Q and A with Angela Pneuman, LAY IT ON MY HEART
From the jacket copy:
Family past and present loom large in tiny East Winder, a strict evangelical community in rural Kentucky. And no family looms larger than that of thirteen-year-old Charmaine Peake. Her grandfather was a famous revival evangelist, but her current circumstances are overshadowed by her prophet father, recently committed to a psychiatric institution. Her grandmother is a one-time debutante in physical decline, and her mother—thrown into a marital crisis she deeply resents—has started turning to Charmaine for impossible answers.
When financial desperation forces them to move into a trailer on the river, Charmaine must adjust to an unfamiliar and seemingly hostile community. Female friendships there take complicated root, and sexuality becomes something to be reckoned with. Back in town, a sanctimonious missionary kid occupies her real bedroom, where she uncovers his stash of troubling photos. And as Charmaine and her mother battle it out within close quarters, her father’s return becomes less and less likely. Through it all Charmaine tries to pray without ceasing, as her father taught, but with so much upheaval even God seems hard to reach.
Like the beloved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lay It on My Heart unleashes Southern humor in the face of a parent’s mental illness. It brings us into the heart of a complex family weathering the toughest patch in their lives, and highlights the moving and hilarious nature of a fragile mother-daughter relationship. But most of all, it illuminates the stark realities of adolescence, the emergence of compassion, the first keen pangs of losing one’s place in the world, and the power that comes from discovering who you are. This revelatory, heartwarming book fulfills Angela Pneuman’s promise as “a stunning new talent to watch” (O, The Oprah Magazine).
You're from a town very much like the one where Lay It on My Heart is set. What challenges did you encounter while writing a book that...hits so close to home?
It’s a bit of a struggle for me to write about sincerely evangelical characters. You wonder if you can write them in a way that people who haven’t experienced this kind of closed religious environment will be able to find relevant. For me, these characters are dealing with what we all deal with—family myth-making, coming-of-age, regret and despair, choosing—or not—to welcome emotional insight into those around you. Their religion complicates things, though, for sure. I was struck by the possibility of a young girl who is leaving a very sincere faith behind as she comes of age. Not leaving it behind in a defiant way, as one might flee a repressive environment, but actually growing into a bigger sort of compassion for people. Kind of actualizing spirituality through a connection to others, even as the narrow particulars of this religious practice fall away.
Conversely, what were the joys?
I enjoyed going back to a landscape that appears so often in my mind’s eye—the rolling hills of Kentucky. I also found myself remembering a lot of things that preoccupied me as a teenager: the rural night sky, grim Bible stories like Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, the constant feeling that the cars we drove were about to break down. There was some pleasure in reinhabiting a certain time in my life—not through plot points, but through the psychological interior of Charmaine. I reread A Wrinkle in Time, too, which I loved at thirteen, and I found myself really transported to that earlier version of myself. Rereading books always does that for me.
You write so well from the first-person POV; Charmaine's voice is wonderfully authentic and engaging. Was there ever any point where you considered writing in third-person (or in second)?
I started out writing the whole thing in third-person, and from more than one POV. I had Charmaine’s POV but also Phoebe’s, David’s, Seth’s, and Cecil’s. I got about 150 pages in, and I just started to feel like it needed to be in the first-person from Charmaine. I can’t exactly say why, because as a rule I stay away from first-person. The writing of it feels uncomfortable to me—it just feels coy in a way I can’t shake. But here it felt right, so I just finished up that first draft in her voice. A funky sort of draft, half in third-person from many POVs, half in first-person, but I didn’t want to go back and change it all. I wanted to press forward. I will say, though, that I still wanted to suggest Phoebe’s POV, her story, through Charmaine’s. To me, she has nearly as much of a trajectory of change/realization as Charmaine…
What is the adult Charmaine like? Who is her idol?
That’s a great question! I think the adult Charmaine might admire people with one clear external skill, something they know they’re good at. Like engineers, or architects, or sports heroes, or chefs. Some vocation with some kind of measurable outcome or product. She is so much in her head, emotionally, I think that she might fantasize that a clear-cut, external prowess would relieve her of some of what she constantly thinks about and feels.
If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
I am in the very early stages of another novel about a mother and daughter—this time from the mother’s point of view, mostly, and spanning a couple of decades, I think. The daughter is a child star in Hollywood…I am playing around with different forms and taking a lot of notes. Right now the draft is really made up of lists!