Author Ann Hite reveals the inspiration for her upcoming novella, Lowcountry Spirit.
There are some things in my life that have come naturally to me. Storytelling runs in my family, and Appalachia is always part of each tale. It is home, the very blood that runs through my veins. Appalachia is my granny, mama, great aunts, uncles, and my many cousins. Appalachia has always taken up a lot of space on my writing pages. It is a given, my safely constructed box, what I know as a writer. My contentment. Then one day an unruly character forced me outside of my comfortable surroundings and that’s when I finally understood that place/setting, when written with passion, is as alive as any character.
Well over a year into the writing of my second novel, The Storycatcher, Ada Lee Tine strolled in with a story to tell. The book was set partially in Black Mountain, North Carolina and Darien, Georgia as was my first novel, Ghost on Black Mountain. But Ada Lee Tine, who was part of the Darien section, actually lived on Sapelo Island. No doubt Sapelo Island–and Darien for that matter–were completely opposite of Black Mountain with its starkly contrasted seasons, hollers, haints, and rich mountain magic. With the entry of this new character, I knew I had to take another road trip south and see what made the two worlds similar, interesting, and worthy of storytelling.
The Georgia Coast greeted me with marsh grass rippling in the hot, humid breeze, an alligator sunning himself on a log, and the dark murky waters of the great Altamaha River. Now up until this point, I had never really thought a body of water was a living thing. But only a few minutes on the banks this river told me how wrong I had been. Each breath I took was saturated with salt. Water birds were plentiful. For the longest time I stood still, thinking the whole scene might disappear if I moved. Who was I to write about an area where I had only come to visit but didn’t know?
Yet, I was drawn to the place, in love is a better description. That Saturday morning in October 2011 the air was so thick I could have sliced it with a knife. The gray clouds layered the sky in a variety of shades, threatening to rain. I boarded the ferry without understanding the deep longing that ached in my chest. As we cut across Doboy Sound, the wind and spray hit me full in the face where I stood on the bow. In the far distance, I could just make out Marsh Landing. Overhead an eagle caught the current and glided. We scooted across the choppy water and time fell away, pulling me back decades to a place where modern conveniences were rare or nonexistent. Unlike other islands I had visited, Sapelo had no restaurants, gas stations, or strip malls, only a road that cut through a thick stand of pines. Behavior Cemetery, a large clear opening in the woods, was famous for its ghost dog, but most interesting was the grave of the daughter of Bilali, a slave from Sierra Leone who wrote a thirteen page manuscript in Arabic. The sixty Geechees still living on the island were direct descents of Bilali.
At the tidal creek I cast a seining net, experiencing how generations of Geechees put food on their tables. Hog Hammock, the only Geechee community left on the island, sported small homes shaded by ancient oaks with swaying moss. Well worn foot paths led to the white-washed churches. The R.J. Reynolds mansion stood in stark contrast to the simplicity of the quiet community. But when I walked through the dunes onto Nanny Goat Beach, I stopped. There was a catch in my ribs, as if I had ran for miles. For as far as I could see there was only a white pristine beach without one single multi-colored umbrella, towel, or cooler. A sideways thought swooped out of the south, blowing in an idea, really only an impression, maybe a longing.
Historical novels come from a much deeper place and bridge past to present, pulling the reader into truths much larger than the facts, dates, and descriptions. That afternoon on Nanny Goat Beach what I call historical memory stirred in my chest. A fragment of essence plucked from the very personality of the place that surrounded me. The island was alive and a character.
When four months later my editor at Gallery Books asked me to write a companion novella to The Storycatcher. I saw Sapelo Island. I began to research by reading slave narratives written by unemployed writers working for the WPA during the thirties. The narratives are listed on the Library of Congress’s website by state and county. So I actually read accounts from slaves who lived in the area and on Sapelo Island. Emmaline, Celestia, and Liza–all three real slave names–began to tell me the story that would become Lowcountry Spirit. But it was Sapelo Island who evolved into a true breathing character, the driving force behind the novella. The magical richness. A place I’m glad I visited and came to know.