Q: I hear it took you a little longer to get published than many writers experience.
Ha! Let’s just say that I’m a 27-year-overnight success. One Good Mama Bone, actually, is the third novel I’ve written, but the first to be published, even though I got an agent with the first one. I just showed up for work for 27 years, and this is what happened.
I’m a story of perseverance. My advice for writers is to find people who believe in you. Never stop writing. Never stop looking. The first writer who believed in me was Robert Olen Butler. Yes, THAT one, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning one. I met him at my very first writer’s conference in May of 1988 in Augusta, Georgia, the Sandhills Writers Conference. This was pre-Pulitzer. I was in a hallway, my body cowered against the wall, after having undergone my first manuscript session and certain, after all the reams of negative feedback, that I should pack it up and return home. But a man, a stranger, approached me with a voice of kindness and asked if I was okay. I told him what had happened, and he asked if I had another copy of my manuscript. I did and gave it to him. He told me he’d read it and maybe we could talk about it the next morning at the group breakfast. Folks, that was Robert Olen Butler, four years away from winning the Pulitzer. Bob talked to me about writing with my senses and set me on a course that was life-altering. Look for his blurb on my book!
Q: Why are you writing about a cow? Couldn’t you have chosen a more popular animal?
Actually, the cows chose me. It happened one early morning at my daddy’s farm. These deep, guttural sounds woke me from sleep and drew me outside to a gathering of mama cows, huddled and pressing against the corner of a barbed wire fence. Daddy had weaned their babies from them the day before, and the mamas were calling for them up the lane of grass to another fenced area, some fifty feet away, where their babies, aged six to eight months, were huddled and matching their mother’s cries.
Their sounds seeped into my bones, and I began to shudder. I couldn’t bring their babies back, but I could tell about the way these mothers loved their offspring. In fact, it would serve as the missing piece in a novel about motherhood that I had tried to write – but had failed. The maternal love in mama cows is extraordinary. In fact, there’s a National Geographic book on various animals that showcases cows as the icon for maternal love in all of nature.
The poet Rilke advised writers to find what they think is beautiful and lift it to the world, to say, “Here. This is what holds beauty for me.” That’s what I’m doing with the cows. I think we have to write what is ours and ours alone to write.
Q: You write from several points of view in the novel, including Mama Red’s. Was that hard to do?
Not from Mama Red’s – no. It felt biblical to me. It felt I was writing from a place of purity, of good. I was never privy to her thoughts, only what she could see, which was perfect, because animals are fully present in the moment.
Q: In your novel, you mention a McClain boy winning a 4-H contest in the past. Did you have a brother win a prize like this one? Why did you use your family name here?
My Daddy, Edwin McClain did, at age 14. It was March of 1941, at the inaugural Fat Cattle Show & Sale, and he showed the Grand Champion winner, a steer weighing 1100 pounds. He sold the animal to the Ideal Super Market for a whopping thirty cents a pound. Daddy got a check for $330 (about $5000 in 2016 money), free lunches all over town and his photograph on the front and above the fold of the local newspaper, The Anderson Independent. He was an instant celebrity.
I used my family’s name as a way to honor my Daddy, because he provided one of the two major impulses for the book. It all had to do with his reaction when I would ask him about that March day. “Get your mind on something else,” he would always tell me, his eyes misting over. There he was, a crusty Southern Baptist farmer, and he couldn’t talk about being a bigshot 14-year-old celebrity. I wrote the book to understand why.
Q: So….is it true what you wrote about cows being transported during the Dust Bowl from the Midwest by train to places like Anderson, South Carolina?
Oh, yes. Fifteen hundred were transported to Anderson during the summer of 1934. Farmers were paid 50 cents per cow per month to pasture them until the early winter, when they would be slaughtered and put in cans to give to poor people. My grandfather took my Daddy, a boy then of seven years old, to town to see the cows. They packed them twenty-five to a car, packed them so tight, my Daddy tells me one mama cow was squeezed to death on the journey, and it was only when the other cows were offloaded, that she had room to drop to the floor. Daddy had never seen Hereford cows before that day. He fell in love with them, their white faces. “It was the cleanest white I’d ever seen,” he told me. My granddaddy brought a dozen or so to his farm for pasturing. The government spared twenty five of the cows when the time came to slaughter them. Twenty five poor families were chosen to get a single cow each.
Q: What’s your own personal connection to eating meat? You grew up on a beef cattle farm, correct?
Let me tell you a story. In the summer of 2010, while doing research for the 4-H aspect of the novel, I visited a county fair in Ashland, Kentucky. The agriculture director took me around and introduced me to the young people, who were showing steers. The youngest was 6 years old, a cute snaggle-toothed-buzz-cut-western-jeans-and-shirt kind of boy. He was standing in the barn next to his steer, and I asked him what he going to do. “I’m going to show Tucker,” he said, “my steer.”
“And then what?” I asked, thinking he’d say go ride the ferris wheel or eat some cotton candy.
But his lower lip started quivering and his eyes began to fill, and I wanted to rip out my mouth for asking. He cut his eyes towards Tucker, extended his hand to touch the side of the animal, then brought his eyes back to me and said, “I’m going to kill him.”
I wanted to rip my whole face out. “Oh, honey,” I said.
“But not tonight,” he said. “Tomorrow.” Then he laid his body perpendicular over Tucker, who was lying down now, and wrapped his arms as wide and hard as he could.
That day with that little boy, I came away with two huge learnings. I began to understand my Daddy and his inability to talk about his own grand champion day in 1941, when he won the inaugural Fat Cattle Show & Sale in Anderson, SC, where my book is set. The other one — I had flirted with being a vegetarian for years, but that day in August of 2010, I connected the dots and opened my eyes to a subject that heretofore I had closed my eyes to – even after growing up on a beef cattle farm – and wrapped as much love around the subject and people as I was capable.
Q: Can you talk about the role research played in your novel? You write about a poverty most of us have never known. And then there’s the 4-H backdrop – and all of this set historically, in the 1940s and early 50s.
I did tons of research, which this former journalist loved. There’s no telling how many dimes I spent copying parts of old newspapers at the Anderson County Library. The choking scene at the Calhoun Hotel in my novel actually happened, but the gentleman died in real life. Advertisements told me exactly how much food cost and clothes and toys. And then there was all of the information about the Fat Cattle Shows & Sales back then and the county agriculture agent’s column, which had all kinds of useful information about cattle and crops. I filled two big notebooks. I had a field day!
The other way I gathered research was talking with people who showed cattle and raised cattle. I wanted authentic details, and I got them. The biggest contributor, though, was my Daddy, who won grand champion in 1941, and made farming his way of life. He gave me reams and reams of info, including a scene I put in the novel about how he dealt with a steer that had the bloat. Fascinating! What I describe with the Pepsi-Cola and ice pick, my Daddy actually did.
Q: Sarah Creamer, who is unchurched and “unsaved” finds her salvation in the breath of a mother cow. You grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist Church, where salvation is found one prescribed way, by declaring you’re a sinner in a public gathering and asking Jesus to come into your heart. Are you afraid some will accuse you of being sacrilegious?
The only thing I’d be afraid of is not honoring the story as it unfolded in me, in my mind, my soul. There’s a song called “Blessings” by Mercy River that carries a line — What if your blessings come through raindrops? I believe that God is everywhere, yes, even in cows, in their purity, their light.
Q: Did you participate in 4-H? Are you slamming it?
No to both questions. I did not participate in 4-H, although I was raised in what we called “the country.” As for how I treated 4-H, what I attempted to do was show a different point of view, one that gives us a glimpse of ourselves. Seeing the steers exclusively as the object of financial gain and the teacher of responsibility tends to keep the animals invisible as individuals. I read a recent newspaper article where a child named her steer Big Juicy. “I wanted people to think about what he’ll taste like on a plate,” she’s quoted as saying. That kind of disassociative thinking confounds me, and I wanted to explore it.
So, I put the issue of invisibility on the table. And not just for the animals but humans, too. Author Margaret Mitchell talked of her characters longing for the reassurance of their own significance. We want to matter. I think of Ike Thrasher. I think of Sarah and Luther and LC
The writer Lee Martin praised Richard Ford, who taught him that “the individual life mattered and would be of extreme interest to a reader, if I treated it with respect, if I didn’t turn away from its simultaneous ugliness and beauty and if I wrote with forgiveness.”
Q: Animal rights is a hot-button social issue right now. Some say it’s the next frontier that America will tackle. Does this story carry such an agenda?
Absolutely not. Each of us is in charge of our own selves. Whether we choose to connect the dots or not is personal. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher around 500 BC, wrote: “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” I do believe that animal rights is a large, deep-seated and unresolved conflict in our national consciousness, and, as the days go by, we’ll see more and more of the tide turning towards animals.
Q: Wasn’t there another ending you could write? I’m talking about with Luther and LC.
I was about halfway through writing the book when I saw in my mind what happened to LC. I screamed out NO and said I won’t write that. But when the time came, it poured out exactly as I had seen it. Once I’d gone there, I couldn’t turn back. It would have been cheating. It would have been Hollywood.
Q: Part of your novel addresses parenting, specifically motherhood but not exclusively, as fathers and father figures play a huge role in this novel. What intrigues you about parenting/parents as a theme?
I saw a poster once in Atlanta of a little tabby kitten, looking straight into the camera. Beneath the photo, these words: I once asked a four year old what the secret of life was. “Feed the kitties,” she said. “Feed the kitties.” I can see a thread that runs through each of the three novels I written, even the new novel I’m writing now. It’s what I call the loading up of children. By that I mean, the stuff parents load onto their children, their own undone, unfulfilled stuff – most of which is damaging. Luther Dobbins and his dream of continuing to be a bigshot, when inside him, he feels unworthy. Sarah’s mother, Teeniebelle, and her feelings about motherhood.
One of my critique partners made an observation that I thought fascinating. He said the mother cow in my novel, Mama Red, was the only fully capable parent, that the humans were all carrying such baggage, it deprived them of fully functioning as a parent. I did not intentionally set out to do that.
Q: As with many novels about the South, you address the subject of race. But you bring up racial inequality in a context that requires one to consider all kinds of inequalities, including economic inequality, inequality for women, and even animal rights. What do you hope people will taking away from reading One Good Mama Bone?
May I begin by being a tad silly, yet serious? I would love for my novel to do for cows what Black Beauty did for horses. That’s the short answer. Now let’s go long. There are two kinds of novels – those that help us escape and those that help us endure as human beings. I’m in the latter category. I hope that people will feel something, and I don’t care what that is. I just hope that on some level, they wake up, become more fully alive.