Water and Blood: Amy Greene Just Might be the Best Contemporary Appalachian Novelist Around

This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. — 1 John 5:6-8

...

Amy Greene cannot stop talking.

If you do enough interviews, you learn that some people will ramble on when they're nervous, and some people will chitchat because they can't stand silence, but it's different with Amy Greene.

She can't stop talking.

When Greene starts talking about herself—which means talking about her family—which means talking about the land where she grew up in Bulls Gap, a few miles northeast of Morristown—she can't stop.

She answers almost every question you have before you ask it. She answers questions you didn't have. She tells weird, hilarious stories but then quickly adds, "Oh, that's off the record. People will think I'm so strange if they know that."

You get the feeling if she weren't a novelist, Greene might be an excellent real estate agent, or maybe a sales rep—some job where you talk a lot all day, and get people to talk to you.

You also get the feeling that Greene writes like she talks—because she has to, because she can't stop, because words are the most important thing to her, other than her family.

"When I was a child, I wore a path there," Greene says one recent afternoon, gesturing to the creek that runs near her parents' house and the family farm. "I couldn't even write then, but I'd spend hours just pacing back and forth, telling myself stories."

Communing with nature while telling stories—that's how Greene writes, even when she's in neighboring Russellville, sitting inside at her desk in the cute yellow house on a hill that she shares with her husband, two children, and three small dogs. She can't help it.

"Here's where I go when I write—not physically, but spiritually," Greene says, surveying the spectacular vista from the top of the hill behind her parents' home, the hill her grandmother dubbed "Old Jordan." Everything is painted in different shades of green as far as the eye can see, minus the occasional cow or house dotting the landscape. A wild turkey scurries past as clouds waft in the breeze overhead.

It's so beautiful it takes your breath away. You can see why Greene has such an attachment to these 40 acres.

"I know that I'll always end up here. And I'll probably die here," Greene says. "The land here gets in your blood."

...

Early in the evening on Feb. 25, Greene is trying to keep her nervous energy in check. She's strolling around a large home off Lyons Bend in a black lace-edged tunic and leggings, smiling and shaking hands and occasionally exclaiming, "Oh! I can't believe you came!"

It's the publication day for Greene's second novel, Long Man, and the Knoxville Writers' Guild has thrown a party. There are catered hors d'oeuvres and wine, and Greene's husband Adam is taking pictures of everything that happens.

Dale Dickey, who voiced the audiobook of Long Man, has sent flowers and an e-mail expressing her regret at missing the event—she's on set in Canada. The hostess reads part of the e-mail to the crowd.

"It was such an honor and pleasure to be the reader of your story for the audio book. I fell in love with the people on the river and in the valleys and hills instantly," Dickey writes. "My soul connected with theirs. I understood them. … [Y]our words transformed this story, creating a living breathing world in which I could literally see the landscapes you painted; smell the flowers and apples; hear the birds, the river; feel the mud, the rocks; taste the sweat and tears of this community. I didn't want to say goodbye to any of them as the book came closer to an end. … I am so proud that I had the opportunity to TRY to do justice to your unique voice."

After everyone is done gushing over Dickey's prose, Greene talks a little bit about the premise of her novel, which is set in a fictional small town (not unlike Bulls Gap) as TVA prepares to flood it to create a lake, but one last household has refused to move.

She reads a bit from the beginning, in her soft Appalachian twang.

He hesitated again. "I understand your feelings. I grew up on a farm like yours." "This is not my farm," she said. Washburn opened his mouth and closed it. "I have a little girl. It belongs to her." He cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. Do you want her to see you dragged off in handcuffs?" The Dodson woman's eyes caught fire.

Greene pauses, catches a breath.

"That's exactly what I want." "Mrs. Dodson—" "I want her to see it and never forget it."

Greene pauses again. It's a powerful moment, and she lets it linger. Later, the woman—Annie Clyde Dodson—will question her decision, when her daughter goes missing just before the town is to be flooded, and later that TVA agent, Sam Washburn, will have questions of his own, but Greene's not going to read from that part tonight. Right now, she's fine with you just understanding how tough Dodson is, how precious a family farm can be, even if to outside eyes it may not look like much.

Of course, what Appalachian woman isn't tough, right? As adept with a shotgun as a hoe, handy with a skillet, and secretly hiding a heart as tender as the flakiest biscuit. Haven't you seen Justified?

Greene has, actually, and she likes it—Timothy Olyphant is "dreamy," she laughs—but it'd be a mistake to think her depictions of Appalachia, both in Long Man and her first novel, Bloodroot, have anything to do with cliches or stereotypes. Green's writing about the land she knows and the people she loves—lives as they actually are.

In his review of Long Man in the Washington Post, critic Ron Charles dubs the novel "an unusually poetic literary thriller." He writes, "In summary these mountain folk sound as hackneyed as the Country Bear Jamboree, and as the rain falls and the river rises, the potential here for melodrama is high. But Greene is too fine a writer for that. As she works in the stylistic territory of Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ron Rash, her sentences seem to rise up from the soil of this harsh, beautiful land. She gives voice to the aching desires of unsophisticated people who possess a complex, profound understanding of themselves and their doomed way of life."

That's just the beginning of the raves the book has gotten. In the New York Times Book Review, Daniel Woodrell, the author of Winter's Bone, calls Long Man "aching, passionate and vivid." And a starred review in Publisher's Weekly compared the novel to "a classical myth or a painting by Thomas Hart Benton."

"Greene's enormous talent animates the voices and landscape of East Tennessee so vividly, and creates such exquisite tension, that the reader is left as exhausted and devastated as the characters in this unforgettable story," the reviewer writes.

But all those reviews will come after tonight, after Greene's done signing the stack of novels in front of her on the piano, sometime in the middle of a book tour that has her crisscross the South the entire month of March and pop up to Minnesota in April. That's when Greene will feel "blessed and grateful" to get "dream reviews" from authors and critics she respects.

"There are writers who say they don't matter or they don't care about them or they don't even read them, but for me, it has meant something. Especially the Times review," Greene says. "I can't feel like this book is a failure when people have given it the kind of respect they've given it, and when readers have had the kind of reaction they've had to it."

...

Greene lives just a few miles from where she grew up. She's never really wanted to leave. Her home isn't as rural as her parents' place—it's in a small suburb, tucked in the rolling hills outside Morristown—but if you look across the street, there's an old barn collapsing in on itself.

"That's why I love it," Greene says. "I can still see cows, but I can also be at McDonald's in 10 minutes."

McDonald's might be Greene's only vice. She's no longer the strict Baptist she was raised to be—"For me, my faith is a solitary thing," Greene says—but she's still never had a drop to drink.

Greene's also still married to her high school sweetheart after 20 years. Upon meeting her in person, this fact seems impossible—Greene looks much younger than her 38 years, and certainly not old enough to have a son who'll be starting Carson-Newman in the fall. But she says that when she met Adam Greene during a high school theatrical production, that was it for her. Two years later, when Greene finished high school, the two got married. Two years after that, she had her son Taylor, who's now 18. A few years later, along came her daughter Emma, now 11.

Greene says she didn't actively decide not to go to college, it was just that life happened in the meantime. Her mother, Catherine Oler, remembers it a little differently.

"Amy didn't like any part of school but the writing part," Oler says, as her miniature schnauzer Daisy hops all over the front porch. She says Greene's grades were terrible in subjects like math and science, so traditional college would have been a struggle anyway. And she says that she might have been concerned about her daughter marrying so young if it weren't for Amy being Amy and Adam being Adam.

"It's hard to explain, but when we met him, he just became a part of us, you know?" Oler says. "And Amy—once her mind is made up, she's gonna do what she wants. That's how she's always been."

But Oler says she had no doubt that Greene would eventually become a writer, whatever path she took.

"I knew from when she was 2 or 3 years old. She loved her books. Every week we'd go to the grocery store, and I'd tell her she could pick one thing out, and all she ever wanted was a book—one of those Little Golden Books, you know? And when we got home, before I could even put up the groceries, I had to read it to her right then," Oler says.

Maybe it was fate—the Little Golden Books are published by Random House, which also publishes Greene's novels under the Alfred A. Knopf imprint. In any case, Oler says that once Greene could read and write on her own, she was constantly writing stories, which her father would help her turn into "books," with little bindings and everything. In high school, Greene won prizes for her poetry. But then came Adam, and everything else that followed.

Greene worked as a telemarketer for a while, selling portrait packages for Olan Mills. She was a florist for a little bit, and worked other odd jobs for Adam's father, whatever wouldn't interfere with childcare and homeschooling Taylor and Emma. Then came the day it all started to change.

"My son was seven and my daughter was one, and there was a snowstorm, and they were bored—well, Taylor was bored," Greene recalls. "I told him, ‘Well, when I was your age, I used to write stories when I got bored.' And down in the basement I have these Rubbermaid boxes full of my old stories, and I went down there, and I brought them up just to show them to him.

"I got really sad," Greene continues. "I realized that when I was a kid, if anyone asked me what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be, I always said I wanted to be an author. And I realized that I had lost that as a dream somewhere along the way—I just let it be a hobby. I had just lost that ambition, I guess. And so I really kind of decided that day—that was my turning point."

It wasn't long before Greene discovered an unconventional low-residency undergraduate program at Vermont College in Montpelier. She could complete most of her work at home, and when she had to be in residency a few weeks of the year, the whole family usually went with her. And she wrote and wrote and wrote. Sometimes until 3 or 4 a.m.

It helps that Adam has a flexible schedule—he's a photographer for Carson-Newman's athletic department and a freelance sports writer for a number of newspapers, including the News Sentinel. Still, juggling college coursework with homeschooling and basic childcare seems like a lot. Greene shrugs it off as if nothing.

"They're easy kids!" Greene laughs. "But I think what's made that really easier is because I have a support system. I have Adam, who's really supportive, and I have my parents, who have a super loving, close relationship with my kids."

As Greene was finishing up her degree in 2007, she decided to apply to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, one of the most prestigious summer fiction workshops in the nation. She was the first person they accepted that year. And that was that—authorial success, guaranteed.

At least, according to Adam.

"I one hundred percent expected this. I had no question about it. Now, she"—he gestures to his wife across the room—"says this is because I'm optimistic, but when she was accepted into Sewanee, I said, ‘Game over.'"

Greene interrupts. "He did say that."

"I just knew that was going to happen, though," Adam replies.

Greene laughs. "You're so smug!"

"Am I lying?" Adam asks, turning from me to face his wife.

"No, he's not," Greene says with a grin, slightly shaking her head.

"She's a pessimist, and I'm an optimist, and I think that's why our relationship works so well," Adam says. "But if anything, it was just a matter of time before she got published."

Greene blushes. She looks at her husband with a gaze that can only be described as adoring.

"I always knew how great she was, and I figured everyone else would figure it out someday," Adam says. "Now they have."

...

What happened when Greene went to Sewanee was this: She showed her unfinished draft of Bloodroot to Jill McCorkle. And McCorkle was blown away.

"I can't begin to say how many manuscripts I have read over the years but it's in the thousands by now," McCorkle writes in an e-mail. "Amy was in a very tiny percentage in that she showed up with a novel ready to go. That is very unusual!"

McCorkle told Greene that when she finished the draft, she'd be glad to put her in touch with her agent, Leigh Feldman. McCorkle says the book spoke to her.

"Bloodroot—like Long Man—has such an immediate sense of place and character. The language is rich and clearly came to Amy naturally. I loved all the lore and knowledge of the place and the way Amy utilized it all. There was beauty and there was suspense," McCorkle writes.

Feldman started shopping the book around, and within a week, Robin Desser at Knopf picked it up.

"Reading Bloodroot was love at first sentence, actually. I was instantly grabbed by the beautiful, evocative prose, the intricate storytelling, her amazing, Wordsworthian love of nature," Desser writes in an e-mail. "It was clear to me from the start that here was a new Bard for this part of America. ... It moved me quite a great deal—in the guts as well as the head and heart."

After revisions and revisions—Greene jokingly compares the process to an MFA program—Bloodroot finally came out in 2010. A tale of three generations told in alternating voices, Bloodroot garnered mixed reviews from prestige publications. The Times criticized her "awkward symbolism," and the Onion AV Club said Greene "is more interested in Appalachia as a sort of mystical Shangri-la." (However, the review later admitted the novel "succeeds in spite of its active attempts to trip itself up.")

But Bloodroot also drew comparisons to Wuthering Heights, Flannery O'Connor, and early Cormac McCarthy. Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Some novels are so powerful, so magical in their sweep and voice, that they leave you feeling drugged. Close the pages and the people in them keep right on talking to you. …

"Greene's writing is so pure and effortless, so evocative of a far-off place, that the beauty of her words transcends whatever miseries her characters must overcome. … Greene, who grew up in the Smoky Mountains, captures what poverty looks and feels and sounds like. Her descriptions of a life lived by the railroad tracks rival any corner scene from The Wire. … This is a terribly sad, breathtakingly good read."

That one review sold a lot of books. Greene was profiled in Glamour. She went to New York and San Francisco. And she couldn't breathe.

"I had never done public speaking, I had never traveled—Vermont was the farthest I had been—with Bloodroot, everything was brand-new and nerve-wracking. Even just getting on a plane to go to San Francisco, and I'd never been on a plane before—" Greene pauses. "It was all just overwhelming to me, and I couldn't enjoy it properly."

Still, her family and friends were excited for her. And now that her second book is out, there's even more excitement to go around.

"I am thrilled by Amy's wonderful and well deserved reception," McCorkle says.

Her editor is even more fulsome.

"I'm struck by how fluidly she moves between different voices and historical time periods while still maintaining her connection to the geography and culture of Appalachia. No one else writing today does quite what she does," Desser says.

Greene says the second go-round has been less stressful.

"[Being on book tour] became this rare experience, and I saw it for what it was—not everybody gets to do this. What a privilege it is. It's something to enjoy and not to dread," Greene says.

Both Bloodroot and Long Man draw on Greene's experiences growing up in the area, but neither is in the least autobiographical. Instead, Greene pulls from the stories she's heard, as well as those she's told herself. The inspiration for Bloodroot is an empty shack at the top of hill on the road to where her sister used to live. The inspiration for Long Man came from a neighbor of her parents.

"Cherokee Lake is about 10 miles from here. We had a neighbor right down the road, and his dad had been flooded out twice. That's why they moved—they were relocated to our road. And not too long after he moved there, he killed himself. And [his son] believed it was because of just the heartbreak and the stress of that, of losing his land, and losing his land two different times," Greene says.

"It could easily have been—if it had just come a little bit farther—the land where we walked today," she adds, referencing Old Jordan and the farm. "That childhood home that has grounded me and shaped me as a person would just be gone. And to think about that is scary. And I put a lot of that—my attachment to home, and those feelings of loss—for something that didn't even happen but I could imagine it so well—into my characters in Long Man."

The sense of loss is palpable in the novel. It's also palpable in Greene, who points out change after change as you drive through the country. That used to be a farm, not a subdivision. That used to be a farm, not a chicken hatchery. That used to be a forest before the sawmill cut it down.

"It's not as pretty as it used to be," Greene says about the road where she grew up. "And now there's that chicken poop smell. I don't mind the cow poop, but I just can't handle the chickens."

Greene's not a negative person, mind you—she's effusive and bubbly and as friendly as can be. She's a hugger. But that pessimism her husband mentioned is present. Sometimes omnipresent.

"Time goes so fast," Greene sighs. "I'm trying to live in the moment because I'm a worrier. I think that's why I write all the time."

...

Amy Greene has been talking for hours now, while driving around, while walking all over Old Jordan and down by the railroad tracks, while munching on a burger and shake at the Dairy Dream, and now while sitting at her house, filled with books in the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom, decorated with prints of book jackets on the walls.

Appalachian culture is having a moment, between the Mumfords and the moonshine and, yes, Justified. But that hasn't helped Greene find a wider audience, at least not yet.

"If anything, it's a hindrance," Greene says. "Probably if I wrote about New York, I would have a wider readership."

She rolls her eyes, then partially laughs at herself, at the thought of her, Amy Greene from Bulls Gap, writing a book about New York.

"Writing about rural people is not cool. It's not trendy, it's not hip," Greene says. "My agent said—and I get what she means—that Bloodroot was a sexier book than Long Man. ... And so it sold better—so far—and got more attention. But that's something I can't think about at all. I can't think about perception or any of that, because it would just ruin the work. I think it was Anne Lamott—she said, ‘Writing is its own reward.' And it's so, so true. I write because I feel compelled to, and whatever comes is what comes."

Greene's hard at work on her third novel—the draft is due in July. This one will be a little bit more autobiographical, a coming-of-age story set in the 1980s and '90s, told in the first person, centering on the changing landscape of Appalachia and industrialization.

"I'm hoping it will come out faster [than four years], but as soon as I say that—" Greene laughs.

Meanwhile her mother will be a few miles away, waiting to read the next installment in her daughter's life.

"I don't think I've ever told her this, you know. But Amy has gotten to do what I would have liked to do, a little," Oler says with a catch in her voice. "It pleases me that she's realizing her dream. I don't think she even realizes what she's done, though. ... But I want everything for her."

Oler's lived in the same small white house with a tin roof since her father built it in 1944, when she was four. She raised her son and two daughters there, helped with the farm, worked at the Magnavox factory for 13 years. Watching her daughter's success has been something else entirely.

"To me it still doesn't seem real," Oler says.

But when Greene does travel—when she make publicity appearances, or goes to conferences or workshops—she still calls Oler every day.

"She explains everything that happens to me, every little detail," Oler says. "She can just describe it so well to me, it's almost like I'm there."