Every writer has deep-seated motivation for writing a novel. It may be a person, place, or setting that resonates in their soul, and from this a story that won’t let them go. I was tentative when I began writing Mourning Dove, and by this, I mean to say that I tested the waters before I dove in head first to the full story. Mourning Dove started as a poem I never shared, but I liked its subject and rhythm. It spoke of a family dynamic, had movement and spoke of human nature in the face tragedy. In writing the poem, it occurred to me there is beauty to be gleaned in the worst of human affairs.
In one of those intuitive promptings that seems fateful in hindsight, I saw an online call for submissions to the 2013 San Francisco Writers Conferences’ contest. In looking at the categories, I thought narrative nonfiction might be the least entered, therefore giving me a better chance at placing. I looked at the wordcount requirements, titled my submission Mastering Ambiguity, and used my poem’s first stanza to begin my 3,000- word submission telling of a family story. Two months later, I received word that Mastering Ambiguity was a finalist in that contest, and, being as it is that I live in Southern California, I made arrangements to attend the San Francisco Writers Conference, where the contest’s winner would be announced. Mastering Ambiguity didn’t win that year, but it did come in as the contest’s runner-up. And the thing is, when I entered the auditorium where the winner would be announced, I told myself that if anything ever happened to my piece, I’d turn it into a full-length, Southern family saga. Confident, now, that I had a good story, after the conference, I went to my desk and got to work.
But how to turn a 3,000 word, narrative nonfiction piece into an 80,000-word novel, which means that the story must be fictionalized? I decided to take the words of one of my favorite authors, Ron Rash, who famously said, “Land is destiny” and begin my novel with a strong sense of place.
I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in an era I firmly believe was run by the last of the great Southern belles. Most are gone from the South, now, as am I. With relocation and the passage of time, I realize that I have a conflicted relationship with the South. It’s a strange mixture of gratitude for having outgrown it and weepy nostalgia for the place in which I came of age. I can’t say if I’m nostalgic for Memphis or if it’s nostalgia for the innocence and possibilities one carries in youth, but emotionally, I think they’re tied together.
In writing Mourning Dove, I drew from impressions I retained of the South as a culture, specifically Memphis women. Never was there a cast of more glittering woman than those who populated my youth. They were fun, dynamic, refined, and rarely serious. They walked like queens and spoke in lyrical tones so compelling that I’m offended by other accents to this day. I set Mourning Dove in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis because, back then, the social milieu was rife with nuance and tradition anchored by southern matriarchs who ran the social strata. In writing Mourning Dove, I did not write about that side of the South where people drive pick-up trucks down dirt roads to the family farm while dodging a coon dog; I wrote about that side of the South that was coiffed and manicured; where people had an innate elegance that mattered. There is much to be drawn in a setting such as this, and what fascinated me most growing up was the tacit, cultural method of employing denial. In the Memphis I knew, they kept things light and airy. If something was unpleasant or unseemly, it simply wasn’t discussed.
But what of two siblings born in the state of Minnesota, who come to what is known as the Deep South as outsiders? From this vantage point of displacement, I asked how it could be that the siblings share the same family history yet come to disparate ends? What unhinging happens in the delicate wiring of one but somehow misses the other? Is it nature or nurture, and how are we to ever know?
Mourning Dove has universal themes in its story. That it is set in the American South gives it a strong sense of place, telling of an era gone by. My hope in turning a narrative nonfiction piece into fiction was to invite the reader to examine their own family dynamic. In the end, a writer’s gift to the reader is to tell a good story. Because always and forever, it all comes down to the story.