Asheville author Tommy Hays suffuses grief with love
by Rob Neufeld
See author interview.
Tommy Hays, author of such perennially favorite novels as “The Pleasure Was Mine,” has written one for young adults; and the first thing you notice is that, unlike so many other novels for youth, it doesn’t pander in tone or with language.
It’s so easy to seem cool. All you have to do is slip into a groove, whether it’s re-heated Goosebumps or pseudo-Salinger.
Hays’ new novel, “What I Came to Tell You”—about two families recovering from the premature loss of a parent—sounds like, well, Hays.
Hays presents his book at several upcoming events, including the Asheville launch at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Oct. 20.
Right from the start, Hays sets up an out-of-the-ordinary frame of mind.
Twelve-year-old Grover Johnston, reflecting on his mother’s belief in the omnipresence of God, feels instead that his belief is in the “omnipresence of absence.” We soon learn that his mother had recently died after having been hit by a car.
“The feeling was with Grover as he and his (younger) sister, Sudie, walked out of the Bamboo Forest and headed up Edgemont Road toward the cemetery.”
The Bamboo Forest is like the one Hays’ children had known growing up. The cemetery, which the Johnstons’ house borders, is Riverside; and the children visit the grave of Thomas Wolfe, whose historic site their father, Walt, manages.
Grover invests all of his caring into the construction of tapestries made from natural objects, assembled in his bamboo forest workshop.
Despite the graveyard opening, “What I Came to Tell You” is not morbid; it is, through its characters, in a state of shock. The darkest moment happens on page 70 of 296. It is resolved to great effect; then, slow healing is the order, with a few more experiences of loss, but, primarily, growth toward happiness.
The narrative is greatly spruced up by the arrival of the Roundtrees, new neighbors, including Leila, whose husband was killed in Iraq (after a disturbing visit home); Clay, an endearingly nerdy chatterer, like Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird”; and Emma Lee, Grover’s age, a bookworm, and, as Grover discovers, an empathetic person, an athlete, and a budding beauty.
The cemetery’s head of maintenance, Jessie, plays a major role. He had “a soft spot for misfits,” Grover’s father had said; and then Grover realizes that Jessie had a soft spot for him. Nice touch.
As a reader, you are led to invest in the romance of the sensitive intellectual. Grover shoots baskets with his friend, Sam, and is never bullied, despite his weaving predilection. Emma Lee handles a cliquish girl who tries to bully her with a hillbilly slur.
There are some other young adult conventions in the novel. The bad guy is a bullying town commissioner and real estate developer. Yet, even here, Hays gives the form his special touch, and the developer’s come-uppance is an original and shining joyfulness. “What I Came to Tell You” is the expression of a caring parent, with many to care for, and a winning message of love.
Interview with the Author
Q: Are you about to get into the saddle to write this morning?
A: Actually, I’ve been dealing with getting the word out about this book, so I haven’t been able to write as much. I just got back from the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) convention in New Orleans, where the book was an Okra Pick. I only have a book come out every few years so I try to give it my attention when it does. It’s such a transition for me. I’m alone working on a book for years and then suddenly people are reading it and saying things about it and I’m supposed to say stuff back…I’m working on an adult novel right now, set in Asheville. I have a rough draft and am about to dive back into a huge revision.
Q: How has Asheville fed your imagination, or directed your work?
A: I’ve always felt a connection with Asheville and the mountains ever since we’d ride up here from Greenville (SC) on Sunday drives when I was a kid…We (he and his wife, Connie) raised our children here. They went to the wonderful public schools here. That really connected me to the place, and I know that that connection was part of the impulse of writing “What I Came to Tell You.” We’ve lived here since 1988, and it has only been in the past few years that I felt I’d absorbed a strong enough sense of the place to write about it. I think the intimacy of Asheville also has a lot to offer, neighborhood being so close to downtown.
Q: Loss and healing are central themes in your work, which connects with your attraction to neighborhood and community. Have you purposely explored variations on that theme?
A: I haven’t really been conscious of pursuing the loss and healing theme, but you’re right, that is the pattern. My mother’s mother died when my mother was six, in childbirth; and I think that affected her and in turn affected me as her son in bigger ways that I know. She was raised by her father and her grandmother and her aunt and uncle (the aunt and uncle in “In the Family Way”), and I think the family as community got her through that.
Q: Legacies are so important. Could you mention one thing your mother said or did that left an imprint on you?
A: Her mother died the day before my mother’s sixth birthday, and her mother was always a big celebrator of birthdays, and so there was debate about whether to have a party for my mother, which they did. My mother was always a big celebrator of birthdays for us, too.
The other thing is that my mother’s last memory of being with her mother was eating a chocolate sundae at Campbell’s Pharmacy in Greenville. My mother was a huge lover of sweets. As am I. But there was always that association in the back of my mind, a sort of sweet absence.
Q: How has the experience of writing a young adult been?
A: When I began writing this book, the impulse was to write something that my children would enjoy. They were much younger then…The first draft was a light-hearted novel that, looking back on it now, was pretty shallow. Over several years, I went through four or five very substantial drafts; and with each revision, I went deeper and deeper into Grover’s emotional territory, and I made life much harder for Grover over those revisions. And by the end of that very long process I had forgotten that original impulse and just engaged with it as I would any of my other novels, trying to follow my characters into who they really were.
Q: When you created a tapestry-weaving main male character, were you on a mission, in part, to create more acceptability for people who express the imaginative aspects of themselves? Does our society need help with soulfulness, and is this something you care about in putting stories out there?
A: I don’t know that I was on a mission, but I just thought Grover saw the world that way…As a child, I was not athletic or a scholar or much of anything, but I was creative…It does seem that, in our world, it’s okay for girls to be creative, whereas it’s less encouraged with boys. My parents were both creative, and they revered the arts…Maybe Grover’s artistic leanings, especially in terms of dealing with his grief, come at least in part from my family and part from wanting to embody that creative soulful impulse in a boy’s psyche.
Sun., Oct. 6, 2 to 4 p.m., Greenville SC, launch party and book signing. For more information, call Fiction Addiction at 864-675-0540; or email email@example.com
Sun., Oct. 20, 3 p.m., Asheville Launch/Reading and Book Signing, part of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program
“Writers at Home” Series, at
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood Street, Asheville (254-6734).
Oct. 28, 12 noon to 2:30 p.m., Keynote for North Carolina Conference of English Instructors (NC CEI), Blue Ridge Assembly,
84 Blue Ridge Assembly Rd.,
Black Mountain. For more information, contact NC CEI President Julie Trotter at 336-506-4022.
Nov. 7, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., Whitman Room, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville, “Brown Bag Talk.” Contact Anita White-Carter at 251-6434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nov. 9, 3 p.m., Accent on Books
Reading/Signing, 854 Merrimon Avenue, Asheville (252-6255).