Today's guest is Tiffany McDaniel, author of The Summer that Melted Everything.
The Summer That Melted Everything reads like a lost classic, not a first novel. Where the hell did you come from?
First off, thanks for the “lost classic” compliment. I’m not deserving of that at all. But I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my debut being my first published novel, it’s actually the fifth or sixth novel I’ve written. Truth is I have the ‘struggling to get published’ narrative that so many authors have. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen-years-old. I wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine. It was eleven years of rejection and despair. I lived in the abyss that is home to so many unpublished authors. The genre I write, which is literary fiction, is not a genre publishers are happy to take a risk on. Literary fiction isn’t seen as being as lucrative as commercial fiction is. It was even more difficult for them to take a risk on me, because my writing tends to be of the darker variety. Dark literary fiction is not an easy sell to publishers, even though time and time again readers have proven to publishers that they have an appetite for this type of fiction. I will say that with all the rejection, I began to fear I’d never be published. I know I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am now about to see one of my novels on the shelf for the first time. Publishing moves at a snail’s pace unfortunately, so the novel has been moving through the publishing house for the past two years getting its cover, blurbs, the whole publisher wheel turning. I’m thirty-one now, so with all the years added up I’ve been waiting thirteen long years to see a book on the shelf. So to answer your question of where the hell I’ve come from. Well… I’ve finally come in from the dark.
Who are your biggest influences?
I read the literary heavyweights late in life, having spent my childhood and adolescence reading R.L. Stine. I was a kid of the 90s so I grew up on his Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Furthermore, I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so I can’t say any one author or book influenced me. But I will say I’ve always had a bit of a cemetery gaze and have always been drawn to that southern gothic literature with its crooked crickets in the steamy field atmosphere. Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, that old-soul myth telling of Ray Bradbury. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Harper Lee. You know, all those authors and stories I think the crow would carry on its wings to a dilapidated mansion on the banks of a swamp. All these authors I’ve mentioned, they are the true masters of the craft. I’m a rambling fool with a broken tambourine compared to these authors. How can we all not learn something from them? On the whole, they’re the power lines that fuel the light I write by.
Have you experienced a horrible heat wave at some point? The atmosphere was dead on.
The novel actually came about the summer I was twenty-eight. It was one of those Ohio summers that I just felt like I was melting. All my flesh and bone just liquefying and dropping to the ground, not even my soul able to escape the melt. So that was how the title was born. I’ll say I had a lot of fun writing about the heat. As an author, I was challenged to write about sweat in different ways. To describe perspiration and heat so it didn’t get repetitive. Perhaps one of the reasons I could describe the heat was because I grew up in an older house without air conditioning. We just couldn’t afford it, so we stayed cool by opening windows and using fans. I’ve only had central air for the past two years or so. Because I grew up with the heat, I still prefer opening a window instead of turning the air on. Once you’ve known the heat, you kind of miss it when it’s not around.
Are you a plotter, pantser, or something in between?
I’m a pantser for sure. I curse outlines. For me, writing the idea down beforehand causes that idea to rot. Instead I just sit at the laptop and type. Each new word and page evolves the story. I never know the direction the story is going to take or who the characters will be or do until I write that very last line. I surprise myself throughout writing the story. I don’t like to tame my story, and sometimes when you plan everything out you are taming the story in a way. I don’t want a domesticated house cat for a novel. I want a wild tiger I can feast on the jungle with.
How long did it take you to write The Summer That Melted Everything?
I wrote it in a month. On average it takes me a month to write a novel. I’ve written one novel, Because of the Indians, in eight days. Still not sure how that happened. The thing about me is I like to get the story out as quick as I can. I don’t like it waiting for too long. I like to get the beginning, middle, and end down on the page and then spend more time polishing the language later.
If money was no object, who would you cast in the movie version?
I’d like to see Kate Winslet as Stella. I think she has the ability to capture Stella’s emotional ache. But also maybe Cate Blanchett. Autopsy is a tall man, intelligent, elegant and I still haven’t really concreted who I think would be best. For older Fielding perhaps Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges, Sam Shepherd, even Jack Nicholson who I’ve loved since his turn as Jack Torrance (The Shining). I think the younger characters will have to be filled by newcomers based on their age range of 13-18 years old. For Fedelia perhaps Meryl Streep or Dame Judi Dench. I feel as I’m naming these actors off that they don’t sound like they fit, but I think that’s true with any character in any book. We all have those images in our heads of what the characters look like. It’s difficult to line up an actor right away. I will say I do hope the novel is translated to the screen. I love film, and I write screenplays, so to me film just adds another layer to the story.
I caught the Stephen King references. What's your favorite King book?
I know it’s terrible to say being as I am an author, but I love the films based on King’s books more than the books themselves. One of my favorite films of all is Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. I love Misery as well. Shawshank Redemption, Delores Claiborne, The Secret Window. I was a kid drawn to horror and spider webs, and remember watching Creepshow if only to pine over the skeleton image on the VHS’s cover. Creepshow is of course mentioned in my novel, as is Cujo. I felt like the references to King in my novel fit so well because of the 1980s setting and the fact that when I was a kid King was one of those authors that the adults in my life always said I was too young for.
What are some of your favorite books?
I want to be buried with Dandelion Wine so I can take an old friend with me into the next life, or at the very least so my ghost has something great to read. I love all of Bradbury’s writing, but Dandelion Wine is my favorite of his. I love Shirley Jackson’s entire collection as well. She’s a piano in a storm, that one. The first Jackson novel I read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle and that has remained a novel that is still my favorite of hers today. I really like The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor who is the true gothic and the true southern. I read Agatha Christie, especially when I’m looking for a reliable author. I also really love James Wright’s Collected Poetry, Above the River. Wright was a poet from my land of Ohio. Eternity isn’t long enough to love his poetry. Eternity isn’t long enough to love any of these authors and their words.
What are you reading now?
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson.
What's next on your plate?
I have eight completed novels. The novel I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is When Lions Stood as Men. It’s about a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, flee across the Atlantic, and end up in my land of Ohio. While here they create their own camp of judgment where they serve as both the guards and the prisoners. It’s a story about surviving guilt, love, and in essence the sins we create together.