Launch: Bonnie Blaylock’s Light to the Hills
INTERVIEW BY LESLIE S. LOWE
Bonnie Blaylock ran a small-animal veterinary hospital with her husband for over 20 years. She has completed two novels and hosts a blog of personal essays and is now at work on a third novel. Leslie Lowe interviewed her on the release of Light to the Hills, which won the 2021 Porch Prize for Fiction.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Light to the Hills is a story about mothers and daughters and the strength of that bond. A single mother working as a packhorse librarian in the 1930s in the mountains of east Kentucky brings books to rural families on her route. Her connection with one of these families helps her discover the power of words in delivering justice and healing.
What inspired you to write historical fiction?
Curiosity and a love of learning! My favorite books are those that teach me something or shed light on untold stories. As a writer, I offer readers that same delight in discovery by finding a little-known feature of the past and imagining how it might be reanimated in a new way.
What are you working on now, and is it related to this in any way?
My next project more deeply explores mother-daughter relationships through a unique skill that’s passed from one generation to the next. It’s a split timeline spanning three generations of women and is set in coastal Italy.
Does any part of your own life experiences connect with any character or events in the story? What difficulty did you have in writing this one?
My mother grew up in central Alabama and some of the traits of Sass’ mother, Rai McInteer, were drawn from her. Many of the colloquialisms and small town community flavor came from listening to the language and stories of my father-in-law, who grew up in rural Tennessee. In college, I focused on Southern fiction and have an affinity for the charm, pace, and language of the American South.
One sticking point in writing this novel may have been the portrayal of the story’s villain and his sidekick. I wanted them to be nasty and for the reader to have at least a glimpse of how they might’ve become that way. Portraying a negative character’s sympathetic side without seeming to create excuses for their behavior was a challenge.
Is there a key historical event you found in researching that inspired you to write this story to portray a key message prevalent now?
Reading accounts from the Depression, I was struck by how common it was for some husbands to simply lose hope, strike off to find work elsewhere, and never return, leaving families behind to struggle alone. My grandparents told stories of this time, and my parents both lived through it, but when I unearthed photos and historical accounts, especially from people in hard-hit rural areas, I wondered what it must have been like for a single mother trying to get by.
It’s the power of community that pulls people through. Today, we put such stock in individualism, but find ourselves more isolated, lonely, and with high rates of mental health issues. Caring for your neighbor, pulling together for a common cause, and knowing the strength found in family and community are things our modern society could use more of.
What kind of research did you do for this story?
Jason Vance, a university librarian where I live, has published research on the packhorse librarians. He gave me access to the scrapbooks and photos he’d found.
My favorite research was taking a road trip to the coal mining areas of Kentucky in Harlan. I stayed in a schoolhouse-made-hotel and visited the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. The photos, artifacts, and stories there were invaluable and in many cases heart-wrenching. They even have a makeshift mine you can go in and experience the darkness and close, stooped quarters the miners worked in for hours each shift.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee is amazing. Displays on musical instruments, herbal remedies, and clothing and toys were invaluable, and I included many of the details I found there. I found online interviews that provided a good idea of the kind of routes a packhorse librarian might have had and the sorts of terrain and weather they might have encountered.
How do you think the reader will connect with your main characters? Is there one that you feel connected to and why?
The chief characters in this story are strong, resilient women who fight for their children and one another. Women recognize and appreciate this strength of sisterhood! Amanda Rye overcomes betrayal, estrangement, and more, yet she remains tough and determined. A lot of readers root for her, and her close connection with Finn draws readers to her.
Sass McInteer’s spunk and innocence make her easy to pull for. She’s the one I had foremost in mind when I wrote the book. Her coming-of-age moments endear her to me most, and I love that she learns to read and how words expand her world.
Every author has their own publishing journey. Tell me about yours.
I wrote essays and blog pieces for a few years before attempting my first novel. In the year it took to research and write my first, a history/science thriller a la Dan Brown, I learned a lot about creating time for writing, pacing myself, and the value of setting work aside to simmer before looking at it afresh. After a big learning curve of querying and rejection, I shelved it and tried something different with Light to the Hills. Another year of research and writing, months querying agents and publishers, and I got an offer from Cate Hart, my agent at Harvey Klinger! She’s a fantastic, hands-on partner and we worked back and forth to polish the story until it was ready to send to publishers. COVID slowed everything down.
Best day ever: Alicia Clancy at Lake Union resonated with the story and gave LTH its shot! Since then, it’s been back and forth with Alicia, copy edits, cover art, audio book samples, and the like.
What advice would you give to other aspiring historical writers?
Read a lot of historical fiction! Watch how writers set a scene, manage dialogue, weave in tidbits of the time period instead of doing paragraphs of info dumping. Join groups like the HNS, get to know the current market, and how authors find creative ways to research the past. Pay attention to what interests you, not what’s hot on the shelves. Publishers look two years or more ahead to fill their lists, so what’s popular today may be “so yesterday” by the time your book gets picked up and published. If it doesn’t interest you, that will come across to your readers. Persevere!
What is the last great book you read? Why?
Horse by Geraldine Brooks. She takes an obscure painting and spotlights an entire history around it, bringing to the fore heroes that otherwise would’ve been lost to time.