Excerpted from A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House. Copyright © 2003 by Silas House. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lee Smith, author of many novels including The Last Girls, Saving Grace, and Family Linen, first had a conversation with Silas House at one of her own book signings years ago. The conversation, which turned into a long-term friendship between the two, continues here in their discussion about A Parchment of Leaves.
Lee Smith: Where did the idea for A Parchment of Leaves come from?
Silas House: I have always been told that my great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, yet we never had any proof. I started researching her life and couldn't get very far. She had no birth certificate, no social security card. According to the government, she never even existed. But I had her journals and letters she had written. So I wanted to know more about her, and the only way I have ever learned anything is by writing about it. I started writing the book, sort of creating the biography of my great-grandmother out of nothing. But it didn't turn out that way…by the time I was two chapters in, the character of Vine had completely taken over and I had no control over what was going to happen. Things happened to Vine that I would have never let happen to my great-grandmother! And to be quite honest, at first I didn't want to write this book. I wanted to write another book set in contemporary times. But I realized that I wasn't the one in control. This voice kept coming to me and she wouldn't hush so I finally sat down and started her story and before long I was hooked.
LS: Why did you choose to make Vine a Cherokee? In your own life, have you ever known any Cherokee people?
SH: All the Cherokee people I know are ones who don't know anything about their heritage, and that's another reason I wrote the book, because so many people lost their heritage during the Removal. In 1838, the government forced the Cherokee people out of their homeland and put them on the Trail of Tears. What most people don't know is that a lot of Cherokee people escaped or managed to stay behind. Some of them hid out in the mountains and eventually settled near where I'm from. But when I was researching the book, I went down to the Cherokee reservation and conducted interviews. I'm still trying to figure out my family's bloodlines.
LS: In the novel, Vine and her family are definitely regarded as second-class citizens by other people in the Appalachian region. Was this true-to-life? Is this still the case today?
SH: Oh, I think this was certainly true. Europeans systematically moved into Native American land and "converted" them to their own religions and things like that. This was very common. My great-grandmother told a tale about her father having been put in a government school where a teacher washed his mouth out with soap because he spoke in the Cherokee tongue. So there was definitely prejudice toward Native Americans in the first half of this century. They were considered "free persons of color" on many censuses and in some places Cherokees were not allowed to testify in a court of law against white people until the 1940's-which is one of the reasons Vine feels the need to bury Aaron instead of going to the authorities.
LS: What elements of Cherokee heritage and beliefs have become part of Appalachian life? Or have they always remained a people apart?
SH: This is something I'm not really sure about, mainly because the Cherokee people have always been very dignified and secretive. They've never exploited their own heritage to the extent that it became mainstreamed, the way other cultures have. Cherokees were known for their fellowship and oral tradition and craftsmanship, and these are all things that are earmarks of the area where I'm from.
LS: Although your first novel, Clay's Quilt, is contemporary, A Parchment of Leaves is set back in time. How much research--and what kind of research--did you do in order to write such a convincing historical novel? Give us some examples.
SH: This is a book that was written in the woods and in my garden. Every good thing about this novel came to me while I was doing the things that Vine does in the novel, whether it be picking blackberries or hoeing corn, sitting in the woods or studying the night sky outside during the coldest winter nights. To go back to 1917 and the years just before and after that, I had to completely forget everything I knew about myself. One of the most important things to me about this book was to get the time period right. I wanted people to feel as if they were really living in the early 1900's while reading this book without hammering them over the head. So I tried to incorporate everyday life of the times into the book, women washing their clothes out in the creek or a hog-killing or a house-raising party. But I really did try to live more simply while I was working on this book. I spent a whole lot of time studying the woods, soaking up the spiritual energy of the trees. My favorite line in the book is "Maybe the trees were God." Because if you spend a whole lot of time in the forest, you can completely understand Vine's statement.
LS: That’s one of my favorite lines, too. And I think it’s remarkable how well you captured the spirit of the place and of the time. In your own opinion, what are the major themes of A Parchment of Leaves? What do you hope that your readers will take away from this novel and keep with them?
SH: I think this book is about forgiveness. It asks a pretty big question: Why do people do such evil things to one another? And of course there is no logical answer to that question. The only conclusion is the one that Vine eventually arrives at, the realization that as long as there is forgiveness and kindness in the world, then all the evil is bearable. There is a lot of subtle, unspoken forgiveness going on in this book. Vine ends up raising Aaron's child. Esme raises Aaron although he does not belong to her. Vine doesn't hold it against Aidia when she leaves Matracia behind, and so on. I really wanted to show a group of people who were real--by that I mean that they were fallible--but also very kind. I wanted to explore the complexities of evil and kindness and forgiveness and I hope that the reader comes away with a sense of hope after reading this novel. I want people to listen to Vine's message, to understand that strength resides within us all. One of my favorite scenes is when Vine carries Aaron's body up the mountain and she says "You can do a lot when you're in a fix," meaning that times of great stress make you stronger. And I also hope that people leave the book with a stronger understanding of their own connections to their families. I don't think there's anything regional about this book at all. It's a universal story about acceptance and spirituality to me.
LS: I’m amazed and impressed that you can write so believably from a woman’s point of view. It’s almost uncanny. How did you manage this? And why did you choose to tell this story from Vine's point of view--instead of, say, her husband's?
SH: Well, I think one of the major things that work in this novel is that you feel as if Vine is revealing all these secrets to you, the reader, and to nobody else. It creates a real sense of intimacy between Vine and the reader. Because this book is just full of secrets. So the only way I could really pull that off was by having Vine tell it to you herself. Originally I hesitated about writing from a woman's point of view because I knew if it wasn't well done that it would discount the whole novel. I was bogged down by the "gender issue." But then I came to understand that I just had to write about a human being and that was the most important thing. And I was very lucky to have been surrounded by strong women all my life. When I was a child, I remember getting under the kitchen table while my mother and her sister would talk, just so I could hear their stories. And both my grandmothers were excellent storytellers and very, very strong women who had overcome a lot in their lifetimes. In a way, I think of this book as a hymn to all those strong women in my life. I dedicated the book to my mother, aunt, sister, and wife because they just amaze me with their strength. And I wanted to create a really strong female character. I've always been much more intrigued by female characters--they're more complex and surprising. So in every situation I was putting myself in a woman's shoes--and asking my wife lots of questions about the way women see the world differently than men.
LS: Murder is a central plot element in both A Parchment of Leaves and Clay's Quilt, yet these novels rise far above such pervasive Appalachian stereotypes as the violent hillbilly family clan or the vicious redneck. As you write, how much are you aware of the negative stereotypical images of Appalachia which still permeate many people's minds?
SH: I am very aware of those stereotypes. I've been faced with that prejudice many, many times and naturally it makes me uncomfortable but I've never let it get me down. People are going to believe what they want to and one of my mottos is an Eleanor Roosevelt quote--"no one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I don't let those misconceptions affect me at all when I'm writing. I don't write with an agenda. I write to tell a story, and I believe if I present my world in an authentic and honest way, then the dignity of my characters will come through. However, I tend to believe that people are violent everywhere. I think that there are smart and ignorant people everywhere. Good and bad people are not exclusive to one region or another. So the violence in the book--to me, at least--has very little to do with the place but more to do with the characters.
LS: To be a writer is to be, in some sense, always an outsider--since the very act of writing separates the writer from the community he writes about. Many writers, in fact, are writing as exiles, about communities they grew up in or where they used to live. Yet you and Teresa and your children still live right in the midst of your entire extended family. Tell us your family and your community have reacted to Clay's Quilt and A Parchment of Leaves? Give us some examples.
SH: “Don't get above your raising” is a saying that my family has always lived by. To get above one's raising is like the eighth deadly sin where I'm from. I know that my family and my townspeople are proud of my books, but they rarely verbalize that to me, just because that's not really the way people do things in my neck of the woods. People here tend to show you they're proud of you instead of telling you, and they do that in many different ways. For instance, friends of my mother cut out every single newspaper article about me or the book and put them in scrapbooks. Men who worked with my father for years and had never read a book before come to my signings. Those are the things that humble me and make my day. But some things do bother me. I think some people are somewhat intimidated by me because I'm a writer. Somewhere back in time someone pulled the wool over the public's eyes and convinced them that writers were smarter than other people. We're not smarter or weirder or any of those things for the most part. Basically the only thing different about a writer is that he or she is a very good observer, a good eavesdropper. We look at the world differently and that's the extent of it. I've always been a very two-sided person, sort of like I had a split personality in some ways. I love to fish for bluegills as much as I love to read, if that makes any sense. So what I'm trying to say is that it sometimes bothers me that some people at home don't think of me as a real person, because I am.
LS: After you graduated from college, you worked as a rural mailman for some years while you wrote fiction on the side. How did this day job help or hinder your true vocation of writer?
SH: Being a mail carrier shaped me into the writer I eventually became and I'm sure that I would have never been published if I hadn't taken that job. For awhile I worked as a journalist but I realized that it was hindering my creative writing, so I began to look for something that would require no writing. I got the job at the post office and it was incredibly hard work, but it was also very beneficial. I was alone for the most part on my mail route, driving through the country delivering mail while I formed whole scenes and chapters in my mind. My customers along the route changed me as a writer, too. They'd lean on their mailboxes and tell me their stories. And being on the route put me on intimate terms with the weather. I'm sure that it helped my descriptive skills about the natural world because when you're a mail carrier and a thunderstorm comes, you can't run in and get away from it. You have to stay right in the storm, so you get to know rain in a way you never did before. Same thing with snow and summer heat and every other element. I feel blessed to not have to carry the mail anymore, though. It's much harder than people think--physically and mentally. But I'm thankful to have done it. What I'm saying here is key to being a writer, I think. If you're a writer you have to understand that every single thing in your life plays into your creative process. You can make everything work to your benefit because a huge chunk of being a good writer is experience. So everything you do becomes fodder for good material. And of course the main thing is to learn how to observe these experiences. A good writer is really just a good observer of the world.
LS: Now you have left the Post Office to become a full-time writer--which involves book tours, speaking engagements, etc. This would appear to be a "dream come true," but I'm curious: is it? What are the pros and cons of your new life as a full-time writer?
SH: In many ways, it is a dream come true. I still can't believe it when I go to a bookstore and a crowd of people have come to see me speak. It's surreal to be in the airport and see someone reading your book-your own words that you lived with for years and years. And it's especially incredible to see my book on a library shelf where it's available for anyone who wants it, whether they have any money or not. So I do feel very blessed…I'm thankful everyday that I'm able to do what I love and get paid for it. For many, many years I worked in jobs that I just hated, jobs where I'd have to remind myself of my paycheck just to get through the day. But of course there are cons to every job--nothing is perfect. The worst part is having to travel. I hate flying and some events simply require that I fly there. I don't like being away from home, from my own bed, from my vegetable garden and my children and my family. As jobs go, I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing. I never thought I'd be fortunate enough to do what I love for a living.
LS: By using the same geographical setting for both A Parchment of Leaves and Clay's Quilt, you seem to be creating a whole fictional region I'm coming to think of as "Silas House country"--much like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Obviously, place is a very important element of your fiction. Discuss this.
SH: This is something that's very hard for me to explain. Somehow, the land is simply a very important part of my being and I'm not sure how to articulate the way I feel about this. We're defined by where we're from, though, I know that much. And having grown up where I did, the land was inescapable. When you walk outside and there's a mountain in front of you, you can't deny its existence and its importance. The land is always in control, even when we don't realize it. And basically, this world is what I know best, and I believe in writing about the things I know. And of course when I think of place I'm also thinking of more than the actual, physical land. Place is more about the people who inhabit it, the food they eat, the way they talk to each other. So the short answer is that I love all those things so much that the only way I can write is to include them.
LS: Music often plays a large role in your fiction. What does music mean to you, as a writer?
SH: I once heard someone say that music is the balm and that's one of the truest things I ever heard. Music is all of our emotions made into an audible form. Music articulates our deepest, most firmly-held fears and beliefs and joys. I don't really trust people who aren't passionate about music. Because it's one of the few things worth being passionate about. These first two books got a lot of attention for incorporating music into the narrative, but I didn't do that consciously. It was only natural that my love for music should bubble up in these books because it's such a huge part of my life. I always have music on. To me, the type of music a particular character listens to says a whole lot about that character. A song can completely set the mood for a scene. And when I think of music, I'm not just talking about songs. I try to always let the reader hear the music of a particular scene, whether it be an old hymn being sung or the sound of the creek falling over rocks or the cry of crickets and cicadas on a summer's evening. Those things are the first forms of music, and the truest kinds, too.
LS: Who are your heroes?
SH: My heroes are all those people you never hear about. People like my parents who worked their way up out of poverty and really made something of themselves by working hard all their lives and being honest and never sacrificing their dignity to get ahead in the world. Real people are my heroes--not any celebrities or politicians or anyone like that. Those are the people who really make the world go round, and those are the people I write about. I want my work to be a tribute to those people--folks who know that the important things in life are family and friends. I'm pretty disgusted by our culture, to be honest, a culture that makes heroes out of pop stars and politicians. We have become a nation who watches the parade go by. We sit back in awe of movie stars and form our beliefs based on what those celebrities believe. It's just ridiculous.
LS: Ten years from now, where do you expect to be, and what do you expect to be doing?
SH: I expect to be living in the same place I've always lived--the place of my birth--and to still be writing. That's my greatest hope, that I can continue to do what I love and live in the place I love. I think that Vine says it best towards the beginning of the book when she says "That's all anybody can ask for, if you think about it--to have somebody love you and depend on you and take care of you when you're sick, and mourn over your casket when you die. Family's the only thing a person's got in this life." That's my philosophy on life.
1. On her wedding day, Vine Sullivan says: “Family’s the only thing a person’s got in this life.” Yet, when Vine attempts to tell Saul about Aaron’s menacing behavior, she realizes what Saul’s “great fault” is: “He would always choose his family over me.” How does Vine cope with this realization throughout the course of the novel? Explore how the concept of family is developed in this story.
2. Explain why the title of Part I of the novel, “Confluence,” is an appropriate label for this section of the story.
3. By the end of Part I, Vine seems conflicted: lonely, yet at peace; happy, but restless; homesick, but able to make her own home with Saul. Vine also seems to have a more heightened sensory awareness than the other characters, always noting the smells, sights, tastes, sounds, and feelings around her. How do these character traits serve her during the story?
4. Why is Saul Sullivan such a poor communicator in person but such an articulate letter-writer?
5. How does music operate within this story? Are you familiar with the song references and lyrics? Does the banjo have symbolic meaning in the story?
6. Purple colors are often referred to in the story. What does the color purple signify for you?
7. How does nature serve as a main character in this novel? Consider references to landscapes, creeks, mountains, birds, wildflowers, trees, snakes, etc.
8. Discuss Silas House’s use of vernacular speech in this story. What words or phrases spoken by the characters are unfamiliar to you? How do the characters’ dialects affect your interpretation of the story? What do you learn about the characters and the place where they live through their speaking styles?
9. Are you familiar with the mountain traditions described in the book such as a “house raising” or a “hog killing”? What about the many folklore beliefs and rituals practiced by Esme? What are some of the traditions or rituals you learned from your family or community, and how do they compare or contrast to the practices of Appalachians at the turn of the 20th century?
10. Even though Vine would not know the modern word “feminist,” would you label her as a feminist? Why or why not? What are your personal connotations for the word “feminist” and the notion of “feminism?”
11. Vine’s friend Serena serves traditional feminine roles in the community such as midwife, caregiver, and mother, yet she is described as being rough as a man; she chain smokes and wears men’s clothes. How do these androgynous characteristics affect your perception of Serena?
12. Discuss Vine’s awareness of the rigidity of men’s and women’s roles in her time and community. For example, she notes: “Men and women never sat beside one another at the table;” “A woman had never offered to shake my hand before–it was something that only men did;” and “In a place where men had once made things so busy, now there was only women…. Sometimes it seemed like we would do just fine without any men at all.”
13. Describe the relationship Vine has with the women in her community who are not related to her: Serena, Esme, and Aidia. What is the significance of both Vine and Aidia being “outsiders?”
14. Discuss the prejudices that the characters in A Parchment of Leaves either endure or participate in. Consider: Native American vs. European American, masculine roles vs. feminine roles, townspeople vs. “creekers,” church goers vs. free thinkers, etc.
15. With which character(s) do you most closely identify? Why?
16. By the end of the novel, Vine Sullivan has a complete, complex, and conflicted cultural identity. Discuss how her heritage, region, and gender impact her self-awareness and shape her various roles as mother, wife, daughter-in-law, farmer, and community member.