Origins of Love and Lament

Love and Lament is a family saga, a young woman’s coming-of-age story set in piedmont North Carolina around the turn of the century. It’s the result of my trying to tell one story and ending up with another. In attempting to create characters and a setting based on my father’s early life, I had to ditch some 400 pages and start back earlier in time, focusing on the previous generation. With my first novel, The Reservoir, I had immersed myself in the culture and texture of the 1880s, and so it felt almost instinctive to pick up with the 1890s, moving the setting from tidewater Virginia to piedmont North Carolina, origin of my clan.
I come from a family of humble folk, farmers mostly, with a miller in there, and later a country doctor, a teacher, a dentist, a lawyer. Though the women were generally the ones who kept the family histories and played the piano and painted, my paternal grandmother was not an artist of any sort, nor was she much on any literature except scripture. The only family history she knew was the names in the family Bible, and she didn’t seem to know much about them.
Yet working with a few family anecdotes, I found myself deep inside a story arising from my grandmother’s life. I had known her only as a kindly, bent old woman, given to choking spells and unintentionally funny remarks, who would come to our house for several weeks at a time and play endless games with me and my siblings. Later, when she was ancient and living in a retirement home, I would visit her and listen to her talk, in idioms inherited from a long-gone era, about the news from people back home. She was much more interested in talking about the present than the past, and I suppose that’s part of the reason I was later intrigued. A writer is naturally drawn to what is left unsaid. The past was not something to talk about or dwell on, and I had to wonder what secrets were kept hidden and why.
I knew two key facts about her life. One, she had had, as my father said, “a sad life.” She came from a big family and, mostly because of incurable disease, was practically alone in the world by the time she was a young woman. Fact two: She was the first woman sheriff of North Carolina. She missed being the first in the country by a few months. Sixteen years would go by before there was another woman sheriff in North Carolina; there have been a few over the years; today there’s only one. She was smart and capable, and yet I doubt she would ever have thought of herself as a woman’s rights advocate; she was somebody who stepped up to do what her community needed her to.
Once I got started with the writing, it came fairly quickly. That transitional period between Reconstruction and the first world war, that generation just beyond our memory’s reach, when rural America had one foot in the pre-electric, pre-automobile age and one foot in the modern, I found completely compelling, especially from a young woman’s point of view. The story I ended up with is not my grandmother’s; I don’t presume to know how she spent even a single day of her young life. How absolutely true is the disclaimer, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” She opened a door for me, and I went through it. Yet it was also true that I came to know her better, and to understand what a remarkable woman she was. I can only apologize for anything about my story that does not honor her, and repeat Styron’s observation: “Oh, what ghoulish opportunism are writers prone to!”

28th Sheriff of Chatham County