On Writing a Standout Novel, The Summer That Melted Everything and Women in Fiction, a Conversation with Tiffany McDaniel
I've been writing about books for close to a decade. While I'm a good audience and enjoy to majority of what I'm reading, but material that clearly stands out from the pack if few and far between for me. I read novels like Tiffany McDaniel's The Summer That Melted Everything maybe once or twice a year if I'm lucky. Some years, I don't read anything nearly as strong. That's how much I liked the book.
So, I was curious about what kind of person would write such a novel and I asked Tiffany McDaniel to answer a couple questions, which she gracefully did. I hope you enjoy this short and sweet conversation we had! If you do, make sure to visit her website.
Ben: So, The Summer that Melted Everything is your debut novel. It was released by a major publisher and was well-received by critics and audiences alike. It seems like you're living a young novelist's dream. Tell me, what reality lies behind that perception?
Tiffany: The reality is that getting published has been no easy feat. The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, but it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until eleven years later when I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was an eleven-year journey full of rejection and perseverance. It took me years, about 5-7, just to get an agent. Though only that first novel and TSTME has gone on to submission, I was told I wasn’t an author that was publishable in today’s marketplace driven by commercial fiction, but I couldn’t give up on my dream of being published and I certainly couldn’t give up on my characters, so for eleven years I soldiered on. I don’t need to describe the blood, sweat, and tears, except to say that reality is far from fairy tale. Nothing has been achieved without struggle and determination. It has been an uphill battle to get published, and an uphill battle to market the book. The ground has yet to even out, but the struggle has made me the author I am today. An author that takes no reader for granted. It’s why my biggest advice to all authors out there hoping for publication is to never give up and never lose faith that one day you will be published.
Ben: I thought the novel was outstanding, one of these books that speaks differently to people depending on their upbringing. I would go as far as saying that people who openly disliked it are stupid and that is very unlike me. When did you know you had "it". That story that would open up the doors of major league publishing for you? Was there a particular moment?
Tiffany: Years of rejection has stripped me of any optimism for the most part, so there wasn’t a particular moment where I felt I had written a novel that was going to get published. The agent I had at the time didn’t like the novel, and that of course has an effect on one’s confidence in a book. Me and that agent parted ways and I eventually found another agent who wanted to take the novel on and put it on submission. The rejections started to come in from publishers, and I was certain that the book was not going to get picked up so I was already thinking of what my next steps were going to be in terms of getting another book out on submission. And then I got an email that St. Martin’s wanted to publish the novel. I remember my mom asked me, “Aren’t you excited?” It was difficult to let myself get happy at the news, because I’d been close before and I didn’t want to get too excited just to be let down again. It didn’t feel like it was safe to believe until the book was actually out on the shelf. On average, it takes two years to move a debut through a publishing house, so it was a long two years to say the least.
Ben: I'm sure you've answered many questions about The Summer that Melted Everything regarding your stance on religion. I mean, the book features the devil after all. Here's mine: why did you feel the need to distance your work from the conventional (and boring) good vs evil rhetoric that's so dominant in contemporary society? What lead you to such a unique choice?
Tiffany: I didn’t know the book was going to be about the devil until I wrote the first line. I begin writing a new novel with the title and the first line. These two things lead the entire rest of the story for me. I don’t outline and I don’t plan a story beforehand. I feel like planning the story too much domesticates the story in a way, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul so I let the story evolve with each new word and page I write. I knew as soon as I wrote that first line about the devil coming to town that I wouldn’t write a stereotypical devil of red flesh, horns, and a pitchfork. I wanted to bring it down to the even field of man and leave the almost cartoonist caricatures of good and evil out of it. I wanted to explore the good and evil in human form. The emotions we ourselves are all familiar with.
Ben: There were some noticeable influences from southern gothic and magic realism in your novel, yet it makes a powerful and universal statement about right and wrong. What are the influences I haven't seen? Were there any philosophers or perhaps theologians?
Tiffany: From the very first moment I began writing I’ve always written a particular way. People will ask me, why do you write this way? But it’s not a choice. Each author is given a certain set of skills and tools from which we forge our characters and their stories. First time I submitted to an agent, she said I write literary fiction. At eighteen, I had never heard of the difference between literary and commercial works. For the most part, I’m a laid-back reader and never followed specific genres or certain writers. I never thought of The Summer that Melted Everything as magical realism until some readers reviewed it as such. I’d say it’s Midwest Gothic more than Southern, but I try not to box stories in too much, so I don’t worry about labels as a reader or as an author.
I’d like to say I’m highly read in philosophy and theology, but the truth is my philosophy has been ripened in the landscape of my youth when I was running the hills of southern Ohio and fishing in the creek. I sharpened my teeth on the outdoors and learned from the fields a down-home philosophy first hand. The Gothic elements in my writing probably come from the fact that I’ve always had a Gothic mind. As a kid, I used to draw dead people and ghouls and always pined to live in a derelict mansion by a dying sunflower field and cawing crows. I always say I’m drawn to the crash, not the landing. I like to explore the broken fragments. There’s life there, even in the death.
Ben: One thing I understood a little less in The Summer that Melted Everything was the naming. I loved Dresden, which is a city that has literally known hellfire, and I love that the devil cared about her. Names like Grayson Elohim and Autopsy Bliss seemed a little too obvious to me. Was there something I missed? There is only one major character who has an openly religious name, what's up with that?
Tiffany: With names, I try to add a subtle meaning to the characters and celebrate and elaborate on certain themes without banging the reader over the head. Dresden came about because of the city's past of hell-fire, but also because there’s a little Ohio town by that name that I have fond memories of, and also from Dresden porcelain which is fragile, and that’s how I see the character of Dresden. Autopsy came about because I’d seen the word autopsy one day. I was familiar with the word, of course. The dead body on the cold slab about to be cut open and examined. I felt immediately it was the perfect name for a man who one day invites the devil. Overtime, his name began to represent the entire story to a certain degree. My hope is that you repeat autopsy over and over again throughout the novel and eventually come to realize Fielding is a man at the end of his life, putting his body up on the cold slab, and cutting himself open to reveal what exactly has killed him, killed his happiness, and in many ways, killed his soul. The entire book can be seen as Fielding performing this self-autopsy. As far as Elohim’s name, Elohim is the name used in the Hebrew bible for God. So in name, he came to represent one side of the battle, with Sal on the other side. But it’s about realizing just because someone is called God does not make one godly, and just because one is called the devil, doesn’t mean that character is devilish. It’s taking these ideas and turning them on their heads.
Where Grayson comes from is from that gray area in life. For the most part, nothing is as clear cut as black and white. We live in the gray shades in between. Without giving spoilers away, Grayson Elohim represents that dichotomy of good and evil. Fedelia, of course, named so for infidelity, and Grand named for the very meaning of the word. There’s ordinary names, too, like Stella, named because when I thought of her I thought of a stifling, indoor heat. I also throw in family names like Otis (name of my uncle), Glen (name of my father). I could go on about the reasoning behind names, but I fear this answer is already too long so I’ll only say the great thing about names is that they can serve many different purposes.
Ben: I've been promoting female authors on this site for a couple years now, but a problem I've come across is that they just don't submit for review. I often end up buying their books which is something really weird when you get five or six a week via mail. You're one of the only ones who asked for a review. Why do you think that problem is?
Tiffany: The problem is probably long-rooted in the female v. male publishing journey, and there are definite differences in being published as a female versus being published as a male so much so I considered publishing under a male pseudonym like the women of the past, hiding my identity behind a penis. But if I did that, I would have never felt like it was me who had written a book and gotten it published. I decided to be present as myself, rather than hide my gender for the sake of mainstream reviews or sales, which are often attributed to male authors. This is part of a larger conversation, but I think women who write darker literary fiction like me are often pegged as being “risky” for publishers to take a chance on, while men who write the same things are often touted as being “brilliant”. There’s sexism in just about every industry and the creative arts are no different. In terms of why you’re finding more female authors are not requesting reviews through the site, I can’t say. It’s the first time I’ve heard of a discrepancy in review requests, but for me, as soon as I started inquiring about what the marketing and publicity plan from the publisher was for my novel, I realized that the brunt of the marketing and review querying was going to fall onto my shoulders so I hit the pavement hard, getting the e-galley from Netgalley to nearly 400 book bloggers, and did about 150 interviews, all in lead up to publication, which meant I was so backlogged by interviews the day my novel came out I was committed to the computer and wasn’t even able to go to the bookstore to see my book there for the first time, which was disappointing in every way but the true state of how much work really falls on the author’s shoulders in selling a book. Starting out I think many authors believe the publisher will take care of it all. That’s what I thought, but it’s just not the case. One of the most powerful partners I had as an author marketing her book were book bloggers. Without book blogs, no one would really know the book even exists. So, if authors, male and female, are not submitting for review, they definitely should.
Ben: Who are the female authors you're looking up to? Who inspired you to sit behind a keyboard and write?
Tiffany: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, writing even before I was reading on my own, so there hasn’t been a particular author, male or female, that has been the reason for my desire to make a life out of writing. When I was growing up, my parents had hard, laborious jobs that made them tired and angry and not a whole lot of money. I thought this is what I would have to do. Scrape by in life. I didn’t yet have that distinction between a job and a career, and writing was never something I associated with work because it was an innate desire to pick up the pencil and put down what was in my head whether it be a poem on a napkin or a play written in the margin of my coloring book. As far as female-authored books that have left a lasting impression on me, there is one book in particular that comes to mind. It’s not a novel, or a grand thousand-page masterpiece, but rather a picture book I read as a child. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. It was the first book I remember reading that had a female as the lead character, and a woman who did not marry (hence the title). She travels the world and has this great, fulfilling life. As a child, I got the sense of Miss Rumphius' independence as a woman. She presented to me a reality that was missing in the other books I was reading as a child. The reality of a woman making her own way and being more than merely the wife or mother to the male protagonist. Which, I get questions why my novel has a male protagonist. It just so happened that this is the first book that got published of mine, in a collection of eight novels that range from male and female narrators. In addition, I think every writer should write the truth of the character, and that includes their gender. The gender of the author doesn't and shouldn't define if we're able to write a character opposite of our own gender.
Ben: Here's a new question I'm going to start asking people: do you think criticism is important? If so, why? It can apply to anything: books, movies, television, music. Why is it important to you as a reader or why isn't it? There's no wrong answer here, I'm just curious about how you think about it.
Tiffany: As a reader, I’ve never followed reviews or used them to determine my reading selection. I’ve just never subscribed to criticism or literary analysis not out of staunch distaste but because I like reading a book without anyone else’s opinion competing with my own, and I read for my own enjoyment and discussion.
As a writer, on the other hand, I have to read reviews that come in for The Summer that Melted Everything when I’m in contact with the blogger or reviewer. It just comes with the territory of that working relationship. Sometimes you get good reviews, sometimes you get bad reviews, and I’ve had my share of both. Good reviews are encouraging, but it’s the bad reviews that stick with you longer. It used to be you only read a review in a magazine or newspaper, but the internet has changed the reviewing landscape and with 24/7 access it means everyone has a published opinion and they have it often. On a personal level, getting reviewed with that regularity and frequency can take its toll, so for me it’s important to know when to draw the line. The most important thing we can all do is simply to live as best we can, in all facets of our lives, and sometimes the best critic to listen to is one’s own instinct.
Ben: What are your future projects? Anything you can announce?
Tiffany: I have eight completed novels and I’m currently compiling my first poetry collection. I’d love to say all these books and more will be published, but honestly that’s not up to me. There are lots of contributing factors publishers take into consideration when offering a book contract and book sales are certainly at the top of that list. That’s why reader support is so important to authors, especially debuts. Without readers, authors fall off the cliff a lot easier. So, for right now all I can do is hope The Summer that Melted Everything finds its champions and its supporters. And in the meantime, I’ll write and be ready.