Tiffany McDaniel may be best known as a novelist, but she is also a visual artist and a poet. You can tell by the way she writes: her prose is lyrical and rich with imagery, stoking readers’ imaginations and rousing a childlike curiosity, as when she describes “towering trees” with “branches braiding like cold rivers.” McDaniel grew up in Ohio, in a hometown similar to the fictional place of Breathed, the setting of her novels. In these books, she endeavors to show the different sides of this rural community—how it can be as judgmental and isolating as it is beautiful and serene. The land itself plays an important role in her work. Picturesque scenes offer a surprising contrast to the difficult subjects she tends to explore—racism and sexism, poverty and grief.
McDaniel’s latest novel, Betty, is a book she wrote many years ago, when she was only seventeen years old, but it was just published this summer—four years after her debut, The Summer That Melted Everything. Betty is a heroic coming-of-age story inspired by McDaniel’s own family history, centering on a family secret her mother told her some twenty years ago. It follows her mother—then a young girl named Betty Carpenter, who is one of eight siblings—as she tries to figure out her place in society and within her own family. (McDaniel even uses the real names of her relatives in the book.) Betty’s father, Landon, the town’s plant healer, is Cherokee, and Betty has inherited his talent for storytelling, his love of nature, and his dark skin. Her mother, Alka, is a white woman who finds Betty’s physical resemblance to Landon irritating and often lashes out at her because of it. She calls her daughter “Pocahontas,” and tells her that princesses don’t have “mud-colored skin and stringy hair” like hers. Betty’s sister Flossie follows suit, telling Betty she’s ugly because her skin is darker than that of her siblings. Betty’s appearance also draws attention from her community; her neighbors call her “dirty” and her teachers and classmates shame her at school.
Only Betty’s father offers an escape from the pain of everyday existence. He tells her beautiful stories about Ohio’s wildlife, their Cherokee heritage, and the family’s ancestry, which captivate both Betty and the reader. Landon has such a gift for animating nature that he makes his audience appreciate every mound of dirt, seedling, and living creature. As he tells Betty, “We bring the earth inside us and restore the knowledge that even the smallest leaf has a soul.” For Landon, the earth connects us to our upbringings, to the generations that came before us, and to the people we’ve loved and lost. Throughout this book, we see how prejudice harms communities, and how dreamlike beauty can exist alongside unbearable pain. McDaniel writes this heartbreaking story with elegance and grace, vividly evoking the mystical relationship between people and the landscape, and the tenderness between father and daughter.
I spoke to McDaniel earlier this summer, shortly before her book’s publication, about Cherokee culture, intergenerational abuse, and why we should love one another more.
— Carissa Chesanek for Guernica
Guernica: The story of Betty exposes many real secrets kept by your family. What was it like to learn these things?
Tiffany McDaniel: When I was 17 years old, my mother told me a secret. It was the type of secret that most families keep hidden. It opened the door on other family secrets, and I realized there was a lot I didn’t know. The secrets of the women in the family were all eye-opening lessons on another part of our history—the generational abuse. After that, I talked to my mom, my grandmother, and the other women in the family, digging deeper into those secrets to give them shape. It is interesting, exploring your own family history. I knew these people, and yet there are so many things I hadn’t known. It goes to show you how important it is for us to listen to our elders and to hear about their experiences.
When I was a kid, I was often by the side of my grandmother, Mamaw Alka. As a child, it was difficult to understand how one minute she could be loving and kind, while the next she could be distant and hard to reach. Once I learned about the abuse she experienced, I understood how it shaped her into the woman she was.
Mamaw Alka spoke of how her own mother had carried her to the abuse she endured. Mamaw didn’t tell anyone about her abuse when she was a little girl, because her mother and her father were involved, and she believed it was what happened in every family. But if there had been an open discussion about these things when she was a child, she would have known that’s not the case. So we speak and write about these horrors with the hope that it inspires other abuse victims to share their stories. And with the hope that speaking about these things openly will save another from the same fate.
Guernica: Were you worried about representing your family in fiction?
McDaniel: I had the family’s support to share their experiences, so I wasn’t worried about representing them in the book. Since I had grown up around these family members, I had been exposed to them from an early age, which allowed me to represent them as I knew them. There was so much to say; I think at one time, the book was probably 1250 pages. Lint was always the uncle who made sure there were butterscotch candies for me in the glass dish on the counter. Flossie would be dancing in the background somewhere. Mamaw Alka would be in the kitchen with flour on her hands. These sorts of things I held on to as I wrote the book, infusing the characters with those moments I knew of them, but also infusing the book with the voices and feelings that came out of more formal interviews that I did with them. The fiction came in bridging those scenes and evolving them.
Guernica: I love how nature and the human spirit are intertwined throughout the story. The description and comparisons are so rich and lush.
McDaniel: I looked at Landon as an environmentalist: preserving, looking after, and respecting the wildlife around him. He also raised his children, including my mother, to have that love of nature and gardening, just as he does in the book. He would make those different decoctions and tonics for people, and he really became known as the “Plant Man.” I wanted to capture that side of him.
Guernica: Is gardening a big part of your life?
McDaniel: Mom raised us in the garden. She taught us gardening techniques that Landon passed on to her. We always had three sister gardens—corn, maize, and beans—because, as fate would have it, Mom had three daughters so I’m one of three sisters. We’re still carrying forth Landon’s passion for plants, and that’s how I think I feel most connected with him today: through gardening, trying to look after the ecosystem, and trying to be as mindful of that as I can. We have some pretty huge gardens of berries, figs, grapes, and vegetables. We incorporated Landon’s techniques and keep it very natural and organic.
Guernica: Betty takes place in Breathed, Ohio, the same setting as your first novel, Summer That Melted Everything. How did Breathed came to be?
McDaniel: Betty was the first book I wrote, so Breathed was born in those pages. It’s a fictional name, but it’s inspired by the real Southern Ohio town that I grew up in, where I spent my childhood summers and school-year weekends. The town is really a character to me now—it evolves and expands with each book I write.
I wanted to represent the natural wonders of Appalachia. I’ve always loved nature and animals. But Appalachia is also rich in natural resources that have historically been taken advantage of, putting the communities and wildlife that call it home at risk. There is so much exploitation of extractable resources in this region that is among the last of North America’s wildernesses, that is the home to some of the oldest mountains in the world. How can we not feel blessed that we have such incredible beauty in our own backyards? Hopefully, the more people fall in love with the ecosystem here through my writing about it, the more interest there will be in preserving it for the generations to come. As far as where the real world ends and the fictional one begins, I wanted to blur the edges and merge the real town with the dynamic character that is Breathed. Oftentimes when Appalachia is portrayed in the media, we only see poverty or drug abuse. I wanted Breathed to be a town that represented all sides of what it means to live here.
Guernica: Throughout your work, there’s a lot of the color yellow. Looking through cellophane, Alma sees a yellow world, and Landon hangs lemons on the trees to give his wife the lemon grove she’s always wanted. There is also the dandelion lotion that Fraya rubs over “the yellow of her skin,” and of course, the flames from when the local church is set on fire. What is the significance of that color to you?
McDaniel: It does seem to be a color I write a lot about. It seems to be something that’s following me. When I look at the Breathed universe and these characters, it’s often shaded in yellow. Maybe it has some personal connections. Or maybe it’s because yellow is a color we see in flames. In The Summer That Melted Everything and in Betty, there’s quite a bit of burning going on. Not just in the literal sense; there’s this sort of burning in violence and abuse.
Guernica: I was going to say: violence and flames also recur in your work. The bullying in Betty, related to race and gender, both inside and outside the home, is profound and painful.
McDaniel: I’m very fair-skinned, so it’s important to separate my experiences from those of my mother and grandfather. My own experiences haven’t had that sort of violence attached to them. I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism. I came of age in predominantly white communities, so I fit in. Mom really struggled. Growing up, people would ask if she was my real mother because of the difference in our skin colors.
Betty takes place in the 1950s, but it’s definitely reflective of today. I wrote The Summer That Melted Everything during the summer that Eric Garner was killed, looking at a crime committed against a person of color and seeing that, no matter how horrific that crime is, the perpetrators will likely go free.
With Mom’s story, we’re looking at her journey through the lens of race but also of gender. She talked about being in school during career fairs, and the teachers saying, “You’re not going to do anything with your life so you might as well just sit this out.” There was this idea, especially ingrained in those small towns, that if you weren’t white then you were somehow less significant or less intelligent. I also wanted to see this story through the lens of Landon and Betty’s relationship, and how he helped her find a path forward despite the bullying she got over the color of her skin.
Guernica: Betty’s love and admiration for Landon is apparent throughout the story, but one moment really stuck with me. After Landon is beaten up by the men he works with at the mine—targeted for the color of his skin—he begins to walk with a limp. Then Betty tries walking with a limp, too, so her father won’t feel alone.
McDaniel: Especially to a child, seeing your father beaten up is quite a blow. You see that, even though you love him and see him as perfect and invincible, society and the community see something different. But I definitely wanted to portray an admiring relationship between father and daughter. The thing that I learned the most in my interviews with Mom and her siblings was how much they loved their father, and how he was a supportive force in their lives. When he died, they spoke as though they lost the only life raft in the middle of the ocean. He was such a force to them, and the loss of him was so great.
Guernica: It seems like Betty also finds relief in her own writing, because of how it allows her to escape from life while recording it. It reminds me of how her father feels about the stories he tells.
McDaniel: Landon grew up in Kentucky and lived with several generations of his family. Maybe because they lived in the wilderness, storytelling was a way for them to open up their world and make it a little bigger. Cherokee culture is steeped in storytelling, and that was something Landon certainly passed to Mom, who still writes poetry today. In fact, there is a poem at the beginning of Betty, “My Broken Home,” that Mom wrote for the book. And because Mom valued reading, we had books from the time we were in the crib. Writing is the one thing I remember doing as a kid without being told to. When I started this book, I wanted to capture Mom’s journey as a girl on the cusp of womanhood who used story as a light on her path forward. I wanted to emphasize what story meant to her and Landon. It was a way to share love, to say “I love you” to one another. Story became the identifying factor within this family.
Guernica: It’s impressive you wrote this book at such a young age. What was it like to get this story on the page and then into the hands of an agent?
McDaniel: I was 17 and eager. I wrote the story down pretty quickly within that year, and then, by the time I was halfway through my 18th year, I had the first draft of the novel. From there, I started to query agents, and learned quickly that there was a resistance to female-dominated stories. I remember one agent saying, “If you change it to a male narrator, it can be the Huckleberry Finn of your generation.” I didn’t write Huckleberry Finn. It was the story of a girl’s coming of age. Another agent said I had made sex into a bad guy and needed to see the women making love and having romantic relationships. But this was how they experienced sex. For them it was violent; it was outside of tenderness, an absence of love. But it’s important that we see these women’s experiences with generational abuse. I think if not for the #MeToo movement, the book might not have been published. That movement really got the industry to look at female-oriented stories, including stories of sexual abuse, in a different way.
Over time I also heard things like, “Tiffany, never publish under your name, your name is too fluffy, it’s too female.” I considered only using my initials, but then I’d be part of the problem, not part of the solution. I think we need to view women’s names as powerful! When The Summer That Melted Everything came out, people asked me why I was frowning in the author photo. That was about the fourth or fifth photo I had to take. In the first photo I wasn’t approachable enough; in another I was told I looked too young and wouldn’t be taken seriously, while another photo made me look too standoffish. There is still this way we’re viewing women: unless [women] look a certain way or talk a certain way or write a certain way, we won’t appeal to the audience as a whole. There’s a lot we have to do to make it an equal playing field.
Guernica: This reminds me of how, in Writers & Lovers, Lily King writes about the differences between female and male authors’ photos. Men can look serious and ponder life’s big issues, but women are often smiling so they appear carefree and approachable.
McDaniel: When I did that first photo, I thought it looked fine because I’m not a very smiley person. Also, it’s a very dark book and I wanted an appropriate photo to go along with that—I didn’t want to smile for a book about a little boy who is burned to death. The publisher had sent me all these pictures of female authors and told me I wanted to have the right smile. If I smile too big, it’s too cheesy and I’ll be women’s lit or romance. But if I don’t smile enough, I’ll look kind of bitchy. You have to find that middle ground. Some male authors can look like a bulldog on their front stoop and no one will have an issue with that, but female authors have to present a certain image. It’s frustrating.
Guernica: You’ve said that you hope the takeaway from your first novel, The Summer That Melted Everything, is that people should love one another more. Is there a similar message for Betty?
McDaniel: I hope Betty’s and Landon’s stories of racism help us see what hate can do and how it can affect people’s lives. I also hope it’s an inspiring story for women in general—that it becomes a book mothers want to share with their daughters and that sisters want to share with their sisters. And that we see women and girls represented in ways that push back against the stereotypical images of what it’s supposed to mean to be a woman. As we see in the book, a lot of victims of rape and sexual abuse feel guilty or responsible, and carry that shame with them. It is my hope that victims of rape and sexual assault find inspiration in Fraya, Flossie, and Alka, and feel they can tell their own stories. I hope readers realize what hate and abuse can create, and see that ultimately even the darkest violence is survivable.