Interview with Rhonda Riley, author of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope - April 23, 2013
Please welcome Rhonda Riley to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is out today. Happy Publication Day to Rhonda!
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Rhonda: Happy to be here! Thank you for inviting me to talk about my work.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Rhonda: I started writing when I slammed into the wall of hormones that is adolescence. Writing was a way to dissemble that impact. I wrote lots of really awful abstract, angst-ridden poetry and filled a few journals. The act of writing clarified things for me and saved my psyche. I continued writing poetry through college and got a few poems published in small literary journals. Later, I switched to fiction and some excruciatingly flat short stories. Really, I still can’t get those stories off the floor. I took a hiatus and then, after two kids and a divorce, returned to fiction, abandoned the stories, and started Adam Hope.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Rhonda: That’s an oddly tough question. Generally speaking, I am far too fond of dashes and semicolons. But that may be more of an annoying quirk than an interesting one. I’ve noticed that in the early drafts of things, I often have a character throw up. Usually, the throw-up scene gets edited out and I find a better way of conveying how upset a someone is, but it strikes me as peculiar since I never get nauseous when something awful happens and I’ve rarely seen it happen to others. In the initial drafts of Adam Hope the narrator, Evelyn, threw up when she first saw Adam or “A.” as she refers to him. That got toned down to a few unproductive retches. (His initial appearance isn’t gory, just very alarming for a solitary farm-girl narrator.) In the novel I am working on now, I finally have a good reason from someone to throw up in the first scene—the main character is pregnant.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Rhonda: Pantser? Someone who flies by the seat of the pants? How is it that I missed that word until now? I think I am a mixture of the two approaches. Mostly, I start from some pivotal moment or central truth for a character and that, rather than a concern for plot, determines where I will go. I can’t imagine setting up a plot and sticking to it, nor can I imagine starting a novel without any idea of where it is going. I plot to give myself something to bounce against and, when necessary, to deviate from. I’m the kind of person who loves maps and cookbooks. But I hardly ever follow a recipe completely, and I don’t mind getting lost once in a while. The most interesting things can happen then. I guess that puts me closer to the pantser camp.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Rhonda: Without question, self-discipline. The world is infinitely interesting, I have trouble sitting still for long periods, and I’m almost incapable of forming habits, good or bad—except, of course, my habitual lack of self-discipline. To finish the first draft of this novel, I quit my job and took all the money I had in savings to buy myself a “sabbatical” year of writing, and I made all my friends promise to ask every time they saw me how my novel was going. I used my pride to leverage my lack of self-discipline. It worked, but it was unnerving and not a strategy I’d recommend. It’s a writing method fit only for the truly desperate. Another thing that challenges me is the very thing I love—good writing. Well-told stories are so wonderfully seductive! I can be overwhelmed by the effect of the craft while being unable to see its mechanisms. Not good if you’re trying to become a better writer. Trying to both be in the story and see the craft was like trying to make an anatomy lesson of my lover’s body. But about ten years ago that began to change for me—I actually felt like something shifted in my brain. There are far more times now when I can be deep in a good read and still be consciously aware of the beautiful tricks and talents of a writer. Now, if only my brain can also learn that self-discipline trick!
TQ: Describe The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope in 140 characters or less.
Rhonda: That was the most difficult part of writing query letters! My micro-pitch has been: The Time Traveler’s Wife meets Cold Mountain with a dusting of LSD. Of course, that summary works only if I’m speaking to someone familiar with both of those books. But I have noticed that ending any sentence with the words “dusting of LSD” gets most peoples’ attention, thus giving me the chance to give a more elaborate description: In 1944 on her family’s farm, Evelyn Roe rescues what she thinks is a badly burned soldier. But he is not a man, perhaps not even one of us. The stranger’s arrival changes everything, and Evelyn must learn to love what she cannot understand, explain or share.
The single word I most often use to describe the book: mystery. Not as genre but as subject.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
Rhonda: Initially, I was trying to write a nonfiction account of my mother’s life. She was a good and generous story-teller (especially at night on the front porch surrounded by the odor of blooming ligustrum). She died when I was in college and left me with some crucial and unanswered questions about who she and, by extension, I was. After fits of pursuing those familial truths with no success (the dead are very difficult to bargain with), I turned to fiction. With the character of Adam Hope, I took a 180-degree turn from the truth or rather I decided to rely on fiction to tell the truth. But my relationship to my mother and the ways in which she remained a mystery to me was big factor in Adam Hope. Family secrets are very much a part of the book. There’s that moment in every relationship—lovers, spouses, parent/child, friends—when we turn to the person we have known and loved, maybe for years, and we think, “Who the hell are you?” The question can be a terrible shock or wondrous surprise. That question drove me to write this book. I also have to say that nature inspired me. I fell in love with Florida. The landscapes of North Carolina and northern Florida are central to the story and the character of Adam Hope. So the book is my tribute to my mother and to Mother Nature. People ask me where the supernatural/surreal elements in the novel came from and where I got the inspiration for Adam’s character. I’ve always been drawn to androgyny and the question of gender, so his talents in that area seemed obvious to me once I decided to depart from the “real.” The only aspect of Adam that I can trace back to an actual moment of inspiration is his voice. A friend told that she was awakened from a deep sleep one morning by a beautiful, inexplicable tone that swept through her, rising in pitch as it passed up her body. It left her euphoric for hours. She had no idea what had happened to her but her story stuck with me, and when I began to write Adam, I knew he would have a voice that could do that. Then someone introduced me to Tibetan singing bowls. I knew Adam had to have unusual vocal abilities. Voice is, of course, important to any writer. I’ve wondered in a more general way what inspired me write a character like Adam, I’d never been interested in writing supernatural or surreal characters before. But that is what I wrote, and that’s what many people are writing. Supernatural characters seem to be everywhere now. Mostly zombies, vampires and werewolves. Adam Hope is very different spin on that kind of character. His powers come from his voice and from the natural world. His focus is life, not death, and his story is definitely not one of thwarted sexuality. He is very sexual and sensual.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
Rhonda: There was the obvious research about the times and places where novel it set. The book starts on a North Carolina farm outside a textile mill town near the end of WWII and ends in the college town of Gainesville, Florida in 2000. So I had to research that period and some farm practices. I read oral histories and newspapers from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. The irony was that, while doing my fiction research I stumbled on some information about my family! My biggest research challenge was horses. I knew nothing about them and they became THE animal in the novel. I read about them and watched them, and then I wrote the best I could. I have a couple friends who’ve raised horses. They proofed the horse scenes to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. I also interviewed an ER doctor when I decided to kill one of my characters in a bloody farm accident. That was a bit of macabre fun. But the most unusual research I did was on the genitalia of infant hermaphrodites. I’d given a cursory description of what Evelyn and Adam saw when their first child was born, but my agent wasn’t happy with my vague, wimpy description. So off I went to the University of Florida medical library. I didn’t dare to that research online! A lot of the photographs and illustrations I found were in older medical books, black and white photos of people of all ages with every degree of variation in gender physiology. The surrendered dignity of the people in those photos was disturbing and moving.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Rhonda: By far, the narrator, Evelyn, was the easiest to write, I felt like I was channeling my mother’s voice and the voice of my Great- Aunt Lil. Once I got that voice, she wrote herself. Roy Hope was the most difficult to write. For the purposes of the book, he had to be a loser and a little despicable, but attractive enough for two intelligent women to desire him.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope?
Rhonda: The scene when Evelyn finds A. is one of my favorites because that’s the first image I had. Long before I wrote the first chapter, I saw their hands touching in the mud. All I knew at that point was that they, somehow, were bringing each other into being. I’m also fond of the scene where Addie returns. Evelyn, at first refuses to believe who she is, and Addie must prove her identity. The underwater scene in Florida was fun to imagine, though it was a little difficult to describe Adam’s upside down stroll in the cave. Some of the lighter scenes were also fun to write: the doolywhacker scene when Evelyn tries to fool Addie about the size of the normal male “thing” and the LSD scene before Evelyn realizes what’s going on and everything is still whacky and beautiful.
TQ: What's next?
Rhonda: Currently, I’m working on a new unrelated novel about some good people who suffer the consequences of their innocence as well as their sin. Its focus will be a father-son relationship--a stretch of my imagination. But the Adam Hope story is still very much with me. The narrator of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope takes her story pretty seriously. Of course, she had to; she’s the narrator and that’s how I wrote her. But my take is a little more playful, especially now that the novel is published. It’s very interesting to me to hear other people’s reaction to the story. I purposefully left a little ambiguity about his situation. At the end of the novel, he really could be anywhere. Or anyone. I’m hoping readers will post their sightings of Adam Hope, maybe photos or drawings of where and who he is now. Though I’m not pursuing his story, I LOVE the idea of others playing with it. Stories should be able to expand beyond their borders. Right now, I am more interested in the continuation of his daughters’ stories. At the novel’s close, the daughters are scattered around the world. His genes have gone global. For a sequel, I’m thinking: India, China and tigers. And lots of research on genetics.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Rhonda: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been fun. I think it’s great that you dedicate your time to letting authors talk about their work!
TQ: It's an absolute pleasure!
About The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope
The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope
Ecco (HarperCollins), April 23, 2013
Trade Paperback and eBook, 432 pages
In the waning months of World War II, young Evelyn Roe's life is transformed when she finds what she takes to be a badly burned soldier, all but completely buried in the heavy red-clay soil on her family's farm in North Carolina. When Evelyn rescues the stranger, it quickly becomes clear he is not a simple man. As innocent as a newborn, he recovers at an unnatural speed, and then begins to change—first into Evelyn's mirror image, and then into her complement, a man she comes to know as Adam.
Evelyn and Adam fall in love, sharing a connection that reaches to the essence of Evelyn's being. But the small town where they live is not ready to accept the likes of Adam, and his unusual origin becomes the secret at the center of their seemingly normal marriage.
Adam proves gifted with horses, and together he and Evelyn establish a horse-training business. They raise five daughters, each of whom possesses something of Adam's supernatural gifts. Then a tragic accident strikes the family, and Adam, in his grief, reveals his extraordinary character to the local community. Evelyn and Adam must flee to Florida with their daughters to avoid ostracism and prying doctors. Adrift in their new surroundings, they soon realize that the difference between Adam and other men is greater than they ever imagined.
Intensely moving and unforgettable, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope captures the beauty of the natural world, and explores the power of abiding love and otherness in all its guises. It illuminates the magic in ordinary life and makes us believe in the extraordinary.
|Photo by Isaac Oster|
Rhonda Riley is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Florida. The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is her first novel. She lives in Gainesville, FL.