An interview with Georgia author Donny Seagraves for her debut young adult novel Gone From These Woods, just out from Delacorte Press.
GBAW: Hunting and the outdoors were obviously part of your growing up, and part of the culture you live in. Did you have any concerns that your book would be seen as a direct assault on a part of that culture? Putting it bluntly, did you think that readers would come to identify you as having chosen sides in the often contentious national debate about guns?
DS: I did spend a lot of time outdoors like most kids who grew up before video games and computers, but hunting wasn’t part of my growing up. I didn’t come from a hunting family and actually knew very little about hunting and guns before I started writing the book that would become Gone From These Woods. I wasn’t trying to assault any part of our culture or anybody or choose sides in anything. I am telling a story. Since it’s a story about hunting and there is a gun in the story, and I’m not a hunter and have never owned a gun, I had to research those subjects and go out in the woods with the former police chief of the town where I live and learn how it feels to hold a gun in your hands and hear the sound when it fires and smell the smoke. I also consulted with a Georgia Department of Natural Resources Ranger to learn more about these subjects. The ranger told me there are more of these kinds of accidents in the woods than you might think. He also shared his own love of the outdoors and guns and hunting. I could almost feel his excitement about walking in the woods and the first day of hunting season. In my author’s note, I talk about hunting and guns and I don’t take sides.
GBAW: Clearly, the topic of suicide among young people is something that concerns you a great deal. You seem to feel just as strongly about the issue of gun violence. Was your intention with ‘Gone from these woods’ to write a work of advocacy fiction, if you will, or did you just want to tell a story that happened to achieve that end?
DS: I actually didn’t have an agenda when I started writing GFTW, other than to tell a story. The story happens to cover some tough and possibly controversial topics. I got the idea for this story from a real life gun accident I heard about when I was young. My second grade teacher’s nephew accidentally shot her husband (his uncle). That was all I knew about that tragic story. I used the idea of a boy accidentally shooting his uncle as a “story starter” or a “jumping off point” to construct my own story with characters who are not the “real boy” or his “real uncle.” They weren’t even hunting. The real boy was cleaning a gun. So, to get back to your question, of course the topic of suicide among young people concerns me. It should concern us all. Likewise, gun violence. But my intention when I wrote this book was to tell a story, not to write a book of advocacy fiction (not sure I’d even know how to do something like that). For me, the story is about the boy, Daniel. It’s a coming of age story and the fact that he goes through a horrible and tragic experience and survives is the point of the story. It’s not about the gun or the issue of suicide among young people. It’s about the boy. If readers feel they’d like to be more careful with guns after reading GFTW, I certainly applaud that. If they believe that suicide is not the solution to a problem, that’s good, too. But those weren’t the motivations for me to write this book.
GBAW: There has been an enormous amount of writing of late about the need to get kids back into the woods, to reconnect them with nature. There is even a term for it, now: Nature Deficit Disorder. Publications like ‘Field and Stream’ have taken up the issue. What are your thoughts on the subject, and do you recommend particular organizations, activities, or places?
DS: I’ve never heard of Nature Deficit Disorder until now, but I can definitely say that I’ve observed such behavior in young people all around me. I did some research into how many people hunt when I was writing my author’s note for GFTW and found that hunting is definitely on the decline. Families are more likely to live in urban areas now and there’s a lot of competition indoors for kids’ attention such as video games, computers, Internet, movies etc. I think this is something we should all be concerned about. Both of my children participated in scout troops when they were young and I would definitely recommend those. They also experienced outdoor activities in their church youth group and we visited state parks. I recommend that all parents keep outdoor activities on their to-do list. Seeing the outdoors on a computer screen or on TV isn’t the same as smelling pine and hearing a red-tailed hawk.
GBAW: You live and write in Athens, Georgia. Could you comment about your relationship to some of the other writers that live in this vibrant literary and writing community?
DS: Sure. My first editor was Phil Williams who later because the author Philip Lee Williams. Phil published my first adult writing in the Athens Observer, a great little alternative weekly newspaper. About a year later, I moved my column to the Athens Daily News, where my editor was Blake Giles, who later published several sports books. I was a columnist for the Daily News for about six years. One day I got a fan letter from a reader who worked at the Athens Regional Library. She introduced herself the next time I visited the library and we became friends. Eventually, she became the author Augusta Trobaugh (of course, I knew her under her real name, but I won’t share that here). I was an early student of Harriette Austin’s Creative Writing class at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education and got to know many writers there including Andrea Parnell, Beverly Connor, Judy and Takis Iakovou and others. I was in a writers group in the late 1980s at the Athens Regional Library with Lori Hammer, Gene Fehler, Mary Ann Coleman and many others. I’ve also been in or am still in writers groups with authors including Gail Karwoski and Susan Vizurraga. As a frequent writer for Athens Magazine since 1993, I’ve interviewed and reviewed the books of many authors including Judith Ortiz Cofer, Terry Kay and Mary Kay Andrews. My hometown of Athens, Georgia is known for music, but we also have a talented and active literary community.
GBAW: As a reader, I thought that the messages in your book concerning grief, loss, and having made a terrible mistake could have just as easily been delivered using an auto accident, or any number of “accident” scenarios. The hunting scenario could be just as likely to occur in the woods (and cultures) of New York state or Montana. Do you think that having it all take place in a Southern setting gave the story some unique perspectives that might not have occurred in a different geographic or cultural setting?
DS: Again, I was not trying to deliver a message or use a scenario to get a point across. It’s a fictional story inspired by a real life happening. This is the tenth book I’ve written but is the first to be published. In the other nine books I worked very hard to take out the “Southernness,” which was quite hard for me since I am a native of Athens, Georgia and have lived all of my life in this area. I did this because I was told early on as I submitted manuscripts to New York publishers that I would never be able to sell a book to a NY publisher if it was Southern. Well, this is the first book I’ve written where I just let the Southern hang out and it sold to the first editor who read it, Michelle Poploff, VP and Editorial Director of Random House in New York.I think one of the reasons this book sold is its Southern setting. It’s Georgia in 1992. I took this setting directly from the area where I live, about six miles from Athens. A few years ago, I began exercise walking early in the morning to reduce my cholesterol. For the first time as an adult, I actually “saw” the place where I lived. It sounds corny, but I smelled the pine trees, heard the birds, saw the fish jump from the lakes behind my house. Yes, you could set this story anywhere there are woods, and you could change the details of the accident, but in my mind it wouldn’t be Daniel’s story. One of the things you do when you write fiction is make decisions. Lots of decisions. I decided right from the start that Daniel was a boy of the South and this would be a Southern story, whether or not it ever sold to anyone. And so it is.
GBAW: Tell me a little more about Mr. Hooper. Is he based upon a real person? Southern fiction always seems to supply a regular guy, usually older and a little curmudgeonly, who always manages to come through for everybody in a pinch. Could you comment?
DS: I’ll answer the last part of the question first. I didn’t have an older, a little curmudgeonly regular guy in my earlier versions of GFTW. My editor asked me to add a helpful neighbor. “Old Man Hooper” is mentioned in the first chapter by Uncle Clay. So I decided to give him a role in the book other than just being a name. I borrowed the names “Mouse Creek Road” and “Hooper Gap Road” from Cleveland, Tennessee, where my mother and other family members live. So it seemed natural to make this neighbor a Hooper from Hooper Gap Road. As I thought about bringing him to life, I remembered George Langdale, a retired Soil Scientist who owned about 70 acres of undeveloped land behind our land (it bordered the area where I walked in the mornings). George used to ride up and down the road in his old pickup truck full of barking hunting dogs while I was exercise walking. So I put the truck and the dogs in my story. It was the editor’s idea to have this helpful character and I simply reached out and gathered someone who was in my memory (George passed away about three years ago) and seemed like someone who would have helped Daniel. I agree that there are many helpful characters in Southern fiction. But they’re in every kind of fiction and I’m glad they exist in the real world, too.
GBAW: What’s next?
DS: I’m in the process of rewriting the book I wrote right before GFTW (number nine to me). Random House has an option on it and hopefully my agent will sell it to someone when I’m done. I’m also actively promoting GFTW. I recently appeared on a panel about middle grade novels at the 4th Annual AJC Decatur Book Festival. Next week I’ll got to SIBA (Southern Independent Bookseller’s Alliance) where I’ll participate in a panel called, “Writing the South.” In October, I’ll be a featured author at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. And of course, there’s always the next book. For me, it really is about the writing.
You can visit Donny at her website: http://www.donnyseagraves.com/ and her blog: http://www.wintervillewriter.com/ . Gone from these Woods is now available in bookstores, both real and virtual.
Gone From These Woods is a tremendous young adult/middle school read, and deals with some difficult subjects.
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