Amy spoke with Jeff Giles about her contemporary YA novel—a gripping story about love, secrets and lies just published by Albert Whitman & Co. Amy is a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for young-adult authors debuting in 2016. Jeff rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL:
With her mother facing prison time for a violent political protest, seventeen-year-old Liberty Briscoe has no choice but to leave her Washington, DC, apartment and take a bus to Ebbottsville, Kentucky, to live with her granny. There she can finish high school and put some distance between herself and her mother– her ‘former’ mother, as she calls her. But Ebbottsville isn’t the same as Liberty remembers, and it’s not just because the top of Tanner’s Peak has been blown away to mine for coal. Half the county is out of work, an awful lot of people in town seem to be sick, and the tap water is bright orange–the same water that officials claim is safe to drink. When Granny’s lingering cold turns out to be something much worse, Liberty is convinced the mine is to blame, and starts an investigation that quickly plunges her into a world of secrets, lies, threats, and danger. Liberty isn’t deterred by any of it, but as all her searches turn into dead ends, she comes to a difficult decision: turn to violence like her former mother or give up her quest for good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Amy Allgeyer was born in Kentucky and grew up in North Carolina. The youngest of seven kids, she dreamed of being a writer since she learned to make her letters face the right way. She now lives in Idaho with her brilliant son, a feral house cat, and a fake owl named Alan. As an architect, she spends her days remodeling historic homes and hopes eventually to find a secret passageway to…anywhere. You can find Amy at amyallgeyer.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
A TALK ABOUT CHILDHOOD, INSPIRATION AND “DIG TOO DEEP”:
Hello, Amy! One of the things I love about your main character, Liberty Briscoe, is that she doesn’t seem FICTIONAL. She’s not overly eccentric or outrageously noble and heroic. She’s 100% real—conflicted, loving, angry, scared, brave, confused, forgiving, unforgiving, etc. I assume that you yourself ARE outrageously noble and heroic, so where did the inspiration for Liberty come from?
I am noble and heroic! Thanks so much for noticing. I’m feeling particularly heroic today, because I typed the word “synopsis” at the top of a blank piece of paper and I didn’t start crying.
Seriously though, I’d say the inspiration for Liberty came from inside. I personally found junior high and high school to be really awful places, where little shreds of my soul are still stuck to the cafeteria floor. I’m not sure it’s possible to go through those years without experiencing anger, fear, confusion, regret, love, hate and all those other emotions that make us so flawed and so human. Plus, I haven’t really matured past ninth grade, so…there’s that.
You write about the rural poor in Appalachia so skillfully. You capture their lives and accents without ever condescending. I know you were born in Kentucky. How much time have you spent there? Did you keep a notebook of great expressions?
The South definitely has its own vernacular! I love the expressions and colloquialisms native to that part of the country, and I will always consider myself a Southerner.
We lived in Kentucky for seven years before my father was transferred to North Carolina. We moved to a little town near Chapel Hill, but my six brothers and sisters (who were older) stayed in Kentucky. We visited them a lot, so I spent many, many hours driving all over NC, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. It’s definitely the place I think of as “home.”
At the beginning of DIG TOO DEEP, when Liberty has to go back to Kentucky after five years away, she feels like an alien. Is that something you can relate to?
Gah…yes…unfortunately. It’s no fun being the outsider. When we moved to North Carolina, I left all the kids I’d grown up with and started at a new school where I was the only girl who wore dresses, the only kid with glasses, the only kid who didn’t have a Southern accent. It’s tough to be different! I spent a lot of years trying to fit in and be like the popular girls. It wasn’t until college that I realized there were people in the world who appreciated the unique things about me—that I didn’t have to try to be somebody else.
Liberty launches a very lonely crusade against a mining company she believes is responsible for toxic drinking water, mutant fish and a heartbreaking cluster of cancer diagnoses. Was her mission the first seed of the novel?
No. DIG TOO DEEP started life as a short story about a girl whose grandmother was dying of cancer. I lost my mom to cancer, and that was an experience I really wanted to write about. (I think we writers exercise a lot of our demons on the page.) Anyway, that short story turned out pretty well and some critique partners suggested I make it into a full length novel. I’d been seeing a lot of press on MTR mining and the mess it was making of the Appalachians, so I decided to incorporate that into the book.
Are you yourself somebody who fights for her rights and can get in people’s faces when necessary?
Honestly, no. I’m the person who walks away calmly then contacts a lawyer. I make polite, but strongly-worded complaints to the people in charge. I write letters to congressmen. I donate money. I volunteer on boards where I believe I can make a difference. And I write books about the things that really bug me, so those brave people who aren’t afraid to get in peoples’ faces will know what’s happening. Because sometimes, sadly, that’s what it takes to create change.
Liberty is furious at her mom (and has no contact with her) because her mom abdicated her responsibilities as a parent so she could protest everything under the sun. She calls her MFM, for My Former Mother. Am I the only one who likes to pretend it stands for My F–king Mother?
OMG, I have to say I never even thought about that. But I’m absolutely sure that Liberty did!
I can’t give away which parts of the novel were most emotional for me to read, but can you tell me which themes or scenes were most emotional to write?
The scene where Granny tells Liberty the starfish story was exceedingly hard to write. I helped my dad take care of my mom for a few days before she died, and it was…just…so hard. There are a lot of memories from those days in that scene. Even after three years of revisions and edits and looking at it over and over, reading that scene still makes me cry.
Liberty’s love for her Granny is so palpable. Tell us a story about one of your grandparents?
My grandpa was such a character. He was a little guy with an insatiable sweet tooth and bright red hair (before it all fell out) who worked on the railroad all his life. He loved kids and was always playing games with us. He taught me to play poker when I was five. When I went to first grade, my teacher asked me to count as high as I could, and after I got to ten, I said, “…Jack, Queen, King, Ace.”
Romance-wise, Liberty is immediately drawn to a boy named Cole. I thought you did a masterful job of keeping the reader guessing as to whether Cole is a dreamboat or a douchebag. Did you know which he was going to be when you started writing?
No. In fact, Cole and Dobber kept changing roles while I was writing the book. And then, during revisions both with my agent and with my editor, we kept tweaking how Lib’s relationship with each of them played out. In fact, the final scene with Cole was added in the last round of edits, before the ARCs were printed.
You have a very cool day job as an architect. Are people more obsessive about their kitchens or their bathrooms?
Typically kitchens. I think because we spend so much of our family-time in the kitchen, people want to dial in every detail to make things just right, to encourage people to ‘be’ there.
Are you going to keep architecture-ing even after your novels have made you obscenely rich?
Favorite writing snack?
Chicken jerky and Diet Cherry Coke.
Oddest job you ever had?
One summer, I worked at a laundry, pressing the sheets for the local hospital. You’d be amazed how many they throw away because the blood stains won’t come out.
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
The seventh, and last.
Best curse word?
I wish I had a creative one, but usually it’s just ‘dammit’.
JK Rowling, because the Harry Potter books inspired me to start writing again.
The Chrysler Building.
Favorite material for countertops?
Hats: what kind and how often?
I love hats, but I never wear them. I want Fascinators to become super popular so I can start a collection.
Thing your cat does constantly?
HE SHREDS MY FREAKING SOFA!! This may be why I have a couch fetish. I’ve bought seven in the past three years.
Favorite thing to do with your son?
Anything! I feel like I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with him, and soon he’ll be off to college. These years feel so precious.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Jeff Giles grew up in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Most recently, he was the Deputy Managing Editor of Entertainment Weekly, where he oversaw all coverage of movies and books. Jeff has written for Rolling Stone and The New York Times Books Review. He also co-authored The Terrorist’s Son, a nonfiction book that won an Alex award from the American Library Association. While reporting on the Lord of the Rings movies for Newsweek, Jeff was invited to be an extra in “The Return of the King.” He played a Rohan soldier, and—because he didn’t have a beard or mustache—they glued yak hair to his face. Jeff lives with his family in Montana.