The Hum and the Shiver is Alex's first Tufa novel. Drawing inspiration from Appalachian folklore and music traditional to the region, he creates a rich, new mythology for the dark valleys of the Smoky Mountains, introducing us to the mysterious yet believable Tufa.
You can read my review here: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe
The inspiration for the novel came from an old Appalachian myth, tell us about the Melungeons and how the myth inspired you to write The Hum and the Shiver.
The Melungeons aren’t a myth; they’re very real, and still live in Tennessee today. They don’t look like any of the Appalachian descendants of the first Scotch-Irish settlers, and they were supposedly here when those folks arrived. Those are the elements of the mystery that first got my attention. But since I knew I’d need to come up with an origin for them, and didn’t want to insult or exploit actual people, I invented my own race, the Tufa.
Although the Melungeons provided the inspiration for the Tufa people, many Tufa traditions have Native American characteristics. Do you see the Tufa as being linked to any ethnic group?
No particular ethnic group inspired them, beyond the Melungeons as I mentioned. The Tufa society is entirely mine, and it grew out of the idea of a slightly mystical world view in which songs function as statements of intent that have real effect. Any resemblance to any other society or group of people is inadvertent.
The novel’s central character, Bronwyn, is a strong and determined woman. What made her the right protagonist for you?
She was inspired, very loosely, by the real-life ordeal of Jessica Lynch. I thought, what if a Tufa had been through that - the injury, the media attention, and then the return home? And then what if - and this was where she really came to life for me - she wasn’t a typical girl who joined the Army, but a legendary hell-raiser trying to escape from her own worst tendencies? Then it became a story, not about an external event, but about a character, a person.
Was it difficult to write from a young female's point of view?
I did worry about that, because I’ve read plenty of examples where writers of one gender get the other gender so dead wrong. But the feedback I’ve gotten has all been positive. I just tried to stay honest to the character, which made worrying about her gender almost irrelevant.
There are parallels to be drawn between the way Tufa characters are treated and the way ethnic minorities have been treated in the past. Did you set out to make a statement about the tensions of a multicultural / multi-ethnic society?
No, I never try to make a 'statement'. The reality of the setting - the American Southeast, where racism still functions and influences many aspects of society - dictated that it would be an element of the story, but it’s there for verisimilitude, not politics.
Equally, Bronwyn's experience of the Iraq war and her military superiors is, on the whole, negative. There is a suggestion that, as for the Tufa, straying far from home can be dangerous and is ill-advised. Was this a comment about America’s role in the world?
No. It was simply an element of the story. I don’t presume to have valuable insights into national or international politics.
Music plays a big role in the novel, good music must be important to you? Do you play yourself?
No, I don’t. It's a bit embarrassing, but even though I'm from the South, my family never embraced music. We sang in church, sometimes in the car, but not at home. My parents didn’t even have favourite songs. But I’ve always loved music. I listen constantly, and I’m friends with several brilliant musicians.
As an English reader, who was unfamiliar with the area described, the story was very involving - do you think your novels travel well?
I hope so. Screenwriter David Koepp says that in order for your characters to be universal, they have to be grounded in specifics. The novel takes place in a very specific place, and the characters speak in a way unique to their region. I hope this allows the universal aspects of the story to come through and feel genuine.
Reviews have been good so far, do you have further Tufa novels planned?
It depends on how well this first book does. Hopefully there will be more. I have plenty of ideas.
How long did it take you to write The Hum and the Shiver?
About a year.
And what's your life during the writing process?
I’m the stay-at-home parent for two small boys, so I get up around 5 AM and write until it’s time to get them off to school. Then I write until I pick up the youngest from pre-school, around noon. From that point on, not much writing gets done. Sometimes I edit in the evening, but usually the household is too hectic.
And when you’re not writing?
I’m always writing something. I tend to have between three and five novels in progress, plus blogs, short stories and other things. It took me a long time to reach the point where I made a living as a writer, and I intend to enjoy it as long as it lasts.
That sounds like an awful lot of work, what first inspired you to start writing?
I can’t remember not doing it. The earliest writing memory I have is of transcribing a Batman comic book into a prose story on my dad’s old manual typewriter. I was about eight years old, I think.
What do you hope your books deliver for readers?
Characters with real emotions they can share, and adventures that make them look at the world a little differently. All my books are meant to be enjoyable; any serious subtext is just that, and shouldn’t interfere with the fun.
Which authors, if any, do you compare yourself to, or aspire to emulate?
It’s a little presumptuous for me to compare myself to anyone. My conscious influences are Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Charles de Lint, HP Lovecraft and Joseph Conrad. Recently I’ve become enamored of Raymond Carver, but I don’t think my writing lends itself to that sort of minimalism. I’m sure everything I’ve read influences me in ways I might not be aware of.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Completing the first draft. That’s the only part of the process that feels like real work. Revising and editing is fun, and I could do it until doomsday. But getting that first draft out of my head and onto paper is work.
What advice would you give to people wanting to write?
Never think your first draft is your best. It isn’t. Learn to love revision.
The Hum and the Shiver deals in a very subtle style of fantasy. What makes a good fantasy novel for you?
When the emotions are recognizably human no matter how extreme the story or setting. If you can get me to feel along with the characters, you’ve got me.
So an emotional connection is very important for you? What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I’m going through a stretch of reading author biographies. I’m in the middle of Savage Art, about the crime writer Jim Thompson. Recently I’ve also read biographies of Horton Foote and Raymond Carver.
My favorite novels are Ceremony by Robert B. Parker, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Memory and Dreams by Charles de Lint, Dracula by Bram Stoker and At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft.
Are there any new writers you’ve read recently who you are particularly excited about?
Fantasy author Ekaterina Sedia, whose The Alchemy of Stone is working its way up to my favorite-novel list. Her latest, Heart of Iron, is atop my TBR pile. Finnish crime writer Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide series has just begun being translated into English; the third one, Nothing But the Truth, came out this summer. And Scottish poet and novelist Kevin MacNeil’s second novel, A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, is a real jewel, and very different from his first, The Stornoway Way.
Favourite word, and why?
If the number of times I say it daily is part of the criteria, then it has to be, “Goddammit.” Which is a terrible thing to admit.
The Hum and the Shiver on Amazon (UK)