Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview with Alana White (Come Next Spring) about YA fiction, the Smoky Mountains, and her family history

Alana White's Come Next Spring, a classic YA novel set in a farming town in the Smoky Mountains in 1949, was first published by Clarion Books in hardcover 25 years ago.  It's been newly reissued by Open Road, and with a new cover.  The heroine is 12-year-old Salina Harris, who struggles with accepting the many changes happening in her life and to her family.  Her best friend is developing interests she doesn't share, she's reluctantly paired with a new girl, Scooter Russell, on a school project, and there are rumors the state may be building a highway through her beloved mountains. Then there's the veterinarian in town, an American man of German ancestry, who she doesn't really trust.  Read more below about how Alana's own family heritage made its way into her novel. Alana has diverse historical interests; I've interviewed her previously, back in 2012, for her historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, which was set in Renaissance Florence.


Congrats on the 25th anniversary of Come Next Spring. How did the publication of this new edition come about?

Serendipity. I've been an Authors Guild member for a long while. In 2015 the Guild approached members with the opportunity to have books whose rights we owned published in e-formats. I owned the rights to Come Next Spring, which never had been available electronically. I did hesitate, at first. That this could be a 25th Anniversary edition seemed fortuitous, however, and so I went ahead. The Guild's publishing partner in this project, Open Road Distribution, offered the opportunity to see the book in paperback, as well. Working with Open Road and the Guild liaison has been a pleasure. Open Road worked with me on the cover, and I like it tremendously.

How did you decide on the historical and geographic setting for Come Next Spring?

Recovered memory—or the subconscious hard at work. As you know, the story is set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. My people were Kentucky pioneers who settled in present-day Western Kentucky—farmers, primarily. Generations after they arrived, on into the 1940s, the TVA decided to create KY Lake (a navigable reservoir) by impounding the Tennessee River. Entire towns, including that of my family, had to be completely relocated, along with thousands of people whose ancestors had lived in the area for generations. Cemeteries were moved, old pioneer graves flooded to form the national recreational area called "The Land Between the Lakes."

My mother and her family and friends were profoundly affected by this change. I remember the day the local high school was torn down and how my mother cried. Her older brother had been a basketball star there. These were very small communities where everyone knew everyone else and had done for years. But! As is possible in Come Next Spring, the farmers who had no choice but to sell their homes and farmland to the government—like my mother's brother—could then purchase bigger, perhaps better, tracts of land, and so on.

In later years, when I moved from Kentucky to Tennessee and married, my husband and I began spending holidays in the Smoky Mountains, particularly in the Gatlinburg, TN area. The history of that region—and the formation of the Smoky Mountain National Park—fascinated me. The move to establish the park began in the 1920s. But what about the people who lived there? Eventually, the mountain homesteaders had to relinquish the hills and hollers. In some cases, those who would not sell were evicted, their land condemned. (The government did offer "life leases" to some of the elderly and sick who were unable to move, allowing them to remain on parkland until they died.)

Oddly—it seems so to me, even now—I didn't realize for a long while after writing Come Next Spring how Salina's personal story and my desire to write about the effect change has on our lives, both on a personal and a more "global" level, was so deeply rooted in my personal family and individual history. All that is the underpinning for Salina and her family, whose land is in the path of a proposed government highway.

Looking back 25 years, what moments stand out as highlights of the research process for the book?

Salina is a "romantic," one who believes everything always works out right in the end. I knew how I meant to shake her immediate, personal world. But I needed some powerful, outside force to rattle her assumptions about life. When I researched the history of the Smoky Mountain area, I learned how in the 1940s the U. S. Government decided to build a system of highways across the country (one reason was to transport military goods in the event of another war). So, there I had it. Salina and her family would not want a road cutting across their farmland, but what chance would they have of stopping a force so much bigger than them?

Also relative to research, there was the issue of Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind. I knew Salina would write the author and ask for proof that Rhett Butler returns to Scarlett at the end of that book. What I didn't know was what Mitchell's reply would be. Well. Since you have read this book, you know what happens there. When it came time for me to think about Mitchell's answer, and I delved into that part of the research—let's just say I was as stunned and hurt as Salina. Salina's reaction when she receives her much-anticipated letter from New York is my own reaction. I still find it very emotional.

Likewise, what were some of the most memorable moments of the publication process?

By the time Clarion/Houghton-Mifflin published the original hardback edition, the book had gone through three different editors, with a constant back-and-fourth by mail between them and me, along with phone calls here and there. The leading editor wanted the prologue deleted. Thank goodness, I persevered and won that round. This time, Open Road had the PDF. I corrected it for errors, of which there were precious few. My greatest anxiety came from wondering if the "25th Anniversary Seal" actually would be on the cover. And there it is.

Topics and styles in YA fiction come and go, but Come Next Spring doesn’t feel dated. What do you think makes a novel more likely to appeal to multiple generations of young readers?

I think some things always hold true, no matter the day, age, or setting. For me, it is about emotion. I write character-driven stories. I don't know any other way. I believe we all share the same feelings—feelings of longing, happiness, uncertainty, and fear. I think if you can touch on true emotions and treat them fairly, your story will have universal appeal. As for not feeling dated, there are people today in small towns still undergoing vast changes. Adjustments must be made. Of course, this is happening in large cities, as well. If I had to say Come Next Spring has a theme, it is about change, when to fight, when gracefully to let go and move forward.

I especially liked Scooter Russell and enjoyed getting to see her family and home environment, and how she and Salina gradually became friends through their mutual interests, including books. How did you come up with her character?

Salina needed a foil, and Scooter is her opposite, from family situation to physical appearance. Salina is set in her ways. She wants her world calm and steady. What could upset her more than a new girl in school who flies in the face of everything Salina believes—including Salina's conviction that at the end of Gone With the Wind Rhett Butler returns to Scarlett O'Hara? To Salina's mind, Rhett has to come back, otherwise everything is all too sad. Salina wants happy endings, and Scooter rocks her world from the moment she steps into it.

As for Scooter and her family, much of it came (again) from personal family history. When I was a girl in Kentucky, we attended camp tent revivals. The December community holiday gathering was called "Christmas Tree," and it was held in the church basement. We always listened to the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show. Music was very important in our lives. I wanted Scooter to have something, some talent, Salina could not help but admire. Thus, Scooter is a banjo whiz, and Salina is drawn to that. Yes, both are "readers." Growing up, like them, I spent a lot of time at the bookmobile.

Where do you stand as far as Salina and Scooter’s ongoing disagreement – do you think Rhett Butler would eventually have returned to Scarlett?

Ah, the big question. I think Margaret Mitchell was a savvy writer. She has keep this argument alive for almost a century. As for me, I believe maybe he did, and maybe he didn't. Oh, what the heck. Of course he did. (But who knows how long he stayed?)


The 25th anniversary edition of Come Next Spring is available in paperback ($11.99) and ebook ($5.99), both from Open Road.

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