There’s a reason Nashville author, River Jordan, speaks on “The Passion of the Story” as she travels around the country, and also during her weekly radio show, River Jordan on the Radio, on WRFN, Nashville. It’s because she’s passionate about the stories she weaves herself—in her novels (The Gin Girl, The Messenger of Magnolia Street, and now Saints in Limbo) and her original plays—and the stories shared by her literary and musical guests on her radio show, ‘Backstory.” [Note: River is taking a break from the show while touring for her book, but hopes to get it back up and running at some point.] I was honored that River chose to read my essay, “Are These My People?” on her show back in October. Hearing the essay read aloud by River spurred me on to submit an expanded version of the essay to the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College this September, and I just learned that it was accepted! More about that in another post!) The point is River loves sharing stories because she loves people.
Her new novel, Saints in Limbo, just came out this month, and I devoured it in two days on the beach in Seagrove. At times I wanted to slow down, to savor her finely crafted literary prose, and from time to time I would do just that—stopping to re-read lyrical passages and phrases that sing. Here’s a sampling:
“My barn looks like old poetry.”
“The two of them sat in the cocoon of night. The dark was singing. The woods were chanting a strange melody. And the sound of the rocking chair on the wood porch floor, the sound of the chain on the porch swing, the sound of the crickets chirping, the smell of his cigarette and the gardenias and the pines all mixed together made for stories. For truths and lies all woven together. For the past and present to collide with each other with a soft force that produced something secret and yet brought it into the light at the same time. Something unusual.”
“Velma’s skin began to crawl like it wanted to slide right off her body and run out the window.”
But as much as these lyrical passages invited me to pause, her plot kept me turning
the pages, anxious to follow its intriguing twists and turns. I rarely write fiction, and like my friends and mentors over at Creative Nonfiction, I sometimes boast about a particularly captivating nonfiction essay or memoir by chanting the CNF mantra: “You can’t make this stuff up."
Well, guess what? River Jordan can. Make stuff up, that is. And the story she invents and the way she weaves the lives of ordinary people—from Texas to Florida—is anything but ordinary. Her use of mystery and the human psyche remind me a little of another favorite author, Haven Kimmel. (Read my review of Haven’s book, Iodine, and my interview with Haven here.) But River’s sense of place constantly reminds the reader that her roots are Southern.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the story line here—hope you’ll buy a copy and discover her genius for yourself. Instead, I have a treat for my readers. River has agreed to a brief Pen & Palette interview!
P&P: Hi, River. Thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few questions about your new book, Saints in Limbo. First I want to ask how you got started with playwriting, and what influenced your decision to jump genres and write novels?
RJ: First, thanks for having me and featuring Saints In Limbo. It is truly my humble pleasure to be here with you and thank you so much for promoting and celebrating story the way that you do with your own life and words.
I went back to college and decided to study playwriting to improve my dialogue. I fell in LOVE with theater, met my mentor Dr. Yolanda Reed of the Loblolly theater and I guess if I hadn't moved away I'd still be there at her feet writing and soaking in her genius. She would hate me saying that because she is so modest but it's true. My dialogue improved considerably and when I moved away from my 'theatre troop group' of these brilliant, talented and gifted writers, directors, actors - I was forced to go back to where I had started. Alone in a room with the blank page. The entire group that I was with during that season of my life have gone on to write, act, and direct.
P&P: In Saints in Limbo you explore the themes of “fear, doubt and regret.” Did you start with those tenets and craft a story around them, or did they surface and find shape in the writing process?
RJ: I wish I could start with a tenet of any kind. I'm such an organic writer. I sit down at the page and follow the characters where they lead me. Those really surfaced just like that - on their own and surprising me all the way. And I'd love to talk about those in the story but I don't want to give it away. If a book club out there would like to discuss those points after reading that would be a lot of fun.
P&P: As a creative nonfiction writer, I’m always amazed at the characters and story lines fiction writers come up with. In my brief review of Saints in Limbo, I compared you with Haven Kimmel because her characters and stories also reveal the depths of the human soul, showing us truths that are common to all while dazzling us with “strange” happenings. So, how do you “make this stuff up”?
RJ: Heck if I know. I used to actually cry about it because I wanted to write a southern story like other southern authors, you know, wishing I could just write a beautiful book like maybe - My Brother Michael by Janis Owens but I am what I am. I've tried to keep 'strange happenings' out of my novels but they keep busting down the door or slipping in through a crack somewhere and won't let me be. Hey, you really put that so well I have to go back and copy that question and reuse it. Also, I love Haven Kimmel and am honored to be cast in her company.
P&P: My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I was especially interested in the way you wove a glimpse of this awful disease into your story—not as a key element, but almost as a reminder that it often slips in unawares, touching so many of our lives. I felt that human connection strongly when Sarah said to herself, “They just might find a cure… they might outrace the eraser in my mind.” Did you write these scenes from a personal brush with Alzheimer’s in a loved one?
RJ: Yes, my aunt had it and my cousin and I are extremely close so I was walking through that eraser with her. I hate the disease more than any I know really. It erases our stories. How dare something do that to us. Sorry - I'm very passionate about that. I hope they find a cure and I think they have made progress but I'm curious as to what is causing this outbreak. I think it's downright evil in many senses of the word. All my novels in some way have to do with protecting the story, the place, the people.
Protecting the story, the place, the people. That’s what River Jordan does best. Thanks, River!