Novelist Catherine Landis was gracious enough to recently sit down with staff-member Brooke Drinnon for an interview. Landis, originally from Chattanooga, now lives in Knoxville and is the award-winning author of Some Day’s There’s Pie and Harvest. Her writing has become increasingly popular among LMU’s students and she will serve as the Fiction leader at the 2007 Mountain Heritage Festival at LMU.
Drinnon: When did you first become interested in writing?
Landis: I’ve felt compelled to write as long as I can remember. It’s an urge, a little like hunger or thirst, that most writers seem to experience, the desire to translate the experience of being human into language. Writing is tough; I cannot imagine doing it without it. I became interested in writing as a career in college, but my focus then was journalism. Although I continued to write poetry and short stories on and off, I began writing fiction in earnest when I was around 30.
Drinnon: I read that you were the first female editor of your college newspaper. Can you describe that experience for us?
Landis: I first wrote for my high school newspaper, (somewhat ironically, my high school was an all girls’ school), so it was natural to gravitate to the newspaper in college. Because there was somewhat of a scarcity of dedicated writers, I quickly became feature’s editor, but it was not until the editor suggested I run for his position that I ever considered being the editor. I ran against a male friend of mine and won narrowly. The job was all-consuming. It was a weekly newspaper, and the way it had always been done, we stayed up the entire night before publication. I believe if I were running it now, I would figure out a better way to do it, but then there was a sort of romance to it – we saw ourselves as tough-as-nails newspaper people. I started smoking cigarettes because of it, a habit I kept for 5 years until I quit cold turkey, a horrific experience I would not wish on anyone. I loved the thrill of writing for the newspaper, and though it was difficult to do it and keep my grades up, I have no regrets. To the question about being the first female, well, I was in the second graduating class at Davidson, which -- do the math -- meant there were no junior and senior women and the ratio of men to women was 5 to 1. Unlike many other all-male institutions, however, the transition at Davidson was smooth. Faculty, staff, and students all seemed to want us there, and as a woman I felt welcomed and empowered. Honestly, I did not think about the fact that I was the first woman until later, when I was recognized as such. Now, of course, college men have to work hard to keep up with the women.
Drinnon: Do other art forms (like music or poetry) influence your writing?
Landis: Music does for sure. I read out loud what I’m writing, as I’m writing it, and then again after I’m finished, and the exercise can sound something like a song. The rhythm of the language is extremely important to me. I’ve also found that when I’m stuck, when I feel as if my brain is tied in a hundred knots, I can listen to music instantly become untangled. I listen to many different genres of music. Some are more helpful at different times but all give me a sort of creative release.
Drinnon: What prompted you to write your first novel?
Landis: I told myself that if ever I started a short story that could not be finished in under 30 pages, I’d think about turning it into a novel. That happened with Some Days There’s Pie. I had been fooling around with a character that was something like Ruth for a number of years but never had found a successful story for her. I was alone in a motel room one night when I suddenly thought about an old woman dying there. That night, I began writing down who that woman might be (she turned into Rose) and what sort of story I could put her in. When I came up with placing Ruth and Rose in the same story, I had my novel.
Drinnon: Is there anything that excites you (or troubles you) about the state of Appalachian literature?
Landis: I am extremely hopeful about the sate of Appalachian literature, primarily because of the strength of the writers coming out of this area these days, Silas House being one who is leading the way. Still troubling, however, is the tendency for New York publishers to categorize much of our great writers as “regional,” which sometimes leads quality work to be overlooked by a national audience.
Drinnon: I know that you had to do quite a bit of research for Harvest. Can you elaborate on this a little?
Landis: I did not grow up on a farm, so you can imagine how much research was required. I read books to start with, but my best research came from talking to cattle farmers and to folks who worked for TVA. I also talked to UT professors and sat in on some classes. Finally, I visited Norris Dam and spent a good deal of time out there.
Drinnon: Is there a message in your novels that you want readers to grasp (do you consider yourself an activist)?
Landis: I began Harvest because I was angry over the destruction of rural land, but the process of writing the book showed me that the issue is more complicated than I knew. For instance, cattle farmers explained to me how difficult it is to save money while running a farm, which means the value of their land is their retirement. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that development and economic growth can bring better schools and better services. And certainly I am not in a position to pass judgment good or bad on the role of TVA – although people are still bitter about the loss of their land, the lives of many, many people, some who were starving from subsistence farming, were transformed for the better. So I worked hard not to paint a black and white, good guy/bad guy, cartoonish picture or even come up with answers. Instead I attempted to just lay it out there – this is the story of these particular people on this particular piece of land.
That neutrality, however, applies only to the novel. In real life, I’m definitely an environmentalist and have at times in by life been an activist, always for liberal issues, although I believe anyone who would call environmentalism strictly a liberal cause does not understand the connection between air, water, food, and a diverse ecosystem to the survival of the human species. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us. I also have history of working for political candidates, all of whom lose.
Drinnon: What is there out of the ordinary you can add?
Landis: Let’s see, I’ve hiked five of our country’s mountainous national parks, I don’t like to go fast, and I make a great homemade pie, any kind. -e-