Amy Greene’s second novel, Long Man (Knopf, 288 pp.), is a penetrating portrait of tight-knit community torn apart by progress. The idyllic valley surrounding the Long Man River has been chosen as a site for one of the Tennessee Valley Authority‘s (TVA) dam projects. Though most of the townspeople of Yuneetah are saddened to leave their homes, which will be covered by water, they realize the benefit of the new jobs that the construction will bring. Some, like Annie Clyde Dodson, who lives on land farmed by her family for generations, rail at the thought of leaving her home.
The night before Annie Clyde must vacate her property or risk being engulfed by rising river waters, her three-year-old daughter Gracie disappears. As the waters rise, the search for the little girl becomes more desperate and all are forced to weigh the price of modernization.
Green’s new novel is as gripping as Bloodroot, her debut. Greene’s potent mix of lyrical writing, robust, intriguing characters, and crisp evocation of the unique lifestyle in Eastern Tennessee is on full display here. She will speak at the Margaret Mitchell House Literary Center on March 12.
ArtsATL: Your first novel was also set in Appalachia. What is it about this area and these people that continue to draw you?
Amy Greene: My whole world view has been shaped by my home, and because of that I almost can’t help but write about it. As I worked on Long Man, I realized that, yes, I was writing about the past, but I was also writing about the present. Perhaps because of the isolation of the Appalachian Mountains, there is a timelessness here. Much of what was true about living in the 1930s — in this area that [Franklin] Roosevelt called “forgotten by the American people” — is still true today. There is such a rich literary territory to mine.
For me, also, it’s important to remember that every voice that comes out of an isolated, marginalized environment like this one is an important voice. This isn’t my primary reason for writing, but I do think it’s my responsibility — maybe even a moral one — to be a voice from this sort of forgotten place.
ArtsATL: When did you realize that you wanted to write about where you grew up?
Greene: It was a combination of things. For one thing, it was the time that I spent in Vermont for college. Before I went there, I had never been outside the South. Being away from home made me figure out that I was Appalachian. I realized that I had a mountain accent. I didn’t think I had one because it wasn’t as thick as my parents’.
Another thing was that I discovered writers from this area who were writing stories in a profound and beautiful way. Lee Smith’s Oral History was a light bulb for me. Cormac McCarthy was, too. All the Pretty Horses isn’t set in Knoxville, but McCarthy is from there, and when I read this book it was a revelation for me as a writer. These characters were speaking like people I know and love. It felt so familiar to me. I understood from these writers that people would care if I told my stories. My work doesn’t have to be set in New York or L.A. As long as there is something universal and human at the center, it will transcend geography. I realized from them that it was OK to write about home.
ArtsATL: How did you get the idea for Long Man? How much of it is historically true?
Greene: So much of my inspiration came from my parents’ stories and from my own memories. As a child, I remember asking my mother about Cherokee Lake, a TVA lake near my hometown. During the winter when the water drops down, you can see the top of silos and roads going down into the water. I was curious and intrigued. My mother told me that there used to be a town there.
I also listened to my parents’ stories about the era of the TVA and the Depression in East Tennessee. I grew up hearing about Roosevelt. My dad’s dad especially was an old-school Democrat who loved Roosevelt because of the New Deal and the changes and improvements that were made as a result of the TVA.
As I grew older, I began to think about the sacrifices made for the better life that my parents and grandparents were given as a result of the TVA — electricity, flood control and jobs. The other side, though, was the heartbreak of people losing land that had been in their families for generations. In many cases, the bones of their loved ones were dug up and moved. Historical landmarks were destroyed and thousands were displaced.
As I researched the TVA, questions came up for me about whether progress is always good. Still, it was really important to not villainize the TVA or write a black-and-white story. I wanted to write about a complicated and gray issue. Finding the balance in the story was difficult, but I think that in order to tell the truth, you have to look at an issue from all sides.
ArtsATL: Both of your novels are filled with beautiful evocations of landscape. This element is also a main feature of Southern literature. Why do you think you and other Southern authors are so preoccupied with place?
Greene: I think the preoccupation with the literal landscape comes from a closeness and intimacy with nature. I remember working with my mom in the tobacco fields, pulling the hornworms from the plants. I would explore the woods behind my house, haul in wood for the woodfire stove. I remember working in our garden.
Because the South has never been as industrial as other regions, we have a historical connection to the land. It’s an agrarian and sensual connection, too. You’re touching the land, feeling it. It’s feeding you. There’s a deep love, but it can be complicated, particularly here because of these isolating mountains.
ArtsATL: What are your writing habits?
Greene: I have an organic approach to writing. I don’t clock in and write for a certain amount of hours a day. I go with the flow. If I’ve had a few good, productive days, I might take some time off. I let it be a process of discovery because otherwise it’s not exciting.
The first draft comes out all of a piece. My way of thinking is: get it all out and apply craft later. The polishing and the time to bring to the surface the themes and figuring out what you want to say is where the real work comes in. For me, that’s the hardest part. The editing is almost a job. The cathartic and good part comes in the beginning, in the discovery. I’ve heard other writers say that the editing process is the most satisfying part for them, but that’s not my experience.
ArtsATL: Are you working on a new novel?
Greene: I am working on a third novel, also set in Appalachia. It’s written in first person. For the first time, I’m sticking with one character to carry the novel. It’s a contemporary, coming-of-age story about a young woman who lives in East Tennessee. She loses her family to an industrial accident and spends her life discovering why this happened.