That Moment of Shock and Discovery:
Susan Gregg Gilmore and Michele Young-Stone Discuss Trauma and Fiction
Nothing shakes up a life like trauma. Fiction writers have known this secret since the early days – think Ahab, Hamlet, or Batman – and introducing a bit of quick chaos into the life of a main character, particularly in their formative years, has always been the preferred method of amping up the intrigue. Michele Young-Stone’s debut novel, The Handbook For Lightning Strike Survivors, features a pair of characters who (you guessed it) have been struck by lightning.
Michele herself was struck by lightning as a child, an experience which (forgive me) sparked the creation of her novel. Author Susan Gregg Gilmore – whose amazing novel, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, is now available wherever books are sold in paperback – recently spoke with Michele about how trauma of both the real and fictional variety has impacted their lives in recent years.
Susan Gregg Gilmore: When I wrote The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, I was motivated by two things. First, not long after moving back to my hometown of Nashville, I met a woman whose name was Bezellia. Now I don’t think she spells it the same way, but when I heard that name I knew I had a protagonist who could lead a story forward. At about the same time, I was looking for a house to buy and toured one that I had often played in as a little girl. I loved this house. But when I went into the basement, what I saw took my breath away.
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I found six rooms with cinder block walls, no windows, heavy doors with double locks. I knew this was where the staff had lived. And I couldn’t help but think that while I was happily playing upstairs a very different world was existing beneath my feet. Even as a child growing up in the South, I was very aware of racial inequality. It pained me then as it does now. So when I found that basement, I knew I had to deal with those emotions and memories in my own way, by telling a story. It was that moment of shock and discovery which truly led to the creation of this book.
So of course with a title like yours, Michele, I have to ask if you were struck by lightning? I imagine you’ve answered this question a thousand times but I must know if somehow you experienced that first-hand!
Michele Young-Stone: I adore you, Susan. It’s hard to focus in this heatwave. But, yep, I certainly was struck by lightning, which is a natural disaster more common than tornadoes and hurricanes combined. My story was pretty uneventful, except that we suffered severe shock. I was 11 and my mom witnessed the strike. I remember everything turning bright white, and the loudest, most deafening noise anyone can imagine (thunder–the sound of lightning coming in contact with the ground). I then remember falling into it and then nothing. All Blank. And then we were on our way to the shopping mall (our intended destination). We drove twenty miles before my mom turned to me and said, “You just got struck by lightning.” I said, “I just got struck by lightning.” We went back and forth like this. We never went into the shopping mall. We just sat in the car, the rain pouring down outside. It was totally surreal, but I was “seemingly” unharmed.
SGG: Michele, I’m not sure I ever told you that my first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, was set in Ringgold, GA. This is a tiny Southern town in the northwest corner of the state famous for its cheap gas and wedding chapel . . . at least until recently. On Wednesday, April 26th, Ringgold made national headlines when a monster tornado swept through town leveling buildings, damaging the middle and high schools, and killing eight people, including two high school seniors. When the tornado hit that night, it took a part of me with it. I love this place and I love its people. I went back to my book and found this passage spoken by Catherine Grace, the young protagonist:
“When I was no more than nine years old, a tornado tore right close to my house. I remember yelling at my little sister to run and hide in the basement. “Martha Ann,” I warned her, “if that twister hits this town, nobody’s even going to notice it’s gone.”
Well, people noticed all right. The entire country noticed. And it was only a matter of days before a group of readers, bloggers, writers, and teachers from Ringgold and across the country, banded together to help this town rebuild. We’ve called ourselves RINGGOLD READS, and our aim is to put books back in the classrooms. Both the middle and high schools were heavily damaged and what has touched me the most is just how grateful the teaching community is for any little thing. I’ve always believed in the power of books — the power to forge understanding and friendships, the power to break prejudices and stereotypes. But I had not considered their healing power, the power to heal a hurting community.
I’ve been thinking of you and your wonderful book, The Handbook for Lighting Strike Survivors. I know that you would have a special message for the middle and high school students whose lives were forever changed on that April night.
MYS: I was listening to a Jack Johnson song yesterday, and one of the lyrics struck me: “Where’d all the good people go?/I’ve been changing channels/I don’t see them on the TV show.” Hearing about the town of Ringgold and Ringgold Reads answers that question. I was a school teacher for ten years, and I was actually in my classroom on that horrible day, September 11th, 2001. I was surrounded by innocence, and something so ugly and horrible was taking place not one-hundred twenty miles away. I had students whose parents worked in D.C. at the pentagon. I remember understanding in the days, weeks, months and years that followed, that people can overcome just about anything when they band together. In books, we often read about tragedies and how people don’t forget, but do survive. Ringgold is a story of survival. Can you tell me how I can support Ringgold Reads?
SGG: Oh Michele, happy you asked about Ringgold Reads because I was already thinking you would be a wonderful author to invite down to Tennessee to speak to the high school students. They would love you, I know that for sure. Ringgold Reads is currently trying to help the teachers at both schools replace the classroom books lost in the storm. The teachers are generous, compassionate and so humble. They worry about asking for too much and we just want them to have all that they need. We are a small but committed bunch that have promised to stick with them for as long as it takes. This fall we plan to work with the high school English teachers developing and implementing some programming that might give the kids an opportunity to continue to talk and process this tragedy in their own way. That’s when I was hoping I might be able to lure you down to Tennessee! Random House has been very supportive, and I am very very grateful. Ringgold really is like a second home for me. It’s funny but sometimes I find myself thinking of Catherine Grace and all my imaginary friends in Ringgold and I wonder how they’re doing! I will try to find internet by the end of the day so we can chat again.
MYS: If I can’t be in Ringgold in person, I still very much want to support Ringgold Reads. My son is six years old, and go figure, but the school gets perturbed when I pull him out to go book gallivanting, but he’s my baby. I can’t leave him all the time! Is there any way for folks who can’t get down to Ringgold to support Ringgold Reads?
MICHELE YOUNG-STONE earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived. Visit Michele online at MicheleYoung-Stone.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @micheleyosto.
SUSAN GREGG GILMORE is the author of the novel Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen and The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove. She has written for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Born in Nashville, she lives in Tennessee with her husband and three daughters. Visit Susan online at SusanGreggGilmore.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter @susangilmore.