Smoking With Heather McDonald

Read the Story March 29, 2015

Explain, if you’d be so kind, the development and journey of this story from idea to this amazing final version.
I pulled this scene from my novel-in-progress a few years ago. I initially wanted to capture the tension right before Daryl tries to “save” Glenn (the speaker, “I”), bring her to salvation even though she isn’t exactly a drowning sinner. Every few months, I’d dig it out, revise, but it still felt too flat. It took several revisions to develop the characters within two pages from the characters I had developed in 300 pages. In only in the most recent drafts did I realize the mother also creates that tension between them, not just religion. It was actually a very rewarding moment, after all those years, to become so much more intimate with the characters and see the real story.

The story ends with “browning banana.” Very cool. How did you (finally) arrive at this place for the story?

Banana pudding isn’t exactly an indulgence to her. Particularly in that moment, under the sneeze guard, it’s more of an innocent, pure dessert. I couldn’t get the image out of my head, the yellow pudding just sitting there on a beige counter, in a vat, under kitchen lighting, the vanilla wafers getting soggy, the white whipped cream oozing. That yellow color just so easily fades into something else; air changes a cut banana. The image just fit so well with what she’s trying to escape. I do love K&W Cafeteria, though. I worked hard to keep the food descriptions within her point of view. Otherwise, “pecan pie” would appear a few too many times.

The characters in this story are both really human and don’t really understand each other, and our staff loved the one moment when she actually sees his Christian love. The more we thought about it, the more we loved it. It’s rare to see the church handled this honestly. Were you conscious of this aspect of “handling the church”?
I’d love to say I’m not all self conscious about how I depict the Bible Belt, but I’m afraid I’ve often become my own worst writing enemy. Perhaps the first few drafts of this was more aggressive in making fun of evangelicals and charismatics, because there are some seriously funny things about speaking in tongues and casting out the devil. But then I felt guilty for overwriting the depiction for a laugh; just poking fun wasn’t being very fair to someones story. Then I started writing in fear of what everyone, southern baptist and atheist, would think. It took a few drafts, and maybe a couple years, but I finally started to understand how to consider the material in terms of the characters. It was so much easier to tap into the characters’ own expression of religion rather than worry how it might be perceived.

How is the “tough love” going with your first novel? What else can you tell us about the novel?
The novel is about Glenn, this story’s “I,” and the search for her parents who have become survivalists in the mountains of western North Carolina. Glenn’s mother, Martha, has a traumatic experience that sends her to become Born Again. She attaches herself to this young minister, Daryl, who leads them on this path from charismatic evangelicals to living in the woods, preparing for the Second Coming. It’s been rewritten from 1st to 3rd person, then put away while I pursue short stories. Of course, several writing friends have given me the “honey, just give it up and move on” talk. But I’m holding on tight. I’m editing right now, though slowly, between short stories. I could use a solid month holed away just for editing.

Give us the juicy details of working as a Digital Media Specialist in the gaming industry.
I’ve evolved my years of experience as a library cataloger to managing metadata, and now help manage digital game assets for a global gaming company. I love detail oriented work and information management, getting obsessed over tracking down the right game title and code. I don’t know how juicy that sounds, but for me it’s pretty great.

About the Author:

Heather McDonald grew up in North Carolina and has her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. While working as a Digital Media Specialist in the game industry, she is currently assembling a collection of short fiction and tough loving her first novel.