Cai Emmons, Author of Weather Woman, and tammy lynne stoner, Author of Sugar Land, Discuss Their Latest Books for Red Hen Press
Cai Emmons, Author of Weather Woman
Tell us about your own understanding and relationship with weather and nature. And also, please talk about how Bronwyn’s childhood experiences shaped the way she engages with her world?
I grew up in a rural Boston suburb feeling that I was most free to be myself when I was outside, poking around in the natural world. Many of my most powerful memories from childhood are those that took place outside: summer evenings doing “tricks” on the grass in pajamas, skinny-dipping in nearby ponds, jumping in piles of raked leaves, making snow angels, skating on the Concord River, etc. In the natural world I was unjudged, whereas when I came inside—at home or at school—I had to perform in various ways. I still feel confined if I don’t spend a certain amount of time outdoors each day, regardless of the weather. And I have always felt exhilarated when extreme weather hits and all that matters is survival.
Bronwyn’s love of nature has developed from her need to escape an overprotective, hypervigilant mother. Her relationship to the elements is an outgrowth of her social isolation and her native timidity. It is easier for her to become absorbed in the natural world than in people.
The incident up on Mt. Washington, when Bronwyn performs her first feat of weather magic, was compelling because of the strength she seemed to muster out of fear of the threatening storm. Was it fulfilling to craft a story around such a powerful female character, who is also quite ordinary in many ways? What about that mix made her compelling to you?
Yes, you have pointed out something very central to Bronwyn. She is ordinary in some ways—the kind of woman who is easily overlooked, smart but not very assertive—yet there has always been in her a power rumbling under the surface, beyond the radar of most people, a power Bronwyn herself doesn’t fully understand. Diane, her mentor, spots that power, also without understanding it, and tries to coax it to the surface. Over the period of time that the novel covers, this power comes to full fruition, and Bronwyn is able to understand and claim it.
I think female power is often invisible to the world, eddying in back channels, unrecognized but powerful in its effects. The power of mothers is like this, as is the power of so many female managers who aren’t at the helm of an operation, but are doing the heavy lifting and influencing nevertheless.
About the fear that motivates Bronwyn to act on Mt. Washington: I think fear is one of the most powerful incentives for action, slicing through inertia. The mortal fear Bronwyn experiences on Mt. Washington is the most powerful motivator of all. I often think about this in relationship to climate change. It might take large numbers of people becoming terrified of imminent death to get us to begin to tackle the problem seriously.
Your descriptions of Bronwyn intensely concentrating, channeling energy, and unleashing that power to influence the earth’s winds and waters is reminiscent of yogis performing remarkable feats with their minds. Do you believe certain people are capable of extraordinary things with only the power of their internal energy?
A few years ago I read a book called The Intention Experiment, by Lynne McTaggart, which got me thinking about “entanglement.” Einstein observed that two particles that have once interacted continue to behave in relationship to one another, even after they have been separated. It has been documented that the root systems of trees communicate important information to surrounding trees. Surely there are other unseen connections between and among many living things (plants, animals, humans). We are all powered by the energy of atoms. Even human thought is a consequence of energy passing through synapses. Thinking about this, and reading about such feats as meditating monks in the Himalayas controlling their body temperatures with the power of concentration, has led me to suspect that there are numerous untapped possibilities for corralling the energy of the human brain. Bronwyn’s capability grew out of my thinking about this.
Not surprisingly, many of the characters in the novel are skeptical of Bronwyn’s powers at first, and gradually come to be convinced. Was it difficult to create authentic relationships when the main character has god-like powers?
I loved thinking about how people in Bronwyn’s life would react to her power. Of course, most people don’t believe she can do what she professes to be able to do—her mentors Diane and Vince, most notably. This creates tension and conflict throughout the book. The character who is most cowed by Bronwyn’s power is Matt. He can’t believe her brilliance. And yet he brings a different kind of strength to the table which makes their relationship possible. Diane, as a respected academic and researcher, also has a source of strength so, even when their relationship becomes strained, Diane and Bronwyn continue to respect one another. Bronwyn, even as she develops greater confidence in her power, never becomes arrogant. She is deeply uncomfortable when Earl’s flock seems to want to worship her, but Earl himself is so down-to-earth that she becomes very fond of him.
What interests me is creating relationships where there is strength on both sides and therefore an unpredictable and seesawing balance of power.
With global warming on our minds, many of us have become much more aware of the weather around us, extreme weather events around the world, wildfires, droughts, and so on. All of which potentially points to a receptive readership for Weather Woman. Did this thought cross your mind as you conceived and then began work on the novel?
I have been concerned about global warming for a number of years—I think it is the preeminent challenge facing the world today, but I began this novel playfully, thinking more about weather than climate. It wasn’t until I was well into the story that it became unavoidable that Bronwyn, given the nature of her power, was going to have to address climate change head on. I am not a fan of polemical novels, so I tried to think of the novel as posing questions, rather than answering them.
Bronwyn’s abilities also bring to mind geoengineering and the research being done to reverse the effects of climate change using technology to intervene in the earth’s natural systems. Of course, it would be nice if a Bronwyn suddenly appeared and decided to lend a hand. Can you talk about how global warming influenced Weather Woman?
In the early stages of writing this novel I read a lot about meteorology and global warming, about the dire predictions regarding human extinction, about ideas for carbon capture and sequestration. I thought a lot about how Bronwyn was going to figure into all this. Was she going to become a classic superheroine who would save the planet? That seemed much too simplistic to me, not to mention boring. I wanted to write a more complex story that would portray a real human being grappling with a real, but still limited, power. And I wanted Bronwyn to realize that even with her incredible power she needed to collaborate with others rather than go it alone. To some degree this is an analogy for what kind of action is needed now, not a bunch of individuals deciding to bike instead of drive, but a bunch of individuals cooperating to regulate how the entire culture uses fossil fuels. The white fox tries to urge Bronwyn in this direction of collaboration when he asks, “Where are your people?”
I have wondered and wondered and wondered why, in the face of such a horrifying future, we are not able to act to ameliorate things. Not until recently, after reading a long article by Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times Magazine, did I come up with an answer that makes sense to me. It is this: While we profess to care about future generations, we don’t really. We care about our children and grandchildren, and even our great grandchildren, if we meet them, but beyond that I don’t think most of us truly care. I admit that I don’t. And I suspect there are others like me. Therein, I believe, lies the crux of the reason we can’t act. It is hard to care about much beyond the foreseeable future, and most people feel that for the foreseeable future we are reasonably okay, give or take a few lost species, a few melted glaciers, a few more severe droughts and floods and polar vortices.
Your two other books—His Mother’s Son and The Stylist—were highly praised, just as Weather Woman will be, no doubt. What’s your secret? What’s next on your writing docket?
Hm. This is hard to answer. I tend to write about things that have obsessed me for a while, ideas I’ve been mulling over for sometimes years. Not fully formed stories, just notions that have gotten under my skin and keep resurfacing in different forms. At some point I identify a What if? in the form of a character who is confronted with a gnarly situation. The novel I’m working on now is called Hellionand; while I am too superstitious to say much about it, I will say that it is the first first-person novel I’ve written, and the situation is, indeed, quite gnarly!
tammy lynne stoner, Author of Sugar Land
Realizing at a young age that she might be a lesbian in rural Texas in the 1920s must have been terrifying for Dara. Was that what motivated her to take a job in an all-male prison, despite the possible dangers?
Yes. Dara was a young, naïve girl motivated by fear of what might happen if she stayed in Midland, Texas, and was ever found out. To her, the prison provided an odd kind of safety (which didn’t turn out to be altogether the case). As she says to her girlfriend, Rhodie, before she leaves, “Being in prison might be a kind of freedom for me. I’ll have a uniform…and I’ll have people around me who really aren’t in a place to be judging anyone else.”
There was also a small part of Dara who wanted to be more modern, or at least more independent. In this way, she represented many of the women of her day. In 1920, almost a million women worked on farms, and two million in manufacturing. In Texas, women made up 18 percent of the workforce (the US average was 20 percent).
Although progress was happening then, it was a mixed bag—as it always is. For example, in 1924, the year after Dara started working at the prison, the first female secretary of state was appointed in Texas—the same year that the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a married woman’s identity is “subsumed” within her husband’s. That sounds like the name of a horror film—The Subsumed Woman—which to some folks then it might have been.
In the prison, Dara developed an unusual friendship with a black inmate named Huddie. Why was that friendship so beneficial for the two of them?
In the brutal sugarcane fields of the Imperial State Prison Farm, inmates worked sixteen hours a day. The guards—patrolling on horseback—would often select one of the bigger inmates to watch over the others, whip in hand, which obviously pitted man against man. At night, they would lay on bug-infested cots in the unrelenting heat, relieving themselves in a limestone trough behind their wood barracks. It was every man for himself.
So when Huddie came in from the fields and nodded at Dara standing behind the protective bars of the food line, he felt a little of who he was outside the prison—a confident ladies’ man. Dara reminded him of who he was, not even if he wasn’t that person at the moment.
For Dara, Huddie was like nothing she’d ever experienced—a self-possessed black man with a sense of humor who displayed the kind of bravery she wished she had. And once he sang his way out of prison, he became her inspiration to leave.
They only spent a few days working in the kitchen before Huddie lost his kitchen privileges and was sent back to the fields. After that they spoke for about 5-10 minutes, once a week. Still, they became very close. Their friendship was a spiritual one, with him inspiring her to be brave and overcome her self-imposed isolation, and her giving him some gentle companionship in that miserable prison world.
We learn later that Huddie is actually the blues singer, Lead Belly. How much of his story is true?
Lead Belly’s story in Sugar Land stays true to his life: He’d been sentenced to a chain gang and—miraculously—escaped to live under the alias Walter Boyd, before being captured and ultimately transferred to the Imperial State Prison Farm. There, he found favor with the warden, who gave him a guitar to soothe the men in the fields. One day he played that guitar at a prison concert attended by the governor and his wife. Soon after, Huddie/Lead Belly sang a song asking for a pardon, and he got one—on the governor’s last day in office, in 1925.
Lead Belly’s most recognized song—“The Midnight Special (Shine A Light on Me)”—was inspired by his time at the Imperial State Prison Farm. It refers to the prisoners’ belief that if the train coming into the prison shone on you, you’d be getting a pardon. The rest of Sugar Land is fictional, except for historical facts and dates.
A wonderful twist in the novel occurs when the prison’s warden proposes to Dara, even while he knew about Dara’s previous relationship with a woman. Her decision to marry tells us a lot about Dara’s pragmatism. Can you help us better understand why Dara might have made this choice?
To Dara, marrying the Warden was “like having hamburger when you want steak.” It was, after all, 1933 in small Texas town. She’d been lucky enough to have a great love once, Rhodie, and now her choices were either move to a big city and live in fear, which she didn’t want to do, or marry someone who seemed decent enough and settle down (emphasis on “settle”). So Dara “tapped the center of my breastbone, where I imagined a delicate metal box that held my secret love for Rhodie, and put my hand in the Warden’s.” To lots of folks, this makes perfect sense.
Later in Sugar Land, Dara falls in love with another woman. Of course, this is a heartwarming turn of events, but it also might serve as a sign of the changing times. Many once-unimaginable cultural changes have taken place over the past fifty years, including gay marriage. Did these factors influence the way you decided to tell Dara’s story?
Yes! Sugar Land follows Dara from 1923, when she is nearly twenty, through 1968. These years place her in contact with impactful American events like the Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Civil Rights movement. Beyond that, I consciously developed her character to represent the maturation of our country into becoming more accepting of the rights of all people. Dara’s self-acceptance blooms right alongside our country’s—and the result is love.
The novel ends in 1968, the year, Dara says, “when the whole world wanted to blow out of their prisons.” This was the year not only of riots and movements all around the world, but of the Stonewall Riots in New York that mark the start of an organized demand for gay rights. It’s also the year when Dara commits to her very southern ladyfriend and fellow widower, Mrs. Tanya May Rogerton—one of my favorite characters.
Your novel comes out at the end of October. Any plans for a book tour?
I’m doing a two-stage book tour—fall and spring. The fall leg starts in September and includes NY, Philadelphia, LA, a lovely invitation to the Sweet & Greet event with Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (including bourbon caramels and moonshine), Portland, and possibly something in SF. The second leg—the Down & Dirty Southern Tour—is in March. My friend Joseph and I are going to be driving around to a dozen cities in the south, eating BBQ, visiting Dollywood, and doing some readings.
There’s not too much worse than sitting through a boring book reading, so I’m doing my best to make my book tour fun and interesting. In Atlanta in March, Books & Booze will be developing a drink inspired by Sugar Land to go along with the reading, which takes place at a vineyard.
Another event I’m super jazzed about is a 4-course meal in SF (also in March), with the menu inspired by the 1920s Imperial State Prison menu (yes, it was the same menu every day). Muffie Dalton, of Bold Food, will be making magic in the kitchen while I do a Q&A with the diners. The key is just to have fun with all this.
What are you working on now?
My next work is a departure from southern fiction, though I love it so much that I imagine I’ll be back (once southern, always southern). It’s a three-book series called the Cycle of Salt, set in 2096. Much of the plot revolves around taste removal and tampering with epigenetics, calling into question what it means to be connected and human. While it’s a new and exciting direction for me, the themes I wrestle with are still present: genuine connectivity, order of society versus individual happiness, navigating the loss of parents (Dara lost hers when she moved to the prison in Sugar Land), free will versus genetic/biological imperatives, and love—you know, the universal one.
My agent’s going to start shopping the series around in the new year, so hopefully the first one will be out in three years or so. Thanks for asking and for this interview!