Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
Its UK publishers, Scribe, have described The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel as “a cult classic in the making”. It was selected as one of LitHub’s ‘Buzz Books’ for summer 2016, and has already gained serious attention in the States, where it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, booksellers, bloggers and readers. The early UK reviews are equally enthusiastic, and so intriguing that this is a book that’s already on my kindle – it’s also published in hardback in the UK by Scribe on 11th August.
I’m delighted to welcome author Tiffany McDaniel to Being Anne…
Thank you so much for the warm welcome and for having me. So my introduction…I am an Ohio poet and novelist who never turns down a blueberry muffin, or a blueberry for that matter. I wish I had a really cool bio like I wrestle alligators every Monday and hunt down zombies on the weekends, but I’m pretty boring outside of my writing.
I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. It was just after high school and I felt like it was time to prove to myself that I could write something substantial, furthermore that I could start my literary career. Being a published author, a novelist, is what I’ve always wanted. Being young and ignorant of the publishing process, I thought my entire future would be decided within a week. In reality, it took me eleven years to get a publishing contract. And not for that first novel, but for The Summer that Melted Everything which is my first published novel, but my fifth or sixth novel written. This is the narrative so many authors have. The road to publication is not easy. It is a journey that is full of rejection, heartbreak, and fear. Fear that you will never be published. That was the journey for me at least. Writing that first novel, I never envisioned the years of struggle that lay of ahead of me. I thought I was eighteen and my career would be right there with me. How very wrong I was…Tell me more about the inspiration behind The Summer that Melted Everything…
The novel started first as a title. It was one of those Ohio summers that had a solid heat that just created walls around me. I felt like I was melting to the green summer grass. I always start writing a new novel with two things. The title and the first line. Once I have these two things, the characters start to develop and it’s the characters that inspire me. They demand that I write them the best beginning, middle, and end of a story that I possibly can. It’s always hard to answer the inspiration question just because it’s hard to bring creativity down to a science and define it in concrete terms.
Small town America may not be as familiar or recognisable to UK readers. Can you tell me more about the setting of Breathed, Ohio?
Breathed, Ohio is based on my childhood summers and school-year weekends spent in southern Ohio on the hilly acreage and in the cinderblock house my father was left by his parents. It is a land that is roamed by the bull-frog and the cricket, by gars and crows. As a kid especially it was mythical. My father would tell me of the zoo that went belly-up and released its animals into the woods. I imagined tigers roaming the blackberry bushes. Snakes feeding on deer and growing to anacondas in the trees. This sort of magic rooted in me. I’ve said cut me open and fireflies will come out. That land shaped me as a writer. It was only natural that that land would find its way into my writing. With this being said, don’t expect to go to southern Ohio and find Breathed. It’s a place created from the magic of a child’s experience and the realities of the adult truth. The buildings, the houses, the lay of the town is all fictional. You will see hills in southern Ohio, you will see the creek and the dirt roads, but you will not find Breathed. She does not exist outside the page.
And why the 1980s? Does that era have particular significance for you?
When I was thinking of the time frame for the novel, I thought immediately of the 1980s. When I think of the decade I think of neon colors, big hair, big sounds pumping the boom-box by the pool. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know how the 80s really were. But TV shows and films from that time period have preserved that atmosphere. I wanted it early enough in the decade to emphasize the fear of the new disease known as AIDS. But also 1984 came to parallel that of George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. The pieces just fit into place with this decade.
I’ve seen some of your wonderful watercolours on your website – and read extracts from your book that show you also paint with words. Would that be a fair way to describe your writing?
I’m terrible at describing my own writing. I’m my worst critic. You’ll probably never hear me give a compliment like the one you’ve given to my writing, so I will say I do love art. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always illustrated my stories. For me, art is a way to release that tension from the creative muscle. Your arm is given to sweeping movements and your wrist and hand is taught to be gentle with the brushstrokes but also be ready to apply that firm stroke when needed. I suppose I try to be the same way in my writing. Gentle when I need to be. But apply that firm pressure when the story requires it.
The book is already hitting UK lists as a “must read” for the summer… as a debut novelist, did you ever imagine that might happen?
Not at all. When I was struggling for those eleven years to get published, it completely stripped my confidence as a writer. I just know I love to write, so I do, but to get on a “must read” list is always incredibly surprising. In a sense I’ll never feel deserving of any praise or attention. There are so many great novels out there, how can I ever compete? My only hope is that readers enjoy their time with the book. That’s the most important thing. Getting on a “must read” list is just icing on the cake.
The UK cover is very striking – more so than the US and Dutch covers I think, in the way it evokes flames and heat. How much input did you have in its choice?
I don’t have input in any of the covers, it’s in my contracts that the publisher has say over that. The UK cover is my favorite cover out of the publishers. The US cover I haven’t been happy with. I think with its melting bright crayons, chunky font and overall high-school poster look, that it just does not capture the essence of the story at all. The feedback I’m getting from readers is that the US cover is too Young Adult, and that is what I immediately thought when I first saw the cover as well. The Dutch cover I am confused by. It’s a photograph of a landscape that isn’t represented in the novel. But with these covers, I get no say, especially as a debut author. I do worry about the US and Dutch covers, but I think the UK cover represents the spirit of the characters and the spirit of the story.
I’ve seen you say that you write “to be someone’s favourite author”. Who do you feel would enjoy your book? Do you have an image of the reader who might just make you their favourite?
I don’t write to be someone’s favorite author, you have to remember to write for the characters and write their truth, remembering not to write to please a specific audience. My hope as an author is certainly to be someone’s favorite author because that means you’ve written a book that hasn’t disappointed them. I don’t have a particular image of a reader in mind. While the book’s genre is literary fiction, I think it has enough in the story to appeal to a broader audience and hopefully a wide array of readers.
How did publication come about for you? Hard work, or chance?
Hard work, for sure. Like I said I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine. Eleven years added with two years of waiting for the book to move through the publishing house, which I didn’t know that on average it takes two years to move a book through a house. So with all the years added up, I’ll have been waiting thirteen years to see one of my novels on the shelf. Waiting is hard work in itself, but so is just picking yourself up after rejection and surviving the heart-ache of that very thing.
With so many strings to your bow, how do you find time for writing? Does it need discipline and routine?
I hate routine. I never outline or plan. I can write pretty quickly. I wrote The Summer that Melted Everything in a month, which on average is how long it takes me to complete a novel. For me, writing is just something I enjoy so much that I don’t really need to be disciplined to do it.
You have an excellent website, but slightly unusually no social media presence. Is that by choice, or by omission?
I’ve never been attracted to social media. I remember being in college and a friend had told me about this website where you went on there and did a profile about yourself and put your friends on there. I just didn’t have any interest in this. Turned out this website was Facebook, in its early days of course. I’ve never been big on computers and things. In middle school we got to choose if we wanted to take art class or computer class. This was before it was mandatory to take computer. I chose art class because art is infinite and I didn’t think computers would stick around. I, of course, was proven wrong about computers and their benefit to our lives. Even so, I’m still incredibly private and quiet, so for me social media doesn’t fit my personality.
Might we see you in the UK to promote the book?
That’s up to the UK publisher and depends on if the book does good enough to send me anywhere. As a debut author we’re not sent to too many places, and any traveling would be out of my pocket, so I’ll probably be here in Ohio promoting the book to you there in the UK best I can. But I will say the UK has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit and see and I’d love to be standing on UK soil with the UK book in my hand.
Your writing seems to be defying comparison. But if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you have really liked them to mention?
I’ll never feel deserving of these comparisons, but I’ve seen reviews bringing up Harper Lee and Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Flannery O’ Connor. These happen to be some of my favorite authors and I have to say I can’t hold a candle to any of these greats. They are the true authors and compared to them I’m just an idiot with words.
And what’s next for you? Do you have more novels in the pipeline?
I have eight completed novels and am working on my ninth. The novel I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is titled, When Lions Stood as Men. It’s the story of a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and end up in my land of Ohio. Struggling with the guilt of surviving the Holocaust, they create their own camp of judgment. Being both the guards and the prisoners, they punish themselves not only for surviving, but for the sins they know they cannot help but commit.
Tiffany, thank you – I wish you every success with The Summer that Melted Everything, and everything that follows. My thanks also to Sophie Leeds at Scribe for her support.
An Ohio native, Tiffany McDaniel’s writing is inspired by the rolling hills and buckeye woods of the land she knows. She is also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and artist. The Summer that Melted Everything is her debut novel. You can find out more about Tiffany at her website.