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Cougars, gold mines, moonshiners and ghosts
This novel did not begin with a thread of plot, as had the other books I had written. The first stirrings of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter were a series of images that bobbed up out of my subconscious, seemingly unconnected, and yet somehow necessary to the story. When I began trying to make sense of this creative stew, I went to talk about the images with a friend who is a profess or of folklore.
"I see a woman who is pregnant," I said. "I don't know who she is, though. And an old woman who is weaving, and who knows things. And a beautiful young girl who has lost her family in a tragedy--and yet one of the dead still speaks to her. And there is a river, so polluted that it seems dead as well..."
As we talked, trying to find a common link between these fragments, she said, "This is all about liminality, you know."
The anthropologist Victor Turner described liminality as a state betwixt and between one thing and another, a time and a place in which the ordinary rules do not apply. The passage above is my rendering of Turner's philosophy.
I realized that I wanted my novel to explore the liminial state between life and death. How many ways can one be neither dead nor alive? There is the groundhog who hibernates in a netherworld of unconsciousness; the ghost who is neither in this world nor the next; the old woman who talks to spirits, and is herself caught between the realms; the celebrity who retires, but ceases to exist for her fans; and the river that still flows but is dead with toxic waste.... Over and over the image of people and things caught between death and life wove itself into the narrative of the book.
"Elegiac ... Ms. McCrumb writes with quiet fire and maybe a little mountain magic ... Like Nora, she plucks the mysteries from peoples lives and works these dark narrative threads into Appalachian legends older than the hills. Like every true storyteller, she has the Sight." - The New York Times Book Review
Finally I realized that Appalachia itself is a liminal state: it is a border land, caught between the placid east coast and the wholesome heartland to the west--but in between are the wild and mysterious mountains, where there might still be cougars, and gold mines, and moonshiners, and ghosts--and all the magic that has been civilized away from most of the world. I wanted to captur that spirit of mists and memory.
I also wanted to issue a warning: That no place is really very far from civilization anymore. The river that flows into the mountains from the east brings death with it...and fifty years ago every chestnut tree in America died because someone left a door open in New York City.