Steph Post’s writing has been described as “lyrical and evocative” and she’s been called “the official voice of working class literature in Florida, akin to what Daniel Woodrell has done for Missouri, or Ron Rash for the Carolinas.” Her first novel, A Tree Born Crooked (2014, Pandamoon Publishing) was a semi-finalist for The Big Moose Prize. A prolific writer, she also pens short fiction, poetry and reviews as well as contributes to Small Press Book Review and Alternating Current Press. When not writing, herself, she serves as a writing coach at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa. Thoughtful Dog caught up with Post to talk to her about her new novel Lightwood (2017, Polis Books) and about her process, reading style and finding balance.
TD: Your new book, Lightwood, opens the day Judah Cannon gets out of prison after three years and no one is there to pick him up. Within a day, he’s thrust back into the family business that landed him in jail. Lightwood is faithful to the gritty noir novels but also has some southern gothic twists in the charismatic religious leader Sister Tulah character. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for this book given there are surprising elements in it?
SP: Thank you! And I think you nailed it- Lightwood walks the line between Southern lit and noir and I’m sure the combination comes from my love of dark, subversive Southern fiction. I really enjoy writing about north central Florida, where I grew up. With Lightwood, I wanted to explore the dynamics of an established crime family. It’s hard to say where an ‘inspiration’ comes from, as the process of a novel’s inception is such a complex yet fluid one. The setting, obviously, comes from an area I’m familiar with. The narrative arc is somewhat classical but definitely inspired by sagas such as The Godfather. I’ve always been interested in counter-culture groups and I’m sure the Scorpions’ bike club comes from that and from growing up around motorcycles. And Sister Tulah? Well, I’ve always been fascinated with the Pentecostal religion as I’m one generation removed from the church myself. I wanted to explore the concepts of faith and power and fear, but do so in the crime genre. When all of the pieces began to fall into place, Sister Tulah just seemed the perfect villain.
TD: Your work has been compared to Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash and Carl Hiassan. You’re definitely developing a reputation for writing fiction in the working class, rural vein that is typically a male-dominated field. Other than Bonnie Jo Campbell, there aren’t many women writing these types of books. Any thoughts on why?
SP: This is actually something I’ve thought a lot about and I’m so glad you mentioned Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose work is absolutely striking. There are so many killer women crime writers on the scene right now, but I agree, working class lit as we think of it is definitely a boy’s club. I’m not sure if it has to do with interest or with opportunity and perception. Unfortunately, many women who write in more “tough” genres are often toned-down by publishers when it comes to marketing and selling. So I wonder if there perhaps are more women writing in this style, but they’re just not being sold in this genre. On one hand, I hope this is true. On the other, if it is true, it’s pretty damn sad.
TD: It seems like place is important to you. Do you start with the character or the place? What is the genesis for a new book?
SP: The characters always come first. Always. I think place is important in my work because I usually view the setting as a character in itself. In Lightwood, the Cannon’s hometown of Silas is a character for me. With everything I’ve written- and I’m on book five now- the characters lead the charge and everything else is built up around character motivation. Lightwood started with the character of Judah Cannon and everything grew up from there.
TD: Will you talk a little about the difference between writing Lightwood and writing your debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked? Also, on your blog you’ve written about the pressure of the debut novel. Do you think there is too much emphasis on the short-term debut novel rather than the long-term career of a writer?
SP: One thing I’ve definitely learned about the writing process is that you constantly have to keep learning. Every book is different, yes, but I think with each book you build upon the process you developed in writing the previous one. In most respects, I’m self-taught—I don’t have an M.F.A.—and so I’ve learned to navigate the writing process by trial and error and then rectifying those errors on the next book. So, with A Tree Born Crooked, I just wrote headlong, crashing through the story. Lightwood, with three times as many characters has a more complicated plot and involved much more planning. More organization with the re-writes. More process. In short, much more work.
I think there is a lot of pressure for authors to astound the world with their debut and to shoot straight to the top. To have a book out and to have “made it.” The reality, though, for most writers, is that a writing career is a slow burn. Sometimes a very slow burn. But readers usually don’t see that part. They only see the finished product, even if the author has been working on it for ten years. I do think that brilliant debuts should be celebrated, but I also think it’s important to remember that most of us (like me) are painstakingly climbing the mountain of success. It’s more about endurance than speed.
TD: You’re an avid reader. Do you read differently depending on what you’re writing?
SP: Yes. Usually I avoid reading whatever genre I’m currently writing in. And it also depends on what stage of the writing process I’m in. For example, I’ve been in research-mode for the last six months, reading upwards of fifty non-fiction books and sources. For “pleasure” then, I read fiction, but again, not in the genre I’m writing in. Once I start drafting and actually writing, day in and out, I usually switch to non-fiction. I suppose it’s a way for my brain to balance everything.
TD: I’ve read that you believe research and laying the groundwork are essential steps. Can you describe your process from research to first drafts and revision?
SP: Absolutely. I think research is key to being able to create and inhabit a fictional world. Some books are more research heavy than others and so the amount of time I spend researching depends on the setting of the novel. I knew much of the world of Lightwood already, so I believe I only spent three months in the research phase. When I’m writing in a historical setting, the research process is very labor intensive. It’s about knowing as much as you can about the world you’re going to be spending a lot of time in. After completing a first draft, once I know where the story is going and how it is turning out, I usually go back and do more research. The same after the second draft. The focus of the research becomes much more fine-tuned with each draft, but it’s still essential.
TD: You write short stories, novels, and poetry. You also teach and blog. How do you balance everything?
SP: Um, I have no social life? No, honestly, it’s about going through writing cycles and establishing a routine when I’m working on a big project. So, I’ll write stories and poetry when I’m working on research and blog to give myself a break from novel writing. But really, I just work my ass off. I don’t know any other way to do it.
TD: You’re working on a sequel to Lightwood, but you recently wrote an interesting tweet that you were researching alchemy, astrolabes and volcanos for your next book. Anything you care to share?
SP: So I think I’ve alluded to this previously, but I write in two different genres. Most people only know “Southern Crime Steph” because that is the genre of the two books that are currently on the shelves. But I also write historical/literary/fantasy for lack of a better description. I have one book on the market in that genre and I’m currently at work on another. The book I’m working on now—involving exploration in the 1890s—is something I’ve dreamt of writing for a long time. It’s been very research intensive and on any given day I’m looking into everything from arctic survival to mythology to celestial navigation to Tesla inventions. I’m having a blast with it.
For more information on Steph Post and her new book, Lightwood, visit her Website!
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