A Conversation with Sheila Kay Adams
Sheila Kay Adams talks with her youngest son, Andrew Barnhill, about the writing of My Old True Love, their ancestors, and the traditions they both love. Andrew is also a writer, musician, and singer of the old songs. He lives in Mars Hill, North Carolina.
Andrew Barnhill: What inspired you to write a novel like My Old True Love?
Sheila Kay Adams: The inspiration for the novel came from a story Daddy told me. It was the first Saturday in June and we’d spent it cleaning off graves, since Sunday was our family’s Decoration Day. We were resting on the porch drinking water from quart jars. “We must’ve cleaned off every grave in Sodom, Daddy.” Daddy laughed. “Lord no, honey. They’s old graveyards all over the place. We couldn’t get to all of them if we worked a solid week.” He pointed off across the valley. “There’s one up yonder on the spine of the Pilot. See them pine trees?” “Who’s buried up there?” “I believe that’s where they buried your great-uncle, Hackley Norton, after the battle of Winding Stairs during the Civil War. They said Larkin Stanton brought him all the way from Rip-Shin throwed across the back of a mule.”“Who was Larkin Stanton?” Daddy got this look on his face that let me know a good story was fixing to be told. “Well, Larkin Stanton was born an orphan . . .” It was dark when he finished the story. Of course Daddy had to take me up there later in the summer to see the graves of Hackley and Mary. And one Saturday on the way home from Marshall, we went by the cemetery at Walnut where Larkin Stanton was buried. Seeing their graves made such an impression on me. Over the years I guess Daddy retold that story a dozen times. I actually wrote it first as a short story and it was in with a bunch of stories Lee Smith convinced me to send to the University of North Carolina Press. There were so many Civil War stories in the submitted manuscript that my editor culled them and said I ought to keep them for another book. Boy, am I ever glad that happened! Otherwise the story would’ve been published in Come Go Home with Me in 1995. After Daddy’s death in 1998, I felt I needed to do something with all the great stories he’d told me through the years. In 1999, I was hired as singing coach for the movie Songcatcher, and over that summer I got to know the actor Aidan Quinn. We swapped a lot of stories back and forth, but it was the one about Hackley and Larkin that caught his ear. He was convinced it would make a great movie and encouraged me to write a screenplay. We worked together on it over that winter, but my heart kept telling me it should be a novel. My heart won out.
AB: As children you entertained us with stories from your childhood. While reading the book, I must admit I saw parts and pieces of those same stories, and some of the personalities seemed awfully familiar. How does your flair for storytelling influence your writing?
SKA: As you well know, we don’t have normal conversations in our family. I think you were the one who came up with “story-speak” to describe how we communicate. And in every story there are these great turns of phrase, speech peppered with fine old sayings, long uninterrupted pauses. Listening to Daddy and his brothers talk in “story-speak” was where I developed my ear for catching and being able to tell a good tale. The only problem with this (if it is a problem) is that all the voices telling stories in my head speak with a mountain accent. So I have a tendency to write with an accent as well. I had to tone it down quite a bit for the book. I had a great editor, Kathy Pories, who worked really hard helping me keep the flavor and flow without making it such a huge distraction for the reader. Many people who’ve read the book have also seen me perform from the stage. They all say my voice was right there in their heads the whole time they were reading. So after having said all that, I guess I would have to say my writing is really just storytelling from the page.
AB: Your depictions of southern Appalachia are, at times, both chillingly desperate and vividly beautiful. Describe how such an extreme variety of climates made a difference in the lives of your characters and your ancestors.
SKA: I have traveled all over and still feel like I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But it can also be awfully harsh. One hard winter in the mountains usually sends folks who aren’t accustomed to it scurrying for better climes. And if we think it’s challenging now, think what it must’ve been like when our people started showing up back in the mid-1700s. I don’t think it’s really possible for any of us today to imagine what it must’ve been like for those first settlers. It would’ve been the harshest sort of existence that would’ve called for a lot of determination. Mama said they were borderland Scots who moved to Northern Ireland during the reign of James I and from there they came here. They were called Scotch-Irish and they came for land, and they meant to have them some too. Daddy described them as clannish, hard-living, quick-to-anger people who would fight you just as soon as look at you. You know, I reckon they could have left, gone somewhere easier. But they stayed, generation after generation, and figured out not only how to survive, but developed a love of place that is pretty remarkable. And most of the folks I knew had this remarkably dry, sophisticated sense of humor. They were and still are some of finest people in the world. Arty, the narrator of My Old True Love, exhibits a certain resiliency that I saw in a lot of my kinfolk over in Sodom. She has that deep love of and connectedness to place and family. She also has a keen understanding of what she needs to do to survive. There was a sort of gentle hardness about her that I saw in the women and heard stories about while I was growing up over home. The beauty of the place and the harsh reality of it would’ve shaped a special kind of people: accepting but very determined, independent of spirit but also with a certain sense of community. That’s what I tried to get across in the novel.
AB: Edgar Allan Poe, among many others, once wrote of wild races of uncouth men living in the southern Appalachian Mountains. How would you address this stereotype, and how is it different from the culture you developed in you novel?
SKA: I remember watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw and howling right along with the canned laughter. I had no idea they were making fun of us. I grew up in such a loving, close-knit community that I didn’t realize these stereotypes even existed until I got into college. I was introduced to that business when a girl from Myrtle Beach asked me if we really married our first cousins. I still chuckle at my totally innocent answer. “Lord, no,” I said. “You have to get down to second or third cousins before you can marry.” Back during World War II, Mama and Daddy went down to Mobile, Alabama, to work in the shipyards. Mama said they made such fun of her accent that she practiced in front of a mirror trying to lose it. She thought it was pretty funny that she worked so hard to lose the very thing I get paid to do. I guess I can understand how folks from outside the area might have seen my ancestors as somewhat lacking in social graces. I mean, let’s be honest—they would’ve been pretty rough characters. But where outsiders were way off the mark was in assuming these Appalachian people were lacking in culture. They were well blessed with that. The culture in the book was the one I grew up in, and I wanted to provide an insider’s perception for readers to dispel, with any luck, some of the old stereotypes. You know, I’m often puzzled how folks from outside the area still feel comfortable making fun of us. Honestly, I wish I had a nickel for every time a person comes up to me after a performance to share some completely unacceptable joke about mountain people. With a straight face they will say things about us that they would never say about any other ethnic group. I think that’s pretty sad.
AB: At the end of one of her novels, Alice Walker describes herself as an author and a medium. Did you have any similar experiences while writing My Old True Love?
SKA: That’s really interesting, because there were times when I felt like I was channeling Arty, that she was talking through me. I would wake up during the night with her voice talking so loud in my head that I would have to get up and write what she was saying. Sometimes she talked faster than I could write. My husband, Jim Taylor, went over to Knoxville to do some research on George Washington Kirk and found enlistment papers for Hackley and Larkin that had their physical descriptions written on them. Can you believe that descriptions I’d written a couple of months before were right on the money? When Zeke left for the war I swear I felt depressed for days, and I cried the whole time I was writing the chapter when Sylvaney and Ingabo died. There were days when I would get impatient and try to bull my way through without her and what I wrote during those times was somehow lacking. It just didn’t ring true, so I’d have to go back and say, “All right, Arty, let’s get to it.” When I wrote the last sentence in My Old True Love, she was gone. I went through a period of really missing her, mourning the loss of her, I guess. When I started working on this new book, which is set later in the nineteenth century, I was worried that the main character would sound like Arty, but that hasn’t been the case. Arty is not telling this story. A time or two, I’ve tried to call her back, but she’s really gone. I haven’t heard her voice at all.
AB: My Old True Love was originally written in third person. How did Arty’s voice emerge, and in what way did this change to first person affect the overall delivery of the story?
SKA: Arty showed up on the first page of the first draft, and I battled with her through several revisions. To be honest, I’ve never really cared for books written in first person, so I was pretty resistant to the idea. It was actually my editor at Algonquin, Kathy Pories, who convinced me that it needed to be Arty’s story. I figured it would take me months to change it from third person, but once I turned Arty loose, it went amazingly fast. I started the first week in August and wrote the last sentence the end of October. I really can’t imagine it being told any other way now. Arty’s delivery gave it intensity, a richness that didn’t exist in any of the other versions.
AB: Were you aware when you first began writing this novel that the ballad singing tradition would be as vital to the characters as it eventually became?
SKA: Not really. I’m not all that surprised, though. Aunt Arty was a great singer, Hackley really was a child prodigy on the fiddle, and Larkin supposedly had one of the best singing voices in that part of the world. And ballad singing would certainly have been a part of their lives, since the songs were passed down to me. When I was writing the book, I would be going right along and all of a sudden the characters in the book would start to sing. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to write down the song. It was a surprise how the tradition seemed to be such an important part in their everyday lives and how it fostered such an intimate connection between them.
AB: As a seventh-generation ballad singer, what do these ballads mean for you, your family, and the culture that keeps them?
SKA: For me, singing the ballads provides an almost mystical, unbroken connection to the past that I don’t think I could experience any other way. There’s this feeling of continuance that truly gladdens my heart. There really is something uplifting about singing a song I know someone in my family sang two hundred years ago. Sadly, the culture that nurtured the living, breathing tradition of singing the old songs is dead. When the outside world came for us with better roads, radio, telephones, and television, it was just a matter of time. My parent’s generation, in their mad dash to escape the crushing poverty of their childhoods, threw away their culture with both hands, the good along with the bad. So, now we have this tradition that’s not really a part of anything; it just sort of hangs out there, and we struggle to figure out what to do with it. I guess you could say it’s an anomaly. I don’t think the tradition is in danger of dying out anytime soon. There’s been a resurgence of interest in the old songs because of the movies O Brother Where Art Thou? and Songcatcher. The younger generation is starting to turn back to their musical heritage. I find that hopeful. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that one, or all three, of my children will take it up.
AB: The largest source of external conflict in My Old True Love is the Civil War. How did the Civil War affect your region of the Appalachians, and what was the general response of your ancestors to the conflict?
SKA: Mama said the Civil War provided the opportunity, there around home, to settle old grievances, and there was certainly a lot of that. Brother fought against brother, families broke up, and communities split right down the middle. And they had to deal with roving bands of deserters who spent the war hiding out in the mountains. My family found themselves smack in the middle of the Union Army over in Tennessee and the Confederates down in Asheville and Marshall. From all I’ve read and the stories I grew up hearing, it was a terrifying time in the region’s history. What I tried to do in the book was keep the focus on those that were left behind using the Civil War as a sort of backdrop. I’ve always been fascinated with how people survive while the social structure is literally coming apart all around them. The majority of my family were pro-Union. Based on what all I heard growing up, they pretty much just wanted to be left alone, and given the choice they would’ve stayed out of the whole affair. My great-great grandfather—William Norton in the novel—really did say he thought it was a rich man’s war that would work its way around to being a poor man’s fight.
AB: How did their Scotch-Irish past influence their views on the major issues of the Civil War?
SKA: They had such a mistrust of the government, any government. This would’ve definitely been a carryover from their dealings with the British. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they hadn’t felt some sort of visceral aversion to owning slaves given their relationship with the English. But in any event they were too poor to own slaves. Recall that Arty says there were no slaves in Sodom except them what were white and female. They were all fiercely independent and just wanted to farm their land and take care of their own. But the war came to them, and when they had to fight, they fought hard. I do know most of the men tried to stay close home to do their fighting. I doubt that they had much interest in states’ rights either. As a matter of fact, they tried to secede in the 1780s to form the State of Franklin because they believed they had so little in common with the rest of the state. I always figured it was a good thing they were so isolated here in the mountains for so long, since it was so obvious they couldn’t get along with anyone.
AB: My Old True Love is populated with a great many strong female characters. Was this typical of southern Appalachian culture?
SKA: Oh yes. The women were always in charge. The men just didn’t know it. They still are, and they still don’t.
AB: Would you consider yourself a feminist, in the modern sense of the word?
SKA: If being a feminist means I think women should have the same political, economical, and social rights as men, then I’m definitely a feminist.
AB: You released an album showcasing the ballads and traditional music seen in My Old True Love. What motivated you to do so, and that surprises did it hold for you as both performer and producer?
SKA: Actually the only choice I made concerning the recording was the title, All the Other Fine Things. My husband, Jim, was the driving force behind the album. He produced it, chose the songs, arranged the fiddle tunes, and got some of the best singing out of me that I’ve ever done. He was my muse during the writing of the book and spent many an evening sitting on the floor of my office listening as I read what I’d written that day. His idea for a CD as a companion for the book happened pretty early on. He felt it would really add something, give more texture for the reader to be able to hear the songs they were reading about. The surprise is how well the CD has done. People say it’s like having a sound track for the book. I think this is exactly what Jim had in mind.
AB: Traditional Scotch-Irish ballads have been preserved in the southern Appalachian Mountains, truer to the original songs than exist today in England. Will these ballads live on, and what must be done to preserve them?
SKA: Well, the ballads have survived into the twenty-first century and all we need to do to preserve them is exactly what Granny told me years ago: Keep singing them and passing them along.
AB: What would you like for readers to remember most about My Old True Love?
SKA: That human frailty is a condition of the heart that only love can cure.
1. In My Old True Love, Sheila Kay Adams uses the dialect of her Appalachian home. Did Arty’s dialect and informal way of speaking pull you into the story immediately or did you find it distracting? How would the telling of this story been different if Arty’s speech had been more conventional?
2. What does the first paragraph tell you about the narrator? What does it reveal about Arty’s personality?
3. How did Arty know her aunt had died? Did you find the exchange between Arty and the midwife believable? What symbolic
meaning does swapping the buckets have?
4. The oral tradition of ballad singing is an important and integral part of My Old True Love. It makes an early appearance during the deathbed scene when Arty says, “Crazy-like, the words to an old love song run through my head.” Over twenty-five songs were written in part or in entirety throughout the book. Did the songs seem a natural occurrence and appropriately placed? How do they provide insight into Arty’s culture? How did this tradition influence Hackley and Larkin’s relationship?
5. Why do you think Granny allowed Arty to take over Larkin’s care? What did Arty mean when she said, “From the day he was
born, my arms had carried him, but that very day was when my heart claimed him for my own”?
6. Did you find the custom of “hanging” someone with a name odd? What customs do you practice in your own family that outsiders might think odd?
7. Why do you think so many of the important scenes in My Old True Love take place on the porch? What are some examples?
8. Arty relates many fond memories of childhood. When do you think Arty realizes she has moved beyond these carefree days? Do you think she wishes she had chosen a different path than that of wife and mother? Explain.
9. Why did Larkin live with Zeke and Arty only for a short time? What happened between Larkin and Hackley when Larkin moved back in with Granny? Do you think this would’ve happened if Larkin had continued to live with Arty? How would this have
changed the story?
10. What does Arty do that reveals her superstitious nature? Where else in the book is this revealed? Do you think Arty may be clairvoyant and have what mountain people refer to as “second sight”? Explain.
11. Did the bawdy humor of the women surprise you? The story is peopled with flawed but strong women. Did you most identify with one particular woman? If you could choose to be like one of the women, which would you choose? Why?
12. When Arty says Hackley might have been little but had that way of moving that women just loved, what kind of picture does that statement paint of him in your mind? Do her expressions and sayings help you visualize other characters in the story? Give some examples.
13. What does Granny mean when she tells Larkin, “You got nothing to lay forever out next to, nothing to measure it against”? Death has always been an accepted part of life in the Appalachian culture and is an important aspect of the book. How does this compare with our attitudes today? What are Arty’s religious beliefs, and how do they differ from her mother and those of Granny?
14. How does Arty describe Mary, and when does she realize the extent of Larkin’s feelings for her? Is there any indication that Mary is encouraging Larkin? Explain.
15. There are so many complex relationships in the book that resolve in one way or another. Do you think there was a relationship between Larkin and Julie and how (or was it) ever resolved?
16. There are so many opportunities for Arty to tell Mary about Hackley’s womanizing. Why do you think she chooses not to tell and advises Larkin to do the same? How might the story have been different if Arty had told Mary about Hackley and Maggie at the political gathering on Shelton Laurel? What would’ve changed had Larkin told her?
17. A large part of the population in western North Carolina was pro-Union during the Civil War. Often it was truly brother against
brother. What were Arty’s feelings about the war? Was she ever in support of either side? Explain.
18. When Zeke leaves for the war, Arty is expecting her seventh child. Why do you think she struggled to hide how she really felt from Zeke? What does this say about Arty? How do the war years change Arty?
19. Arty often says there are situations in our lives that change us forever. In your opinion, what single event in the story brings about a profound change in Arty? Explain your choice.
20. How does Arty cope with the deepening relationship between Larkin and Mary? What decision does she finally make? How does this affect the outcome of the story?
21. Arty has such conflicted feelings for her brother, Hackley. She obviously loves him but strongly disapproves of his behavior. Give some examples of this. How does she react to his death?
22. Why do you think Larkin avoids Arty when he returns from the war? When he tells her he’s no longer a boy, she responds with, “Don’t wind up being a stupid man.” Why does she say this? What happens after their conversation?
23. After Mary and Larkin marry, Mary tells Arty that she feels that she has somehow betrayed Hackley. Arty replies, “Life is not for the dead and gone. It is just for the living.” After the birth of Roxyann, Arty is troubled by Larkin’s behavior at the spring. How are the two connected? Explain.
24. How does Arty try to intervene as Larkin changes? What does she mean when she says that Larkin’s sickness was “the greater sick of his soul?” What happens that seems to cure this? What was Larkin searching for?
25. How did Mary change when Larkin left? Why wouldn’t she share Larkin’s letters with Arty? How does Arty’s final letter from
Larkin set the scene for Larkin’s homecoming?
26. Were you surprised by Larkin’s story about Hackley’s death, or did you suspect it all along? Did you believe Larkin when he said he loved Hackley? What were Arty’s feelings?
27. Did your opinion of Mary change in the last few pages of the book? Explain.
28. Arty’s growth and development were irrevocably connected to nature and the land. How does the summing up of her life support this? Do you think the last sentence is an appropriate ending for the book?