I deeply love my native state of North Carolina, especially its mountains. I hope my love for this region is evident in A Land More Kind than Home's portrayal of western North Carolina's people, culture, and religious faith. While A Land More Kind than Home revolves around a young autistic boy who is smothered during a church healing service, the novel’s three narrators all represent my experience of growing up in North Carolina and being raised in an evangelical church.
Like Jess Hall, the younger brother who secretly witnesses the tragedy that befalls his brother, I often found myself sitting in church and waiting for something to happen. As a boy I was promised that I would recognize my salvation when I felt Jesus move inside my heart; however, like Jess, I attempted to rationalize the mysteries of Christianity, and I soon realized that we often use faith to fill the empty spaces in our lives. Like Adelaide Lyle, the church matriarch who straddles the divide between religious faith and old-time folk belief, my own religious beliefs are rounded out with a healthy dose of skepticism. While I’m always suspicious of those who pray the loudest, I can’t help but acknowledge the tug on my heart when I witness a baptism, and I can’t account for the inexplicable peace that comes from humming an old-time gospel. But I most identify with the character Clem Barefield, the local sheriff who must sift through his own tragic past to solve the mystery of the healing gone wrong, because, like Clem, I’m guided only by what I can perceive of this world, and I’m hesitant to get lost in following those who claim to be led by a spirit from the next.
I began writing A Land More Kind than Home while working on my Ph.D. at the University of Louisiana, where I spent five long years sweating, celebrating Mardi Gras, and missing the mountains of North Carolina. While living in Lafayette, I took a fiction workshop with Ernest J. Gaines, who taught me that by writing about home I could recreate that place no matter where I lived. Gaines made this clear to me one afternoon while we were visiting an old cemetery near the plantation where he was born. He pointed to a grave marker and said, “You remember Snookum from A Gathering of Old Men? He’s buried right over there.” While none of the characters in A Land More Kind than Home are based on people who actually existed, they’re all amalgams of the types of people I knew growing up. In creating these people and the place they live I got to watch the sun split the mist on the ridges above the French Broad River. From my desk in Louisiana I pondered the silence of snow covered fields. While living in a place that experiences only summer and fall, I watched the green buds sprout on the red maples, and I was there when their leaves began to shrivel before giving way to the wind. I lived in two places at once, and it was wonderful.
I became a Southern writer because I wanted to recreate the South that I know, and I learned to write about the South from the writers I loved. Because of this, I knew it was important to garner support for A Land More Kind than Home from authors like Gail Godwin, Fred Chappell, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Clyde Edgerton. These writers wield an enormous influence on my work, and I have no doubt that they can say the same for the writers who came before them. Gaines often recalls William Faulkner’s invocation of Oxford, Mississippi as a little postage stamp of earth that he continually mined throughout his career. Gaines did the same thing in his Louisiana fiction. That’s what I tried to do in A Land More Kind than Home. My next novel is set in the same region of North Carolina. Fortunately, this part of the country is much larger than Oxford, and I can’t imagine ever running out of stories to tell about it.