Sarah Creech is the author of the new novel The Whole Way Home. She also has written the novel Season of the Dragonflies. She teaches English and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Q: Why did you decide to set your new novel in the world of country music, and how did you come up with your character Jo?
A: I chose Nashville for a few reasons: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some great musicians like Margo Price, Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices, Dale Watson, Jack White (this list goes on and on), and at one point or another in their musical careers, they’ve made Nashville their home.
This musical city full of so much diverse talent captured my imagination and I knew I wanted to explore it. Also, I chose this world because it has such a rich narrative tradition and blends so many different styles that define America, from Appalachian folk songs to African American spirituals, yet the genre itself has been largely overlooked by scholars.
My female protagonist, Jo Lover, was born from deep reading about women’s roles in the history of country music. Her background and her present circumstances are curated from the history I encountered. Her transformation from a world of poverty to a world of fame is a familiar one. (Dolly, Loretta, and Elvis too).
I was drawn to the experience of women in male-dominated fields and what kind of persona a woman must present to navigate those power dynamics.
I’m fascinated too by the way we present ourselves to the world and the great gulf there can be between that presentation and our interiority. The on stage and off the stage experience felt like the right setting to explore this distance.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I completed a tremendous amount of research before and during the writing process for The Whole Way Home. My research began with scholarship—I’m deeply indebted to the scholar Bill C. Malone for devoting his entire career to the history of country music.
The genre’s association with the South and its cultural ills like racism, misogyny, and poverty has created a barrier around the genre as a topic worthy of serious inquiry, and the genre continues to be associated with a hillbilly status first created in the early 20th century.
After I created a foundation of knowledge through scholarship, I went into the field and met with musicians and spent time in Nashville. What surprised me was the amount of diversity and creativity in the underground/small venue music scene in Nashville compared to the kind of music you find in the top 40 country music charts.
I saw this deep disconnect from the artists living there and the kind of music that represents the place itself in the mainstream culture and I knew I wanted to explore that chasm in The Whole Way Home.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I had no idea how the novel would end when I started writing—so far, I’ve never known the endings of the novels or short stories I write. Part of the fun is discovering how it ends, just like a reader.
I re-wrote the novel eight times. A couple times I started from scratch. It was a tough writing process, but my two main characters Jo and J.D. were withholding from me in the early drafts.
Jo Lover has a very traumatic past and when I first started writing I wasn’t sure exactly what that experience entailed. I had to write and re-write to discover the real Jo and J.D. I cut so much writing along the way. I lopped off entire plots lines, corporations, and characters, but with each revision, the novel deepened. Painful, but worth it.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I’m always a little embarrassed to tell people the original titles I have for my manuscripts. This novel was originally titled "The Crooked Road" after the historical music trail in southwest Virginia.
However, HBO has a show in development with the same title, and my team at William Morrow asked for a different title. Cue the misery: I agonized over the title for the book—pages and pages of freewriting and associative thinking about the theme only to turn up with terrible titles in the end.
My dear friend who is a Victorian scholar read the novel around this time and spotted the line “the whole way home” in one of the later J.D. chapters. She said, “Well, what about this?” And immediately I knew it was the right title to capture the theme and scope of the novel. Luckily, the William Morrow team thought so too.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on short fiction and I’m in a heavy research stage for book number three. I can’t reveal anymore, lest it puff away like smoke.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love dark chocolate and I love readers who care so much about books that they read smart blogs by other avid readers. Keep it going!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb