I featured THE LOST SAINTS OF TENNESSEE as a "Waiting On" Wednesday pick back in September, and it started a discussion with the author, Amy Franklin-Willis, who I found out was born in my hometown. I asked if she would be interested in writing a guest post upon publication of her debut novel, and she graciously agreed.
Quotables is an event in which I present authors with a meaningful (to me) passage from their novels and ask them to speak to it in whatever way they wish.
This novel delves into a Southern family over several decades, tracing the events leading up to and following a tragic death. Of particular interest is the relationship between the main character and his mother, and when I came across the following sentence, I thought it captured their ongoing conflict perfectly.
"The way you love is like sucking all the air out of a person's lungs and then telling him you'll breathe for him."
This quote is uttered by my main character Ezekiel when he is age 18 to his mother Lillian at the absolute lowest moment in their child/parent relationship. Prior to this line, Zeke discovers by accident how his mother has betrayed his twin brother Carter. From Zeke's perspective, he's had enough of his mother's manipulations and dreams for him over the past 18 years. Of her five children, Lillian poured her own lost ambitions into Zeke and anointed him, from a very early age, as the chosen son in their family, the one who would escape the small confines of working-class Clayton, Tennessee.
What Zeke views as his mother's abandonment of his developmentally disabled brother pushes him in this scene to sever ties with Lillian. Her actions have led them all to this place and both she and Zeke recognize that the life she coveted for Zeke might have been dealt a potentially fatal blow by causing Zeke to forgo his full scholarship to the University of Virginia to stay in Clayton to care for Carter.
When I initially wrote that line, I was fully immersed in Ezekiel's perspective, having only written the story in his voice at that point. Ezekiel and his brother Carter are exceptionally close, in part due to Zeke's role as Carter's champion and "bridge" to the rest of the world and partly because they are twins. Their tie to one another is deep and inexplicable. At 18, Zeke can not comprehend how his mother could betray Carter after he is severely beaten by local thugs not long after Zeke has left for his first semester of college far from home. To betray Carter is to betray Zeke. It's that simple for him. He knows that he would never have made the choice his mother makes following Carter's attack.
I would go on to revise the manuscript and expand the role of narrator to include Lillian, whose voice dominates the middle section of the book. Lillian is on a mission in the story to set the record straight about what really happened in the Cooper family as the boys were growing up. We all know that any story about a family without the inclusion of the mother's perspective is not telling the whole story. Lillian and Zeke have been estranged for 25 years following the above scene. I began to understand her experience--what it would have been like to be a 1960s mother trying to do the best she could for her child, for all her five of her children, when parenting them alone most of the time and always having money be tight and sometimes non-existent. Lillian has sacrificed mightily for her children but it is not enough. She has made devastating choices whose aftereffects ripple through the whole family. Her belief in Zeke's ability to transcend their place in the world of small town Clayton was critical to her. She needed one of the children to make it over what seemed an insurmountable wall around Clayton. That need ends up clouding one of the most important decisions of her life.
How far do we go as parents for our children? How do we tuck our own needs and aspirations into our children? How does a child respond to being the "favored" one? These are all themes I was trying to explore in Lost Saints. And when Zeke speaks those words to his mother they are true. He means them. But when he reflects years later on the events that led up to that moment, he looks back with the added insight of being a flawed parent himself and grants his mother some dispensation, though forgiveness may still be yet to come.
You can visit the author online here.
The publisher has offered a copy of this novel for me to give away. Just leave a comment below by Monday, March 5 at 1:00 p.m. CST, and I'll randomly pick a winner. Be sure to fill out the email portion of your comment form, so it won't be visible to others, but I will have a way to contact you.