Q&A With Author Tiffany McDaniel

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Tiffany McDaniel has just published a debut novel The Summer that Melted Everything, which I had the pleasure to read and review. (See just below.) She graciously agreed to respond to some questions that occurred to me after reading it. Below are her very interesting and engaging answers:

Basso Profundo:Your first novel The Summer that Melted Everything has some straightforward plot elements, like small-town prejudice, a young boy who yearns for the shy girl from class, family lives fraught with difficult histories. But you overlay these elements with some less-orthodox aspects: your characters’ names; a fiendish character ironically named Elohim, God’s name from the Old Testament; the outlandish belief that Sal’s arrival in town heralds the arrival of the devil. How did you settle on these unusual features? 

Author Tiffany McDaniel:
Well, I didn’t plan to settle on these unusual features.  I never outline before I start a novel.  What you read there on the page is what was in my head the moment I was sitting in front of the laptop typing away.  I do this until I have the entire story there on the page from beginning to end.  Then I draft through and I even surprise myself the way the elements started to fit together in that wild and twisty way with each drafting of the novel.  As far as some of the elements you bring up: I’m from a small town and have always been drawn to the politics and dynamics of that type of living and sense of community.  I know the beauty a small town possesses, but also how easily green grass turns to mud.  Meaning how quick and easy it is for fear and panic to ripen in those close quarters of a small community. 
In my writing I do tend to write about families with difficult histories.  There’s something so fascinating to me about history and how it very much comes into play in our present.  I do try to find that balance of universal normalcy and connect it with less-orthodox aspects.  I’ve always been drawn to the strange things that can come to define the most everyday phases of our lives. And sometimes this strangeness comes out in the characters’ names.  There is so much behind a name.  Elohim’s name fit him perfectly because he’s representing that side of the battle in the novel.  So really I wish I could say I planned on these unusual features, but really it just comes down to opening the faucet in my mind and being ready to catch what comes out. 
BP: Your narrator Fielding ends up a bitter, guilt-ridden old man, living in a ramshackle trailer in the desert. Two questions: was there ever a time when you considered this book a coming-of-age story for Fielding, with a much more limited time frame for the ending? And was a more “life-affirming” ending ever a possibility for this novel?

Tiffany McDaniel:
To answer your first question, Old Fielding did have a much smaller part in the early draft.  But the more I wrote about the events, the more Old Fielding had to have a life after that summer in order to show how those very events had affected him.  He needed to be seen and his life to be had past the coming of age, to the coming to mid-life, and finally coming to age.  To answer your second question, I don’t think a more “life-affirming” ending was ever possible for Fielding.  A happier ending would have been more fictional than the fiction it is allowed to be.  This ending was Fielding’s truth.   
BP: The Bliss family has one quirky mom. The boys, though, including the father Autopsy, are sympathetically and very believably drawn. How did you manage that? Any brothers in your family (not that that would necessarily be a prerequisite)?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I have two older sisters, but no brothers.  I’ve always wanted an older brother.  I think that’s probably why Grand is the way he is to Fielding, because that’s how I would have wanted my older brother to be.  Heroic and kind, intelligent and the boy everyone thought was going to keep soaring to the stars.  With my characters, I very much feel like they are real people.  That I’m merely the vessel through which they pass to get into this world of ours.  While their beginning and end are confined to the pages of the book, I always see my characters outside of those pages.  In moments that no one else will know of.  Dialogue and conversation that doesn’t end when the book does.  So in many ways they manage themselves.     
BP: Any validity to my belief that you chose 1984 as your time frame because of the period’s lack of general understanding or sympathy about AIDS?

Tiffany McDaniel:

Definite validity.  When I was thinking of what time period the novel was going to take place in, I knew it would be the 1980s because (and maybe this is a stereotype) but when I think about the 80s I think of neon colors, big hair, and suntans.  It’s almost like a decade long summer.  I was born in 1985, so I can’t attest to whether this is true of the decade and can only go on how music and TV/movies from the time make me feel about life then.  Having decided on the 1980s, I knew I had also unintentionally decided on writing about AIDS because, whether we like or not, the 1980s and AIDS are irrevocably linked.  It was the moment that changed not just how we have sex, but how we understand sex, and even in some cases, fear it.  This fear is essential to the novel.  And the earlier you are in a new disease, the more fear there is going to be.  So 1984 was early enough for the disease to still not be understood and still early enough to have that innocent 80s summer mentality.   
BP: You tell Summer behind a smoke screen, if you don’t mind my saying. I thought your casting of Elohim as a steeplejack was a stroke of genius. Any specific inspiration for the character?

Tiffany McDaniel:

When I was thinking about who Elohim would be, and what he would do, I immediately thought of something reaching.  He’s a very short man, as you know.  He seems to always be reaching in life.  Reaching for relationships.  Reaching for significance.  Reaching for the cereal on the top shelf.  I also very much saw him as a builder.  The one constructing.  As he comes to construct those in his group during that summer.  Building his followers and their emotions up, building, building, like a steeple, until in the end, that steeple collapses.  The builder buried under the very bricks he thought were so neatly, and godly, stacked.  As far as inspiration goes, I always say the characters themselves inspire me.  They really are their own people and these are their truths.  I only hope I tell their truths as honestly as I can.
 BP: Old man Fielding is extremely mean to his young neighbor, in an effort to scare him off. Why? I don’t think Fielding has the energy or the inclination to actually hurt the boy. Does he just want to be left alone?

Tiffany McDaniel:
As Fielding says, he scares off the boy not really because he wants to be alone, but because he feels like he’s saving the boy.  Fielding very much thinks himself to be like a poison in this boy’s life, and no matter how much Fielding wants to be friends with the boy, he can’t do that to the boy.  Use him like some sort of ‘ladder out of hell’ as Fielding says, because by being that ladder, the boy has a very good chance of getting burned by the flames himself. 

BP: What are you working on now? What can we expect next?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with my newest novel, When Lions Stood as Men.  It’s an unusual take on a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany and survive the Holocaust.  With this guilt of surviving, they cross the Atlantic and end up in my land, Ohio.  While here they construct their own camp of judgment, where their freedom is punished and through that their guilt is relieved, somewhat.  But soon they realize guilt isn’t the only thing they need to survive.  It’s each other, and the old lions that once stood as men. 


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