I’ve been a huge Silas House fan ever since reading his novel Clay’s Quilt on the recommendation of an author friend. Nobody writes the varied landscapes — physical, emotional, and cultural — of the American South quite like he does. From the buzzsaw thrum of cicadas on a stifling summer night, to the gray smell of stones cooled in river water, to the beads of condensation on a pitcher of sweet tea, to a quiet moment of connection between a father and a son, the heart of this place beats in his books.
In Southernmost, House returns with a story of a land in crisis — beset by a flood of near Biblical proportion, sweeping houses from their foundations, and a life in crisis — beset by a reckoning of faith, sweeping a man trying to live his best from his foundation. It’s a stirring, haunting tale of faith and family at a crossroads, woven through with his sumptuous descriptions and poetic sentences that demand to be lingered over and reread.
I was fortunate enough to get to ask him some questions, and I’m happy to share our conversation with you here.
– Jeff Zentner
Jeff Zentner: What inspired your choice to make the Nashville flood of 2010 the backdrop of your story?
Silas House: When I was little, our home was quickly overtaken by a flood and we barely escaped. So I had personal experience, and I knew the way an event like that can impact you spiritually and physically. When the 2010 flood hit, I heard a preacher on the radio saying it was the wrath of God because of “accepting gays.” I had already created this character who I knew was going to make a principled stand for equality and as soon as I heard that, I knew I had the impetus for the entire novel. So mine is a fictionalized version of that flood that I’ve moved to 2015 to coincide with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. I loved working against such a dramatic backdrop to begin the novel.
(Related: Read House’s op-ed in The New York Times, “The Masterpiece Decision Isn’t Harmless.”)
JZ: You write the food of our region so well. What’s behind the decision to make food such an important feature in your stories? (Also: what do you pick for your last meal?)
SH: I always strive to make my writing as sensory as I can and few things do that as well as food. And we have such a strong cultural attachment to food — I mean, I’ve seen arguments bordering on violence about whether or not cornbread should or should not have sugar in it. (For the record, I say no.) I love the ceremony of food, the art of it, and really, I like writing about it. As for a last meal, probably a baked potato and a huge bowl of cole slaw. I guess it’s the Irish in me, but if I have potatoes and cabbage, I’m happy.
JZ: Is there something special about the relationship between fathers and sons and between brothers that drew you to write about them in Southernmost?
SH: I think it’s endlessly interesting to write about male relationships, mostly because there are so many assumptions and misconceptions about them. I love examining those complexities. I’ve always been fascinated with sibling relationships — my novel The Coal Tattoo looks at two sisters — and I especially enjoyed writing about these brothers who loved each other so much despite initially having such opposing views of what makes a person good.
JZ: What are the challenges of writing struggle with faith?
SH: The challenge is writing about faith at all because everyone has such different ways of thinking about faith issues. My main goal is never to stereotype believers, which can very easily be done. The great thing about a novel is that we really get to delve into characters and look at the complexity of doubt and belief. As you know, novelists are always looking to put their characters in as much trouble as possible and crises of belief certainly put them there. Asher is full of doubt, which troubles him deeply, and Lydia has complete confidence that her way of believing is the way everyone should believe. Then there’s the little boy, who has come up with his own concept of God called The Everything. So I’m dealing with the whole spectrum in the book and always hoping to present them all in a complex way.
JZ: Your characters are so vivid and nuanced. How do you come to know them — to call them out of the darkness?
SH: I spent years developing the main character, Asher, and going through my day from his point of view. For instance, he is on the run from the law, so when I was out to eat with friends and a state trooper came in, I thought about that from Asher’s point of view as if he was sitting there with his kidnapped son in the booth with him. I scribbled down all the things he’d be feeling in that moment. To me it’s very important to completely know the characters before I ever start putting words on the page. And one thing I always do is figure out what my characters’ favorite songs or singers are — that gives me the best insight into them.
JZ: Can you talk a bit more about the role music plays in this book? It’s a constant pulse through your writing. And not in a general sense. You name names.
SH: Once I knew that Asher was moved and changed by the music of Patty Griffin, I knew more about him. Once I figured out that Justin is obsessed with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, I had him pegged. Then there’s Bell, who has named her cottage after a Joni Mitchell song. For me, music is such an integral part of everyday life that I can’t imagine characters who don’t care as deeply about it as I do. This book had a soundtrack of about 75 songs that I listened to over and over again over the course of many years and that hugely informed the theme and mood of the novel.
JZ: What are the books, music, and pop culture generally that you’d recommend right now?
SH: The best book I’ve read in a long time is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Every sentence is a gem. I’ve told you this privately so I’ll say publicly that your book, The Serpent King, is one of the most moving reading experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not one to cry while reading but I wept a couple times during that one! My favorite album over the last year has been Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s Not Dark Yet. The films that have haunted me the most lately are The Florida Project and 45 Years. TV: Shetland, Kiri: National Treasure, One Mississippi, and Call the Midwife.
JZ: Best experience you’ve had in or with a bookstore?
SH: My favorite bookstore experiences are always talking to the people who come out. Recently a woman waited around at the end of a line in a bookshop to tell me that her mother had died the month before and that she read one of my books to her on her deathbed. She was obviously still reeling from grief. I just asked her if I could hug her and she had a cry on my shoulder. It’s amazing to be able to meet people and hear their stories and to know that your book had some unexpected impact on their lives. I’ve always been vocal about the importance of indie bookstores and one reason is that they really know how to run events so that the line moves along but also allows for moments like that to happen. And people feel comfortable coming into a great indie — it’s like a second home to them.
Jeff Zentner is the author of The Serpent King, Goodbye Days, and — forthcoming in February 2019 — Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee. He lives in Nashville with his family, which includes a puppy named Greg.
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“This story of one man’s awakening and atonement is beautifully paced and structured, optimistic and hopeful in the best sort of way.” – Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain
“A spiritual journey, a love story, and a classic road novel . . . With its themes of acceptance and equality, Southernmost holds a special meaning for America right now, with relevance even beyond its memorable story.” – Lee Smith, author of Dimestore