Amy Greene's nationally acclaimed first novel, Bloodroot, spans three generations in and around a small fictional East Tennessee hamlet called Millertown, a thinly veiled version of Morristown, where the 35-year-old Greene has lived all her life. The story's center is Myra Lamb, an almost supernaturally attractive young woman whose life veers off course, and pulls three generations of friends and family along when it does.
Are you working on anything new?
I'm working on a second novel, and I'm actually editing it right now. It's called Longman, which is what the Cherokees called the Tennessee River. It takes place during the Great Depression. On a plot level it's about a little girl who goes missing from a town in the Tennessee Valley in the month before it's about to be flooded by a dam. But it's also an exploration of whether progress is always a force for good. I really wanted to think about that. In Morristown we have Cherokee Lake—when the water goes down you can see the tops of silos and the old roads going down into the lake, and it made me think about all the history that's lost under those lakes. At the same time, I've benefitted directly from the TVA, because before that came along my grandfather was a subsistence farmer and then my parents worked in the factories that came about as a result of the TVA. So it's kind of this gray area—is it a good thing or a bad thing?
How did you come up with the form for Bloodroot?
The multiple narrators? I would like to say I had a grand plan and there was a design and I was really smart when I came up with it, but really I didn't start with a plan. I was very compelled by the idea of these characters. It started as this image I had of this woman living in the mountain woods with her twins and hiding from some kind of danger. I really just wanted to explore the characters before anything else. I didn't know at first if a story would evolve. I just picked up my pen and started writing. It started out as these elaborate character sketches, just really getting to know these characters.
I didn't even write about Myra first. She's the heart of the story, but I got to know her through these other characters whose lives she had affected so profoundly. In the end it did start to evolve into a story, especially when I did finally write about Myra. So I had all these character sketches I had to tie into a cohesive story, and that was what I came up with, the alternating voices. It was hard. It was really hard at the end of the day to bring all these disparate voices together and figure out how to do it. In the end you just have to tell the story however you can. It was not an easy task. This time I have come to it with more of a plan, the second novel, and it's been easier.
Has the process of writing changed for you since the success of Bloodroot?
Not really. I did it exactly the same, except I started with an idea this time, instead of just the characters. So I actually had a thought of what I wanted to do first, which I guess is a good thing. It did really occur to me, what would happen if a girl went missing at this time. That was one way that it was different. But I still began by writing longhand in a notebook, the way that I did with Bloodroot, and I still did do some character inspiration first, even though I did have an idea. The characters drive the story. You can have the best idea in the world, but the characters really are the beating heart of the story. And if you don't know them or they're not compelling, it's just going to fall flat.
How much of Bloodroot reflects your childhood and your family's history?
There are pieces of it, for sure. Most people ask if the characters are based on people I know. I just don't see how you can write without writing autobiographically, to some extent. You're putting your heart and soul into the book. With Bloodroot it's more these composites of people. Especially Byrdie, who is very much a composite of the women who raised me, my mom and my aunt, and the ladies I went to church with. There are bits and pieces of people as well as myself.
The way that it's most autobiographical is the land, because I live close to the land, the way Myra did. A lot of my childhood I spent by myself, exploring the hills and woods around my house. Morristown to me was town. I lived in a little community right outside of Morristown but not actually in town. Very much the way Myra sees the world, where she's tucked in the holler and 12 miles down the road is a different world almost—in that way it's very much autobiographical, in that the land is sort of another character. I do feel very close to it.