Curses And Haints Abound In 'Bloodroot'

Amy Greene's debut novel, Bloodroot, tells the story of a family in Appalachia that's been living under a curse for generations. Greene, a native Appalachian, married and had children while she was young says she wanted to convey a sense of isolation through her writing.

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Bloodroot is a name of a flower with blood-red sap and it can both cure and poison someone. It grows wild on the mountain which is at the center of Amy Greene's debut novel of the same name, "Bloodroot," a four-generation novel set in Appalachia.

Appalachia also happens to be Ms. Greene's home from childhood and in her pages, the culture that comes to life is as haunted and mesmerizing as a fairytale or a dream, as evil as a vile curse and as beautiful as that ephemeral bloodroot flower. The voice, though, is that of Ms. Greene's world. She's from Eastern Tennessee, and she joins us now from our studios in New York.

Amy Greene, welcome to the program.

Ms. AMY GREENE (Author, "Bloodroot"): Thanks so much for having me.

LYDEN: You know, I know that Bloodroot Mountain is mythical and that Appalachia is full of myth and haunts, but I kept thinking, where is this imaginary Bloodroot Mountain? It's so much more than a mountain.

Ms. GREENE: Yes, it's the landscape of my childhood. It's the place where I grew up, and the home that I've always known and loved. And so it's very much based on, you know, where I grew up and what I've always known.

LYDEN: This novel is told from the Great Depression on through to the present in, I think I counted at least six different voices, from an old grandmother to two young children, to an errant husband. But at its heart is Myra Odom and she's quite a character.

Ms. GREENE: Myra is sort of the spirit of the mountain. She's this wild child with haint blue eyes, who is very close to the land. And I think I put that part of myself into her, the part of me that grew up exploring the woods and the mountains where I grew up.

LYDEN: And haint blue? What does that refer to?

Ms. GREENE: Well, haint blue is this very special shade of blue that is said to ward off evil spirits and curses. A haint is what we call a spirit in Appalachia.

LYDEN: Okay. Well, let's meet her. We do, sort of, even though she's the last voice we hear from directly in this novel. We meet her through her grandmother on the very first page. Her grandmother's named Byrdie.

Would you read for us please?

Ms. GREENE: Sure.

(Reading) Myra looks like her mama, but prettier because of her daddy mixed in. She got just the right amount of both. The best thing about Myra's daddy was his eyes, blue as the sky. They'd pierce right through you. Myra ended up with the same blue-blue eyes. I always figured she was too pretty and then John Odom came along. Now I'll die alone. It's not that I'm scared of being alone with this mountain. I love it like another person. I just miss my grandbaby. Me and Myra's mama wasn't close. Clio had little regard for me or Macon either one. Myra's the daughter I always wished I had.

LYDEN: And Myra sort of haunts everybody. This is her grandmother speaking. Her grandmother certainly loves her. And Myra is supposed to end a curse that's on this family, but it seems that she does not, and she marries this other teenager when she's 18 or 17, John Odom. First of all, tell us about the curse.

Ms. GREENE: Well, the curse was placed on Byrdie and her family when she was a little girl. It wouldn't be lifted until there was a baby born in their line with haint blue eyes and Myra is that baby. The curse was basically that there would be a lot of hardship for that family and that did come to pass.

LYDEN: You know, you said a moment ago that you put a lot of yourself into this character and I was really struck to learn a little bit about you - that you're in your 30s, but until the book tour for this novel, you hadn't been on an airplane.

Ms. GREENE: That's right. I flew to San Francisco and it was the first time I had ever been on a plane. And really, this experience with the book tour is the first time I've been out of the South for any real length of time, so a lot of exciting firsts for me.

LYDEN: And you also got married at 18?

Ms. GREENE: I did. I got married when I was 18 and I had my first child by the time I was 20. You know, there is a tradition of marrying young and having children young in Appalachia. And I didn't set out to follow that tradition, but it just, it sort of happened. It seemed like it was right for me and it actually did work out. I'm still with the same man that I married, so it was the right thing for me.

LYDEN: Were you worried, Amy Greene, as you were writing this novel, people don't e-mail here, it goes into the present, they don't drink lattes. Were you worried that such a time out of mind place that you've created just might not survive, you know, the real world where people are reading on the subway on their Kindles?

Ms. GREENE: I don't know. I think I wanted to convey a sense of isolation. You know, the mountains can be a cradle or they can be a trap. There is an isolating factor. You know, I wanted to convey a sense of otherworldliness with the writing and the fairytale quality.

LYDEN: Do people still believe in curses and visions?

Ms. GREENE: People do. If you drive around East Tennessee you'll see doors and windowsills painted haint blue, you know, especially the older houses. So people definitely still believe in curses and haints and also in folk healing.

LYDEN: You capture wildness, too, in a lot of ways in this book, whether it's a horse or a person. Tell us a little bit about the man that Myra falls in love with.

Ms. GREENE: John Odom is, as Myra describes him, the first thing that she had ever seen that was more beautiful than her home. And I think she was so captured and taken with his physical beauty at first and there was something in him that drew her. But Byrdie says after she meets him, that's the way the devil is; he can fool you. That's kind of what John Odom is. He's the devil.

LYDEN: I don't think it gives anything away to say that - am I giving something away if I say she cuts off his finger?

Ms. GREENE: I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENE: I think that may be enticing.

LYDEN: His ring finger.

Ms. GREENE: Yeah.

LYDEN: And I thought, is Amy Greene sort of channeling Flannery O'Connor or James Dickey or William Faulkner in terms of this dark and mad side of Southern culture?

Ms. GREENE: You know, I haven't read a lot of Flannery O'Connor. I've heard that comparison. I really didn't have anything in mind, no literary influences, no agenda when I started writing. I really just started with the characters and let that lead me to the story. So, I think it just took that turn.

LYDEN: But how do Myra's children come to see her? She has two children, a boy and a girl; she has twins.

Ms. GREENE: I think that especially Johnny, for him she is seen as a neglectful mother. His experience with her shapes the course of his life in a way. You know, his story is very much about the quest to find his father and to know himself in that way. But his early experience in childhood has a lot to do with his tortured soul.

LYDEN: What do you think it is that ultimately brings some sunlight into this? I mean bloodroot, the flower that they gather in the beginning of this book, is supposed to cure as well as have the power to poison.

Ms. GREENE: I think the discovery is that it is possible to take what's good from the life you've lived and move forward and leave the rest behind.

LYDEN: Well, Amy Greene, I would imagine that you will continue to write about the very place that you are from. I hope you do.

Ms. GREENE: I plan to.

LYDEN: Am I right to call it Appalachia?

Ms. GREENE: I pronounce it Appalachia (AppaLATcha), but it's okay. You can pronounce it Appalachia (AppaLAYsha).

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: And how do you find New York?

Ms. GREENE: I am loving New York. It's just a feast for the eyes everywhere I turn.

LYDEN: Is this your first trip?

Ms. GREENE: It is my first trip. It's my second time on a plane, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Thank you very much for being with us today.

Ms. GREENE: Oh, it was my pleasure.

LYDEN: Amy Greene. Her debut novel is called "Bloodroot."

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