Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode IV: "Start from the land I know and create from that"
In this installment, Tiffany McDaniel talks about the influence of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.
I’m with Tiffany McDaniel, six weeks before the release of her debut novel, The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s). Set in Breathed, Ohio in 1984, the book follows a town right as a strange visitor arrives, a thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil. McDaniel’s been compared with Carson McCullers, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Neil Gaiman, Harper Lee, Shirley Jackson, George Orwell, Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor. Really it just sounds like I’m naming authors at random; save for chronology, I wouldn’t know how to even begin ordering those writers. The work Tiffany’s chosen to talk about today is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. When did you first read McCourt’s memoir?
I was assigned to read McCourt's memoir when I was a senior in high school. So when I was around eighteen.
Was it love at first read? What about it drew you in?
Not really. I didn't even read it when it was assigned because I thought it'd be rather boring. And so I thought I'd wing it in class discussion. But then when we started to discuss the book and read passages from it, I thought, Gee, this is actually some really great stuff and I should give this book a read. It was the first memoir I'd ever read. Honestly it was the first time I'd ever heard of a memoir. Up to that point in my life, I was well-versed in biographies, which, while educational about a person's life, can be quite tedious and long-winded. And biographies are usually about presidents or someone famous, and in Angela's Ashes you're reading a story about an ordinary guy just living his life. And the simplicity of that was actually quite powerful. That's what drew me in.
Really makes you think about all of those books you didn't even give a chance. Did it make you want to write a memoir? Do you see a connection between TSTME and Angela's Ashes?
Well around that time, that was my senior year in high school, and it would be right after high school that I wrote my first novel. And that novel was inspired by my mother's life growing up in southern Ohio. I wouldn't call my first novel a memoir but I don't think I would have written that novel if I hadn't read Angela's Ashes and been introduced to cultivating the memory of life. And that's why Angela's Ashes was a tremendous influence on me and my writing because it made me much more aware that the everyday life can be written down and it can be filled with sparks and creation and magic. Angela's Ashes almost gave me permission as a writer to write from my own life and what I know. It was a book that in essence cleared the ground of the weeds for me and really taught me to till the dirt the best way I knew how. Meaning start from the land I know and create from that. Since that first novel at eighteen, I've written eight other novels. TSTME being the fifth or sixth novel, and the novel I got the publishing contract for when I was twenty-nine. I wouldn't say there's necessary a connection between TSTME and Angela's Ashes in the story as a whole, but elements of using my life experiences are a tool that Angela's Ashes put into my hand.
What do you mean by "cultivating the memory of life"?
I mean taking memory and bringing it to life outside of my mind. Where it becomes a seed on the page where it is allowed to grow into whatever wild, twisty vines create the home that the characters and the story live in within their fictional universe.
How much of TSTME was based on your own childhood?
The fictional town in TSTME, Breathed, Ohio, is based on my childhood summers and school year weekends spent in southern Ohio on the acreage my father was left by his parents. It's a cinder-block house surrounded by rolling hills, a dirt road in the front, a creek in the back. It is very much a front porch living type of place. That time spent in southern Ohio there on the land and surrounded by that culture has inspired not just TSTME, but all of my writing. I've been shaped by the rolling hills and I rise and fall with their lines. Particularly having spent my childhood there was it's own special gift because when we're kids we're much more absorbent to our surroundings. I don't think I could write about the true magic of the land if I had first come across it as an adult. It's the child in me that first captured it and has held it like a firefly in a jar all these years, lighting the dark one page at a time.
How much of that tapping into the magic of your own childhood was learned from McCourt?
I remember reading a part in the memoir where McCourt is talking about being on the playground with his siblings. And on the surface that synopsis sounds undeniably boring and every day. But McCourt wrote it with humor and love and in a way that perfectly captured that childhood moment. It's like putting a tap into a sugar maple and letting the syrup out. That's what McCourt did so well. He put a tap into his childhood, turned on the faucet and the whole basin filled with magic. That's what I've tried to do in my own writing. Remembering that simple lesson of let it naturally flow and be ready to catch it when it does.
Of course it's impossible to describe such a process, but what does that tangibly mean, to let it 'naturally flow'?
Well I never write a synopsis or outline prior to writing a novel or working on the novel itself. I never force the characters or their story out. I sit in front of my laptop and whatever comes to me at that moment is what I write down. I just let it flow naturally. Sometimes there's a lot at that moment I'm in front of the laptop, sometimes there isn't and it's just a trickle from the tap. But waiting for it to come on its own allows it to be it's most natural self.
Have you read about McCourt's own process?
I don't know his own process, but I know he was an English teacher so he was probably much more structured and worked with a tighter schedule.
You mentioned writing quite a deal before this book was published. What do you think clicked?
I do write quite a bit. But only my first novel and TSTME was submitted to editors. When my first novel was submitted, the feedback from editors was actually really wonderful but then you read their response and get to the end and they'd say but I'm passing on the novel. Sometimes there wasn't more explanation than that. One editor said he was passing simply because he already had a Midwest fiction book on his list and two was too many. Others said the novel was too dark or too long for a debut. But I think publishers oftentimes underestimate readers' enjoyment of darker material. Such was the case with Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life which is a long, dark novel and was recently a massive bestseller. Too many times publishers try to decide what readers 'should' like and because of this, publishers are missing out on some really great writers and stories because they're not willing to take a risk with them. Really getting a book published is about finding that one person in the crowd of what seems like millions who likes your book enough to go through the trouble of getting the money to back it. What we read as a reading audience is really determined by a select few in these publishing houses. That's why I think books can sometimes appear to be cookie cutter. Just a template that editors and publishers know will do commercially well and put money in their pockets. Publishing is a business of course, but especially for adult literary fiction, which is the genre I write, it's incredibly difficult to get a publisher to take a chance on you. Especially when you're a female literary fiction writer.
But of course there are a great many novels submitted to editors, and only so many can be published. Literary fiction especially—it's audience is smaller than the people willing to write it, relative to other genres. It is, after all, a business. But it sounds like you kept at it, and editors came around too.
Yep, that's really all you can do. Is to never give up.
And be inspired. We're nearly out of time, so I'd like to bid you adieu by asking you to make the pitch to a reader who's never read Angela's Ashes.
Well both McCourt's novel and my novel The Summer that Melted Everything are about coming of age and surviving that very thing. So I'll pitch both novels and say start with the fire of The Summer that Melted Everything and end with the ashes of Angela. The fire starts July 26th, so be ready.
Thanks for your time and words, Tiffany.