Today I have the pleasure of chatting with Southern fiction author, Rhett DeVane. Thanks for joining me Rhett. I’m thrilled to have the chance to learn more about you and your work!
Q: When did you decide to become a writer?
I will borrow my mother’s answer to this: I was born to it. Fortunately, I came from a long line of Southern storytellers. We camped a lot, and I often sat at the feet of my elders around a roaring fire listening intently to their colorful tall tales. My father was the best word-weaver I have ever known; a man with an acute sense of humor and a feel for the absurd. As soon as I could write, I developed little story lines. My mom saved most of these. Honestly, I can’t recall a time I didn’t write.
Q: Can you tell us what qualifies a book as Southern fiction? Are there certain qualities that books of this genre have in common?
Southern fiction is mainstream fiction set in the South. I heard the term for the first time several years ago at a writers’ conference. The main elements that identify a piece in this genre are a strong sense of place and rich Southern characters. I would venture; most Southern fiction is penned either by writers from the area or those who are intimately familiar with it. To the reader, Southern fiction provides a type of feeling, for lack of a better description; strong familial ties, colorful characters, a certain manner of speech, and, of course, comfort food.
Q: Did you choose the genre you write or was it more of a case of the genre choosing you?
At first, I wrote a series of children’s chapter books. I am revising them now. Then, I realized I had overlooked a rich source of material—my heritage. What better setting for novels than my hometown; a town with two stoplights and a state mental institution on the main drag? Plus, I had a dream about Max the Madhatter—a mental patient who is one of the peripheral characters—one night after eating Italian food particularly late (Italian food always makes me have vivid dreams). By the next day, I had a clear plan for a plot line and several characters. I am most comfortable writing what I know, so I am sticking with this genre. It’s fun! I don’t really have to search far for story lines. The South is ripe. I just listen and observe.
Q: You have published two novels (The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate and Up the Devil’s Belly) which follow the lives of the Davis-Lewis family. Can you tell us more about these books?
The first novel, The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate, centers on Hattie Davis’ homecoming to her small Southern town and a vicious hate crime that nearly kills one of her dear friends. It is a rich tale of small town humor, tragedy, and the extraordinary twists of fate.
The second novel, Up the Devil’s Belly, returns to the same town, where a well-known citizen holds a dirty little secret; one that will shake the community to its roots. The characters and town must pull together to survive the evil backlash of his actions, as well as the national sorrow following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Excerpts for both novels appear on my website. The books are available with online vendors and may be ordered through any bookstore.
Q: Are there advantages to writing a series? Are there any disadvantages?
The main advantage is intimate knowledge of the characters and setting. These folks are so real to me at this point; I am surprised when I don’t bump into them on the streets of my hometown. Now, I can establish the plot and allow the characters to run the show. I tried sticking to an outline a couple of times, and they took off in directions I had never dreamed.
The disadvantage lies in crafting each book as if it was a stand-alone. A reader must be able to jump into the middle and still be able to follow the story. Working the back story into subsequent books proves a real challenge. I have to provide just enough to bring the new reader in, without telling too much and aggravating the ones who are coming back for more. Also, I must leave just enough hanging in the air at the conclusion to set up the next book.
The first four books are sequential. Then, I branch out to other families and plot lines, yet still set in the same town.
Q: Both your novels are set in the small town of Chattahoochee, Florida where you grew up. How did you weave familiar places and landmarks into your stories?
Easy. I put myself there and wrote it. I have a road map of the town, and I went back and snapped a few pictures to help me with the descriptions. I secured written permission to use the actual names of a few businesses. No problem there; it was good publicity for them. I mixed in fictitious addresses as needed. Hattie’s home place is actually the farmhouse where I grew up.
Q: Do you feel using a familiar setting made the books easier to write or was it harder?
Definitely, this proved easier than coming up with a setting from brain space. I lived there for the first seventeen years of my life, so I have a good feel for the town, as well as a visual memory. Chattahoochee is only forty-five miles from where I live in Tallahassee, so I am able to hop in the car and refresh any details if necessary.
Q: As I read The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate, I kept thinking that Aunt Piddie Longman reminded me of everyone’s favorite aunt. How do you create such realistic and memorable characters?
I just love Aunt Piddie! She is a blend of several senior Southern women. My mother claims she is the model, and a number of Piddie’s characteristics do stem from her.
Piddie seems to ring true to readers. I suppose everyone has someone like her in the family; the keeper of wisdom, the funny woman who doesn’t give a rip what she says, the banker of family lore. I like Aunt Piddie so much; I devoted one novel in the series to her memoirs. She’s a cool old gal with the biggest hair this side of the Mason/Dixon line.
Q: You share some mouth-watering recipes in your books. How did you come up with this unique way to share a little bit of the South with your readers?
Anyone who is familiar with Southern traditions knows that food is the tie that binds. We will use any excuse to sling up a buffet or slap together a casserole: birth, weddings, illness, holidays, birthdays, death. I have had wonderful responses to the recipes, so this is something I plan to continue. The recipes match the theme of the book. The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate features chocolate recipes. Up the Devil’s Belly is dotted with hot and spicy recipes. The next novel in line, Your Mama’s Comfort Food, shall be loaded with time-honored Southern comfort food recipes.
Q: What is your writing process like? Do you have a set schedule? Is there a time of day when you feel more productive than others?
I write when the notion strikes me. When I am actively involved in a novel-length work, I try to spend at least an hour a day. If I can produce two to three pages per session, I will have the book completed in around three months. Then, I let it sit for awhile before starting the revision process. Thus far, I have averaged one novel per year, with short fiction pieces in between.
Mornings are best. Since I work, I generally arrive early at the office and use the half-hour or so before I need to begin with patients. I hate traffic, so this works out in that respect, too. By the time I finish the day, I can barely put two words together. In the evening, editing is easier, as I don’t have to create, just correct.
So many times, I hear others state that one must write every day to be successful. This doesn’t ring true for me. In fact; I disagree. If I try to force the words, I hate what comes out. If I am in the mood, I enjoy the flow.