Approximately a month ago, I received an email from an author, an author who has just finished writing her fifth (5th) book. An author who’s books are published by a big publishing house. Honestly, I had to read the email twice because I really had a hard time processing what she stated in the email. I was awestruck that this very talented and experienced writer was not only visiting my site, but liked it and wanted to know if she could visit with all of us and talk about her latest novel. Astonished doesn’t seem to express what I was feeling. So I please ask to give a very warm welcome to today’s guest, Ms. Cathy Holton, as only the CMash fabulous and fantastic followers can do!!
Visit her online at www.cathyholton.com; follow her @cathyholton on Twitter and on Facebook.
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This was in Stevens Point, Wisconsin; we lived in a large, rambling Victorian house not far from the campus where my father had taken a job as an assistant professor. We were Southerners, born and bred, but my Liberal parents had decided to get us out of the South during the violent Civil Rights movement, and so my father had accepted a teaching position in this small Wisconsin town. For my younger brothers and I, it might
as well have been the gray, cratered surface of the moon. We were far away from everything we’d ever known.
I had always been an imaginative child, but now I was a lonely one. When I raised my hand in class that first day of school to answer a question, there was a moment of stunned silence. The teacher, unable to understand my thick Southern drawl, asked me to repeat myself. The boy in front of me turned around and said, “Where are you from, the swamp?” The next day the entire group on the playground lined up and shouted, “The Rebels are coming! The Rebels are coming!” as my brother and I plodded stoically toward the front door of The Abraham Lincoln Grammar School.
Eventually I made a friend, and when I went home to spend the night with her for the first time, her mother said, “Oh, you’re from down South where they turn the dogs on people.” I realized then that my family was different; we were tainted by our sinister history. I was deeply and irrevocably ashamed.
A few nights later as I drifted off to sleep, a strange thing happened. My bedroom was at the top of the house and had a faux “turret” that was actually a bowed window seat. During the day, the window seat, surrounded by the thick branches of a leafy oak tree, was a wonderful place to read. But at night, these same branches cast eerie shadows in my room. On this particular evening, I awoke suddenly to find myself unable to move. The room was hazy with moonlight and I could move my eyes slightly, but the rest of my body was paralyzed. As the horror of this dawned on me I became gradually aware that I was not alone in the room. I could hear soft breathing. Slanting my eyes to the right I could see, sitting on the window seat, the tall, dark figure of a man.
The paralysis lasted only a few short moments and when I was finally able to move, I jumped from my bed to find the man gone. The following year my parents moved us back to the South. The experience never reoccurred and it was not until college that I read of a fairly common, but little known sleep disorder called “sleep paralysis.” It occurs in roughly half the population at least once and includes both auditory and visual hallucinations.
Not long after I married and started a family, I went with my good friend Randal to spend the weekend in her small home town in Tennessee. Randal was from a very oldmoneyed Southern family, a family with an almost mythical history, and we were guests of her Great Aunt Fanny in a rambling mansion filled with wonderful treasures. On Friday, we escorted Fanny to the cemetery so she could “visit the dead.” Watching as the
elderly woman knelt to put flowers on a small grave set apart from the others, I asked Randal, “Whose grave is that?”
She hesitated just long enough to make me curious. “That’s Fanny’s first husband. Charlie.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died. We don’t speak of him.”
I couldn’t get anything else out of her. That night as I lay awake in my moonlit room waiting for Charlie’s ghost to appear, I remembered my experience all those years ago in the house in Wisconsin. And I remembered, too, the tender look on Fanny’s face as she bent to put flowers on the grave of a man who had died sixty-five years ago. And I wondered what could have happened between Fanny and Charlie that would keep her family from ever mentioning his name.
Twenty-five years later I wrote Summer in the South, the story of Ava, a Chicago writer trying to escape her own troubled past who stumbles upon a sixty-five year old murder mystery in a small Southern town. Are the things that happened to Ava in that old mansion in Woodburn, Tennessee real or imaginary? Was the love affair between Fanny and Charlie truly as I imagined it?
The answers to both questions, I suppose, lie clearly in the realm of fiction.
But the Woodburns are not who they seem to be. Gradually hearing rumors about the mysterious death of great-aunt Fanny’s first husband, Ava stumbles upon a decades-old family secret. With the help of Jake Woodburn, Will’s estranged cousin, Ava gradually puts aside her planned novel and begins instead to write the tragic history of the Woodburns, a family with more skeletons (and ghosts) in their closets than anyone can possibly imagine.
As she writes the history of the Woodburns, Ava begins to put together the pieces of her own past, learning that a good story is always more dazzling, and ultimately less painful, than the truth.