You’ll find more of these printed in the back of the book, plus other additional material, like a Q&A with me, and an extended essay about the real history of the events. These questions, and my answers, come from recent live discussions with local groups:
Can you tell us a bit more about the background of the Conch characters in your novel? The Conchs were original settlers who came to the Keys from the Bahamas in the 1880s – which of course makes them British! They relied mainly on the sea: fishing, wrecking, sponge fishing. Their staple food was the conch, hence the name. Key West proudly calls itself The Conch Republic. The railroad that opened south Florida to tourism was only completed in 1912. Compared to the cities of the North, rural south Fl was primitive at this time, with no running water and little electricity.
What or who is the greatest force for good in your novel? There are natural and man-made forces for bad such as the hurricane, segregation, war, racism, the ‘gator, voodoo/religion. This is really interesting, because readers usually focus on the bad forces. I think that Missy is the answer. She’s not experienced in the world, but she has an unerring moral compass. Her sense of direction is always true. She makes the people around her want to be better, especially Henry. She’ll always see the good in others, even if it’s very, very small.
Which character is the voice of the author? Henry is the closest to my views. He’s the one who I felt most strongly about. His experiences should have made him an awful person, or driven him crazy, but they didn’t. I admire him so much.
In Heron Key ‘most of Jerome’s customers couldn’t read’. Henry was educated and Missy reads an encyclopedia: what was the educational provision for blacks at the time? I have made Henry self-taught, and he’s Missy’s only teacher. Henry’s officer training would have also boosted his skills. In the Jim Crow south, many small towns had only money enough for a white school. Or if there was provision for black children, it was of poor quality, and the kids were often absent because they were needed for farming and other work. And the provision stopped around age 9.
How did you learn about storms? Knowing you grew up in Florida, you must have experienced some serious winds but what sort of research did you do to find out so much details about hurricanes? Hurricanes were a regular occurrence when I was a child, but never a serious threat. I read a lot of books and articles. The most helpful is referenced in the book, ‘Storm of the Century’, which is a very detailed account. Since the book was published, I’ve been talking with the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration in FL, which is responsible for hurricane tracking, and they said that I ‘nailed’ the descriptions of the storm, which was nice to hear. Their concern is that people have become complacent because it’s been 9 years since a bad one struck. They have no idea how bad it can get, which is a big worry for the authorities.
We felt very sympathetic towards your characters – I particularly warmed to Hilda and Missy. Where do you start and how do you develop your characters? I actually wrote the chapters introducing both Missy and Hilda for something else, and repurposed them when I decided to dramatise the hurricane. The characters evolve in the writing. They start to behave in unexpected ways. By the end of ‘Summertime’, it felt like I was reporting on the characters rather than controlling them. Hilda has a special place in my heart. After my first cancer experience, I gained a lot of weight. I wrote Hilda’s chapter when I felt really bad about myself.
How did you learn about creative writing and what is your ‘process’ for putting a book together? I’ve never studied it formally. I wrote my first novel 8 years ago, because of a friend’s experience of breast cancer. I had no idea what I was doing, or how hard it would be. It got me signed by a good agent, and almost taken by a big publisher. I started ‘Summertime’ with the goal of dramatizing the hurricane and its effects. I then worked backwards to populate the real events with fictional characters. It was a great method, which I’m keen to repeat. During the writing, I used a lot of spreadsheets and lists to keep track of things. For the July4th barbecue, I drew a sketch of the beach and marked the locations of each character to help me visualise the action.
What are your plans for the follow up book? I plan to stay in FL, earlier in the 20th I don’t feel ready to leave it yet. The place has such a fascinating history, and I really love dramatizing real events. So I’m currently researching other things to build the book around, and thinking about characters to bring them to life.
When do you decide the ending of the book and the fate of each character? Did you change your mind from the original plan? Endings are hard, they can let down a whole book. I decided not to show the clean-up after the storm, because it was so grim and I felt that the reader didn’t need to see it in full detail. I got the idea for the Epilogue when I finished the storm scene. I wanted to reveal the fate of each character, so the reader felt uncertainty about who had survived and who had not. After that’s how it would have been for the real people who went through it. It took a long time to discover who had survived, and so many bodies were lost that the figures can never be accurate. I originally had Selma and Jimmy survive. Then I realised that I was being too sentimental, because I liked them so much, and revised the last draft. Epilogue is a mirror image of the introductory chapters, where we see each character getting ready for the barbecue. I liked the symmetry of that.
I felt uneasy about Missy surviving at the end of the book. Is there evidence in the USA that people survive such dramatic ‘flights’ in hurricanes? It seems unrealistic, but Missy and Nathan’s flight on the wind did actually happen. A woman and baby were found 40 mi away on a spit of sand. The difference is that they didn’t survive. I took a big liberty in having Missy and Nathan survive, but she is very badly injured and they almost didn’t make it. It’s also one of my links to the song, ‘Summertime’, in the second verse: ‘…and you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky’.
I know the hurricane was a real event, was it also true about the black residents being turned away from the “safe house”? I’m afraid so, and is well documented. The difference is that, in the book, there is a big confrontation and discussion about it. In real life, during the height of the storm, it would have just happened.
Did you base your characters on people you knew when you lived in America? No, they all came from my imagination, with 1 exception: Poncho the macaw is real. I met him on a visit to Florida and was so impressed. Also, my stepfather used to drive around in a sports car with a rabbit on the passenger seat, but he’s nothing like Nelson Kincaid in any other respect!
Would you have had such a crush on someone at the age of 8 (as Missy was at the time)? Oh yes, and I’m pretty sure that I did. At that age, it’s more about hero worship than romantic attachment, but I think that those feelings are very close relatives. Henry was the only male figure in her life, after both her father and brother died. And he was kind to her. It’s no surprise to me that Missy is so attached to him, and so devastated when he leaves.
Why couldn’t Henry tell the truth about the alligator blood on his shirt? Henry’s main concern is always to protect Missy. Had the story of the alligator become public, it would have cost Missy her job for being negligent toward baby Nathan. That was bad enough, as no one would have employed her after that, and it was the Depression. And it could have been worse than that for her. At that time, a young black woman was the most vulnerable person in society.
Did you find it difficult to restrain your modern sensibilities when writing about this period in history? I definitely did. It’s so easy to impose our 21st-century values onto the people of 1935 and judge them by our standards. I tried hard to keep judgements out of the story, and portray the events even-evenhandedly. I hope that I succeeded. That’s not to excuse any of the awful attitudes or behaviours in the book. But rather than imposing my views, I prefer to let the reader draw their own conclusions from the characters and their actions. We have to be careful about judging the past, because there’s no doubt that the future will judge us harshly for things which we allow to happen today. Evolution is a very slow process.
Do you hope that this book will change anything in American society today? It would be the worst kind of hubris to think that my novel could make any kind of real difference. But I wrote it to shine a light on things that I felt strongly about, things that are too important to forget. So if it makes a few people take notice of the issues, and question things, then I’ll be satisfied.
Can you tell us how you structured the book around such a big cast of characters? Believe it or not, there were more characters until the final draft! There was so much real historical material that I wanted to include, that it made the cast unwieldy. My agents persuaded me to cut a bunch of minor characters from the last draft, which really improved the flow. I knew from the start that I wanted to represent multiple viewpoints. In the early chapters, the transitions between the viewpoints are quite slow and spaced well apart. As we get into the storm sequence, the transitions get faster and closer together, to enhance the drama.
There’s a big clash between the ‘old ways’ and Christianity, with the storm almost a biblical event and Moses driving the rescue train. Where do we see the author’s view about whether God played a part? My view can be found in the last line of the book.
Hungry? Here are a few recipes to try.