The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole magazine, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.
Statement: Lillah Lawson is the author of two published works: the novel Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree, (Regal House Publishing, September 2019), a nominee for this year’s Georgia Author of the Year Awards in the literary fiction category; and Dead Rockstar (Parliament House Press, November 2020). As with the locale of Shoofly, Lillah’s fiction usually takes place in the state of Georgia, where she was born and raised. A history buff, voracious reader and amateur genealogist, her work often seeks to reconcile the struggles of the past with hope for the future, while exploring a love of family, both blood and chosen. Lillah lives just outside of Athens with her husband and son.
Warning! Spoilers ahead!
Flagpole: Several of the characters in Shoofly also appear in your most recent novel, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree. How do the timelines fit together between these two works? Is there anything readers ought to know about the characters or the world they live in before diving into Shoofly?
Lillah Lawson: Sivvy Hargrove is one of two main characters in my novel Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree, and over the past year I’ve had quite a few readers tell me that she resonated with them and they wished they could know more about her. As I began to prepare for the fellowship, I realized it was the perfect choice to revisit her character.
We first meet Sivvy in the prologue of the novel, in 1916, when she’s a shy teenager visiting the town of Five Forks with her enigmatic but controlling uncle, the Reverend Billy Hargrove. When we hear of Sivvy again, in 1929, we find that she’s been in the Milledgeville Asylum for the Insane for almost a decade. Through the journey of the other main character, O.T. Lawrence, we learn bits and pieces of what happened to Sivvy before and during those 10 years, but when it comes to Sivvy’s life before—the hardships she’s faced, and the experiences that landed her being institutionalized—there are still many gaps to be filled.
With Sivvy’s toddler son having died around the time of the Spanish Flu—a detail that is mentioned in the novel—I thought it’d be natural and fitting to revisit her character and add more layers to Sivvy’s back story while also exploring what life was like during the 1918 pandemic. I was especially interested to find out that the part of Georgia where Sivvy would have been living in 1918-19 had a huge outbreak of Spanish Flu due to the Georgia Fair not being cancelled. It made sense to me that Sivvy’s family would have been touched by the pandemic, as so many families were.
Most of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree takes place from 1929-1930, with Shoofly taking place from 1918-1919, just before Sivvy was committed to the asylum. The story fits nicely between the Prologue of the book and Chapter One.
Shoofly also follows a second timeline, in present day during the COVID-19 pandemic, written in the form of anonymous journal entries from an isolated and increasingly frustrated narrator who is trying to stay safe (and sane) during quarantine.
Flagpole: Shoofly quickly establishes a parallel between the influenza pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 pandemic, and both storylines are set in Georgia. What sort of research or preparation generally goes into writing historical fiction?
LL: Every author does it differently, but my research methods are pretty casual. Depending on whatever time period I’m planning to write in, I’ll check out books that took place during the same time period/locations, and read as much as I can (with an emphasis on local authors), taking a few notes here and there. I make it a point to research markers of the time—the cars people drove, the types of foods they ate, the clothing they would wear, music that was popular during the era, and so on—and sprinkle those into the narrative to give it authenticity and a sense of place. I also really enjoy conducting interviews, when I’m able to. For Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree, I was able to interview my grandparents to get their recollections and stories that had been passed down from their own parents and grandparents, and to verify certain details to make sure they were accurate. I’ll usually take a few months to collect information and get into the proper mindset before I sit down to write anything.
I also take advantage of great online resources such as digital and historical archives, documentaries, Facebook groups, archived newspapers, genealogy websites and more. When I was writing my book, I found a treasure trove of old articles, photographs and even a few silent videos of Milledgeville Asylum, including an old black-and-white video of one of the Saturday night dances, from the University of Georgia’s historical archives. When I found that, I felt like I had stuck gold!
Flagpole: I came across Regal House Publishing’s podcast, “A Conspiracy of Lemurs,” and its recent episode with you and author Melanie Cossey, “In a Moment of Madness: Exploring Mental Illness in Gothic Literature.” With the reference to the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville in mind, what role do you see the inclusion of mental illness and mental health treatment serving within works of historical fiction?
LL: For me, it’s almost impossible to write historical fiction in any era without touching upon mental illness and how it was dealt with in that particular time period. Obviously, mental health plays a huge role in the plot of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree, but I’ve found that with every work of mine, no matter the time period or genre, the subject worms its way in in one form or another. Whether a character is dealing with an addiction, or PTSD, post-natal depression or anxiety, all my characters are working through things. Perhaps living in the particular time period I do, the collective experiences that so many of us are having, informs my writing. I’m happy for it to do so. I think mental health should be an ongoing conversation, and literature of all types should be asking questions that force us to confront our past behaviors and attitudes. Historical fiction in particular can be helpful because it explores the attitudes and behaviors of the past, which serve as lessons on how not to do things in the present; we learn to not make those same mistakes, to do things better. But I think that’s true for all literature, really, whether it’s a thriller, a romance or an award-winning introspective work of literary fiction. Even the best “fluff” can be intuitive and thought-provoking. I’m grateful for works that get us thinking—and talking—about mental health. Representation in all forms is how we normalize and de-stigmatize the struggles that so many of us face.
For Shoofly, having one female narrator in 1919 and one in 2020, I deliberately tried to compare and contrast how life would be for two white women experiencing very similar circumstances, almost 100 years apart. While the modern-day narrator is under extreme stress, caving under the pressures of a constant news cycle, over-saturated with technology and starting to unravel, Sivvy Hargrove will always have it worse. For in her time, mental health struggles—even the most understandable of grief—are seen as “hysteria,” and women have very little autonomy over their own bodies or minds.
Flagpole: Tell us a little bit about your new book, Dead Rockstar, that comes out this fall!
LL: Dead Rockstar is very different from Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree; for starters, it’s one of the few works of mine that isn’t historical fiction. It still falls under my usual southern gothic umbrella, however. All of my work takes place in Georgia! My methods of writing are a bit unconventional. When I finish a historical fiction work, I often like to decompress with something (usually a short story) that’s totally different; something camp, usually in the fantasy or horror genre, as a bit of a “break” from all the heavy research and deeper themes. I started out writing Dead Rockstar as a bit of fun between projects, and before I knew it, my dark, silly novella about a bored librarian on Jekyll Island who accidentally raises her favorite rock star from the dead, had become a full length novel!
It releases on Nov. 3, and yes, you can pre-order it from Parliament House Press or buy online from Avid Bookshop or our local Barnes & Noble.
I’m not sure how signings and events will go this time around, due to the pandemic, but I’m thinking of some unconventional ways to promote and engage with readers!
I’m currently revising another historical fiction novel, set in the late 1960s/mid-1990s, and my short story The Lady and the Tall Man, will appear in the forthcoming horror anthology Shiver in January 2021. So I’m keeping busy!
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