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Silas House’s new novel Southernmost follows Asher Sharp, an evangelical preacher in Tennessee struggling with his fundamentalist beliefs. Years ago, Asher rejected his gay brother, and now the country is in fierce debate over marriage equality. After offering shelter to two gay men during a devastating flood, Asher is rejected from his church and community, and stands to lose custody of his young son. Asher takes his son and flees to Key West, leaving behind all he knows and discovering what it truly means to find acceptance and forgiveness. Author Dorothy Allison has this to say: “Southernmost engages my most deeply hidden fears and hopes. Silas House has all the gifts of a passionate storyteller, and to this book he adds the heartfelt convictions of a man willing to voice what we so seldom see in print—the ways in which with all good intentions we can mess up and go wrong, and only later try to sort out how we can win our own redemption.”
Silas House is the author of six novels, including the New York Times bestseller A Parchment of Leaves. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and a former commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. He lives in Kentucky.
I spoke with Silas via email a few weeks before the release of Southernmost.
Asher is a preacher who is wrestling with the mistake he made in rejecting his gay brother and with the rigidity of his Fundamentalist beliefs. What was the inspiration behind this character and how did he develop?
Mainly, I was trying to put myself in the mind of someone very unlike myself—to me that point of view was more interesting and challenging than writing it from the point of view of the person who was coming out. A lot of Asher’s evolution was based on the way I saw people in my own life evolving on the issue [of accepting gay people]. I was surprised to find that people whom I thought would totally reject me were willing to work their ways through it. I was often frustrated with them but in the end they came out on the side of love. So I wanted to examine a character who was that way. Also, I think rural people are never portrayed that was in most media, so I wanted to examine that side of it, as well.
There is a gay couple in the book—Jimmy and Stephen—who are rejected from the church and shunned by their neighbors. Many queer people have been rejected by their families, churches, and communities, and will probably relate to this experience. I’m curious if you ever considered writing from Jimmy and Stephen’s perspectives?
I never did, mostly because they came late in the process. I knew that my main character was educating himself and evolving on the issue but I also knew there had to be a moment where he really put this long evolution into action. I had been working on this novel for a couple years when a Methodist preacher in Tennessee performed the wedding ceremony for his gay son, and was promptly fired from his job in the church because of it. He became a sort of folk hero because of it, especially to rural LGBTQ folks, so I created Jimmy and Stephen to be this moment of putting Asher into real action. As novelists, we’re always asking why something is happening at this particular time, or what the impetus is. For Asher, it was this devastating flood that people in his congregation are blaming on marriage equality and the flood leads this gay couple to seek shelter at his home. This is the moment of reckoning for him.
That’s interesting that they came in later in the process. This is such a timely novel. The novel takes place in rural Tennessee, following the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. You even mention Kim Davis in the narrative. Do you see this novel as response to Davis and to the debate on marriage equality? It also seems like a response to the living in the time of Trump—finding goodness in a time of such fear and meanness.
I had already finished the novel when marriage equality passed but the day the Supreme Court decision came down, I knew I had to rewrite it and use all of that. It was as if I had been writing the novel in preparation for that moment and once I added in that factor, it all just came together perfectly. So I wanted to add all of those things, like Kim Davis, but also make all of that organic…she is only mentioned in a way that is totally natural to the story, and not forced in. For a book like this it’s really important to not become a polemic…the human story was always the most important thing for me. These are characters who are being hugely impacted by the times they’re living in instead of being characters who are just there to illuminate the times they’re living in. And during my final revision Trump rose to power and so that became part of it, too, in a very subtle way. I think the book is more relevant now than when I started writing it. It’s strange how novels somehow slide into the zeitgeist in that way.
You mentioned “meanness.” There’s a character in the book who could just really easily be this vile fundamentalist fanatic. She has a real meanness in her. So I had to figure out how to make her three-dimensional. That’s hard to do when you’ve spent your life being shunned or treated badly by people like that. So the way I tried to humanize her–and the other homophobic people in the book—was to really look into her fear. Her fear had turned her mean and taken away her empathy.
Yes, absolutely, I was going to ask about the mother character. She is so rigid in her beliefs, but it’s clear that these stem from her fear. You write, “her rigidity and fear had turned into something bordering on meanness.” Was it difficult to make Lydia an empathetic character? She’s not a villain, but in different hands, I think she could have been.
That was the most challenging aspect of the book. Talking about her illuminates one of the major themes of the book: how do you continue to love someone when your definition of being a good person is in complete opposition to theirs? I think that theme is more relevant to the national conversation than ever before. Queer people have been going through that forever, but now, lots of people who are divided over Trump are going through it as well. But, yes, it was a real challenge and it took a few revisions to give her those dimensions. And those nuances come in quiet little moments, not in some big neon-sign action.
I want to go back to the novel’s setting. In an essay you wrote about Southernmost, you state, “For many Americans, the South is the Other, but in my experience, the South is a mirror, a microcosm of the rest of the country. While things may sometimes seem more pronounced or blatant here—and that’s certainly been the case in the way people have voted here lately—the fact is that the South is a whole lot like the rest of the country.” I really love this. Can you say more about this, and also how this idea of the South as a mirror informed your writing of Southernmost?
The worst homophobia I’ve ever suffered was in Chicago and New York City. Yet I grew up in the rural South. Often I think that the whole country lets itself off the hook with this notion that the South—or any rural place—is more homophobic or racist or misogynistic. What I mean is that the rest of America is far more like the South, or rural places, than it would like to admit, and it holds up real progress when people deny that. When I was writing this novel I was never thinking “these people are acting this way because they’re from the South.” I thought, “these people are reacting to this issue this way because of who they are as individuals.”
Yes, and I think it’s so important to show the complexity of the South, just as I think it’s important for more representation of queer characters in rural spaces.
Right. Too often urban media promotes the invisibility of rural LGBTQ people. I see it all the time. We’re here, we’re queer.
While reading your book, I kept thinking of how masculinity, especially in the South (or in how others often see the South), is too often portrayed as only one way of being: tough masculine guys who shoot things up and drive big trucks. Justin, Asher’s son, is quiet and sensitive, and his mother worries about this: “It’s not normal, to be so tenderhearted.” I’d love to hear you talk more about Justin’s character, and the way tenderness is often seen as suspect (read: queer).
All of that comes from personal experience. When I was little, the worst insult for a boy was to be called “a sissy.” I liked to read. I didn’t like hunting. I liked to shop for clothes. So all of those things were suspect, of course, not only in my culture, but in most all American culture at the time. And I’d argue that those strident gender norms are still enforced by a whole lot of Americans. However, I was an enigma for some people because I also loved to fish, to ride motorcycles. My father had been a boxer in the Army so I fought back when other boys picked on me. I enjoyed being complex in just being myself, because I did enjoy all of those things. But I knew to hide my deep sensitivity because to reveal that would have led to constant scrutiny. What I love about Justin is that he refuses to hide that incredible empathy. He’s deeply troubled when he sees a man holding a cardboard sign that says “HUNGRY” and begs his father to turn around and take him some food. He worries about everything. I love that word “tenderhearted” and I think it’s so interesting how that so often has a negative context when in fact it should be the thing everyone aspires to be. It’s a great commentary on how messed up our culture is on issues of gender expectations and all of that. If we could only just let each other be, we’d all be so much happier. It’s frustrating. So, what I love most about Justin is that he is just totally and absolutely himself. He doesn’t care about any of those expectations: he’s just himself. Thomas Merton is a big influence on this book and my favorite line of his is “The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like God.” That’s who Justin is, and I love him for it.
You mention Merton and this leads into my next question. Were there books, films, or music that informed or influenced the writing of Southernmost?
Yes. When I’m working on a novel, I look for inspiration everywhere, especially in other media. Poetry, film, photography, paintings. Since the majority of this book is set in Key West I particularly looked at the work of artists associated with it and the main influence there became Elizabeth Bishop. I read a lot of Merton, as does Asher. Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was a big influence because it’s also about a preacher trying to find his way (and I have a couple of homages to her in the novel—Bell is from her hometown, for instance). I looked at a lot of stuff about people losing their belief and the best thing I found was Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. And I always use a ton of music to guide me. The touchstone musicians in this book are Patty Griffin, My Morning Jacket, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, and Celia Cruz, I listened to them over and over. For years. The Dry Savages by T.S. Eliot.
Also, since this is a novel about being on the run, I was thinking a lot about one of my all-time favorite novels, Paper Moon, about a man and a little girl on the run. I could go on and on.
Great list. This is now your sixth novel. Do you have any advice for other writers?
My advice is to always have your main theme in mind and to make sure you’re always circling back to it. And to write the book you want to read.