Read on for an interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
This summer is getting hot. So hot all I want to do is stay inside with a big glass of iced tea and a good book, away from the burning rays of the sun. But what happens when the book brings the heat to you?
This book really hit me in ways I didn't expect. For all the bright, dazzling sunshine in it, this is a very dark book.
It is the story of a town turning on its itself, on its own humanity.
It is about loss and grief, and the blaming, paranoia, and mad rage that can follow.
It is about what heat can do to a mind, or perhaps just what the mind blinds itself to and then blames on other elements.
It is a coming-of-age story—but not the warm and fuzzy one that is usually associated with that term.
The summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss's father invites the devil to Breathed. When a scrawny thirteen-year-old black boy shows up claiming to accept that invitation, it is not what anyone expected. But then the heat comes. And unfortunate accidents start piling up, mysteriously connected to the boy who calls himself Sal. Is he really the devil? And what is going on in the previously quiet and quaint town of Breathed, Ohio?
Fielding narrates his story from the future, where he is an old man, still licking the wounds from his past and suffering—for what, we don't yet know. But this technique puts a cloud of dread over the whole book. Something wicked this way comes, but you'll have to read on to find out.
As the summer progresses, the heat stifles everything and things go from bad to worse with secrets coming out— including secrets about Fielding's own family—innocents caught in the crossfire, and even Fielding's neighbor turning everyone against Sal in a strange religious fervor.
The book examines good and evil, presenting the situation bare, sometimes even metaphorically and through Fielding's eyes, you as the reader are the judge. Who is right and who is wrong? Can this even be decided?
The prose is unexpected, sometimes strange or unfamiliar in its description, but always lyrical, something I was continuously wrapping my mind around while reading. McDaniel is a very unique writer and her influences from southern gothic writers and other literature are keenly felt, but adapted in a way all her own.
The book is highly stylized and more like a fairytale than realistic fiction, hovering just above reality and told in a heightened state. But somehow, the little town of Breathed is meant to exist in its own world, and Fielding is trapped there, not only in the summer of 1984, but even later in his life, even just in his mind.
For me the real revelation doesn't lie in who the devil actually is, but in how everyone reacts to who they think he is, or what they are told to think. Perhaps it is that there is that spark of evil inside all of us, waiting for that heat wave to catch flame.
And now, a short interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
Shelf Stalker: What are you reading right now?
Tiffany McDaniel: I am reading Ruth Franklin’s bio of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson is a wonderful writer, so it’s nice to be able to learn more about her and her life.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
TM: I still have lots of reading to do, but so far my favorite authors are:
Ray Bradbury—I love his novel, Dandelion Wine. It’s a beautiful, melancholic story that touches on those experiences we have coming-of-age.
Shirley Jackson—I still have yet to read her entire collection, but one of my favorite novels of hers is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully told story of two sisters wrapped around the mystery of who poisoned the rest of their family.
James Wright—A poet from my land of Ohio. Above the River is the entire collection of his writing. His voice is a beautiful contribution to the poetic verse.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
TM: There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, experienced by both humans and animals. I’ve always thought the superpower to heal and remove pain would be something that one could do a lot of good with.
SS: OK, on to the book!
I know you are from Ohio, but can you tell me how you got the idea for this book?
TM: The novel started first as a title. It was one of those hot Ohio summers that I felt like I was melting. Out of true heat, the novel was born. I start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Because I don’t outline or plan the story ahead, the title and the first line work together to shape the entire rest of the story.
SS: What was the purpose of having the book set specifically in 1984?
TM: When I was thinking about this story, the 1980s came to mind. When I think of that decade, I think of the neon colors, the big ambitions, and the big hair. It seems like a decade-long summer to me, which I thought made the perfect setting for this particular summer in the book. I chose 1984 in particular because it aligned with my George Orwell 1984 theme. Orwell’s novel is all about herd mentality and the importance of preserving individual thought. This is something the characters in my novel deal with, especially when it comes to answering the question: Who is the real devil?
SS: I loved how heat was an integral and constant part of the narrative—I really felt its presence while reading! Can you talk about why heat is so important to the book?
TM: The heat was an interesting character to write, and I say character because the heat is a character that developed just as the other characters around it did. The arrival of the heat coincides with the arrival of the boy claiming to be the devil. The heat allows for a certain “hellish” atmosphere, all the while becoming the evidence for those who believe this boy to be the devil. The heat has not only a physical effect on the characters, but an emotional and mental one as well. Without the heat, you don’t have the same story.
SS: Fielding acts as a sort of an outside narrator to the events of the novel—he reminded me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Why are his eyes the ones we see the story through?
TM: I wanted to explore this story through the eyes of someone coming-of-age. I chose thirteen years old because that’s an age when most of us began to shed the skin of our innocence and take on the maturity of who will be as adults. It’s also the age they say Joan of Arc began to hear her voices, so it seems a divine age as well. All the novels I’ve written thus far are told through first person. From the first line, I have the narrator, and his or her voice will deliver the rest of the story. Fielding was the right character to deliver this story because it is through him that we understand the relationships and dynamics of his family and of his community, both before and after the devil’s arrival. The story couldn’t be told through the eyes of Sal because Sal needs to remain a mystery to us, and a first person lens on his story would have opened up the mystery just a little too much. But with Fielding we get the story through a lens that allows us to be both outside and inside the mystery as it unfolds.
SS: The book examines evil as a part of the human condition. But evil isn't necessarily black and white. To what extent do you feel this is true? Or, why were you interested in pursuing this as a subject?
TM: I’ve always been interested in good v. evil, and I think on some level I’ll always be exploring this. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in that gray area between good and evil, the area I think most of us live in. With these characters in the novel, you’ll see that they are all capable of good and evil. Even the villain of the story has his moments where he is revealed to be more than the evil he bears. It’s about nothing being clear cut, and just because someone is called “devil” doesn’t mean they are devilish. Ultimately, it's a story that explores what it is to be human, and the grief and the happiness of that very existence.
SS: Can you tell me about your writing process? Like, do you write a certain amount every day? At a certain time of the day? Do you take lots of notes first or just go straight to the computer?
TM: I don’t have a routine, probably because I’ve never been a very scheduled person. I seem to work in chaos and am always trying to stay or get organized. I’m an insomniac so sometimes I write at night. Sometimes during the day. I don’t have a particular word or page count I strive for. It’s like going to a big faucet with a big bucket. You turn the faucet on and sometimes you have a lot coming out, sometimes it’s just a drip. The trick is to be present. There are lots of distractions in today’s world, so the best thing we can do is to turn off the noise and focus only on the page in front of us. My process is that I don’t take notes. I don’t outline, or plan the story ahead. I think if you plan a story too much, it can domesticate the story, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul.
SS: Do you have anything else in the works right now?
TM: I have eight completed novels. I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was a long eleven-year journey to publication, full of rejection and perseverance. I write darker literary fiction and I was often told I was risky to publish, which is something I think female authors hear more than their male counterparts. As far as what's next for me, well, I've returned to that very first novel I wrote when I was eighteen. It’s titled, The Chaos We’ve Come From and it's inspired by my mother's coming-of-age in southern Ohio from the 1950s to the death of her father in the early 1970s. It’s been fourteen years since I first wrote this novel, so it feels like a good time to return to this story and to these characters.
A huge thanks to Tiffany McDaniel for sending me a copy of her book and being so generous with her time to answer my questions!
Get your copy of The Summer that Melted Everything
Find out more about Tiffany McDaniel
Find out more about the publisher, St. Martin's Press (Macmillan)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.