I’m delighted to welcome author Peggy Riley today who is on a whistlestop blog tour to mark the publication of her debut novel Amity & Sorrow, published this week in the US by Little Brown (and already out in the UK published by Tinder Press).
Amity and Sorrow tells the story of a mother, Amaranth, and her two daughters, who are fleeing for their lives during the chaos of a raging, apocalyptic fire at the fundamentalist, polygamous cult led by her husband. Amity and Sorrow, the daughters of the title, know nothing of the outside world. Amaranth is terrified her tyrannical husband is coming after them. Amity slowly blossoms and sees that there are other ways of living, but Sorrow will stop at nothing to get back to the only thing she knows as home. What happened to the other wives and children they left behind?
Peggy graciously answered some questions I put to her:
I read that you saw two unconnected photographs of a house on fire and two women in prairie dresses which acted as the trigger for the idea of the book. Did the characters emerge fully formed? How did it take shape from that initial idea?
The two girls did emerge fully formed, yes, for which I am very grateful. I had their voices quite quickly and I knew, from the first moment, that they would begin tied together. I knew that their story would be about their push and pull, away and back towards one another. The character of Amaranth took much longer to emerge as a whole person. For a long time I could only see her filtered through her daughters’ perceptions and it was many drafts before I felt as secure with her as with Amity and Sorrow. I had to do a lot of writing from her point of view to get under her skin, but I knew I needed her voice in the book. It would be a very different story if we only saw things from Amity’s point of view.
What really struck me was the sense of place – the novel is ripe with details of nature, the changing seasons, the plants and flowers particular to rural Oklahoma. How did you go about researching this?
I know absolutely nothing about farming, but I do love to read about it. I love books that are yoked to the land. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an exploration of Oklahoma, and I was familiar with the terrain of the southwest from my LA childhood and years spent in the desert. But really, my education came from The Oklahoma Farm News Report, which blogs and tweets issues of interest to Oklahoma farmers. I followed it for years until I finally began to feel a part of it, until their weather and drought and insurance worries felt familiar to me. I would make a rotten farmer, but I’ll probably never forget when the winter wheat needs to be drilled.
I read on your blog that during your pre-sale book tour in the States, there was little love shown for the character of Sorrow, and yet I think she was perhaps the most damaged of all through no fault of her own. Widening out from Amity & Sorrow in particular, do you think a character has to be likeable for the reader to identify with them?
I don’t think a character has to be likeable, but I am surprised at how unlikeable Sorrow is perceived to be. She has been terribly damaged, but she receives little sympathy, due to her lack of compassion or awareness for others. I really like unpleasant characters, ones who are prickly and selfish and distracted. Sorrow is vain and spoiled and stuck. She has huge desire and a thirst for autonomy that women are not allowed in her faith. I like her a lot, though her methods are ugly. She has no self-control. I don’t think anyone will especially identify with Sorrow, but I hope readers can come to understand her point of view, how her world has made her into who and what she is.
You have a led a fascinating and varied life as a festival producer and a writer in residence at a young offender’s prison to name but two strands to your career. Did you always harbour a desire to write a novel? What made you decide to in the end?
I had no idea I would ever write a novel, though I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. I did handwrite and staple little books together in kindergarten and can remember being reprimanded for what I had written. I trained as a playwright and expected to go on writing plays, but when I moved from London to Kent, I found my writing changed. My sense of self changed. I had the story of Amity & Sorrow in my head and I couldn’t find a way to put it on stage, to set what I saw in my head. So, the story made me change how I wrote, to tell it. Stories are often much smarter than their writers!
What did you find most challenging in making the departure from writing prose to fiction?
Two things. First, the simple logistics. How did you get a character in and out of a chapter? Scenes in a play can be lightning fast – it’s lights up, begin speaking. In fiction, readers only get confused. My brilliant agent was instrumental in reminding me to “place things” before I began, to give readers time to get their bearings. Maybe this is because we pick up and put down books, in a way that you don’t as an audience, captive in a theatre. The second was an intense fear of wallpaper. In plays, you describe as little as possible. Scene directions are only cues to directors and clues for designers, but they are usually ignored. In a play, you want to describe characters as little as possible, so that every actor can find herself there. I vacillated between describing nothing and moving round each room in centimeters, looking at every speck and stain. Ultimately, I had to find my own way in and out of chapters, as well as what to describe and how and when.
What is the last book you read that you wish you’d written yourself?
Anything by Louise Erdrich. Her writing is so rich and deft. I admire how her books build on each other, drawing from and creating a history of generations of Ojibwe and German families, how their fates are intertwined, on and off the reservations of North Dakota, book after book. Her language is lyrical – phrases can stop you dead in your tracks – but she also has a wicked sense of humour. She can handle that balance of dark and light in a story and a character better than anyone. I always find inspiration in her writing, but really, I’m just happy to read them. I’m more than happy to let her keep writing them!