Interview: February 2, 2012
THE LEGACY OF EDEN, Nelle Davy’s debut novel, tells the multi-generational saga of Aurelia. Now uninhabited and decaying, this grand Iowa estate holds the secrets of the Hathaway family’s dark legacy and ultimate downfall. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Usha Rao, Davy talks about her inspiration for the story and offers insight into her main characters. She also describes her writing routine, shares the process of getting her book published while working in the publishing industry herself, and gives us a glimpse into her second book.
Bookreporter.com: What made you decide to set your debut novel, THE LEGACY OF EDEN, in America when you yourself were born, raised and currently live in the UK?
Nelle Davy: I wanted to write a novel set on a sprawling farm that was more like a miniature kingdom than a plot of land. Unfortunately, in the UK a place like that just does not exist like that anymore for ordinary people who work their way up, as opposed to the land-owning gentry. America just seemed to me a natural place for the kind of home I envisaged, and as Iowa is the agricultural heartland, it was a really organic and easy process to imagine this novel there. It was about tailoring the setting to the story as opposed to the other way around.
BRC: What drew you to this tale of multi-generational family dysfunction? Was it difficult to write about a family falling apart?
ND: I was inspired by Robert Graves’s I CLAUDIUS, which charts the rise and fall of the Claudian dynasty in ancient Rome, and I wanted to transpose this idea to a modern setting. I also wanted to try my hand at a family epic, and so that was why the novel sprawled three generations. I really wanted to investigate the notion of history and legacy and what it feels like to be born into something inherent and inescapable even if it is destructive. It wasn’t always easy to navigate, but it was always compelling to watch.
BRC: The multi-generational saga of the Hathaway clan is set on a sprawling farm in Iowa. What does the family farm represent to the Hathaways --- a symbol of belonging, prestige, or something else entirely?
ND: That is a really amazing question. The farm represents their identity. It is who they were, who they are and what they wish to be. Aurelia is like their mother and they share this incredible bond, but then it grows to be parasitic and eventually calamitous. They allow their ambition and greed to corrupt it.
BRC: Lavinia Hathaway, the matriarch of the clan, eventually drives the family to destruction through her machinations. Was Lavinia always meant to be so central to the plot, or did her role take on more importance as you wrote the story?
ND: No, she was always the architect, the catalyst. Here is the thing, though: I have changed my mind about her. In the end she was allowed much of her power by those around her. If you look closely at her actions, she merely pushes those teetering at the precipice into the crevasse of their own making. If they hadn’t provided her with the opportunity, she could never have had as much of an impact on their lives.
BRC: Ghosts wander through the novel, and more than one character sees them. In your view, are these figurative or real ghosts?
ND: Oh no, I cannot answer that --- that’s for the reader to decide.
BRC: Julia Hathway loses her mother to a gruesome death. What is the effect of this early childhood trauma in shaping Julia’s personality?
ND: It’s not what losing her mother does to her as much as what it does to her relationship with her father. It is more apt to ask what losing his wife did to Cal Snr. If she had lived, he would have gone back to Oregon and never stayed at Aurelia. He also would not have allowed Julia to be so spoilt and so uncontrolled. He would have been a better father, and she would have been a better person.
BRC: The women drive the action in the story, while the male characters drive themselves to drink. What about these women makes them so dominant and, in many ways, resilient?
ND: Not all the men in this story are bad or powerless: Theo and Jude are both good men. And Cal Jnr. has his own part to play in the final nails of Aurelia’s coffin. In truth, it is the men who work and provide and the women who are left frustrated on the sidelines, unable to influence, only to harm. Piper is given an active role on the estate and is satisfied, so she never enters into the political games of her female cohorts.
BRC: Several characters, starting with Lavinia, spill their blood in ritual sacrifice for Aurelia, the family’s farm. What drew Lavinia so strongly to Aurelia in the first place? Do you have a place that has a special significance for you?
ND: Lavinia never had a home. Her mother’s abandonment colored her forever because she never lost the feeling of being displaced. When she sees Aurelia, she decides to anchor herself to it because the idea of being adrift terrifies her and reminds her too much of her childhood. That is why she does the things she does, because she is scared of being cut loose. So she invests everything in it and it consumes her. I know what that displacement feels like, though obviously I am not as manically wicked in my reactions to it. But different strokes for different folks…
BRC: Can the last few descendants of the benighted Hathaway clan ever make peace with their family’s past? Do you see them writing a different future for themselves?
ND: No, the only way is to leave it behind. It doesn’t work --- that is what they have learned. Too much has happened and you cannot go back. The reason they cannot forgive themselves or each other is because if they could return they would. Even if it meant going through that all over again, they would, because they still hope for something different. It will always be their weakness, and knowledge and wisdom can only illuminate that for them, not erase it.
BRC: Were there any books that inspired THE LEGACY OF EDEN?
ND: Yes, I CLAUDIUS.
BRC: You’ve worked in the publishing industry yourself. Did that make it easier or more difficult to try to write and publish your own manuscript?
ND: The only difficulty was trying to write while working full time. I refused to let anyone I know help me get published, so I sent my book out to slush piles everywhere under my married name. It definitely made things more difficult and everyone I know thinks I was a fool for not using my contacts to help me. But I hate nepotism of any kind, and quite frankly, if the book wasn’t good enough to make it on its own, it didn’t deserve to be helped. Problem was, I wouldn’t know that unless I went without help in the first place, but I am glad I did. The failure would be mine as is the triumph.
BRC: Can you tell our readers about your writing habits and schedule? Do you write every day? Pen or computer?
ND: I used to love writing by pen and still find it the most fluid way for my thoughts. Sometimes I write passages by pen, but to be honest it is not practical for when you need to self-edit, so I write on my laptop. Because I used to write in lunch breaks and after work, I can write in any environment: noisy, phones going, the lot. So even though I have a study now, I still write on my knees in my living room. I can’t seem to break the habit.
BRC: Have you started working on your second novel yet? If so, what can you tell us about it?
ND: Yes, I have just finished it. It is set in Louisiana in 1963 and charts the friendship between a white girl who is the granddaughter of a segregationist judge and the black son of her family’s maid. Completely different story and tone, although it is still set in America.