” A mother and her daughters drive for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The mother, Amaranth, is desperate to get away from someone she’s convinced will follow them wherever they go–her husband. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound.
Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. At first unwelcoming to these strange, prayerful women, Bradley’s abiding tolerance gets the best of him, and they become a new kind of family. An unforgettable story of belief and redemption, Amity & Sorrow is about the influence of community and learning to stand on your own.”
To celebrate the release of Amity & Sorrow in New Zealand we interviewed author Peggy Riley. AND we have a signed hardback copy of the book to give away – enter at the end of this post.
1. Which writers are you inspired by?
I am particularly drawn to writers who create whole worlds and cycles of family that we can return to, book after book. William Faulkner sets his many books in the Yoknapatawpha County of the South. Louise Erdrich does the same with generations of a Native American family on and off reservation land in North Dakota. Each book enriches the others before it and after it. I’m also very inspired by John Steinbeck, whose books have such authenticity I feel that they must be real. The Grapes of Wrath is the true story of the Dust Bowl, made more true by his fiction. His Salinas in East of Eden and his Monterey of Cannery Row are surely true.
2. You used to be a bookseller – how would you sell this book to customers?
That’s a good question! I used to love a book that I could pick up and hand sell to anyone, saying – this is great – trust me. I wanted to write the kind of book that I would be happy to hand sell as a a good, solid read and a page-turner. It’s the story of a mother who takes her two daughters from a fundamentalist, polygamous cult. When they crash onto a farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle, all three have to find new ways to be family, without their faith. I’d also say it’s about God, sex, and farming – but in a good way!
3. If readers enjoy your book then what other books would you recommend?
I would recommend any of the books that I loved while writing Amity & Sorrow. First, start with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Written in 1939, not long after the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, it still feels incredibly modern. It is pacy and compelling, and there are moments that hit you right in the gut. A wonderful read, and it was great to go back to it after reading it in high school and not really “getting it”.
Next, read Under the Banner of Heaven: a Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. It is the story of the schism in the Mormon church that led to the splinter fundamentalists creating secret compounds across the American west. Last, for an alternative take on the Dust Bowl, I recommend Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, the history of those who didn’t leave Oklahoma. It was that book that formed the history of my own farmer’s family.
4. This is your first novel; how did the idea for Amity & Sorrow come to you?
I saw a newspaper image of a wooden church on fire, on a prairie. I was working as a playwright then and I could see the image of spinning skirts, on fire, and women running from a burning church and I thought – how am I going to put all that onstage? I hung onto the image and years later, I started writing fiction, I followed the image and the story that emerged from the questions I asked of it: why is the church on fire? Who are the women? What happens next?
5. What experiences and/or research did you base your writing about the polygamous cult on?
I grew up in the California of Charles Manson and Reverend Jim Jones. I’d been thinking about the role of women in communal and “free love” societies and in cults where the leader is most often shared and fathering children with multiple “wives” since my earliest days of feminism. I have long had a fascination for handmade American faiths and had been reading about the origins and creation of the Mormon Church, which split over the issue of polygamy. Ultimately, my research convinced me that I wanted to create my own cult, ecstatic and fundamentalist, separatist and afraid of the government, with elements of Jonestown and Waco, Millennium death cults, and and the FLDS compounds that thrive throughout the American west, western Canada and Mexico, even today.
6. Even by cult standards, fifty wives seems a lot – how did you come to that number?
It is a nice round number, but it was topped by Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor in the Mormon Church, as well as current FLDS leader, Warren Jeffs, reported to have 78, even while in prison. David Koresh only managed 20, but he believed that God told him he was entitled to a further 120. He just ran out of time…
A warning – some of the following questions and answers contain plot spoilers… 7. Why do you think Amity was open to new ideas and ways of life but Sorrow wasn’t?
Amity was raised to be “less special” than Sorrow, so it is easier for her to imagine another life. Sorrow is the Oracle; Amity’s job is just to watch and wait. As such, she is far more aware of other people. Sorrow misses her status and her closeness to her father, her preacher, while Amity, who has little status, fluorishes in a new world full of possibilities, opportunities, options. She is more naturally curious than Sorrow, less set in her ways. Sorrow cannot let go of who she was and who she still wants to be; Amity loses less by evolving than Sorrow does.
8. Do you think Sorrow was purely faithful or was she also mentally ill? Her actions seemed particularly sadistic in parts.
I think she is faithful as well as terribly damaged. She has been raised to have certain expectations and opinions about herself and her purpose that have damaged her horribly. I think of her when she says, “That’s what these places are made for,” speaking of her body and how women were treated in her faith. But she was also raised to believe she was special, holy, wholly essential to her father and her faith. She doesn’t want to give up her autonomy, but she doesn’t know how else to be. She doesn’t want to live the kind of ordinary life that would make Amity happy and she doesn’t want to be just another wife. Her violence comes from her own wilfulness, but also from the Bible teachings she was raised with, from her use of fire and stones to ritual sacrifice.
9. I was quite shocked by the ending – after all the time Amaranth spends chastising herself for her willingness to ignore what her husband was really up to, her final action of leaving Sorrow with Zachariah seemed to be a poor choice. Why did you choose to write the ending that way?
Amaranth chooses her own survival and Amity’s survival over redeeming Sorrow, it’s true. It is not the kind of choice we think a mother should make, is it? A mother should stand by her children, no matter what, especially if the children have been damaged through the choices and lifestyle of her parents, shouldn’t she? I didn’t want it to be an easy choice or answer. By the end of the book, Amaranth is aware of what Sorrow wants and the lengths she will go to get it. She lets Sorrow make her choice, and, I suppose, that is another question. At what age should someone choose her destiny, even if it is the wrong one? Sorrow is fifteen. Would it make a difference if she was sixteen, rather than nearly, or eighteen? Twenty? Amaranth can remember the choices she made at Sorrow’s age; she can see this chain of extreme faith that goes back to her own mother, and she knows what it is like to be abandoned. I think she decides that it will be the undoing of all of them, to try to hold her family together. She has to leave her husband and she knows that Sorrow won’t. She has to cut the tie between her children, if Amity is to have a chance of finding her own way in the world.
10. What do you think happened to Zachariah and Sorrow in the end?
I think the balance of power has tipped between them. Sorrow has learned the ways of the world and she won’t be a victim any longer. I think Zachariah should be very afraid of what Sorrow will do next.
Interview by Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ
>>Follow Peggy’s blog tour – tomorrow she’s off to Booking Mama.
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