Julia Franks Brings Appalachia to the Page
An Interview with the Author of Over the Plain Houses
Set in a small Appalachian village in 1939, Julia Franks’ debut Novel Over the Plain Houses (Hub City, 2016) tells the story of preacher Brodis Lambey and his wife Irenie, who struggle with the forces of modernization that arrive unbidden into their sheltered mountain community and drive a wedge into their marriage. Dealing with such issues as the government’s role in the lives of individuals, the responsibility of humans toward the environment, and the place of women within their communities, the book feels at times remarkably contemporary. With careful attention given to the Appalachian landscape and an intimate feel for the tensions of society played out within a single family, the novel is a striking portrait of a place in transition, told by a gifted storyteller. I sat down with Julia recently in Atlanta to discuss her love of the outdoors, her literary influences, and her role as an educator.
Bronwyn Averett: The first thing I noticed about your novel was its incredibly vivid portrayal of the Appalachian landscape. Can you talk about your background a little, and what leads you to be so familiar with the mountains?
Julia Franks: I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up. And my parents are both very big outdoors people. So my dad was a Vietnam vet. Some vets come back and they go “Oh I never want to go camping again ever in my whole life.” And others, they want to be outside, you know, they want to be in the woods. My dad was the second kind, and my mom was pretty outdoorsy too. We just spent a lot of time in the woods. So other people would be going to Walt Disney World for their vacations and we would be going backpacking. You don’t really realize it’s weird until about middle school. But I was very comfortable going outside from a very young age.
Averett: Irenie is very much the figure of the Appalachian woman. She knows the woods so well she can walk them in the middle of the night. She knows how to go out and collect plants that have medicinal uses. She knows how to preserve all the food she needs. When I read her I was reminded of these Tennessee mountain women who are sort of legendary on my Dad’s side of the family. Was Irenie based on any women in your family, or anyone you know?
Franks: She is based on a person I never met. In 2008, my husband and I — I was married at the time — we bought a property in Western North Carolina, on the backside of Tennessee. And it’s a very long story but it was one of these homesteads that had been there since the middle of the 19th century. And the husband had died and the wife had lived there basically until her grandkids had taken her to a facility. And they never cleaned out the house.
So we get to this house that’s built in 1865 and it’s full of stuff. She collected stuff and she would save things in jars and she would label them. The house was full of these containers with these labels, and she saved weird things like teeth and fingernails. I never met her. But if you’re a novelist and somebody leaves you a house full of stuff that’s labelled, and boxes of letters and diaries, you’re gonna ask yourself: what were these people like? What were their lives like? So I guess you could say Irenie is based on how I imagined this woman. And her husband was a circuit preacher. They were both eccentric, and people told us a lot of stories about them. In fact, the story of the hawk is a true story. I wish it weren’t, but it is.
Averett: This is the moment in the book where Brodis traps a hawk because it is killing their chickens. And Irenie protests, saying that no one in her family has resorted to that kind of violence in the past. Between them, there seem to be conflicting ideas of how to run the land. Brodis wants to control it, and Irenie wants to live with it. Are these different ideas of stewardship?
Franks: Brodis has a very Old Testament view. He uses the word “shepherd” — that it’s his job, to shepherd his family and shepherd the land, and he has his way of doing it. And it’s not out of the question if you’re a farmer to kill hawks, to kill foxes. But really Irenie is the exception, saying that she doesn’t want to kill these predators, who are preying on their livelihood. If you take a step back, you can see where Brodis is coming from. It’s just that even he questions if that’s the right way to do things.
Averett: The conflict here is also indicative of Irenie being more connected to the land than Brodis. And it’s partly from her familiarity with the land that he starts to think she is a witch. Where did that come from?
Franks: I don’t know where the witch idea came from. It was very early part of the story. If I had to guess, I think it just comes from being a woman in this culture. This is what we do. When women don’t behave the way we want, we demonize them. Look at the upcoming election. There’s a certain demonizing that can happen when you’re strong. We might not call a woman a witch, but we find other ways to demonize her. If you’re fearless, you’re demonized. It’s a way of making you not as human. It’s a kind of marginalization.
When women don’t behave the way we want, we demonize them.
Also, Irenie is doing things she wants to keep from her husband. She has her own interior life that she keeps from him, which is the real thing that he senses, that she has this life that she has not shared with him. So Irenie is ascribed these powers that she doesn’t have. She’s just struggling with these really basic things, like how not to have a baby.
Averett: And that’s something that she finds help with through her friendship with the USDA agent. Why did you choose to focus on the story of a figure from the government who comes in and tries to modernize this “backwards” village?
Franks: It was a thing that happened in that area of the country. There were a lot of government agencies and charity agencies and church groups that came in and wanted to help, with good intentions, that sometimes went awry. The traditional way of farming was sustainable, in the sense that you’re growing everything you eat, and most of the things you use. So barely sustainable, subsistence farming. But it worked, and it was a model that had some advantages. And when the Depression came along, those people who were growing everything they ate were not that effected. They were already poor, and they weren’t as effected by the outside economy, because they weren’t interacting with the outside economy.
Averett: Did these conflicts, especially the distrust of the government, feel contemporary to you when you were writing?
Franks: We’re in this moment right now, where angry, rural, white men are in the spotlight. When I wrote this they were not. But now it does feel very contemporary. But Brodis does have reason to be angry. His wife left him and his economic livelihood is lost. And this profession that he used to love he no longer has access to. But what do you do with that anger? And this is the question that feels relevant right now — what do you do with this anger and frustration?
Averett: There is a certain timelessness to the theme of anger caused by a changing world. It’s something that all writers deal with in different ways, but it does strike me as something that Southern writers have been particularly attentive to. Were you influenced by certain voices as you began writing?
Franks: Well, Flannery O’Connor is a pretty clear influence. And Faulkner and McCarthy. And you can almost put Martin Luther King in the same pocket as them, in terms of syntax. They all use a lot of King Jamesian syntax. And then I have to say Charles Frazier, because he’s a personal favorite. His constructed linguistic world is wonderful.
Averett: Do you situate yourself in a particular Southern tradition? The South is composed of so many different communities, and there are so many different styles and concerns in the literature. Do you find yourself somewhere specific in all of that?
Franks: Now I’m being called an Appalachian writer. And my aunt is actually Mary Lee Settle — an Appalachian writer who won the National Book Award, which I’m hoping is a gene that can be passed down! So in terms of my roots, that’s the area I most identify with in the South, even though I live in Atlanta.
Averett: Does living in Atlanta at all influence the kinds of things that you think about and want to write about?
Franks: Yes, just because this is a lot more racially diverse than Appalachia. And that reminds me of another Southern writer I admire: Zora Neale Hurston. Everyone got so irritated by what she did with dialogue. But if you look at a huge percentage of Southern literature, white people speak in non-dialect, and black people speak in dialect, these ways that have been phonetically modified. White people drop their g’s. And white people don’t pronounce the “t” in Atlanta. But we never see it rendered phonetically on the page if the person is white. And I’ve seen it that way in history books too! It’s incredibly patronizing. So even though people didn’t like how Hurston rendered dialogue, at least it was even-handed.
Averett: I’m sure you find a lot of opportunity to discuss these kinds of things in the classroom. Would you mind saying a bit a bit about how you see your role as a teacher?
Franks: Some people teach because they want to write, but I’m actually very much an educator. One of the things I’m working on is to change the way we teach literature in secondary schools. I think what needs to happen is that kids need to have more choice. This is a bit of a crusade for me. I started a web-based business, Loose Canon, which is a resource for teachers to manage free choice in the classroom.
When you give them choice, the difference is crazy. I had all these seniors, a bunch of boys, and I could tell they weren’t reading. So I said at the beginning of the second semester: you can either read the books here on the syllabus, or you can read twice as many books that you choose. Of fifty kids, every single one of them chose to read twice as many books. And yeah, some of the books were lightweight, but a bunch of these boys got on a Cormac McCarthy tear. And really they’re these Cormac McCarthy experts now!
Averett: So how is that different than what the “powers that be” in education want for students and reading? What do you want?
Franks: They want kids to be reading books that are too hard. Fewer books that are harder. But we need volume. We need inundation. We need a firehose of books. And some of them will be powerful and some of them will be part of the water.
Averett: Here’s the hard question for you though. It’s obvious for people like us who love books, but for much of the world it isn’t. Why is it so important that young people read? Why shouldn’t they take more math classes?
Franks: To paraphrase Tim O’Brien, when you’re reading literature, it’s the only time you’re in somebody else’s head. It’s the only time you’re going to be inside the head of a 16-year-old cowboy. It’s the only time you’re going to be inside the head of a soldier in Vietnam. Narrative will always live on in these other forms, movies and video games. But nothing is like reading. People who read literary fiction have a different level of empathy.