My chat with author, Culley Holderfield (part 2)

Q. Where/when do you first discover your characters?

CH. They come from all over. Since I write mostly historical fiction, many of my characters emanate from my research. I might pattern them on actual historical figures, or sometimes I just take the historical figures and put them whole hog into the book. You have to be careful with that, though. If you include real people in your novel, you need to make sure you’re describing them accurately and not having them do anything that runs counter to their known history. I also have characters arrive when I’m walking or in the shower or while driving. They show up, and it may just be their voice at first. Or it may be something else, like an image or an expression. Sometimes I might dream them, and every once in a while they are ghosts.

Q. What first inspired you to write?

CH. I’ve always made up stories. My mother has the evidence in the form of little handwritten books I did as early as first grade. But I distinctly remember being in the 8th grade and having an assignment to write a short story for English class. I remember sitting down at the dining room table with a clutch of blank pages, and starting with the sentence, “It was a serene, brisk day, great for hiking.” It wound up being a ghost story, and the teacher loved it. From that encouragement came the desire to write more and write better. Then, my senior year of high school, I read The World According to Garp. In Garp, John Irving peeled back the curtain on the writing life for me. It taught me that one might actually become a writer as Garp did. Before that I hadn’t really thought about writing as a possible career choice. Once I realized it could be that, it became something I couldn’t shake, so I set my sights on becoming a novelist.

Q. What comes first to you? The Characters or the Situation?

CH. Almost always characters create the situation with the decisions they make. Good fiction puts characters into the position of having to make choices, and the

Hickory Nut Gorge where story takes place

choices that they make result in outcomes that lead to them having to make new choices. The engine for all of this is desire, the characters trying to get what they want. I’m not a good enough planner to map out ahead of time what situations my characters will get themselves into. So I typically leave it up to them, hoping that I’ve put enough work into understanding them that I understand their motivations and can authentically render that onto the page.

Q. Do you ‘get lost’ in your writing?

Hiking in the Hollow where story takes place

CH. Yes. If I allow myself sufficient time, I’ll easily get lost in the narrative. The characters in my work-in-progress are fascinating to me. The more time I spend with them, the more fully formed they become. When I understand them really well, even the minor characters, the story can just take off in unexpected, though fully logical, directions. I may find myself hours later emerging from this state of consciousness that leaves me almost dizzy and pleasantly numb, like I’ve been in an almost meditative state for all that time.

Q. What compelled you to choose and settle on the genre you now write in?

CH. I’ve always been interested in history. In college, I double-majored in History and Comparative Literature. But what inspired 

 me to write the particular series of books that I’m working on now, including Hemlock Hollow, was the cabin my parents own in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I grew up, like Caroline, the main character of the novel, spending my summers and weekends there. One summer, my father was cleaning out an attic we didn’t know we had, and he uncovered a box full of old photos. They were from the 1930s and before. Presumably, they were the people who had built the cabin and lived there. I was fascinated by those black and white images of these men and women who lived in that same place where I spent so much time yet had such different lives from mine. Later I would turn my historical research skills onto those families and the entire Hickory Nut Gorge region. Eventually, I made up a fictional family, the Quinns, and their fictional lives intertwined with real history, which became the fodder for this book.

Watch for part 3 next week.

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