Writing Memoir with Author Ann Hite

Editor’s Note: I first met author Ann Hite through her book Ghost on Black Mountain. It was one of the best ghost story novels I had read in decades. Ann and I share a love of Appalachia and the stories that come out of the mountains. Ann and I ended up doing a book tour together that took us throughout Appalachia. During that tour, we shared a lot of laughter, and a lot of stories, and at least one stressful night in search of a hotel room. I came to know some of the stories of Ann, her sweet husband Jack and their lovely daughter Ella during those weeks on the road. But much of what Ann Hite has penned in her most recent book – a memoir, Roll the Stone Away – was all new to me. Memoir lovers everywhere will want to add this to their collection. This will be especially so for those raised up in Georgia, who will undoubtedly find many references to a time and place that will spark memories of their own. Leave a comment below for an opportunity to win a copy of Ann’s memoir.

Karen: Ann, you and I had quite the road trip back when Mother of Rain and Storycatcher were released. I knew you best as a novelist for your Black Mountain books. I had no idea until I read Roll the Stone Away the degree to which your fiction stories were informed by your real life experiences. Do you think you would have been a writer had it not been for the chaos of your upbringing?

ANN: I most certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the chaos of my family. In many ways, writing saved my life. As a child too young to write, I told long elaborate stories to entertain myself. Now, my work is laced with characters that somehow fight their way through the darkside of humanity.

Karen: I made the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction, whereas you made the transition from writing fiction to non-fiction. What were some of the challenges you faced in making the switch? What or who helped you the most?
ANN: When I write fiction, I am lost in the characters and stories. I do write truths, and I believe that fiction is the most truthful genre. When I am writing a historical story, I spend a lot of time researching to not only get the facts correct but to put myself there in the setting and time. Nonfiction is much the same in the research area, but the difference is I can’t write myself out of a corner. If I can’t find an answer to a question, then I can’t make it up. Roll the Stone Away is a memoir, and I had to tell the truth, my truth. I had to relive moments that tore my soul out of my body when they happened.  Before I began the journey, I took Jessica Handler’s workshop, Braving The Fire, also her book. She helps memoir writers face the hard stuff a little at a time, index card by index card. Her workshop made all the difference in the writing of this book.
Karen: Roll the Stone Away is a memoir infused with historical research. It’s obvious in the writing that you enjoyed researching your family’s history. What were some tools you used to track down so much information about all the pertinent players in your family? What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome in that research?
ANN: With some of the key research, it landed in my lap. Granny would have said that was a haint working on my side. For example: the year I began working on Roll the Stone Away, a cousin on my grandmother’s side of the family found me through my website. He had been researching the key players in this book and gave me a story I had never heard. A big story. One Granny had altered to suit her need to keep the dirty details secret. Then my oldest daughter found one of Granny’s sisters while researching the family tree. Granny had never mentioned Mary Alice, her baby sister. This child was six months old when Granny’s mother died. When Granny told stories about her mother’s death, she never mentioned Mary Alice, even though her mother held the child on her lap when the event that killed her occurred.
Most of the research was grunt work on the internet, diving into census, marriage, and death records. If I couldn’t find what I wanted the first search, I would search again in a week. Often I did searches more than ten times before I would get a hit. Libraries are so wonderful here in Georgia. They gave me access to the same databases Ancestry uses. Also, the free Familysearch.org was very helpful. The census records from 1870 forward to 1940 truly tell a story about people.  I found graves and visited them. Cemeteries often tell stories too. Court records were very helpful in finding that my great grandfather was a member of the jury who found two young black boys guilty of rape and murder in 1912 in Forsyth County, Georgia. They were sentenced to hang.  It was a family journal that revealed the same great grandfather was a night rider who helped racially cleanse Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912.
In all cases, just as I thought I was finished with researching, I’d find something else that changed the whole dynamic of the book.
Karen: You and I have spoken before about your mother’s mental illness. In Roll the Stone Away you do a good job of helping the reader understand the source of your mother’s troubles. There’s a tension to the writing that the reader experiences, a tension that you seem to continue to wrestle with throughout the book: How to reconcile the abuse and neglect you suffered with the mental illness your mother suffered. Do you think it it is natural for children, even adult children, to look for ways to excuse the behavior of an abuser if that abuser is a family member? How did writing help you address your mother’s behaviors?
ANN: I think it is common for victims of of abuse to look for ways to write a new history that shows the abuser in a new light. I think adult children do this as much or more than children. I can remember in my twenties just wanting to have a regular family. One that cared about each other, who enjoyed each other, who worried over each other’s well-being.
When my mother died in 2003, I took two weeks leave from my job as a technical writer at BP Oil. Up to that point, my writing was meh because I danced around anything that happened to go deeper than the surface. This kind of avoidance always shows up in my writing, especially fiction. My heart was broken, and many couldn’t understand why I was so upset since or relationship was so bad, almost nonexistent when she died. I poured my sorrow into ten short stories. I knew these stories were different. I sent them off to ten different literary journals. All were chosen for publication within a month. No rejections. I knew I had told my truth in these fictional stories. Not only did I address Mother’s mental illness and abuse in the work, I found issues with my grandmother, brother, and father popping up. Since then, writing has been my resilience in life.
Karen: You rely on a lot of cultural milestones to build the narrative in Roll the Stone Away – race riots, music, books, movies, political climate. Did you remember all of that or did those things come to you as your wrote? Or did you research inform those interjections into the narrative?
ANN: A little of all three. Mostly I remembered as I wrote, and when I wasn’t exactly sure of the details, I researched; such as in the case of the hurricane in Newport News. Many of the Germany scenes are etched in my mind. The memory of my father taking me to a concentration camp when we were visiting Austria came to me when I was watching a documentary on PBS about Dachu. I knew this memory would go into Roll The Stone Away. The scene of the Klan pushing a flyer in Mother’s car window actually revealed itself as I wrote the sections about our life after my father left the family. The section where Mother and I would dance to Bandstand each afternoon came to me as I wrote too. A writer’s mind is a strange wonderland.
Karen: Every family’s stories are always part myth, part fact, part perception, part experiences. Did you attempt to ferret these out from one another or do you think when writing memoir it is okay to just roll the myth in with the facts and experiences?
ANN: I did my best to dispel what I’ve always called our family’s urban legends. There were so many. For every truth Granny told, there were a multitude of lies. And Mother’s mental illness made knowing what was true and what was not a hard task. Much of the layering in this book comes from researching and finding the “true” stories. I needed to know. I spent all of my childhood and most of my adulthood not knowing my grandfather’s name. I only knew his initials, JD. It’s not like he left my grandmother and mother and wasn’t there. He spent ten years with Granny before he died. Mother swore his name was Joseph, but when I researched I found he was Jacob after his father. I still don’t know what his middle initial stood for. His death certificate had J.D. on it. There was no birth certificate for him.
And there was how my grandmother decided to change her last name. In the late thirties, early forties, a person could get away with this. So my mother’s maiden name was not her real name. I didn’t find this out until after Mother died, so I don’t know if she ever knew. I think debunking the tales is a must when writing a memoir. It’s the biggest point of all the research or should be.
Karen:  How did writing this memoir change your relationship to the memory of the grandmother you loved so dearly? 
ANN: Since I was a child brought home to live in Georgia, I held my grandmother in high esteem. Every kid needs a hero, and she was mine. I believed everything she said without question. This went on far into my adult years and still happens today. A case in point was a meeting I had with Steve Oney—he wrote And The Dead Shall Rise about Mary Phagan’s murder and Leo Frank’s trial and subsequently his lynching—to discus an upcoming book project of mine about Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife. While we talked about the lynching, I came to realize that Granny had been taken to see Leo Frank hanging from a tree after the lynching like three thousand more Atlantans. I knew this because something she described could only have been seen after he was dead not before he died like she claimed. Yet, with all my research, I did not see this fact that was staring me in the face for months. I learned that Granny was a flawed, strong woman who made her way the best way she could. She wasn’t perfect. Often made selfish decisions and often she sacrificed for her only child. The writing of this book taught me she was human, and I could love her just like she was.
Karen: Walk us through as a writer the process you went through to present a character in their historical context. Say your dad for instance. What did you have to do to build the narrative of who your dad was and the choices he made?
ANN: I had a stack of index cards. When it was time to write about Dad, I would use one card to tell something I knew about him. There was no order. The first card said: Christmas tree hunter. This was the year in Germany when he took me out into the Black Forest to find a tree. I was young and everything was magical to me. Another card said: first marriage, brother and sister.  Another said: WWII and so on. I wrote these cards until I couldn’t think of anything else. Then I placed them in an envelope for a week or so. I would pull out one and free write. There is a lot that didn’t make it into the book, but the writing helped me to see him and know him. And from that came his narrative.
Karen: It’s rare for me to read a book that contains a surprise ending. I didn’t see the end of your story happening the way you presented it. What where some of the fears you had to face to write those ending chapters? What gave you the strength to tell that part of your story?
ANN: When I first began to write Roll The Stone Away, I thought it would only be the story of my grandmother. I swore I would never put myself in the book, and I figured Mother needed a whole book to herself. Ha. It didn’t take long to realize that we, Granny, Mother, and me, were an intricately braided story. In this moment, I knew I had to tell our stories as truthfully as I could. The first index card for me read: Recurring dream, telephone. I ripped it in half and tossed it in the trash can. This is the crazy part. That night I dreamed that I was tearing up a book. The voice of Pat Conroy—I know it’s crazy—said, “Hite get off your as* and write the dam# book.” He had died two months earlier. While I had the great joy to have met him on more than one occasion, he never mentored my work. But the voice was still with me the next morning. I did not approach my stories for months. When I did finally begin to write this story of abuse, I wrote five thousand words at once and promptly fell ill with flu-like symptoms. I forced myself to go to Nashville for a book festival, where I was scheduled to speak and became sicker. Again I waited. I wrote stories of Mother and her abuse. I wrote about Dad abandoning me in the yard on Thanksgiving night. I wrote everything but this story. Finally it was time to finish the book, and I knew I had to write the recurring dream chapter. As I typed on my Mac, the lights went out. Can you believe that? But Mac’s have a long battery life, and I kept going. When I finished the last few chapters, the lights switched on again. And by that time I realized who my mother was, that I had been writing her a love letter all along. Who gave me the courage to write this story? I can only say God. I understood that writing this part would mean something to many others who had been in similar places.
Karen: I have learned something of myself in every book I’ve written. What did you learn about yourself in the writing of Roll the Stone Away?
ANN: That I could own my family history. I didn’t have to hide it away and pretend that life was perfect.
Karen: Memoir writing is tricky because growing up in the South as we both did, we know the rule your granny and mine taught us: Don’t air out dirty laundry in front of others. What kind of response have you received from writing so honest a book?
ANN: I found that people either get my intentions and relate to my story, or the work hits a nerve and they reject it. There hasn’t been any in between with this one.
Karen: I know you are a huge fan of Dani Shapiro and her writing. Any other memoir authors you looked to for inspiration or insight?
ANN: I love Beth Kephart! Her book Handling the Truth taught me a lot about what a memoir should be. Mary Karr’s memoirs showed me how storytelling is most important. Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir taught me truth is fluid and changes.
Karen: You have a huge fan base for your Black Mountain fiction. You are a skilled ghost story novelist. Now that you have dealt with the ghosts in your own family’s story, do you think that will change your fiction writing? If so, how?
ANN: I just turned in a short story collection to Mercer University Press for publication in the fall of 2021. Guess what the title is? Haints On Black Mountain. I still have ghosts showing up in my fiction. And I guess they always will. I really believed I would somehow move on to happier themes in my work after writing Roll the Stone Away, but I haven’t. This collection has a story about Central Hospital in Middle Georgia. So, I think I will always be dealing with some subjects.
Karen: Every writer who tackles a memoir must make choices about truth, what to tell and what not to tell. You hint at but don’t divulge much about your first failed marriage. What informed the decision to steer clear of that topic?
ANN: Out of respect for my grown daughters, I didn’t go there. And really this book doesn’t cover that time period. It jumps in after we are divorced and I’ve met Jack. I will say the one line I allow myself in this book about the subject felt very freeing to write. So who knows?
Karen: What is the gift that writing Roll the Stone Away gave to you? What is the gift you hope readers take away from it?
ANN: This book allowed me freedom to tell my truths for the first time outside of fiction. It  gave me the true gift of forgiveness. I realized at the end of the book how hard my mother’s life was. I saw her for the first time as a fully formed woman, not an abusive mother.
I hope the readers will understand we can all own our history and stand proud of where we came from.
Roll the Stone Away is published by Mercer University Press. You can purchase a book directly from MUP in Macon Georgia, or order a copy through your local Independent Bookstore. The book is also available on Amazon, but we prefer you support local, especially now. 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

5 Comments

Debbie Derrick

about 7 months ago

Sounds like a book I need to read, thank you for this great interview

Reply

Karen Spears Zacharias

about 7 months ago

Congratulations, Debbie. You will receive a copy of Ann Hite's book! Hope you will enjoy it.

Reply

ANNETTE RIGGS

about 7 months ago

What a great interview. Thanks for sharing. I will definitely have to get a copy of her book. Truths about yourself and your family are sometimes hard to face, and in a lot of cases, hard to find. I still struggle with so many things from my life. Thanks for offering the giveaway. Hope you and yours are still being safe. Glad you are continuing to recover from your illness. Stay safe and healthy.

Reply

Gary

about 7 months ago

What a great interview. I loved meeting her and seeing you both in Crossville! This sounds like an amazing book.

Reply

Gail

about 7 months ago

I identified with every word of this interview. Perhaps there is something in that red Georgia soil? "We can all own our history and stand proud" - thank you Karen and Ann. Am hopeful that I too can deal with my tortured childhood.

Reply

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