Can you tell us about the inspiration behind “Summer”?
My parents retired to a rural town in upstate Florida, and I visited them frequently for years. It’s one of those towns with crumbling shacks and a tobacco barn shrouded in thin pine trees on the roadside, and it’s teeming with stories and history. I call the town “Graceville” (though it should not be confused with the real-life Florida town of Graceville), and I have set several short stories there.
The premise of all of the stories is that strange things happen in summertime in Graceville. I wrote a bit about possession in my novel The Good House, and as a new mother, I was intrigued by the premise of what it might be like if one’s toddler were possessed.
Baby Lola starts off hateful and wanting to hurt her mother but, once possessed, becomes a delightful child, much to her mother’s ultimate relief (which is a brilliant turnabout of reader expectation!). Would you say this story is as much, or more, about the challenges of motherhood, as it is about supernatural possession?
Ah-ha, you’ve busted me! This story is most definitely about the challenges of parenting, especially parenting alone. I’m lucky enough not to be a single mother or have long separations from my husband, but I think all mothers have a moment when they think, “Wow, this is way more challenging than I expected.” And all of my supernatural stories are metaphors for true life challenges and observations.
What draws you to the horror genre?
My mother raised me on the old Universal horror movies I watched on “Creature Features” on weekend afternoons, and I was always hooked. I discovered Stephen King in high school, and I was hooked again. I have come to realize over time that my attraction to horror was also fueled by a fear of, and fascination with, mortality, and also my chaotic childhood in newly integrated neighborhoods in a family headed by civil rights activists.
In “Summer,” the exchange between Danielle and Old Man McCormack is very interesting. The McCormacks are former slave owners who seem to be guilty of mass murder, yet Danielle feels sorry for the one she meets and is civil, which takes him by surprise. What is the significance of this encounter?
I wanted to touch on the very painful racial history that watered the soil in the American South, affecting both black and white families for generations. In this town my parents retired to, for example, my mother had a friend only about a dozen years ago who refused a ride home from a kind white man because she didn’t want to be seen getting out of his car. I never asked her what all of her fears were, but clearly they are woven in that racial history that still lingers, bred of distrust and stereotypes and incidents that have not been forgotten. My grandmother heard stories of lynchings. Her own half-brother was executed as a juvenile. My mother and her sister spent forty-nine days in jail in 1960 for ordering food at a Woolworth in Tallahassee, Florida. The stories go on and on.
Where is the path to healing? In that final moment, I wanted to show that my protagonist—after tasting the forbidden fruit—suddenly found herself feeling a surprising kind of empathy for a man who was a product of generational circumstances. Ironically, her experience with a possessed child, her acceptance of the possession, helped her understand how the McCormack family had come to embrace or accept whatever horrible acts might have happened in the family’s past.
What are you working on now?
I am writing short stories for a short story collection I would like to publish soon, and I’m working on a screenplay version of my novel, My Soul to Keep, which was in film development for years but never got made. I collaborated with my husband, Steven Barnes, and a few years ago sold three drafts of an adaptation of my novel The Good House. I’m ready to tackle My Soul to Keep.