An interview with Dale Neal
Q: What inspired you to write The Half-Life of Home?
A: For me, this book began with an old-time radio, a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone that belonged to my grandfather. It never worked in my life- time, but twiddling its useless dial as a boy, I believed I could hear stories emitting from the ether. I’ve always been fascinated by the past, those photo albums filled with rank strangers who your family members insist are related to you. Who were they? How did they live? Did they think like you do? The book is about digging into family secrets, not knowing what you might discover. That same radio shows up early in the novel, catching Royce Wilder’s eye, as a way to connect with his father and his own childhood.
Q: Why is leaving the land so hard for these characters?
A: Mountaineers have been forced off their land since the Cherokees were herded along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders were forced out by the fed- eral government in the 1930s to make way for hydroelectric dams. After the war, they left their farms to find jobs in Piedmont cotton mills or car factories up north. As a cub reporter in the ’80s, I covered hearings where federal bureaucrats earnestly debated turning remote mountain coves into a national nuclear repository. That image haunted me: what if radioactivity leaking out of these ancient mountains forced people off their land?
Q: Are the Appalachians that different from the rest of the South?
A: Definitely. I was a child of the suburban South, mesmerized by trips to my grandfather’s farm. Taking U.S. 441, the old Thunder Road, from the Piedmont to the mountains was like traveling in a time machine, out of the suburban 1960s into almost forgotten America. I wandered the woods and dangled my feet off the Raven’s Rock, overlooking the whole cove, a place preserved to my young eye in amber. But only children believe that nothing changes, that paradise is what stays put.
Q: What do you want the reader to take away from this book?
A: What Royce discovers: You always have to choose the future over the past. Like Royce’s mother, Ruth, says, “the past is junk.” The world as we know it is always ending. Without change, without choice, there is no drama, no novel. But writing out of those memories, creating people who live and breathe on the page is a way to hold clearly to that past.
How to write "Southern"
The myth of the Southern writer always originates in the petri dish of the summer front porch, cultured by some garrulous grandparent beating your eardrums bloody with how it was back in the day.
I come from a good but silent people, who kept the juiciest stories to themselves about family secrets, those black sheep among the complicated cousinage, whispered divorcees and suspicious deaths, tales not to be discussed in earshot of impressionable minds.
My grandfather lived about as far away from that suburban world as you could get midway through the 20th century, up in Beaverdam, N.C., in Watauga County, just this side of the Tennessee line, on about a 24-acre mountainside farm dependent mostly on an acre or two of tobacco, and yes, one milk cow.
Mostly deaf, my grandfather didn't talk much, but always greeted my sister and me with sticks of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and when we left at the end of the weekend, a wrinkled dollar from his leather wallet.
Plunked down in the fastness of those mountains, removed from TV reception, movie theatres and convenience store candy, I suffered through the stultifying silence of those summer days on the front porch or the winter in the parlor by the overheated woodstove.
Into the silence, there was nothing to do but make up the stories myself, filling in the blanks where the adult conversations veered away from hard realities, the unpleasant facts.
Much later, I came across a tidbit in a history of Watauga County, something rumored to have happened in the Beaverdam community. Two residents deciding on a whim to walk across the country in the company of a cow. Sounded too good to be true, but what if that really happened? I began to wonder, and wander, setting off on my improbable journey writing Cow Across America.