Crime with a ‘Mid-West’ Gothic edge: Q&A with Tiffany McDaniel

Q&A. Robyn Walton, national co-convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia, quizzed US author Tiffany McDaniel about her new novel, The Summer that Melted Everything (Scribe, Melbourne, 2016).

Hi Tiffany. Congratulations on the publication of your extraordinary novel. As our website readers are fans of crime fiction, I’m going to direct our email conversation towards the ‘crime and wrongdoing’ narrative running through your book.

Your narrator, Fielding Bliss, looks back to when he was aged 13 and growing up in a manufacturing and farming town in beautiful countryside in the Mid-West. It’s a part old-fashioned, part-modern environment, “[a] crash of gingham curtains and spandex mini-skirts”. Early on Fielding tells us the town “had an underbelly”. You’re preparing readers for some kind of small-town nastiness?   

Tiffany: First off, thank you for your congratulations and this wonderful interview opportunity. I really appreciate it. The story takes place in the fictional town of Breathed, Ohio, which is a landscape very much reflective of my childhood summers and school-year weekends spent in southern Ohio, where the hills speak, the creek paces in its own good time, and the roads are dirt-laid and grass-lined. That wildflower song, front porch chatter, and southern twang has shaped me as a writer. Having spent my childhood summers down-home was like being one of the rolling hills, forever rooted in rust and dirt and moon-shine magic. As a child, I saw the place very much through a child’s lens. As I got older I began to recognize the underbelly of the small town. Breathed represents both the child’s innocence of a town and the adult’s realization that not everything is a blooming rose.

The title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has passed into the language as a shorthand way of referring to totalitarianism and surveillance. Your story is mostly set in 1984, as we learn on the first page. To what extent did you want to deal with big-picture issues, the political and social?  

Tiffany: To answer your question, I never outline or plan a novel before I write it. For me, the story evolves with each new word and page I write. So while I never intended to tackle these big-picture issues, they developed naturally with the story and with the characters. The issues ended up being the characters’ truths and as the story developed, I began to see the parallels of Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of loss of individual thought and herd mentality. The best thing an author can do is to always make sure these issues don’t overshadow the story itself. It’s important not to use the characters to drive these issues home, but rather allow the characters to naturally address the issues in a way that is honest to them.

Fielding mentions a notorious US preschool sexual abuse investigation that began in 1984 and involved bizarre allegations of Satanic activities. Fear and moral panic were widespread. Did this real-life phenomenon influence your plotting?

Tiffany: I was born in 1985, so I wasn’t directly aware of the sexual abuse and satanic activities of the decade until I researched the 1980s and got a general understanding of these sorts of activities. While I can’t say these events influenced the writing, they certainly did fall into place in this puzzle. It was one of the reasons the 1980s ended up fitting so well with the story. As you say, fear and moral panic were widespread, two things which course through The Summer that Melted Everything.

Fielding’s father, a prosecuting attorney, is named Autopsy. The word means “to see for oneself”. When regular consumers of crime stories see that word they are going to expect dead bodies and forensic investigations. But it’s likely you’re attaching a wider meaning to the word autopsy

Tiffany: When I named Autopsy, it was because I had seen the word that very day. We’re all familiar with the word autopsy from crime shows and films. The dead body on the cold slab about to be cut open and examined. I didn’t really know its precise definition though and that is “to see for oneself”. It was the perfect name for a man who one day invites the devil to town. This theme carefully lays itself out during the course of the novel. I wish I could say it’s all planned, but really I’m surprised myself as the author just how ingrained this theme became during the course of the novel. For me when I think of the wider meaning of autopsy, I see the book as a body itself, on a cold slab, about to be cut open and examined. Fielding’s telling of the story is in essence one big autopsy of that summer and his life.

Autopsy Bliss issues an audacious invitation. It’s like offering to enter into a Faustian pact, a deal with the Devil. How did you come to decide on this way of setting the action in motion?

Tiffany: When I set out to write each day, I never know the direction the story is going to take so I never planned or decided it would indeed be an invitation. I know this isn’t a very detailed explanation to your question, but creativity is hard to nail down to a science, mostly because I myself don’t know where the ideas come from. Because I don’t outline or plan the story, I didn’t know all that would come from the invitation being in the newspaper. The events after the invitation did indeed surprise me because even though I’m the author, writing a new story is a new road I’ve never driven down before so I’m bound to be surprised myself on the way.

The Bliss family takes in a homeless and precociously talented African-American boy called Sal and he becomes like a brother to Fielding. About 100 pages in, we hear from the sheriff that over a period of years a number of 13-year-old boys from poor black families have disappeared in neighbouring counties. Runaways? Kidnapping victims? This revelation serves to give the remainder of the narrative an enhanced sense of direction ‒ there are mysteries, suspicions and crimes to be sorted. What were your thoughts as you wrote about policing attitudes and practices in the 1980s?

Tiffany: You look at someone like the sheriff of this town and we’re instantly confronted with a man who views law and order in a very casual way. His investigations and policing practices are always going to lack certain finesse. In the case of the missing black boys the fact that their disappearances weren’t fully investigated allowed a lot of mystery to surround their disappearances, but furthermore it spoke to the difference between white victims and black victims. If anything, the crimes against these boys spoke to the larger truth at hand in the novel. That truth being what is right and what is wrong in not just the justice system but in justice itself.

The town has some disabled, grotesque and mentally unwell citizens. Characters’ oddities seem to materialise and externalise difference. How did you develop such characters? Were you deliberately working in the Southern Gothic tradition, echoing a writer such as Flannery O’Connor? 

Tiffany: The characters develop the same way the plot itself does, and that is just me typing the story without outline or plan. That natural evolution leads to the natural development of the characters. To answer your second question, I don’t ever deliberately write a certain way or in a certain genre. I will say I’ve always had a pretty Gothic mind. Give me a derelict mansion in a dying sunflower field with crows flying the turrets and I’ll be right at home. My writing has naturally been of the literary and southern gothic genre. As an author, that’s just been me.

One night Fielding goes out with his skin blackened by shoe polish as “camouflage”. He is soon tackled to the ground, accused of breaking a store window, and subjected to the experience of hearing a woman casually suggest he be killed. Later there will be hostile meetings and a stoning. You’re working in the territory of a writer such as Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”)? 

Tiffany: I love Shirley Jackson. She’s one of my favourite authors. The first novel I read of hers was We Have Always Lived in the Castle. When I read that I didn’t even realize at the time that she was the author of “The Lottery.” I remember faintly looking over “The Lottery” when we were assigned to read it in class. I actually wouldn’t read it thoroughly until years later and had already had The Summer that Melted Everything written by the time I read Shirley Jackson, so the stoning for me had less relation to her short story and more of a relation to the biblical stories of stoning. With such religious themes, I found the idea of a stoning to naturally find its way into the story.

The Summer that Melted Everything + gardenFielding reminds us that 1984 was when scientists identified the virus (HIV) responsible for AIDS. The fear, sadness and horror associated with HIV-AIDS infection at that time are brought close to home when Fielding’s brother is attracted to a predatory gay journalist who visits the town. I was reminded of the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where are you going, where have you been?”. Is that a valid comparison?

Tiffany: That’s a very interesting comparison. I actually never thought of that story myself as I was writing that part in the novel. I faintly remember the film based on the short story and I can see how the smooth talk of the journalist can be compared to the male lead in Oates’ story, but I’m not familiar enough with her story to say more than that. You bring up AIDS, a disease that in the early days caused enough fear that it reshaped how we have sex, how we talk about sex, and in many cases fear sex. When you write about the 1980s you’re almost obligated to write about the disease just because they seem to go hand-in-hand.

The visiting journalist jokingly introduces himself by giving the names of serial killers Ted Bundy and Michael Myers. The legality and ethics of his serial behaviour are called into question. Your comments?

Tiffany: Giving spoilers away, but I wanted that association of death and pain to be fairly obvious from the get-go. If nothing more I wanted the reader to see a big shiny knife and bright red blood.

 Extreme heat prevails throughout the summer of 1984 events. The community’s common sense is “melted”. In the horrifying climactic scene a fire is lit with murderous intent. As the author, you must have found it taxing to work in such an intense imaginative zone?

Tiffany: As the author my job is to tell the story without hesitation, and while it may appear intense, it’s just always been the type of stuff that’s been in my imagination. When you’ve always had that with you, it’s not an intensity you can’t handle because it’s all you’ve ever known.

There is some humour in your tale. It’s wry, poignant. When I saw Robert Olen Butler’s commendation on your book’s cover, I was reminded of that funny but so sad story of his, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot”. What are your thoughts on writing humour?

Tiffany: I’ve been surprised by readers finding some humour in the story. I don’t mind. I think it’s great, but it just surprised me mostly because I didn’t realize I had any humour in it. But I’m always surprised when people say there’s humour, not just in my writing, but in me personally. It just goes unnoticed to me, and I think that’s probably the best advice on writing humour. To not be so obvious, especially in literary fiction.

Final question. I’ve concentrated on the manifest events in your narrative. But of course your book contains a lot that is allegorical and there are many religious and metaphysical references. There’s also the role of your poetic prose to consider. Would you like to say something about your overall view of what you’ve created?

Tiffany: Well, I think it’s the same view or overall feeling I’ve had after writing any of my novels. I currently have eight completed novels and am working on my ninth. That feeling upon completion is just a sense of relief at having finished writing the story. I haven’t popped any champagne corks over the novel, but once you’ve written a book there is something to celebrate and smile about, if only to know that you have told this story and that the characters have met with the world. As an author I feel a sense of duty to the characters to tell their story as honestly as I can. I can only hope I’ve told a story that is worth both the readers’ time and their hard-earned money.

Thanks for taking our questions, Tiffany.

Tiffany: Thank you. It’s indeed been a pleasure.

Click here to go to Tiffany McDaniels’ website.