An interview with Amy Greene

"Bloodroot is a white flower growing in the mountains of Appalachia with a fleshy, almost finger-like root that oozes red sap when cut or broken," explained Amy Greene, following her recent reading at Lincoln Memorial University. "The sap has healing properties, and it's even used by some to treat forms of cancer, but it can be toxic if used the wrong way."

It seems that Bloodroot is an apt title for Amy Greene's debut novel, for on one hand she portrays the beauty of the Appalachian land, culture, and people, while on the other, she depicts the pervasive influence of hardship, poverty and strife. It is by exploring this apparent dichotomy that Greene so vividly captures the true essence of Appalachian life, which on the surface appears to be one of simple beauty, but upon closer inspection proves to be complex, harsh, and oftentimes, vitriolic.

The Appalachian culture is deeply rooted in the mountains, and the word "bloodroot" is also suggestive of the long history of ancestral heritage and family ties. Greene extends her astute insights to the complex creation of her characters, making them beautiful, flawed, and above all, dimensional. The novel spans four generations and the great-grandmother, Byrdie, describes the historic impact the Great Depression had on Appalachia. Byrdie is loosely based on the Amy's mother, aunt, and the women she went to church with. Yet, throughout the novel, superstition and mysticism are ever boiling beneath the surface, and many of the elderly women featured are also responsible for folklore, spells, and potions.

Bloodroot has received rave reviews and earned the respect of eminent literary figures such as Ron Rash, Silas House, and Wally Lamb, a fact which Greene modestly calls "a dream come true." A great deal of Greene's success stems from her natural ability to capture such an engaging sense of place with unique candor and artistry. When asked about her ability to do so, Greene replied: "Appalachia-the landscape, the people and the folklore-is so much a part of who I am and the way I see the world that it inevitably colors everything I write."

Greene recently sat down with Emancipator staff member Katy Oliver for a conversation about Bloodroot, Appalachia, and the writing life.

Oliver: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Greene: I've always known I wanted to write, going all the way back to first grade. Before that, I told stories to anyone who would listen.

Oliver: What advice would you give an aspiring Appalachian writer?

Greene: My advice for any aspiring writer, regardless of where he or she comes from, is to write whatever compels you, and to focus on storytelling first. If you do that, I think all the other elements of good fiction will fall into place.

Oliver: Have you ever eaten a chicken heart, as one of the characters in the book does?

Greene: Some of the old granny women in the mountains say that eating a chicken heart will bring you true love, but I've never tried it myself—and never will!

Oliver: Your novel is rooted in a distinct and isolated region set apart from mainstream America, but in you say that you toned down the Southern dialect. To what extent did you try to appeal to the mainstream American audience?

Greene: My intention wasn't to appeal to any particular audience, but in the editing process it's important to make sure the manuscript is highly readable. Dialect can be jarring on the page and hard to digest, but I think there's a way to suggest in writing how a character speaks without dropping g's and using apostrophes at the ends of words.

Oliver: The ending of Bloodroot is beautiful and unusual. To what extent are you motivated by the desire to satisfy your readers?

Greene: I did want the ending of Bloodroot to satisfy both me and my readers, but I couldn't manufacture a happy ending for that purpose. I had to try to remain true to the characters and the story I wanted to tell, and hopefully I was able to do that. I have to say, getting the ending right was the hardest part of writing my first novel.