Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Ashleigh Bell Pedersen is a writer and actor living in Austin, Texas. Her first novel, The Crocodile Bride, releases May 10th from Hub City Press. A tale of generational trauma and its ferment, the book follows 11-year-old Sunshine Turner and her father Billy through one slow, haunted summer in Fingertip, Louisiana – a one-road town deep in the process of “dying on the vine.”
We talk about the myth of the fresh start, the meaning of eggs-in-a-basket, and her decision to construct a town full of outsiders, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: In the book there are stories of mischievous elves and crocodiles accepting bribes in exchange for mercy. Are any of these tales reminiscent of stories from your own childhood? Where’d they come from?
Ashleigh Bell Pedersen: It’s always interesting to me how even the aspects of our lives and imaginations that feel like our own usually have their roots deep in our childhoods. When I was growing up, my parents read me a lot of books and were storytellers in their own right. My mom often told me a very spooky story about a girl who lived with her parents on an island. The specifics were always a little different, but each rendition involved the girl’s parents leaving her alone on the island, and the girl hearing creaking footsteps on the stairs — whether it was her parents arriving home, or someone or something else more sinister, we never found out. My dad read me a lot of novels like Annie Pat and Eddie and Treasure Island, and also told me a recurring handful of very tall tales that I was eventually dismayed to learn were not real. I will keep secret which of those specific tales found their way to the novel, but I will also add that the crocodile in my novel was born of my own weird imagination — but the seedlings of his existence were no doubt watered by my parents’ own weird imaginations!
DY: Isolation, confinement and escape are major themes throughout the book. But escape from the limits of childhood, and – for some characters – from the limits of Fingertip don’t come without a cost. How do you think about the implications of having a fresh start as a resolution? Did you ever worry that the bow was tied on too nicely for the reader?
ABP: To be honest, my greatest fear was a too-tidy bow. I’m going through my own “fresh start” after dealing with cancer during the pandemic, and much like I hoped to convey with my characters, grieving and complex feelings have not disappeared just because I’m also experiencing new and positive feelings. As compelling as the rebirth myth is, it’s far more complex and messy than we often allow. A couple years ago, I heard my nature-loving friends talk about their experience watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. (They live in the countryside outside of Austin, Texas and get to witness things like this — a butterfly emerging, a fox napping in a tree. Can you imagine?!) They talked about how goopy and vulnerable this butterfly looked in its initial emergence; it wasn’t bursting forth in all its colorful grandiosity and fluttering off into the sunlight in the way most of us love to envision such a moment of transformation.
The ending of my own novel arrived very organically, born of the ol’ gut intuition, and I place my trust in that intuition, above all else, when writing. Some of the characters do, no doubt, experience a kind of redemption; but — without spoiling anything — my main desire for this ending was that hope can exist without denying the messier truth of the past. In fact, hope exists specifically because the characters are not denying the past.
DY: To me, for some reason, one of the most heartbreaking details in your extremely heartbreaking book was the intergenerational love of eggs-in-a-basket. Catherine prepares them for her children Billy and Lou, and a couple of decades later Billy makes them for Sunshine. But Catherine brought the recipe from the great big world outside Fingertip, while Billy learned it in the claustrophobic childhood home he still resides in. The act of making breakfast for Sunshine shows his good intentions, and his limits. How much were you thinking about Billy’s never going elsewhere as you were dreaming him up?
ABP: Once Billy Turner came alive on the page, which was a good couple of years into writing the novel, he guided me through the story as much as I guided him — and he seemed to want to stay put in the yellow house, in his own lies, in his own failures. On the one hand, his efforts to use this meal from his own childhood to connect with Sunshine is sweet and nurturing. On the other hand — and to your point about showing his limits — the gesture is woefully inadequate, especially when offered as a means of making amends for incredibly destructive actions. Heartbreakingly, Sunshine is amenable to these efforts because she’s a child; she so wants things to be made right, and as quickly as possible. I had sympathy for Billy’s failings as I wrote him, but I also felt sadness and frustration with his passive choices — and I felt devastated for Sunshine.
DY: In the book, Fingertip, Louisiana is a New Deal community, supposedly designed by Eleanor Roosevelt herself and built near a sugar mill, the area’s main employer. There’s a different feeling to this setting than to a lot of rural fictional places because of its newness. What was appealing to you about a place that seemed to lack history? Why write about a “place whose original name no one could remember?”
ABP: Creating a place full of outsiders, rather than a place with deep roots in Louisiana, allowed me to write without being bound to Louisiana culture — which is far too rich for me to do justice to with my fiction. It also allowed me to reinforce the themes of disconnect and isolation. And, perhaps even more importantly, it felt like Fingertip, with its strange history and namelessness, was a place in which magic could possibly happen. Without giving anything away, this possibility became hugely important as I wrote the latter half of the novel in particular.
DY: Lastly, what are you reading lately? Any recommendations?
ABP: I have been reading various books in slow rotation: Sarah Harris Wallman’s fantastic collection Senseless Women is occupying my fiction brain at the moment; Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse continues to beckon me — I actually cannot seem to stop reading this (it’s perhaps an addiction?); and I just started bell hooks’ All About Love. I’m a huge theater fan and I’m finally reading Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, as well — which is long overdue. And finally, I also recently began Inland by Téa Obreht — but I started it on audio and the sentences were so insanely beautiful that I had to stop; I want to read them with my own eyeballs, in hard copy form.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.