An author as interesting, and explorative, as Tiffany McDaniel comes along very seldom. Her recently published novel, Betty, instantly presents several tantalising prospects: to begin with, the mountains and woodlands of Appalachian Ohio are invoked, but from there it becomes powerfully clear that we’re not in for just another wilderness novel in love with its own lyricism. BETTY is a novel, one realises quickly, that delves. It delves into family, heritage and tradition, female experience and storytelling, cruelty, abuse, and racial and sexual mistreatment. It’ll be called a “coming of age tale”, but it might better be called a tale of awareness… if it needs calling anything other than, simply, BETTY, that is.
Betty is born into a violent world. The sixth child of a Cherokee father and a white mother, she is born into rural poverty and thrust into an ongoing history of brutality and imagination. In the midst of incredible personalities – some of whom treat the world with warmth, and some with violence – she discovers writing, and thence a way to contend with the viciousness of human nature.
A story about stories, an intense portrait of a family riddled with dark secrets and enduring gifts, an intricate examination of what it takes for a young woman to endure the unkindness of a world mired in mistreatment, Betty packs one hell of a punch.
“This novel broke my brain. The lush, hypnotic prose, the voice, so authentic and compelling, as Betty Carpenter holds your hand and leads you through a world filled with familial tragedy. Each more haunting than the last, until you’re left holding your breath, with a tourniquet on your heart. This is powerful, relentless storytelling at its best.”
— Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Love and Other Consolation Prizes
A Bit About McDaniel
By her own reckoning, McDaniel has written almost twenty unpublished novels – and a visit to her website, and a conversation with the author, swiftly confirm that she is an artist of fierce, prolific creativity. BETTY, in fact, is the very first novel that she wrote, and her second published book, and its road to publication is an interesting story in itself – one steeped in sexism and other unfortunate truths about the industry.
A novelist, poet, visual artist, creator who eschews social media and advocate of so much that is good, McDaniel rekindles an older, perhaps even forgotten, image of the novelist: one for whom writing is of supreme importance, for whom storytelling soars far beyond blurbs and pitches.
Indeed, with proper attention given to the fact the my mentioning it may well represent part of the problem, it is refreshing to encounter an author whose online presence isn’t all cosy grins and enforced relatability. Do please visit her website, but not before reading on.
“Tiffany McDaniel has given us a vivid and haunting portrait of the writer as a young girl. Betty Carpenter survives the brutality of her childhood through her father’s stories and his steadfast belief in her own. A novel of tragedy and trouble, poetry and power, not a story you will soon forget.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author
Ohio Appalachians – the natural magic that gives Betty its breathtaking backdrop.
The Summer that Melted Everything
“Being the devil made him important. Made him visible. And isn’t that the biggest tragedy of all? When a boy has to be the devil in order to be significant?”
― Tiffany McDaniel, The Summer that Melted Everything
Much as BETTY does, The Summer that Melted Everything, McDaniel’s debut novel, explores community and the various guises of evil.
In 1984, the town of Breathed, Ohio, is ravaged by a blistering summer – a summer seemingly conjured by the devil itself. Inviting the devil to your home town… what if it isn’t mere rhetoric?
A boy named Sal arrives in Breathed in response to a diabolic summons.
He is tattered and bruised, most likely a runaway, and he speaks in odd riddles, channelling his peculiar brightness into tales of Heaven and Hell, tales that hold the town in thrall just as surely as the savage heat does. He seems to be traumatised, but maybe, just maybe, he is truly the devil made flesh. The events that surround Sal and his ethereal stories will have the whole town wondering.
“A wildly riffing trumpet voluntary that sustains its thrilling high notes from start to finish … A startlingly rich imagination shouts its glorious arrival in this overwhelming narrative of sin, redemption, love and death.”
– Jane Housman, The Guardian
“Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything is a wonderfully original, profoundly unsettling, deeply moving novel that delivers both the shock of fully realized reality and the deep resonance of parable. This is a remarkable debut by a splendid young writer.”
– Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Cherokee Gardening, “Fluffy” Names and Each Vein of the Leaf
Below are the questions we were very kindly invited to put to McDaniel, and her compelling responses – all of which say more about the author, and BETTY, than this article could.
- Betty was actually written before your debut, The Summer that Melted Everything, but it didn’t find a publisher for a little while, is that right? What reasons were you given for that and what eventually changed their minds?
Yes, The Summer that Melted Everything was my first published novel, but my fifth or sixth novel written. BETTY was my first written novel. I first wrote it nearly twenty years ago, and I had hoped it would be my first published. But when I sent it out to literary agents, they would say they loved the writing, but that the story was too female and therefore too risky to sell. They requested things like removing the talk of bras and menstruation as they said that would make readers uncomfortable. They suggested I give the women romantic relationships, and portray the women as cheerier. There is sexism explored within the novel, but it was also up against that same sexism within the industry. More than one agent said I should change Betty into a male narrator, as they said male narrators sell better.
I heard this feedback so much, that nearly eleven years into the journey, I decided to submit The Summer that Melted Everything with its male lead. That book sold in a month, compared to the years of working toward getting BETTY on the shelf. In many ways it exposed the appetite within the industry for male led fiction. But I refused to turn Betty into something she wasn’t. Just when you think you’ve taken a step forward, you get knocked back ten and it turned into a struggle against the tide for a book they were telling me was too female and too risky. But the more I was told this, the more determined I was to see the book published in a way that championed the female identity.
Then the MeToo movement happened, giving rise to new feminist drives. Now the industry is leaning into these types of stories more, and giving opportunity to books like Betty. And though Betty took nearly two decades to get that spot on the shelf, I hope that this moment becomes a movement that carves the path forward for female creators after me.
- How has Betty changed between the first draft written in your teens and the final published work?
The core of family, love, identity, culture, and the female voice has remained the same. The changes made to it has been cosmetic. For example, my mother has more brothers in real life, and in the beginning, I had included all of them. Over time, I cut that cast of characters. Other work, like evolving scenes was part of the process as well. BETTY is a book I have aged with. It was there at the end of my adolescence, my companion through my twenties, and right beside me on my journey into my 30s. It’s a reflection of those decades, but the main threads have stayed the same, which is that of family, sisterhood, womanhood, and Betty’s journey to discovering herself.
- One of the many themes running through Betty concerns the destruction of Native American culture. This is a well-documented phenomenon, but is it something that’s difficult to bring up in fiction without it taking centre stage?
Growing up, I knew about my family’s Cherokee ancestors. Mom raised me and my sisters on the culture. Like Mom, who was one of three sisters, she had three daughters. So growing up, she made sure we always planted a three sisters garden, and she passed those gardening techniques of Papaw Landon down to my sisters and me, along with his three sisters story. She shared the other Cherokee stories and the heritage in a way we embraced. And as we gardened, she taught us about Papaw Landon, who had been raised in a household with several generations of his family. The elders only spoke Cherokee, but he was of a generation that had to learn the English of the white men on his doorstep. He had primarily been raised by his grandmother and mother, who were strong women and instilled in him the matriarchal and matrilineal values of historical Cherokee society. I wanted to document how the historical Cherokee society was dismantled by Christianity, and represent what being Cherokee meant to my papaw and mother in their time and place. As a country, we have destroyed indigenous cultures, and largely ignored their voices within our society. We as a country have not shown the love and respect to Native Americans that they are deserving of, nor have we acknowledged and celebrated their culture that gives them an equal presence in society. That needs to change.
- Much of Betty’s subject matter is considerably dark. How much does Betty’s story have in common with your own?
I grew up around the family members in the book. I was often by Mamaw Alka’s side. I remember Lint and his cigarettes and butterscotch candies. I remember how Flossie would dance and put on make-up, and how Fraya would smoke and look out at the distance. To write such a personal family story was holding a compass that led me through the generations of my family, ultimately leading me back to discovering more about myself.
- The book is shot through with biblical references, but the book is not necessarily religious, is it?
Each chapter starts with a biblical quote. I wanted to show the patriarchy of Christianity that Betty was up against. It became the root of much of the sexism and racism experienced by her and the family. Historically, the Cherokee culture was a matriarchal and matrilineal society, so they supported and leaned on women as thinkers, yet Betty is living in a world where Christianity has positioned men at the top. I hoped the use of the biblical quotes would reference that patriarchy while showing Betty coming of age in both worlds. There is also a deep sense of spirituality within the novel, and we see how this family embraces nature as their church. And in the case of the children, I wanted to show that for them, they looked to their father as if he was a god-like figure. This kind, nurturing person who was their ally and their heart.
As I did the Q&A sessions with Mom and other family members, they spoke of Papaw Landon as a man who was loving, supportive, and a champion for their artistic talents. We see in the book that Landon is an ally to his daughters as they face those stereotypes of how society said a girl or a woman should be. I also wanted to show a man who was not afraid to empower and support women. It’s not about cancelling masculinity, because I believe through the support and empowerment of women, men are also valuing themselves and what it means to be a man.
Papaw was someone who was not afraid to show emotion, not afraid to cry, not afraid to be vulnerable. And he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the strength and power of the women around him. To Papaw’s credit, he grew up with those lessons of honoring, supporting, and recognizing women for their contributions, and he did not turn away from these lessons as he became an adult, living in a world driven by the Christian ladder of power that placed men on top. He lived his life by the Cherokee spiritual teachings, and that’s what made him a truly great man and father.
- We imagine that writing a narrative that depicts so much abuse and torment takes a fairly hefty toll. How did you get through writing Betty’s more traumatic sections? Was there any particular kind of self-care involved?
For this novel, I conducted Q&A sessions with family members. In my sessions with my mother, she spoke of the racism and sexism she experienced. I listened to the racial slurs she was called, as well as hearing how Papaw Landon had been beaten up by white men in these communities he had tried to find work in. I also did additional sessions with Lint, discussing his mental illness. The Q&A sessions also uncovered more painful secrets. In my sessions with my aunts and Mamaw Alka, I was able to hear about the sexual abuse and rape they had experienced. It was especially difficult to hear about Mamaw’s abuse that she had suffered as a small child at the hands of her father and mother. These were difficult things to hear, but I imagine they were even more difficult for her to speak of them. But through sharing those experiences, she hoped it would help others dealing with the same thing.
After Mamaw opened up about her sexual abuse as a child, she said she didn’t say anything about it when she was a little girl because she thought it was what happened in every family. When it’s both your mother and father involved in that abuse, you have no other adult telling you that these things shouldn’t be happening to you. If there had been those who spoke openly about abuse, and if it was something addressed in communities, giving a platform to victims, Mamaw would have known that what her parents were doing was wrong. Because of this, Mamaw and my aunts became supporters of talking about abuse, because the hope is it helps and inspires someone else.
- How close do you think the Anglophone world has come to fully exploring the experiences of girls and young women in literature?
I reflect back on the journey to get this book published, and reflect back on that feedback of suggesting I change Betty into a male narrator. There is more value placed upon the male perspective and experience, and just as our society has been shaped by that sexism, so, too, has the books we read. You often hear about the experience of female authors being told they should use their initials, because then the reader won’t know if you’re female or male. I had actually been told this often along my journey, as agents told me “Tiffany” was a very “fluffy” name and wouldn’t be taken seriously. But I decided not to use my initials, because ultimately, I didn’t want to be part of the problem, but part of the solution, and to inspire those female creators who come after me, to know that there is nothing too female about our names or our stories. That our voices matter, and hopefully the Anglophone world embraces that more than they have in the past, which historically, they haven’t even come to exploring yet.
- What is the relationship, if there is one, between your visual art and your writing?
From the time I was a child, I was writing. I also paired my writing with illustrations. As a child, they started out as crayons that evolved to charcoal, pastel, acrylic, watercolor, etc. I find painting the characters, scenes, and settings from my books add another layer to the story for me. To be able to stare into a character’s eyes, allows me a deeper reach into their heart and soul. And in the case of BETTY, I’ve painted my family members, which has made the paintings from this novel, all the more special to me. In every way, painting on a canvas or writing on page, is a way to explore story. I feel as much of a storyteller with a brush in hand, as I do when I hold the pen. And that’s the beautiful relationship between the two mediums.
- Your writing has a certain lyrical naturalism. To what extent are you guided by your distinctive environment?
I’ve always loved nature and animals. I grew up in southern Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Mom raised us in gardens and with a respect to nature and kindness to animals. When I look back on Papaw Landon, I look at him as an environmentalist, someone who was concerned with the human impact on the world around us. He really stressed the importance of living in harmony with nature, respecting it, and preserving it. These were things that he passed down to his children. Mom has the same respect for nature, and she encouraged me and my sisters to recognize the earth does not belong to us to do with it what we wish, but that we are its caretakers, and must do the best we can to preserve it and the wildlife that calls it home for future generations. The Appalachia region where I live and write about is a region that is rich in natural resources that has historically been taken advantage of at the risk of the communities and wildlife that call it home. There is so much exploitation of these extractable resources in a land that is the last of North America’s wildernesses, not only that, but the Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest in the world. How can we not feel blessed that we have such an incredible, beautiful symbol of nature in our own backyards? So hopefully the more people who fall in love with the ecosystem here through my writing, the more interest there will be in preserving it for the generations to come. I will always embrace nature and naturalism in my writing. If I handed you a leaf, I would look at that the same as if I had handed you a story. Because in each vein of that leaf, there is a story. It’s the story of creation, of the universe, of the life all around us.
- Does it seem to you that discussions of sexual abuse are improving quickly enough? After all, we still live in an age, and you in a country, where allegations of misconduct are swiftly shrugged off as “politically motivated” or “financially driven”.
One of the things I remember an agent saying to me after reading BETTY was that he thought I had made sex into a bad guy. He said we needed to see the women making love. What he didn’t understand was that this was sex to these women and it was not consensual and it was forced upon them in the absence of love. I reflect back on that agent’s feedback and him saying he just couldn’t believe the women would each have these terrible experiences. He had said he could imagine one woman having them, but for them all to have experienced abuse, was something he didn’t think was real. In his mind, if this abuse happened to one girl in the family, the odds of it happening to another girl in the same family, was too far-fetched. There are many people who don’t realize how prevalent sexual abuse is. What I think the #MeToo movement has done is it’s allowed victims to have a larger platform to stand on, and it’s made those who were not aware these things were happening to see that it’s actually more widespread than some might have known. I also think the movement has generated a positive change so that the next time someone speaks about the abuse they’ve gone through, there’s less of a chance someone will say she or he is making sex into a bad guy. The conversations around abuse has evolved. There’s a new sensitivity and an acceptance that these things happen. And to now talk about them, doesn’t carry as much shame as it did. There are still so many victims who are afraid to speak about what they’ve endured, but the #MeToo movement has created a more welcoming and supportive environment for individuals to feel they can share their stories. I think we have to be more open to listening and reading about this abuse. It is difficult to come face to face with, but it’s even more difficult to experience it. And we owe it to the victims to hear their stories.
The discussion around sexual abuse is not improving quickly enough, though. There was a review in an Irish newspaper about BETTY, and the reviewer had said the women experienced sexual abuse in the book and was made mentally ill by it. These types of labels are injurious to victims of sexual abuse. It implies that if you have a reaction to the abuse or you speak about it openly, that you are in some way, mentally ill. This is often the label applied to those who dare to come forward or dare to have an emotional response to what they’ve suffered. These types of reviews and connotations reveal there is still so much stigma around abuse and its victims.
- In writing Betty how did you walk the line between telling an appealing story and exposing important issues? Was this is of particular concern to you?
Nearly twenty years ago, when my mother told me that family secret, I knew this was a story that needed to be told. With my writing, I always want to write an appealing story, but also one that adds to an important conversation. With The Summer that Melted Everything, I had written that book during the summer Eric Garner had been killed in the states, after being put under arrest. His words, “I can’t breathe” echoes now in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. I wrote The Summer that Melted Everything to explore violence again persons of color. And ultimately to explore the injustice within our criminal courts system. The offending office was never indicted in Garner’s murder, and as I wrote TSTME, I wanted to explore how even the more violent and malicious of crimes against a person of color, will often go unnoticed by the courts system and those who are guilty will more often than not, be found not guilty.
In the case of Betty, I wanted to explore not only the issue of racism, but that of the issue of generational abuse. I have received so many letters from readers of Betty who say they have experienced similar abuse and was too afraid to talk about it before. But by reading Betty they have been inspired to finally tell their stories. That’s my goal with my writing. That it drives a conversation forward, and inspires change for the better.
- What would you say are the greatest differences between The Summer that Melted Everything and Betty? Did your own experience differ greatly between them?
In many ways, I carried my family story with me as I wrote The Summer that Melted Everything. During my Q&A sessions with family members for Betty, I learned about the racism Papaw Landon faced as a boy and a man, so I infused Sal’s character with those experiences of Papaw. So when I look at The Summer that Melted Everything, I see the threads connecting to BETTY.
- Could you share a couple of your favourite authors with us?
My favorite books are those on indigenous, Egyptian, and Greek myths. I also enjoy non-fiction reads from history, true crime, to reads on the archaeological and marine sciences. Literary authors I enjoy are Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, and Ray Bradbury.
- What do you most hope readers will take away from reading Betty?
I hope they are inspired by Betty’s strength. I also hope that it becomes a book mothers want to share with their daughters, sisters with their sisters, and men with the women in their lives. But I also hope it is a book men read, so they can see every side of what it means to be a woman, to be a father, and to explore the complexities and love of family.
- Can you tell us what you’ll be working on next?
I have close to twenty unpublished novels. Out of them, there are a couple I think would be good to follow BETTY up with. On the Savage Side is inspired by the Chillicothe Six, a true crime case out of Chillicothe, Ohio. It details the disappearances and murders of women in that town, a crime that has remained unsolved and has been relatively forgotten about. The women were prostitutes and drug addicts, and most in the public seemed to think that’s all they were. I wanted to write a book that showed these women were more than those labels. That they were mothers, sisters, and daughters, and that their lives mattered. The other book is When Lions Stood as Men which is about a brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, travel across the Atlantic and end up in Breathed, Ohio. It’s a tale of surviving the worst, but carrying that guilt with you throughout the rest of your life.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Be sure to pick up both of McDaniel’s extraordinary novels just as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did.