Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Q&A with Mimi Herman


Photo by John Yewell



Mimi Herman is the author of the new novel The Kudzu Queen. Her other books include the poetry collection A Field Guide to Human Emotions. She is a Kennedy Center teaching artist and director of the United Arts Council Arts Integration Institute.


Q: What inspired you to write The Kudzu Queen, and how did you create your character Mattie Lee Watson?


A: Kudzu was a backdrop for my childhood: consuming the trees that flashed by the back window of our car on family trips, blanketing fields and seemingly ready to consume anything in its path. Lush, green, and verdant, known as “the vine that ate the South,” and literally able to grow a foot a day, it seemed destined to survive an apocalypse.


Over the years, I came to call it “southern topiary,” and to think it should come with a warning to farmers not to leave their cows or tractors in the field overnight.


One day, when I was rummaging through our public library, I came across an old article about kudzu queen competitions and countywide festivals. Why would anyone want to celebrate kudzu? Surely anyone who promoted a plant that had no natural enemies was either naïve or nefarious. Enter James T. Cullowee, the Kudzu King.


Once the Kudzu King was created, Mattie Lee Watson appeared on the scene, practically fully formed—and definitely full of herself.


I don’t generally create characters as self-portraits, so Mattie is not me. I was much more trepidatious than she is. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a certain quality that 14- to 15-year-old girls can have, a precocious sense of sexuality without any idea of what to do if they get taken up on what they appear to offer. I wanted to see what someone as confident and forthright as Mattie would do under those circumstances.


The book was a long time in the making, and I have to admit that Mattie went through a few changes in age and gender. But now, looking back, I can’t imagine her being anything other than what she is.


Q: The writer Charles Baxter said of the book, “The Kudzu Queen is about beauty, and familial love, and what we may owe to our friends and neighbors.” What do you think of that description?


A: Every time I read that quote, I am moved yet again. Charles Baxter is one of the most gracious, generous and far-seeing people I’ve ever known, and the way he describes The Kudzu Queen says as much about him as it does about the book.


I think he’s absolutely right. Mattie is at the heart of a wonderful family: parents who have raised their children with wisdom and humor and more than a little patience, and brothers who, like Mattie, take chances and take care. She knows how lucky and loved she is, and she extends the love she has learned at home to her friends Lynnette and Rose, to their families, and ultimately to the whole community.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For something as prolific as kudzu, you’d be surprised how little research is available. The article where I first discovered kudzu queens and their festivals—and the men who made it their life’s work to promote kudzu, as Mr. Cullowee does—was on microfiche, which gives you an idea of how long it’s been since the idea for this book was planted.

The book also grew from a lifetime of living in the South and paying attention to the ways people talked, how they acted, what mattered to them. I wanted to get it right, for every character in this book.


So I thought a lot about the people I’d known over the years, especially those I’d met in rural Eastern North Carolina. I downloaded charts on planting times and the growing process for corn, cotton and tobacco down east, where Mattie’s family lives in Cooper County, a 101st county that I added to the North Carolina map. These agricultural chronographies became sort of a calendar for the book.


And I spent a lot of time researching Channing Cope, the most famous kudzu king, who promoted kudzu in The Atlanta Constitution and on his radio show, and created Kudzu Clubs across the southeast.


I was surprised to learn that kudzu was intentionally introduced into this country, at the 1876 World's Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and astonished that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) paid young men to plant it along railway embankments to prevent erosion in the 1930s, and that in the ‘30s and ‘40, the U.S. Department of Agriculture produced pamphlets to encourage farmers propagate kudzu and paid them to plant it.


One of the best weeks I spent revising this book was when I decided to go on an anachronism hunt, looking up foods I’d included in the book that should have existed in 1941, but didn’t (like lemon bars) and the etymology of words that weren’t in the common vernacular at the time, like “sharp” when used to describe someone’s clothes, which I had to replace with “smart,” since no one used sharp that way until 1944. It was a glorious week—if you’re a research geek like me.


It’s not in the book, because this information came along after 1941 when The Kudzu Queen is set, but apparently kudzu, sadly, makes a lousy biofuel—but a great beer!


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I write for the same reason I read: to see what will happen next. So no, I really didn’t know how the story would end until I got there. And it changed a lot in the revision process. In fact the first draft of the book was 680 pages.


I took a book out of that book, doing what I call “playing pick-up sticks,” pulling out a word here, a phrase there, a character here, a scene—or even a chapter there. The most painful part was when my first, best and last reader and editor, John Yewell, got up the nerve to tell me I needed to cut the 40-page climax out of the book. After a long and painful minute, I admitted he was right, and it’s a far better book for that.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m so glad you asked. I’m delving into another part of history in another place: Ireland in the mid-1980s, when I lived there, and when Dublin was full of pubs hundreds of years old alongside nightclubs playing Grace Jones, and Prince, U2, and Dire Straits, while “the troubles” were constantly in the background, or foreground, depending on how deeply connected you were to the people involved and beliefs driving them.


I’ve generally been more of a winger than a planner, writing my way toward knowing what a book was about, but in the case of this new novel, I know a lot about who the characters are, and what’s going to happen to them. But I’m not telling!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much for bringing me into your circle. It’s been a pleasure pondering these wonderful questions.


I’m excited as The Kudzu Queen finds its way into the world. Though I’m not Mattie, I wrote this book not only for adults, but also for the 15-year-old I was and for those who struggle with some of the same challenges I faced at the time.


This is a true adult/young adult hybrid, and I hope it will make a difference in the lives of readers of all ages. For me, the best books are ones that make me say, “I always felt that way, but I never knew how to say it.” May this be that book for you.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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