Today, I have Tiffany Quay Tyson stopping by to answer a few questions in this Q&A! Look for Tiffany’s debut on July 21!
A Conversation with Tiffany Quay Tyson
1) A small story in the newspaper provided the inspiration for THREE RIVERS. Tell us about that.
I like to read newspapers for story ideas. I read them when I travel and I read them online. About 10 years ago, there was a story about a pastor who was electrocuted while performing a baptism at a church in Waco, Texas. I’m not even sure where I first read the news—I remember it was a small item—but I immediately looked up the story on several news sites to get more information. While the death of the pastor was terrible, I was more struck by what the congregation must have felt witnessing such a thing. And what about the person being baptized? Did she feel responsible? Did she ever actually get baptized? I mean, it’s a pretty fraught situation when the ritual cleansing of your soul leads to a man’s death. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That was what led me to start writing this novel.
2) Like your main characters, Melody, Geneva and Obi, you were born and raised in Mississippi. How did you draw on your experiences growing up in the South when writing this novel?
Well, I joke sometimes that I was born in Mississippi, but got out as quickly as I could. When it comes to my writing, though, it’s like I never left. I can’t seem to write about any other place. The thing about Mississippi is that it’s both infuriating and enchanting in equal measure. I hate the heat and the humidity. I love the food and the music and the literature. Some of the wittiest, wisest, and most progressive people I know are in Mississippi, and yet the state is also full of people holding on to harmful, ignorant ideas about race and class. I know that’s true of a lot of places, but it seems particularly stark in Mississippi. You can drive through the Delta and see rundown shacks sitting across the road from Antebellum-era mansions. People still say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no sir’ and pride themselves on good manners and gentility, but I know folks who’ll use those good manners to insult someone more effectively than if they’d unleashed a string of curse words. It’s a place of strong contrasts and contradictions, and that’s an interesting thing to explore in writing.
3) We hear from three different perspectives throughout the novel: Melody, Geneva and Obi. How did you decide to tell each of their stories?
Characters tend to come to me without a lot planning. I didn’t set out to write something with multiple perspectives, but somehow the characters were there and it became clear they each had something to say. I settled into the structure of alternating chapters, and it seemed to work. All three of the characters are experiencing a crisis of faith, and the alternating perspectives allowed me to compare and contrast their various belief systems. That was fun.
4) My favorite character in the story is Melody. Do you have a favorite? Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?
I don’t think I could pick a favorite. Melody is definitely the most relatable character. In many ways, she was the hardest to write. I like Obi’s independence and loyalty and fierce determination. I’d like to be more like Obi myself, I think. Geneva may be the hardest character to like, but I do like her. She’s tough and selfish, but she’s both of those things for a reason. On the outside, she seems like this privileged, pretty woman, but really she’s suffered a lot. Some people crumble in the face of tragedy. Geneva just gets tougher. She was the most fun to write, even though I sometimes had nightmares about her.
5) An epic flood threatens each character’s life in THREE RIVERS. Have you ever experienced a flood first hand?
Yes, though not one as terrifying as the one in the book. When I was about 10, the Pearl River flooded my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. It was Easter and my aunt and my cousins lived right in the path of the worst flooding, so they came to our house. It was very early in the morning and I remember my cousins were in their pajamas, and everyone was drinking lots of coffee. At the time, it felt kind of festive. I know, of course, it didn’t feel that way to the adults.
Many years later, I was living in Greenwood, Mississippi, just out of college and working as a reporter for the local paper. I was out of town, covering a change-of-venue trial, when Greenwood was hit with tornadoes and flooding. By the time I got back, the roads were mostly clear, but there was still a ton of standing water in the fields. I went straight from sitting in a courthouse all day to traipsing around in floodwaters, shooting photos of half-submerged churches. I had a close encounter with a snake I’m pretty sure was a water moccasin. Like a fool, I was wearing sandals at the time.
And, of course, Hurricane Camille hit the year I was born and the tornadoes and flooding devastated parts of the neighborhood where I was raised. The stories about that have always felt a part of my history. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in Denver, but I had cousins on the coast, including one of those cousins who came to our house during the Easter Flood in 1979. His apartment was completely destroyed. Another cousin went missing for a couple of days. He turned up and was fine, but there was no way for him to contact anyone and let us know. And while everyone was focused on New Orleans and the coast, the entire state of Mississippi experienced power outages and infrastructure problems. That kind of weather is just a fact of life in Mississippi.
6) The journey your characters took was full of surprises, particularly for Geneva. Thinking about your journey to bring this novel about, do you have any notable surprises you can share?
Writing is full of surprises for me. I don’t sit down and plot things out before I start writing. I tend to write scenes as they come to me, and then I go back and figure out how they fit together. It’s not efficient; I end up throwing a lot of stuff out, but it’s the only way that works for me. Also, when I’m really immersed in a story, it tends to creep into my subconscious. I have dreams about my characters. Ideas will come to me while I’m running or showering. I will suddenly remember something I didn’t realize I knew. It’s like my brain is sifting through every event or conversation of my life and plucking out useful things. It can be thrilling when it’s going well.
7) Tell us about some of the research that went into this novel. Do you have a trusted fortune teller like Geneva and have you skinned a deer like Obi? J
I wish I had a great fortune teller. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone tell you what will happen next? The truth is, I don’t really believe in such things. I like the idea of magic and faith and superstition, but at my core I’m all about logic and evidence. That said, I would never turn down a Tarot card reading or a chance to look in a crystal ball, if only because it’s fun to speculate about the future. I used to read my horoscope pretty regularly, even though I knew it was vague and generic enough to apply to anyone. Also, like Geneva, when I was younger and bored in church, I would flip open my bible, pick a verse at random and try to figure out what it meant for me.
As for that deer, I’ve never skinned one myself. I watched some videos and read a bit about field dressing and butchering to get the details right. However, there are plenty of hunters in my family. I’m no stranger to dead animals and I’m not squeamish about it. I once got in trouble for reading during a hunting trip with my father when I was young, as Melody does in this book. My father is a much kinder man than Bruce, however. He didn’t throw a fit, but he also didn’t take me hunting again. He took me fishing, though. He’s still an avid fisherman. I like fishing and I have rolled a fish eye around in my hand, as Liam does. I prefer fishing to hunting. The fish don’t care if you read.
Happy Reading and Bookishly Yours,
T @ Traveling With T