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    Artwork by Kendall Swann.

    The crisis in most novels is usually a slow unwrapping, a strip tease of events that lays matters bare. The first four novels of Kentucky author Silas House follow that pattern. But in his latest book, Southernmost, House plunges readers into the life of Asher Sharp at the very moment it cracks open.

    The story begins as Asher, a Pentecostal pastor, contends with a devastating flood. The drama is vivid. “They watched a trailer home being swept away, the roof of a house, a pickup truck. Cows struggling to stay afloat. . . . So many trees, all with the lush full leaves of late June. Chickens sitting in a calm line down the length of a white church steeple. It must have been swept from far up the river as it wasn’t familiar to him; he knew by heart the looks of every church nearby.”

    The storm exposes a fundamental crack in Asher’s calling, his marriage and his life when his wife refuses to take in gay neighbors who lost their home to the floodwaters. Lurking in his past is Asher’s memory of how he treated his brother when his brother came out years earlier.

    Southernmost is House’s first novel more concerned with the contemporary scene than the past, but his Appalachian roots remain apparent.

    We missed House when he was in Louisville in June, but he has several speaking engagements within driving distance: July 31 at Coffeetree books in Morehead; Aug. 27 at the Bell Hooks Institute at Berea College; and Aug. 28 at the Paul Sawyier Public Library in Frankfort.

     

    This book isn’t set in Kentucky but in Tennessee and Key West. That was a surprise.

    I was raised pretty close to the Tennessee/Kentucky border, about 25 miles away, and my family spent a lot of time in that area, especially Dale Hollow Lake, which straddles the border. But the main reason is, the book was largely inspired by a flood that just devastated Tennessee and Kentucky in 2010, but the worst devastation was in Tennessee. And of course, that’s the main impetus for the action in the book. Another thing that really inspired the book was that a Methodist preacher in Tennessee defied the Methodist church by performing the marriage ceremony of his gay son, and he was kicked out of the church. It led to a big national news story. He became a folk hero, especially for rural gay people. And that’s what happens with the main character in this book. So there are several reasons it’s set in Tennessee. It felt right for it to be there.

     

    The flood scenes were very powerful. Did you piece those together from news accounts? Did you witness it?  

    One of my best friends lost her home in that (2010) flood. I just have a real close knowledge of the horrible impact of this flood on my friend and on her community, and I wanted to really pay homage to everything they went through.

    However, in the book, I relocate that flood to the summer of 2015 so that it coincides with the passage of marriage equality. (The Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples could marry in June 2015.) And that’s the great thing about fiction — you can move things around to serve your book. Also, when I was a child, my family had just escaped our home as flood waters took it over, and we lost just about everything. I was very small. I don’t remember it. But my whole life I saw the impact of that flood on a poor young family.

    You know, natural disaster brings out the best in people or the worst in people, so it’s a great device to use in a book. In a novel, you want as much trouble as possible, as much tension as you can get, so anytime you can put people in that situation, it leads to rich stuff.

     

    You grew up in Lily, in Laurel County, just north of Corbin, Kentucky. Was that where the flood was?

    Yes. My family lived in a small trailer. It was sort of squeezed in between the railroad tracks and the Laurel River, and the river just, it was just kind of a flash flood, and it came in and just took everything.

     

    What got you started on this story?

    Mostly it just grew out of wanting to write about this great tension that exists among Americans. What’s most interesting about this tension is that it exists between people who love each other. There are lots of people who disagree with each other, but what makes it interesting is when people who really love each other really disagree with each other. That’s the stuff of novels. So, I wanted to examine that.

    But I think that’s just symbolic of where we are in America right now. It doesn’t have to necessarily do with an LGBTQ issue. Especially since the election, we’ve really seen more people realize, this person I really love in my family, they really fundamentally disagree with me. It’s become more relevant to people since the election.

     

    When Asher’s congregation kicks him out for his willingness to accept gay people, he delivers an impassioned message that’s captured on video and goes viral. Yet the reception to that sermon is sharply divided. To some people, he’s a hero; to others, he’s a laughingstock. 

    That’s sort of the internet, isn’t it? The internet causes people to have these really strong reactions, and really in-the-moment reactions. It’s like wildfire; it gets out of control so quickly. I felt setting the book during this time period, that’s exactly how it would go down. He’s doing this heart-rending sermon, and of course some teenager is going to film it and put it on YouTube.  

    This is my first book set during the digital age. It was so strange for me to write about things like email. You know, I strive to be lyrical in every sentence. It’s hard to be lyrical when you’re using a word like “iPhone” or “email.”

     

    In your earlier novels, there are often vivid scenes of holiness services, with dancing in the spirit and speaking in tongues. And it’s all taken at face-value. It’s never mocked. Your books often revolve around people of deep faith struggling with that faith in at least small ways. Southernmost is about a big struggle over faith. What keeps you returning to this theme?

    I was raised in the evangelical church. I was raised in a really strict holiness church. And by the time I was about 16, I knew that I could no longer be a part of that church. I knew that I was gay. I knew that I disagreed with the way they thought about gender issues. I found the church to be misogynistic, and there was some racist talk that I disagreed with, some xenophobia. I just couldn’t get on board. But the problem was that I really loved these people in the church, and I knew that for the most part they were trying to be the best people they could be. It was a great source of tension for me. It took me 20 years of my adult life to figure out how to work through that, how to remain a person of faith who had also totally rejected the faith tradition he was raised in.

    For a long time I sort of was wandering along in the wilderness. Eventually I came to the Episcopal church. I love the way the Episcopal church embraces science. I love the way it’s welcoming to everyone. So finally, I found my place in the world — found my place in the faith world. Also, I just think belief is so interesting, and doubts, they’re so interesting to explore. And they’re often not done well in literature. A whole lot of writers scoff at people of belief. Or you have writers who write about it in a real romanticized way, where it’s just too Jesus-y. You know what I mean? I really like challenging myself to have these characters and not vilify them, but also not romanticize them, but just try to find the complexity in them.

     

    I remember a scene from Eli the Good (House’s fourth novel) in which Eli is thinking about all the things that worry him, and on the list was the Rapture. I tickled me, having gone through a period of my life where I had worried quite a bit about the Rapture. I take it you’ve gone through this as well.

    Oh lord, yes. My main concerns as a child were that I would be Left Behind — with a capital L and a capital B — or that I would be possessed by the devil.

     

    Did you encounter people who were possessed?

    I knew stories about a woman who had come into our church and they had cast demons out of her and things like that. So that kind of world was very real to me. I grew up in a world full of — for lack of a better word — superstition. Things like that were taken very seriously. Dreams were taken very seriously.

     

    You talked about turning away from the holiness church because of differences in social issues. Did you go through a faith crisis as well?

    The thing is, I never really lost my belief. And I was really protective of that. For me, I wasn’t going to let anybody else take that from me. I think it’s the main reason I was able to hold onto it. But I certainly have different ideas of what God is than anybody in my family. I guess for me it’s more the idea of the God of my own understanding. And a lot of people in my family would find that blasphemous, certainly sacrilegious.

     

    Let’s talk a bit about Asher and Lydia’s marriage. I think this might be the most loveless marriage you’ve ever written. When we come on the scene, it’s already cold.

    It is a terribly sad marriage. I knew that Asher had to lose everything he had known in his whole life. He had to be starting over from scratch. For a man like him, in the world he grew up in, he would be, by the time he was 23 or 24, the whole community would be like, “You need to get married.” So he went into it wide-eyed and quickly realized they were just absolutely not suited for each other.

     

    She seemed really caught off guard by his coldness and his change in faith. She tries to get him to pray, and he doesn’t participate the way she expected.

    I think his evolution has been quiet, and he hasn’t had anybody to talk to about it. He’s been reading Thomas Merton, … and he’s just been examining what he really believes in. But he doesn’t talk to her about that. They don’t have any kind of communication. From her point of view, I guess she’s like, “Well, our marriage is kind of boring, but that’s fine.” 

    When I was growing up, I knew a lot of people who really relished the role as the minister and the minister’s wife, and that gave you a real place in the community, and you’re whole life can be tied up in that role. And I think she’s very tied up in that.

     

    Asher’s son, Justin, is an interesting kid. How did you come up with him?

    He’s somewhat based on me. I don’t think I was that sensitive as he is. But I also, I wanted him to completely know who he was. I think the defining thing about him is he really knows himself. And he has this wonderful confidence in that. … I read about this thing called Sensitive Child Syndrome, which is children who are so sensitive they can hardly function in the world. If they walk across the yard, they worry about the bugs they’re killing. He has a little bit of that going on. I just think people like that, to me, who are just so full of empathy, are the best people, but they seem to suffer a lot for how good they are. So I think he is somebody who will sort of suffer throughout his life because of his empathy. I worry about him as he goes on to become a teenager.

     

    Will you write about him again?

    I don’t think so, but I always think about characters and what they go on to do. To me, he’s just the symbol of empathy in the book. Asher really wishes he could be more like Justin. He wishes he was that good. And he’s trying to be, but he’s not.

     

    One thing that happens in a lot of your books is that people go to visit the ocean, and it’s a big deal. In this book, they flee to the ocean. It makes me wonder how old you were before you saw the ocean.

    I was 18. My family, vacation for us was like Gatlinburg, which was an hour and half away, or the lake. So the first time we went to the ocean when I was 18, it was a really big deal for my family. They’re just not big travelers, and they were raised in extreme poverty. By the time I came along, they weren’t poor anymore. We were decidedly middle class. But that sort of thing doesn’t leave you.

    So, yeah, I think the ocean is always the exotic. It’s escape. It’s such a different world. That was important to this book, too. 

     

    Do you plan your plots ahead of time, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

    Everything has to happen organically for me. I don’t really plan too much. I sort of know, thematically, what I want to do, but I don’t know much about plot. And I think really good plot grows out of character. The main thing I work on is building characters. Then I put the characters together and see what happens.

     

    I’ve been impressed by how well you write women.

    It’s mostly because I was raised around so many strong women who were the chief storytellers, women who really had overcome a lot of obstacles, and they just had amazing stories. I was just raised in a very matriarchal family. I always had a deep admiration for the strength of the women in my family. Frankly I just think women are usually more interesting than men. In Southernmost, I knew that I wanted it to be from this man’s point of view, but there are still are these strong female characters throughout.

     

    What haven’t I asked about that you really want to talk about?

    When I went to grad school in Louisville, I had already written my first three books. It was transformative to me as a writer to be in the Spalding University program, but also to be in Louisville, and to see the great support amongst Louisville writers, the kind of literary culture that exists there, and to have an amazing bookstore like Carmichael’s, one of the best in the country … It’s just such a great city. If I ever live in a city, it will be Louisville.

     

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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