Of my eleven published novels, six of them are set in my home state of Tennessee. Two of them take place in the near past (1975 Memphis) while the other four are contemporary. I was raised in Tennessee, and both sides of my family go back multiple generations there, so it’s the area, and the mindset, that I know best.
My novels Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood are, as their titles imply, vampire stories. They’re also not the tortured romantic vampire that was all the rage when they came out, which might account for their less-than-stellar sales. I chose to set them in Memphis because it’s the big city closest to where I grew up. Going there as a child was always a huge deal, and so many details impressed on my memory. Also, everyone I knew listened to Memphis station WHBQ in the morning before school, so we had that shared musical/cultural touchstone in a way kids just don’t anymore.
My Tufa novels (the fourth, Chapel of Ease, has just been released) are about a fictional isolated population in a mythical East Tennessee county who are descended from Celtic fairy folk and express their magic through music. My father’s family all came out of Jonesborough (if you yell “Bledsoe!” half the population will turn around), and I heard stories as a kid that always stayed with me, about the Melungeons and how, at the time, no one knew who they were or where they came from. I invented my own group, the Tufa, so I could give them the background I wanted, and set them in the mountains because that seemed like a place where fairy folk might indeed have hidden since time immemorial.
(Aside: I recently found out that the Appalachians and the Scottish highlands are indeed part of the same mountain range. They were connected back before the primal continent Pangea broke apart into the continents we know now.)
In Chapel of Ease, I tell the story through the eyes of an outsider, New York actor Matt Johanssen. On the night of the press preview of his new show, the playwright—a transplanted Tufa—dies suddenly, and Matt volunteers to take his ashes to the family in Tennessee. As a gay man, he’s understandably nervous about going into the deep south.
But that’s both the point, and not the point, of the novel. We all know the clichés of the south, the “god-and-guns” mentality and the perverted religious fervor. I have no interest in perpetuating those. Matt finds a rich and varied community that accepts him, and further, has no problem with him romancing a handsome handyman. I want to show the better angels of the southern nature: the friendliness, helpfulness and warmth embodied by so many of its people.
But all of that, actually, is subtext, or at least subplot. The main plot is both a mystery and a ghost story, involving the inspiration for the play back in New York.
There are bad things about Tennessee, and I don’t hesitate to write about them when they’re germane to the story. But there are also good things, and that seems to me both more surprising and more interesting. I want my readers to experience a little of the Tennessee magic I know.