A Conversation with Kate Southwood: 'Falling to Earth'

This splendid debut novel is set in 1925 in fictional Marah, Illinois. Falling to Earth swirls its way into a violent tornado that leaves Marah in total destruction – with the exception of one man, his business and his family. Southwood’s story of the town’s reaction to his singular circumstances stuns with its elegant prose, artful construction and emotional investment. The conundrum regarding ethical choices friends and community make in a time of crisis supplies food for thought long after the last page.

—MaryAnne Kolton

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INTERVIEWER

Talk a bit about your childhood, please.  Happy family?  Books you loved?  Who encouraged you to read?

SOUTHWOOD

I was an oddity from the start: an only child in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago surrounded by classmates who had two, five, even ten siblings. There seemed to be an endless list of things isolating me, turning me inward: we lived a block away from Lake Michigan, but I wasn’t taught to swim; our home was the furthest away from our parish church and school of all of my friends, and so there was no one nearby to play with; and my parents divorced when I was ten, which was still highly unusual at the time.

My parents were both professional writers and they encouraged my reading. We often read together, my parents on the couch and me on the floor in front of them, each with our own book in one hand, rummaging with the other in a big shared bowl of popcorn. We did have a small television, but it was rarely turned on. My mother, always freezing, wrapped up in her big Irish sweater and the afghans my grandmother knitted, and read book after book from the heavy canvas bag we carried to and from the public library every week. My father rarely went anywhere without a paperback in his pocket, something to pull out on the bus or the “L” or while stuck standing someplace in line.

The result of their example was that I read constantly, too. I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and C. S. Lewis, both of which allowed me to escape city life, which for me then was dreary. I read novels, fairy tales, and mythology, and when I had exhausted my own shelves, I read my parents’ childhood books and borrowed stacks of books from the library. I was even able to read in bed at night without the customary flashlight, the Chicago streetlights outside my bedroom window were so strong. I started reading English history and Shakespeare’s plays while still in grade school, and somehow managed not to stop or to pretend that I didn’t read these things when I was inevitably taunted for it in the schoolyard.

I realize now in writing this that my parents and I rarely, if ever, discussed what we read with each other. When I finished something my father had already read that he’d thought I’d like, too, it was enough to exchange a look of pleased understanding with him; meeting his eyes, already smiling with childlike excitement was its own discussion. Reading for the three of us was solitary, and as necessary as breathing. So, a happy childhood? No, I was different and my peers never missed a chance to let me know it. But in my case the cliché was laughably true: an unhappy, largely solitary childhood spent reading turned out to be the perfect foundation for becoming a writer.  

INTERVIEWER

What led you to write Falling to Earth?

SOUTHWOOD

The idea came to me piecemeal, the first part coming as a total surprise while I was surfing the Internet. I would love to go back to that moment and see what it was I was Googling, because somehow (and I truly don’t know how) I landed on information about the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. I started reading out of curiosity and was staggered that I had never heard of the Tri-State before. I lived just a few hours north of the path of that storm in downstate Illinois for many years, and although I’ve thankfully never been through a tornado, I have hidden from my share of them passing nearby–afternoons when the sky turned green, the air got eerily still, and suddenly I was stuffing the cat in a pillowcase and heading for the basement with a battery-powered radio.

Initially, I read about the Tri-State out of sheer astonishment, but then found myself returning to the Internet to look at archival photos taken after the storm. I also read several survivor accounts and was saddened to think that the storm had disappeared from popular memory. I remember thinking, This would make a great story, and then sort of shelving the idea because I still had a preschooler at home and didn’t have enough time to write. But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. Around the same time I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement and was just devastated by it. I kept coming back to the idea of preventable tragedy and found myself thinking about the tornado again. By the time my youngest daughter had started first grade, I was ready to start writing: I didn’t know everything about my story yet, but I knew that I wanted a preventable tragedy to follow the unavoidable disaster of the tornado itself, and so I settled on the Graves family who lose nothing in the storm, while all around them their neighbors and friends lose something, someone, or everything.

INTERVIEWER

In one review, it is said of Falling To Earth: “Southwood’s beautifully constructed novel, so psychologically acute, is a meditation on loss in every sense.” Is that what your book was meant to be?

SOUTHWOOD 

I would say absolutely yes to the psychology. I’m always interested in characters’ psychology in books and movies, in what they reveal about themselves when they speak, when they are silent, when they can’t stop themselves from looking in a certain direction. I didn’t make things easy for myself in terms of my characters’ psychology in this novel, but that was part of the fun; nut after difficult nut had to be cracked precisely and carefully.

As for the novel’s being a meditation on loss, that was perhaps less consciously planned, but equally inevitable. I moved to Oslo fifteen years ago to be with my Norwegian husband, and I’ve been homesick for the States every day of those fifteen years. Obviously, I remain in touch and visit when I can, but I’m separated from family and friends, from my country, and even from my language every day. Also, the older you get, the more you end up dealing with death. I’ve lost several close family members over the last several years, and I made free use of my own pain in writing about my characters’ losses.

 INTERVIEWER

In stark contrast, another review states: “By the time Paul finally realizes that he can’t reverse the senseless scapegoating, it is too late: His family’s sheer politeness and unwillingness to confront their detractors or one another will be their undoing. Unfortunately, all the conflict avoidance saps the novel of forward momentum, not to mention that essential ingredient of drama: the struggle against fate.” Do you care to comment?

SOUTHWOOD

The only possible answer is that book reviews are necessarily subjective, not everybody can like every book, and I never expected everyone to like this one.

INTERVIEWER

Within this story, there is a confounding, almost frustrating, inability of the protagonist to see clearly what is going on around him. 

 SOUTHWOOD

Alongside the idea of preventable tragedy, I was also interested in using Greek tragedy as a framework. In classical Greek tragedy, the protagonist suffers a downfall, which is the result of a combination of outside circumstances and personal failing, or a tragic flaw. Obviously, the tornado is the outside event that changes everything for Paul Graves, but his flaw is more complicated than that.

Part of Paul’s inability or unwillingness to see what is truly going on is simply the result of inexperience. He’s only 33 years old at the time of the storm: old enough to have established himself as a businessman and family man worthy of the town’s respect, but still mostly naïve about the unpleasant sides of human nature.

It’s important to remember that Paul is a really good guy who is universally liked before the storm. He in turn likes to be liked—who doesn’t—and can’t believe that the town’s esteem has been taken away from him. Perhaps as a way of grappling with this loss, he tries to find meaning in having been spared, and decides that because he is a good man who happens to own a lumberyard, he’s the perfect candidate to help the town rebuild, thereby regaining the town’s esteem. In the end, his inexperience and goodness conspire against him, and he simply can’t see that waiting out the town’s collective temper tantrum is not enough.

INTERVIEWER 

A certain luminous precision defines your voice, and a cadence, if you will. Is this effect studied or do you access it naturally?

SOUTHWOOD

This is a very hard question to answer, actually. A sort of which came first, the chicken or the egg for writers. The short answer is that this is the way I always wanted to write when I was younger, and through years and years of reading good writing, paying attention to details around me, and working hard at my own writing, I can now do it. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that the way I always wanted to express myself is within my reach. If an image or a scene comes to me, I know that I will be able to render it on the page very precisely (to borrow your word) if I give it enough time and all of my attention.

INTERVIEWER

In your opinion, and without giving too much away, what role does Lavinia play in this tale?

SOUTHWOOD

In the broadest terms, Lavinia represents the past, both of the Graves family and of Marah, the town they live in. When she recalls her grandfather’s stories, she serves as a link to the time the first white settlers came to Little Egypt in Southern Illinois. She also functions as a complement to Paul’s character in that they both misread the resentment growing around them and, for their individual reasons, believe that they’ve earned better treatment than they’re getting.

Lavinia also functions as a warning about the lure of the past. She realizes it too late, but she does come to understand the harm inherent in allowing the past to get a grip on you, in elevating the past as an idyllic time, and forgetting to live in the present.

INTERVIEWER

What are your writing habits like?  A special time and place?  Music or silence?  Do you carry a notebook to jot ideas in or are you the type of writer who scribbles notes on paper napkins to incorporate later?

SOUTHWOOD

My writing habits are dictated by my daughters’ school days. Once everyone has left the house, it’s just me and the laptop. I do need silence and I have a hard time writing if anyone else is home. I often listen to music, but that seems to function as part of the silence for me; a sort of white noise that I choose according to my mood.

I always carry a small notebook, but generally prefer to just duke it out with the laptop—I find that ideas can sometimes be spoiled if I write them down before they’re fully formed. The most important ingredients for me are time and solitude. After that comes persistence. There’s no point in having a time and a place to write if you don’t show up.

INTERVIEWER

Are you working on a new novel?

SOUTHWOOD 

I am working on a new novel—the main character is a widow at the end of her life, giving her marriage a good hard look and asking herself about the life she created when, as a young woman, she made a choice between two proposals of marriage: one from an arrogant, passionate man, and one from a tender, safe man.

 

 

MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The Glass Woman Prize. Author Interviews have appeared most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Herald de Paris, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City CenterJanuary Magazine and Prime Number. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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