Henley, Carson McCullers. I could go on and on.
Now, Melody was used to fervent preaching, and this was not the first time she’d met someone who claimed to have the gift of prophecy. Her own mother had once taken her to see a Native American woman who claimed the gift of sight and healing. No, it wasn’t the foretelling that terrified her, it was George Walter’s gleeful certainty and that awful milky eye.” – Chapter Four
EZB: You wrote a blog post for The Lighthouse Writers about reading poetry when you get stumped by a character or plot line. What does poetry do for you, and did you read any while writing this book?
TQT: Poetry breaks through my analytical side and gets me back into the rhythm of the story. If I’m stuck trying to get a character from Point A to Point B, it often ends up sounding like I’m just writing stage direction. Poetry helps me to leave some space in the action. It reminds me that I don’t have to show every step or every movement, only the ones that matter. That’s the great thing about poetry. It says so much with so few words.
As a novelist I have some space to work with, but that doesn’t mean I need to fill every pause. Readers need a chance to pause. I read poetry to remind myself of that, and also to study how it’s done. Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Naomi Shihab Nye are poets I like to turn to when I’m struggling with my own writing. I certainly turned to them and others when writing this story.
EZB: You currently live in Denver. What was the process of writing about the South from afar like for you?
TQT: In many ways, writing about the South from Denver was probably easier for me than trying to write about it from Mississippi. I like having a little distance. It lends perspective and objectivity. Maybe someday I’ll move away from Denver and feel compelled to write this city from afar. It’s possible.
We chat with Tiffany Quay Tyson Friday, July 24, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST & 11-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. We also have one copy of Three Rivers to give away courtesy of St. Martin’s. You must participate in the chat for the chance to win; U.S.-only entries please.