Monday, May 2, 2016

Over the Plain Houses - a Review and Author Q & A

Idgie Says:
This novel is so descriptive that the words jump off the page into your mind.  You can feel the nerves, the tension, the anxiousness that fills this story.  

Brodis is a small-minded man, suspicious of life, always looking for someone out to wrong him.  He watches his wife carefully and constantly. 

Irenie vibrates with nervousness and fear in regards to her husband, but at the same time demonstrates small defiances that could ultimately  harm her. 

There's foreshadowing on the very first page that sets the tone and puts you on the edge of your seat immediately.  You just know that something bad is going to come about. 

A very intense novel that drags you into it's world immediately. 


Hub City Press
May 2, 2016

This spellbinding debut by Julia Franks is the story of an Appalachian woman intrigued by the possibility of change and escape—stalked by a Bible-haunted man who fears his government and stakes his integrity upon an older way of life.

It’s 1939, and the federal government has sent USDA agent Virginia Furman into the North Carolina mountains to instruct families on modernizing their homes and farms. There she meets farm wife Irenie Lambey, who is immediately drawn to the lady agent’s self-possession. Already, cracks are emerging in Irenie’s fragile marriage to Brodis, an ex-logger turned fundamentalist preacher: She has taken to night ramblings through the woods to escape her husband’s bed, storing strange keepsakes in a mountain cavern. To Brodis, these are all the signs that Irenie—tiptoeing through the dark in her billowing white nightshirt—is practicing black magic.

When Irenie slips back into bed with a kind of supernatural stealth, Brodis senses that a certain evil has entered his life, linked to the lady agent, or perhaps to other, more sinister forces.

As Brodis chases his demons, he brings about a final act of violence that shakes the entire valley. In this spellbinding Southern story, Franks bares the myths and mysteries that modernity can’t quite dispel.



Q: Tell us about your background.
JF: I’ve actually moved around a lot, but my family roots are in the Carolinas and West Virginia. I also keep coming back to this part of the world. It just feels like where I’m supposed to be. I’m pretty outdoorsy for one thing, and the Southeast has some of the best river kayaking around.

Q: Your great aunt was a West Virginia writer, right?
JF: Yes. Mary Lee Settle, who is best known for the Beulah Quintet. She used to jokingly refer to herself as “a coal mine owner’s daughter. She won the National Book Award For a long time I kept hoping that there was a gene for that and that I might actually have inherited it too. In truth, I didn’t have much of a relationship with Mary Lee. Like a lot of families, ours had our feuds: one branch not talking to the other. 

Q: What inspired the story of Brodis and Irenie?
JF: In 2008 my (then) husband and I bought a farm in western North Carolina. The old homestead was still standing. This was a house that had been constructed by hand in 1865 and then a hundred years later abandoned.  There were still dishes in the cabinets, clothes in the closet and mayonnaise in the refrigerator.  (Yes, I know.) And the old lady who’d lived there had been a meticulous hoarder. She’d preserved all these items that were meaningful to her: baby clothes, animal bones, locks of hair, bearskins, insect hives. And a lot of it was labeled. As in, “This was the hat I wore to Evie’s graduation,” etc.  She even saved teeth and other body parts. One little jar had a scrap of paper in it that read: “Fingernail, 1959, Wilson’s truck door.” And the fingernail was in there too. This lady ended up moving into a facility for the elderly in 1973, and her sons left all of this stuff. Including hundreds of jars of canned food. You can imagine. 

Q: And you met some of the townspeople who still remembered her and her husband?
JF: Yes. Pretty soon people found out that we’d bought the couple’s old house, and they wanted to talk about it. Several folks came up to me and said, “That woman was a saint.” Or they talked about how much she’d loved the land or that she was still wearing splint bonnets in the 1970s. Her husband was a preacher, and some of the neighbors were still mad at him because he’d called them out in church for wearing jewelry, and then, after the service, come over for dinner and eaten his fill. Here it was fifty years later, and people were still talking about his rigid rules and his fiery sermons, including some really unusual details. For example, they said that when the couple walked to church, the wife would walk several steps in front of him bearing the Bible like a platter. But the most common question I got was people asking about a copper colored braid “as thick as an arm.” The story was that she had woven it from a lifetime of hairbrush cleanings. (You know people in some places used to save their old hair.) Three different people asked me if I’d found the braid. And when I said no, they leaned in and assured me that I should “look in the attic.” (I did, but I didn’t find it.)

Q: You said you were influenced by events in your own family too?
JF: Yes. So that same year, 2008, a man walked into my parents’ church in Knoxville and opened fire upon the congregation. He killed two people and injured seven. This was a Unitarian Universalist church that sponsored left-leaning community activities. Later, when the police interrogated him, the shooter claimed to have various ideologies, and in fact had written a kind of manifesto. But later it came out that his wife had become a UU, and then later abandoned him, and his life had sort of gone downhill from there.

Q: Do you think that’s why he committed the shooting?
JF: Who knows? We can only guess what was going through his head, but these are the things that haunt me, these questions of ideology and violence and just plain old hurt feelings. Eventually it all finds a way into my writing.

Q: If I can bring the conversation back to the farm--what did you end up doing with all of that hoarded stuff?
JF: A lot of it we just couldn’t bear to throw away. So we boxed up most of the letters and mementos and brought them over to the couple’s only remaining son. He was 88 by then. The old man seemed happy to have these items, and we visited with him and his wife all afternoon. He told us a string of stories about the farm and his parents. 

Q: Did he say anything about his parents’ relationship? 
JF: He kind of avoided that. But I couldn’t stop wondering how his mother had squeezed out an identity while living with a husband who was so strong about his beliefs.  I also wondered what the world looked like to his father—or to anyone who sees life through the lens of Biblical literalism. Finally I just asked the old man, “What was your father really like?” 

Q: What did he say?
JF: I’ll never forget what he said. He stared at the window a long time. Then he turned his attention back to me, and he nodded his head, and he said, quite decisively, “He was a good carpenter.” 

Q: That was it?
JF: That was his way of putting an end to the question. People invite us in, but only so far. The rest is for us to try to imagine.