Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.
To read an excerpt from A Tree Born Crooked and an exercise on writing active character descriptions, click here.
In this interview, Post discusses writing about making the Florida panhandle feel authentic, creating intimate spaces within plot, and working under the influence of Cormac McCarthy.
This book seems to be as much about its setting in the Florida panhandle as the actual story. On one hand, this seems like a good move as a storyteller since it’s a place full of colorful characters. On the other hand, I’d imagine it could be hard to create characters in this place without running into stereotypes. How did you create this place in a way included drugs, alligators, and poor, uneducated white people without falling into the caricatures so often connected with popular images of those things?
I honestly didn’t even think about the stereotype issue until I was deep into the revision process. I just created a place and a set of characters that were real and true to the people of this area of Florida. Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.
I’m interested in how you approached plot in the novel. The book starts with James getting a postcard telling him to come home because his father has died. But the plot doesn’t really begin until his brother and cousin commit a crime. How did you bridge the gap between James showing up in town and his getting drawn into the crime? It would seem tempting to make that gap quite large, with James meeting various characters and visiting old haunts. Was it difficult to get the next part of the plot moving?
I won’t lie—developing the plot was the hardest part of writing A Tree Born Crooked. I’m on my third novel now and crafting plot has become a much more fluid process, but it was a bit difficult for me with A Tree Born Crooked. It was tempting to let James play in Crystal Springs a while and to bring out new characters and places, but I wanted to keep the pace accelerated throughout the novel. There’s a definite balance between pushing the action forward and then allowing for pauses where readers can become more intimate with the setting and characters. I had to establish James and his inner conflict before I could focus on the external conflicts of the plot, and from there I had to make sure there were enough peaks and valleys between the two.
Crime novels tend to have a particular kind of main character, one who has, as your book jacket puts it, “a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside.” But, of course, book jackets are not novels. How did you create a character who fulfills the description in the jacket (and the readers’ expectations for a crime novel) but is also a nuanced character with depth?
I was much more concerned with creating a character with depth. It wasn’t until after the novel was finished that I realized James fit into the role of anti-hero in a crime novel. And, of course, that came from the subliminal effects of researching and writing in this genre. As I was writing, I was focused on developing James as a character who is having to come to terms with events outside of his control. He’s thrust back into a world that he wants no part of and he must decide how he wants to navigate the situation. James’ story is really one of a character peeling, or a times ripping, back layers in a difficult process of self-discovery. He just also happens to be dodging bullets in the process.
In the blurbs for the novel, you’re compared to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews. I’d add another writer: Joe Lansdale, the crime and horror writer from East Texas. I’m curious which writers were in your head as your wrote this novel. Was there a book that you looked to for help? What did you learn or borrow?
A lot of books were influential in getting A Tree Born Crooked started. Novels such as Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and David Eddings’ High Hunt definitely inspired me to write about underdog characters in an underbelly world. I fully fall prey to Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” though, and so try to avoid reading fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. However, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was crucial in helping me to craft dialogue. There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel with Llewellyn sitting in his trailer—what the character doesn’t say is almost more important than what he puts into words. I definitely relied on McCarthy when working to create “negative dialogue” and to utilize the spaces in a scene to their fullest.