Seeing Your Hometown Through the Fresh Eyes of Fiction
An Interview with Melissa Scholes Young
Hometowns—and the way we remember our hometowns—are a delicate thing. Memory seems to often divide our perspectives into two possible directions: nostalgia and yearning or resentment and aversion. Some of us feel that we must leave, while others simply cannot fathom any reason to do so.
In Melissa Scholes Young’s debut novel Flood, Laura Brooks finds herself lost. After a series of life-shattering events, she returns to her hometown Hannibal, Missouri and quickly re-enters the small town life she had fled a decade earlier. Except now something is different; the town, the people, and her family, where they once felt stifling, now feel welcoming and are exactly what Laura needs.
In Flood, hometown Hannibal takes on a role as prominent as any character. In a recent conversation, I discussed with Scholes Young the power and function of home as a setting and place, and the overt and subtle ways in which it can impact a community, traditions, and family.
Chelsea Leigh Horne: Can you talk a bit about the process of creating and writing Flood? What was the original point of conception and how has (or hasn’t) it evolved while you worked on the novel?
Melissa Scholes Young: I wrote a short story about Laura and Rose’s friendship five years ago. It was just a slice though, and I knew there was more tale in the type of friendships you can’t quit. The book has changed so much since then. I originally wrote Bobby’s story in the first person, alternating with Laura’s, but found that it wasn’t necessary and didn’t work with the overall voice of the book. This is Laura’s story, and her first-person gives an intimacy to the portrait of recalibration. While I was researching Hannibal, I learned about the Mississippi River running backwards in 1812 due to a series of earthquakes on the New Madrid fault line. I was also reading that Mark Twain didn’t write a lot about Hannibal until after he left. All of these seeds were there five years ago when I first began writing Laura, but they grew as I drafted. Of course, it took a lot of revision to weave those threads together.
CLH: You grew up in Hannibal. This is a book where setting is significant to the characters in more ways than one. How did you navigate the setting, especially considering that it’s so familiar to you? What was it like for you to write about home, especially in a piece of fiction?
MSY: When you grow up in a place like Hannibal, you’re surrounded by stories. Mark Twain is mythologized, and I wanted to understand how a town creates so much of its identity on one book. Hannibal isn’t just a setting for me in the story; it’s a major character. Writing Hannibal wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Communicating something you know so well to an audience is actually quite difficult. I visited a lot during drafting. I drove my car to the river and just sat and wrote descriptions. It was delightful to see my hometown through the eyes of fiction, but I took liberties too. I’m sad to say there isn’t an Aunt Polly’s tattoo parlor or a Gossip Grill.
CLH: What was the most difficult part of capturing it?
MSY: One of the biggest challenges was trying to communicate to readers what it means to live in a floodplain. There is a rhythm to flood seasons in rural communities. When I talk to my folks, we discuss the weather first and foremost. Your sky matters more when it determines your safety and your crops and your life.
CLH: There is a distinct musicality and rhythm to the dialogue and the accents of your characters. How did you work to capture the language?
MSY: I listened very hard. I recorded dialogue and played it back. I made a dialect dictionary. It’s rural speak and that’s different than southern dialect. It helps that I was born and raised here. It simply sounds right to my ear.
CLH: The return home, which is often a tumultuous return one after an extended time away, is a big part of the experience of Laura Brooks’ inner conflict. What makes a return like this so difficult?
MSY: At the beginning of the book, Laura fears that she has failed. She’s lost so much of what she thought made her successful. She’s hiding in Hannibal, but she has to face what she left and why. A return like this is so difficult because it’s probably easier to go home with your head high than with your tail between your legs. Laura has to feel vulnerable again. She has to examine the stories she’s been telling herself, even if they aren’t true.
CLH: What defines home for you and for your characters?
MSY: I’ve moved so much since I was 17, which is when I left Hannibal, that I define “home” now as where I am and who I’m with. I’ve accepted that change is constant and that the ground beneath me is rarely stable. My “home” is adaptability. It’s completely corny and completely true when Aunt Betty instructs Laura to “Bloom where she’s planted.”
For the Brooks family, on the other hand, home is Hannibal. Mama and Trey and Aunt Betty aren’t going anywhere. Neither is Rose. These people are Laura’s home, wherever she’s located. Home is more about people than place, but Laura has to learn that through her return. The characters in Flood who stay prefer the familiarity of home, but it makes Laura itch.
CLH: Why do you think that some people never even desire to leave while some, like Laura did, feel an almost unbearable need to leave a hometown?
MSY: I fear some people just never fit or that some towns just can’t hold them. The comfort feels stifling to Laura. She’s changed. Her hometown has too, but Laura can’t see that yet. In the beginning of the book she felt she had to leave to find the things she wanted in life, but by the end she has to return to find the things she needs.
CLH: Laura’s mom prods her when she first returns home, saying, “Don’t know why folks think they gotta leave. I’ve stayed. I’m just fine, ain’t I?. . . This place has always been good enough. For some of us, anyways.” From where does this resentment of those who left by those who stayed build?
MSY: In my reading and writing of first-generation experiences, there is often a feeling of rejection from those left behind. It makes me sad but resentment is the right word. Your choice to leave feels like a judgement. Also, the one who left can now navigate both territories but those who stay don’t have the same equipment. Travel changes you. New experiences shift your way of being. You’re forced to question yourself and your way of operating. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. In the epitaph to Flood, I quote Mark Twain:
When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood it has always shrunk; there is no instance of such house being as big as the picture in memory & imagination call for. Shrunk how? Why, to its correct dimensions; the house hasn’t altered; this is the first time it has been in focus.
CLH: “Money buys you safety from the river and the train tracks. If you’re like Rose and [Laura], you’re stuck where the water always reaches you.” Geographical location and economic status are intimately tied together for the resident characters. Can you delve a bit more into this distinction between the people and the land protected by the new levees and those who are not?
MSY: This is true in all places. The most vulnerable have the least protection. The flood walls in Hannibal save the historic district, but water has to go somewhere. It often flows to the low-lying areas that can’t afford to push it back. Part of what I found fascinating in my research is that the land that is most devastated by floods is often the most fertile when it recovers.
CLH: The Tom and Becky competition, where children compete for the privilege to play these iconic Mark Twain characters for the next year, runs throughout the book. Rose mentions, recalling her own childhood, “We all wanted to be a Tom or Becky. It’s not surprisin’ when you grow up with pictures of them all around. Like they’re some kind of superheroes.” What was the appeal for you of incorporating aspects of the competition into the narrative? What does the competition represent for you?
MSY: The program is everything that is lovely about Hannibal: tradition, hometown values, opportunity, history, and community. But the program also reveals inequality. Like most achievements for young people, it requires a great deal of parental and economic support. Those are not something everyone has. The program is run by well-intentioned people who devote their time and resources to its success. We are proud of our Toms and Beckys and I think rightly so, but I’ve often wondered why we don’t consider the more complicated stories of Huck and Jim too. Poverty and racism are tougher to digest and require difficult answers. I wanted to bring a light to the larger conversation.
CLH: And we have to ask, did you ever compete to be a Becky? Or know someone well who won?
MSY: Sadly, I was never Becky material. I always thought of myself as more of a Huck. But all my childhood friends competed. One of my best friends was Becky. And I dated a lot of Toms.
CLH: Flood works a lot on the tension and conflict of withholding, especially in regards to Laura’s secrets and the just barely held back rising water levels of the Mississippi. Can you describe a bit more about the ever-present, ever-escalating experience of waiting and waiting, hoping the levees hold?
MSY: It makes great plot, I hope. There is a stress to living every day on the brink of crisis, whether it’s poverty or weather that destroys your livelihood. It makes you very tired and often impatient. Anger is understandable. You feel out of control when your future is uncertain. Part of the tension in a floodplain is also that someone else’s ruin, when their levee busts, relieves the pressure on your own.
CLH: As Laura observes, “I’m always going to be someone’s daughter, sister, or friend here. And their baggage is mine, for better or worse.” But was she ever really “free” from her hometown baggage even when she lived in Florida? Or is this a kind of remembering for her?
MSY: There is a freedom and anonymity to leaving and beginning again, but it’s lonely for Laura. In that moment, considering her ‘baggage,’ Laura sees it as a liability. It depends on where she in in the journey. By the end of the book, Laura realizes how grateful she is to the people who raised her, even if it wasn’t perfect or good enough. Maybe they did the best they could. Maybe we’re all just trying to do the best we can.
In one of the epitaphs to the book, I quote Toni Morrison, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Hannibal and her place are familiar when Laura first returns. It’s easy and she needs it to be so. It’s both comforting and limiting. You don’t choose your family, but you can choose your people. When she returns, she’s faced with all her previous choices and has to revisit those decisions. Laura has to learn that there is fertile ground on many banks. She sees why people stay and she remembers, too, why they don’t.
CLH: What projects are you working on next?
MSY: I’m working on another novel now, which is the story of four sisters set in a rural family pest control business. Basically, it’s Little Women with bugs. I’m also editing a new collection of Grace & Gravity: Fiction by D.C. Women founded by Richard Peabody. It’s titled Grace in Darkness. My students at American University will be helping me design, edit, and promote the book.