Interview with Paul Burke.
Author Anna Bailey was born in Bristol and grew up in Gloucestershire. After studying creative writing at Bath Spa University she moved to America and later settled in Colorado. Her time there was bruising and is the inspiration for her debut novel Tall Bones. Anna returned to the UK in 2018. Anna’s mother is the novelist Jane Bailey.
Tall Bones – Seventeen year old Emma reluctantly leaves her best friend at a party in the woods and that’s the last time she ever sees Abigail. Whistling Ridge is a small town seething with resentments, grudges, prejudice and intolerance. The majority of the local people are in thrall to the fire-and-brimstone preacher and life for the young people of Whistling Ridge is a stifling dead-end. Abigail’s disappearance lifts the veneer of respectability that shrouds the town, not only revealing a dark past within her own family but exposing the rifts, divisions and sins of the wider community.
Tall Bones is a devastating tale of modern rural America and what it’s like to be young, to be different or to have dreams in a community that shuns change. Abigail haunts the novel, her fate only revealed at the end of the story, and her mother and father Dolly and Samuel, pastor Lewis, and outsiders Rat and Emma will indelibly imprint on you. A powerful tale of courage and survival.
Paul Burke: Your mother was a novelist and you’ve studied creative writing, what inspired you to become a writer?
Anna Bailey: Growing up with a writer for a mother definitely played a big role in me becoming one myself. I always loved making up stories, but because of her I understood from a young age that creative writing was a real profession I could aim for, and so I studied it at university and later went on to take a further writing course with Curtis Brown Creative, which is where I met my agent, and my mother really encouraged me every step of the way. But one of the most important things she taught me was to be realistic about it. She never promised that I would be published, or that I would make any money from it, only that if writing was what I loved, I would never be satisfied doing anything else, and that was certainly true.
PB: Life experience is important when you create a fictional world, it helps to forge the themes of Tall Bones and the issues faced by the people of Whistling Ridge. Can you tell us a little bit about how your personal story inspired the novel.
AB: I moved to the US in my early twenties; I’d had quite a rough time at university for various reasons, but in part because I was really struggling with my sexuality and I’d been bullied pretty badly, and so when I got the opportunity to go somewhere new, I was excited to take it. I was looking for space to discover myself, I think, and I certainly had plenty of space in America – I lived in Texas for a couple of years, before moving to Colorado, where Tall Bones is set, and both of these places were hugely inspirational. I loved the vastness of the landscapes, that brutal beauty of the mountains or dreamlike quality of the plains, and I met some really amazing people there. I’d always had this romantic, naïve idea of living somewhere really wild, and whilst I did get my wildernesses, this came at the cost of living in Trump’s America, which wasn’t always easy for a gay person. Particularly in Texas, I was around a lot of very hardcore Christians, who didn’t actually know I was gay (otherwise I suspect that would have been a much more unpleasant situation), but after you’ve been exposed to so much hateful rhetoric, it’s really difficult not to internalise it, whether you believe in God or not. I ended up hating myself. When I returned to the UK in 2018, I felt so angry that I’d been made to feel this way, and eventually, the only way to get it out was to write it down. (I know, of course, that people face discrimination in the UK too, and in writing Tall Bones, I’m certainly not trying to say these are issues exclusive to the US, but it was specifically my experience in America that inspired me.)
PB: Was there an element of reflection, catharsis, or making sense of things about writing Tall Bones?
AB: Definitely – it was very cathartic to write about marginalised characters being allowed to feel some sense of pride in themselves by the end, something that has taken me a long time to feel for myself. But it was also really helpful to get into the heads of characters who are more discriminatory – controlling preachers, abusive husbands, teenage bullies – because it made me consider why they would behave like this, what might have happened in their lives to make them think this way. By the time we reach adulthood, I think most of us know that people bully because they feel powerless in some other aspect of their lives and it’s just an attempt to take some of that power back. It doesn’t excuse them, but it can help, when you’ve been bullied, to get some perspective and see that you aren’t the problem here, it’s their issues.
PB: Whistling Ridge is an insular community with a myriad of issues. The disappearance of Abigail, Abi, Blake is a catalyst for so many secrets to be revealed. Did you consciously create a small town typical of rural American attitudes and lifestyle? If so in what ways does the town reflect of American society?
AB: My portrayal of rural America comes from the perceptions of a foreigner – so not necessarily typical – but I think that has value too. The US felt massively divided, even on the smallest scale, and one thing I learnt is that not even Americans had much sense of what was typical when they looked at their country. But what I depicted in Tall Bones is what I saw when I looked at that particular part of America. A place that was being torn apart by a government that rabidly encouraged political differences. A beautiful, awe-inspiring landscape that was so huge it made you feel very cut off from the world. Good people forced to make impossible decisions just to remain a part of their community. These are all things that influenced this novel and the characters in it; I think once you’ve been in a place like that, the only thing you can do is write about it.
PB: The central themes of the novel are very much about family, parenthood and community. As I’ve said Abi’s disappearance is a gateway to a world of secrets and pain, issues that have festered for years. Dolly, Abi’s mother, says at one point ‘all the wrong things will come out’. Was a crime novel the best way to explore these themes, are you a fan of the genre?
AB: A book that really inspired me was Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, which is told from the perspective of a family after the eldest daughter goes missing, and I admired the way Ng was able to write about family drama whilst weaving it together with a mystery that keeps you turning the pages. I didn’t particularly set out to write a crime novel – it was more of a Trojan Horse to allow me to write about things like parenthood and community, while still inviting people to read it – but crime stories have a great structure to them. If you start with a missing person or a dead body, you already know how the book is going to end because you’re going to have to reveal what happened, and that gives you a great framework to play around with. We didn’t read much crime fiction when I was growing up – the genre felt a bit closed off to me as a girl. Covers always seemed to be designed for men, and the books were almost always about male detectives, male FBI agents, men who had to save the day and whose families obligingly faded into the background for them. I had Agatha Christie and that was about it. But as I got older, I devoured TV shows like True Detective and Twin Peaks – still more stories about dead girls and male police – but they showed me how aesthetics and landscape could play a role in the crime genre too. When I came to writing Tall Bones, I wanted to combine all of these things. I wanted a setting that unsettled the reader, I wanted a story that was driven by women and family, and I wanted to write a mystery that would keep people intrigued. I hope I achieved that!
PB: Tell us about the Tall Bones, stone circles are very rare in America but you grew up in the west country was this an homage to home? Why are they a haven for the young people of the town?
AB: Something I really love about rural America is how so many of these little town and wildernesses have their own local folklore – in Texas I lived near a bridge that was supposedly haunted by a half-man, half-goat, and in Colorado the hotel at the top of the hill was said to be full of ghosts who had died in a mining accident – and so I wanted the town in Tall Bones to have something a little spooky about it too. Growing up in the West Country, particularly Cornwall where much of my family is from, you’re absolutely surrounded by ancient monuments, and so for me these are symbolic of home. They’re definitely something comforting. I liked the idea that, in the book, the adults of Whistling Ridge would dismiss the Tall Bones as something strange and irrelevant, but that the young people would be drawn to this stone circle in the woods and find a kind of solace that they couldn’t necessarily find with their parents.
PB: This is a coming of age story, a tragic one. Abi says to her friend Emma, ‘I just want to live a little’. There seems to be so little tolerance of the normal rebellious spirit of the teenagers in this community, no way to talk about what they are feeling, is it any wonder the young people turn to drink and drugs?
AB: I think, sadly, that’s something that’s very typical of growing up anywhere a bit isolated. I love the Cotswolds, it’s where I’ve spent most of my life, but it isn’t really a place for teenagers, and when I was in my teens I knew a lot of people – wonderful, beautiful, creative people – who were pretty heavy drug users. In Tall Bones I wrote about a character called Hunter, whose parents are wealthy and give him a lot of freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants, but he still takes drugs because this town is so small, and he’s gotten too big for it, but there is nowhere else to go. I met a lot of people in rural America who had never been outside their home state – and the US encourages that, makes it more expensive to go to college out of state, for example – but it must make you feel so trapped. That was something I really wanted to explore, this sense of being stuck somewhere and seeing no way out, and what lengths a person might go to in order to get out of that situation.
PB: When a community like Whistling Ridge is so heavily in thrall to religion, to Pastor Lewis’s church, conformity and social conservativism is it almost cult like?
AB: I’d say so, yes. I’m not anti-religion by any means, but it certainly can be used to manipulate people. In Tall Bones, does Pastor Lewis actually believe in God? I don’t know, but he certainly believes in the authority it grants him.
PB: Why is intolerance so rife in this community, why is it not challenged? This is something Emma Alvarez has to deal with particularly because Abi wouldn’t come home with her the night she went missing. Abi’s father, Samuel, refers to Emma as a ‘Mexican brat’. Similarly, the intolerance to difference, particularly sexuality, is poisonous and that’s another theme in the novel. I know this is an almost impossible question but I’m interested in what you think drives the fear of difference.
AB: I think this comes from something really primal. Human beings are made to thrive in communities, we rarely do well in complete isolation, and so I think the characters in Tall Bones are reluctant to challenge intolerance because it means challenging authority figures, and thus risking being cast out of their community. Beyond the town there are only the mountains and the forests, full of coyotes and bears, and miles and miles from another pocket of civilisation. Nobody wants to end up on the outside. Of course, no one is actually being exiled to the woods, but when I lived in the Rockies, you really felt like you were on the brink of some great dark wilderness, and that your best chance of survival was your fellow man. It’s ironic, then, in this novel, that the town doesn’t look out for all its inhabitants.
PB: How organic was the development of the plot, was this how you envisioned the story to begin with? Abigail’s disappearance affects everyone but we don’t know what happened to her until the end of the book. It’s character and emotion that drives the narrative.
AB: I actually didn’t know what had happened to her until I was about two thirds of the way through! I knew which characters were involved and a few other details, but I had lots of different potential outcomes, and this made it quite fun to write because I’d be working on a scene and I’d have a character say something that would suddenly make me reconsider the whole case. I remember thinking I’d come up with a good ending and telling my mother about it and she said, “God no, don’t write that, there’s no catharsis,” which made me think about what we really want from endings. I don’t think we should shy away from dark or sad endings, necessarily, but they have to feel narratively satisfying. If you’re putting your characters through a rough time, it has to feel worth it at the end; I think both they and the reader have to feel like what’s happened really matters.
PB: When Abi goes missing the Blake family are under the spotlight. We question Dolly’s parenting but this family is dominated by Samuel, a terrible father and husband, a bully and tyrant. He has his own demons from the past, the Vietnam war. This information nuances his character, we can try to understand him through it, but this does not mean excuse him, does it?
AB: Absolutely not, although he was one of my favourite perspectives to write from in the novel because he is really caught up in the fervour of the town. He really believes in God, in his politics, in himself, and that makes him quite different from the other characters whose points of view we see. Unlike his wife and children and their friends, he’s almost thriving in a community like this because it doesn’t hold him accountable for his violence and bigotry. He upholds an unforgiving system, but he is also a victim of it. He is struggling with all this awful trauma from Vietnam but he can’t and won’t speak to anyone about it, much like his family won’t speak out about the way he treats them, and he can’t see that connection at all, which is kind of tragic. I think one of the themes of this novel is very much how we pass on our own traumas to our children.
PB: This is a dark story that has force because it feels so well grounded in the real world. But is it ultimately a story of survival, at least for some, a tale of the perseverance and escape?
AB: I like to think so. There’s a quote I absolutely love that the writer Kate Hamer told me, about how all stories about absent people are really just stories about love – love with nowhere to go. And I think while Tall Bones is a pretty dark story, about the awful things that people are capable of doing to one another, it’s also a story about how much they can love each other too, and how that ultimately triumphs in the end.
Thank you Anna for a brilliantly enlightening interview.
Tall Bones, Doubleday, hardback, ISBN 9780857527387, out now.