Tiffany Quay Tyson’s “The Past Is Never” is the winner of the 2019 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. Her first book, “Three Rivers” (Thomas Dunne, 2015), was a finalist for both that award and for the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction.
Though she grew up in Mississippi, she now resides in Denver, where she teaches writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. “The Past Is Never” was a 2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Literary Fiction.
The following is an interview with Tiffany Quay Tyson.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
What inspired you to write this book?
Well, I’m fascinated by legends and ghost stories. In “The Past is Never” I became intrigued with how a particular place might come to be known as cursed or haunted. I grew up in Mississippi where most of the book takes place. There are a number of sites throughout the state that are rumored to be haunted or cursed. We have the Crossroads, of course—the place where bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil. In Natchez, we have the Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep pit on the banks of the Mississippi River that was used as a concentration camp and ultimately a mass grave for freed slaves. Now the area is filled with wild peach trees, but people who know the history of the place will never eat fruit from those trees; they understand what’s fertilizing the ground.
And there are other places—Civil War battlefield sites where guests swear they can smell cannon smoke and hear screams after dark, an old Colonial mansion built on a Native American burial ground where people report seeing the silhouette of a woman in an upstairs window, and on and on. These stories are everywhere. And yet when you start to peel away the superstition, you understand that the horror isn’t in what people report seeing or hearing or feeling now. The horror is that these stories sprung up out of very real and very human atrocities. The curse, if there is one, is carried by blood rather than soil. It’s passed down through the generations. People deal with it in different ways. Some ignore it, some deny it, some lie about it, some try to explain it away with ghosts and curses.
In “The Past is Never,” I wanted to explore the ways in which we humans lie to ourselves and to one another, particularly in regards to family history. And I wanted to see what would happen if someone dug deep enough to uncover the truth.
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
I love so many different authors that it would take me years to list them all, so I’ll focus on the authors I’m loving most right now. Like many people, I’m lately obsessed with Tana French. Her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries are fascinating and beautifully written. Although it’s a mystery series, there is nothing formulaic about the books or about her writing. And her most recent book, “The Witch Elm”, which is not part of a series, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I recommend it to people constantly.
I also adore Sarah Waters. A friend gave me a copy of “The Paying Guests” years ago and I was hooked. She writes gorgeous prose and her stories are full of mysticism and misdirection. She really knows how to make both her characters and her readers doubt what they thought they knew. It’s the sort of thing I’m always trying to do in my own writing, but I’m not nearly as skilled as Waters.
I think Toni Morrison might be the world’s greatest living author. How can one woman have given us “Beloved” and “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye” and on and on and on? She seems like a miracle to me. Whenever I am looking for great dialogue, I pull down one of her books. Her characters speak so vividly that it’s like they are in the room with you.
I also have a longstanding love affair with the work of Flannery O’Connor. I read her short stories over and over. She writes with a particular rhythm that seems so natural and familiar to me. Ditto for Eudora Welty, whose stories I’ve been re-reading lately. The first paragraph of “Why I Live at the P.O.” makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. I will read anything Donna Tartt writes, without exception. I’d be happy to read her grocery lists.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
I think the most fun was when I dragged my husband to the Florida Everglades. We went kayaking and took a boat tour. I talked to some people who were living there in the early 1980s, when this book takes place. And I gained a tremendous amount of respect for the people who make a living in those waters. It was there that I decided to put my narrator into a kayak and set her off on an old-fashioned adventure.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
The book contains sections that are historical and/or folkloric in nature. Most of the book is a straightforward first-person narrative, but these sections stand apart and are told in the third-person. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with these sections. I wasn’t even sure they would end up in the book, but I couldn’t stop writing them. Throughout the writing process, I kept taking them out and putting them back in. I thought the story worked much better when I included these sections. I thought they gave the story greater depth, but I worried that some readers would become frustrated with them or that they wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me. Finally, I put them in and sent the manuscript off to my agent. I honestly thought she or my editor would tell me to take them out and that would be that. But they didn’t. I’m really grateful for that. I’ve had readers tell me how much they like the second narrative and how strongly they connect with those sections. It just goes to show that you don’t always know what you’re writing until you’ve written it.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
This book deals with the disappearance of a young girl, but also of the girl’s father. So I thought a lot about places where a person might effectively disappear in the 1970s and 1980s. It was easier to disappear back before cell phones and social media and ubiquitous tiny cameras, of course, but I was particularly intrigued by places where a person who wants to disappear might find refuge. This led me to southwest Florida—particularly to Everglades City and Chokoloskee. I learned that it was a hub for smuggling marijuana in the 1980s, something I knew nothing about. Some reports from the time say that police arrested about 80 percent of the male population in Everglades City for smuggling marijuana. Can you imagine losing 80 percent of the men in any town? Once I started reading about the smuggling and the subsequent arrests, I thought about how that sort of thing would affect the people of the town. How would they feel about strangers nosing around? What would it take to gain trust in such a place? It was a piece of very recent history that was new to me and I found it fascinating.
What project are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel set mostly in south Jackson, Mississippi, which is where I lived from birth until I went to college. It deals with a couple of young women who return to the scene of their girlhood where they face down their enemies and unearth the secrets they’d hoped to keep buried.