Interview with Tiffany McDaniel, Author of BETTY

Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel, The Summer That Melted Everything, was published four years ago but BETTY, released August 18, was the book she was born to write. Dedicated to her own mother and inspired by the Southern Ohio landscape in which she was born and raised, BETTY is a searing novel about a young girl’s resilience in the face of racism and abuse, and about the power of story to free us from our past and give us hope.

BETTY, a 2020 BookExpo Buzz Editor’s pick, has been described as magical, haunting, bold, and profoundly moving, and I couldn’t agree more. The story is disturbing, but you can’t put it down because it’s so compelling and the prose is gorgeous.

In interviews and on your web site you state that you aren’t on social media. Asking for the vast number of writers who would love to skip Twitter…how do you manage that? What kind of challenges have you had promoting your work as a result?

I think it hasn’t been a challenge for me because I’ve never been on social media, so I’ve adjusted to tasks outside of what it means to be on the platforms. I’ve always been slow to embrace technology. I still write with pen and paper first, transferring the work into the computer, and my cellphone is usually turned off for days at a time to the annoyance of family and friends. I like a good bit of distance between myself and the screen, but I haven’t found any real obstacles in promoting my work by not being on the sites. I do personal outreach to book bloggers, and I’m indirectly on those channels through the readers who mostly have social media presence. The good thing about books is that if someone likes what they’ve read, they promote through sharing that reading experience on their platforms. I know many authors use social media to connect to their readers. I fill that void by being available through my website where I personally respond to each email that comes in. I like crossing paths with readers through those exchanges of letters, and many I’ve stayed in contact with since The Summer that Melted Everything’s release in 2016.

Betty learns about cruelty and brutality from her mother, Alka, and the racist white world around them. From her father, Landon, Betty learns how to see the magic of the natural world and harness strength from it. Both parents tell her stories…painful, beautiful, horrific…she writes them down and buries them and they give her power. At what age did you learn your family stories?

From early on, I knew of my maternal family’s history and lineage in regards to us being Cherokee. Mom made sure that the culture was ever present in mine and my sister’s lives. Mom also raised us in gardens, so I was always aware of those Cherokee gardening techniques that Papaw Landon had passed down to Mom and her siblings. Mom also made sure to instill in my sisters and me those memories of Landon, his stories, and the type of man he was. I also knew of my mother’s experiences with racism. I have fair skin, but Mom and Papaw Landon lived having brown skin in predominately white communities, which hasn’t always been easy for them. But it wasn’t until I was seventeen that Mom told me a long-buried family secret. This really opened the door to me learning more, and led me to having Q&A sessions with my mother, Mamaw Alka, and Mom’s siblings, to explore the family story deeper. The beautiful thing about family stories is that it connects the here and now to the past. It goes to show how important it is to listen to our elders, to hear the lives they lived, and to preserve each family story, even the painful parts, for the next generation.

You’ve said you’ve always known you wanted to write. What kinds of stories did you write when you first started? Did you show them to anyone?

Writing has been part of my life for as long as I remember. I was going through old boxes recently and came across stories I’d written as a kid. There amongst them was an envelope with a slip of paper inside. Written on the slip in my kid cursive was that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up and write really good books that people want to read. I can’t remember the reason why I had tucked this wish into an envelope, if only to keep it safe. So, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and because I started writing from the time I was a kid, my stories were shown to my family. I often turned the stories into handmade books as a child, using cardboard as the cover, binding the notebook paper with my mother’s crochet yarn. My mother Betty and sister Jennifer have always been my earliest readers. They are always the first eyes on my work, and the two of them have also been my biggest champions from the beginning.

As a writer from, and who writes about, a town in Appalachia, have you had to push back against others’ expectations of what the Appalachian narrative is supposed to be? In what ways have you combatted stereotypes in your writing?

I think most have an image of what the Appalachian narrative is supposed to be. But my hope is that I’m portraying people of a place I know and love. I feel so fortunate that my coming of age was had in Appalachia. As a child, I was immediately drawn to the culture around me. The dialect, the traditions, the feeling of myth and wonder in the rolling hills. And I feel even more fortunate that I still get to call the region home today. I remember as I queried agents for this novel, this would have been during a time period of the last twenty years, there was an agent in the early 2000s who said that southern Ohio and the Appalachian region just wasn’t a location that appealed to a lot of folks. I remember him saying readers either want to read a book set on the west coast or the east coast, places that they wanna live. But I thought, people want to live in all kinds of places, and living in Appalachia is no different. I think so many view the region as a place people are unhappy to live in, or forced to live in due to poverty or hardship. I want to shine a light on the region, representing characters who are individuals genuinely connected to place, raising families, having successes, and celebrating their love of home. The more we see of Appalachia in literature, the more readers can connect to it, and hopefully the more interest we have in environmental efforts in this region. The Appalachian expanse is rich in natural resources, and has historically been taken advantage of at the risk of the people, communities, and wildlife who call it home. So, I hope that writing stories set in this place in which we see characters depending upon and living at harmony with the nature and wildlife around them, that it highlights how important it is to preserve the Appalachian wilderness and its natural resources.

Landon is such a wonderful father in many ways and he helps Betty, who looks like him, a Cherokee, become strong and resilient as she faces the abuse and racism of her teachers and peers. Yet I find myself mad at him for not protecting his children from the tragic abuse happening within his own house. Do you ever get angry at your characters for their limitations? Do you hate any of your characters or find them irredeemable?

Something I wanted to keep intact was that love between Landon and his children. As I did Q&A sessions with Mom and her siblings for the novel, it struck me how deep the bond between them and their father was. When he died, they spoke of his loss like people losing their only chance of survival. And while I wanted to preserve that love, I also wanted to preserve the reality of abuse. Oftentimes, the skill set of abusers is that they are capable of terrifying their victims into not saying anything out of that fear. When I did a Q&A session with a victim, something she said about her abuse stuck out to me. And that was that her abuser had told her that if she said anything, he would kill her father and it would be her fault. Abusers are capable of putting that fear into their victims. They rely on it to keep the abuse going. I wanted to keep this in the story, to show how in so many families, this abuse is taking place in the shadows. As more and more people read BETTY, I’ve heard from those who have experienced similar generational sexual abuse in their family. They mention they’ve kept the secret, often for decades. That’s one of the disturbing realities about this type of family abuse. It hides within the family. But I hope BETTY and the women in the book inspire victims of rape and abuse to speak out and share their own stories. The more we speak about these issues, the less power there will be for the abusers.

You give a little shout out to your debut, The Summer that Melted Everything, when the fascinating character Autopsy Bliss appears briefly. Will we be seeing other, familiar Breathed, Ohio characters in your next novels?

Breathed, Ohio is inspired by the southern Ohio town I grew up in, and since its debut in BETTY, it’s been a town I’ve returned to. I have over a dozen novels written now, and Breathed has been the setting for the majority. It’s a character unto itself and I think I will always return to it. Because of that, it gives me the opportunity to revisit some of these familiar names. I also like to drop these names in because it’s like a little secret between me and the readers, but it’s also my thank you to the readers, for being part of this ever-growing universe called Breathed.

Please tell me there really was a diner like Dandelion Dimes, where they accepted dandelions as payment! Did anything like that still exist when you were growing up?

I wish Dandelion Dimes really existed, but it’s merely a product of my imagination. I’ve always loved dandelions. Despite most considering it a nuisance in their yard and many trying to eradicate it, I encourage its growth and embrace the beneficial properties, as I do with every plant. Everything in nature has a purpose. Dandelions are so valuable to the yard, natural ecosystem, and they’re even delicious to eat and are one of my favorite foods. So, the diner was born out of my love for dandelions, and I wanted to use dandelions as payment in this diner, to emphasize how valuable the plant really is and try to change people’s opinions of it being a nuisance. Because the diner is now such a large part of Breathed, readers should anticipate to see brief mentions of it in novels to come. But in one particular novel, Dandelion Dimes is the main focus because that novel is about the diner’s founder, her life, her relationships and the meaning behind the diner itself. So, when that novel is published, readers will one day get to explore more of Dandelion Dimes, so I hope they have their dandelions at the ready.

Speaking of food, is there a dish that you think of as uniquely from your area in Ohio, or the region?

I grew up on fried green tomatoes, okra, zucchini, lots of corn, squash, and bean meals because we grow all of these things in the garden, so our dishes have always been uniquely crafted around what the gardens are giving us. It’s the same dishes Landon raised his children on. Whatever he planted, they ate. And for me, that’s a beautiful connection to the garden, too, is that I’m eating dishes that are not so different from Landon and those generations of my family. I’m also vegetarian, so I rely on these types of dishes. And as far as what other foods connect to BETTY for me, Papaw Landon’s weed pie would be a big one, which was a pie he pretty much threw all the plants into, including dandelions. And though biscuits are not uniquely Ohioan, they’ve always been a big staple in our house.

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