Southern Storyteller, Ann Hite, Talks About her Novel, Going to the Water

Learn about Southern author, Ann Hite’s, inspiration for her latest novel, Going to the Water–the setting, art, and music that influenced her characters and much more….

DM: What made you to commit to a trilogy?

AH: When I begin writing a novel, I have at least one solid character talking to me. In this case, I had four, five if you count Velvet’s letters. Isla, Randal, Dar, and Iris. The first draft contained the stories of these character’s lives and was close to five hundred pages long. My agent read the draft and told me bluntly I had three novels in one. As soon as she said this, I knew she was right. One novel for the present generation, the second for Dar’s story, and finally the story of Iris and Lundy.

DM: How are you structuring your next two novels?

AH: Because I write from the seat of my pants, I never know the true structure until I finish the first draft; sometimes it takes two drafts.

Dar’s novel will be called Beautiful Wreck. It’s told in first person, covering her life from the time of her father’s suicide and her mother’s untimely death until Velvet is born. Paul Watkins, the preacher in Going to the Water, may have a point of view.

Iris and Lundy’s novel will cover the family secrets that set this legacy in motion.   

DM: You’re a writer who puts a lot into place and history. What made you settle on Nantahala, NC?

Nantahala, North Carolina is a magical place for me. I’m a huge lover of nature and my soul is fed when I unplug. When I enter the gorge, the phone loses its signal, my shoulders relax, and I become loose and mellow. There’s nothing quite like standing by the Nantahala River; the melody of the crashing, churning water wrapping around me. Spray from the rapids touching my face. I’ve been there in all seasons and weather. Thunder rolling through the gorge makes me want to curl up on a porch swing and just be.

In the fall of 2016, during one of the worst droughts in the history of the river, yellow, red, and orange leaves lit up the trees. I stood where rushing water should have swept me away. My heart was broken to see the river–my river–reduced to a trickle. An unexpected peace settled on my shoulders, and I knew the mighty Nantahala River would be back. I chose a flat smooth, gray river stone and took it home to sit on my writing desk. When I began to tell the story of Going to the Water, I knew the place had to be the Nantahala Gorge with all her mystery and magic.

DM:You don’t shy away from characters suffering from mental illness and you were forthright about your own family history in your memoir, Roll Away The Stone. Is there something specific you want to convey to readers about mental illness?

AH: I never sit down to place mental illness in my novels, but it always shows up. The saying, “write what you know” really applies here. I lived with two generations battling the disease, and it marked me. Most children with one or more parents afflicted with mental illness battle with the residue. Often, I think my writing of this illness is my way of attempting to find answers that just aren’t there. My writing allows me to work through the past. More than half of my readers have reached out to me because they identify with the mental Illness that my characters battle. Maybe I’m giving everyone permission to own their experience with this disease, especially my own.

DM: Your narrators are compelling. You alternate chapters between Isla in first person point-of-view and Randal in third person point-of-view. But there is another narrator, Velvet, whose story you told through epistolary form. How did you decide on these various perspectives?

AH: There is always trial and error when I begin, but I understood early that Going to the Water was Isla’s story, and that Randal could easily steal the reader’s heart. I knew Isla wouldn’t be likable in the beginning because she exhibits those nasty traits most of us possess to survive trauma. She is in first person to bring the reader close to her, so even when they are hating her, they see why she makes her choices. They see her vulnerability. Velvet writes the letters because I wanted to expose her true emotions, feelings she would never admit to aloud. I listen to music when I’m writing. This is something that helps me to evoke the emotions the piece needs. While writing Velvet’s letters, I listen to Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Deja Vu and The Band’s Whispering Pines. Isla’s primary songs were Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me, Joe Cocker’s Woodstock version of Just like a Woman, and Judy Collins’s Amazing Grace. Randal was written to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, Carolina in my Mind and Paul McCartney and Wings’s Band on the Run. Much of the time, the music I listen to dictates the voice and the perspectives.

DM: Were Velvet’s paintings based on specific images from Nantahala?

AH: Art is a large part of who I am creatively. Often, like music, images will influence my writing. My husband is an artist and paints the mountains, but he has not done a work of Nantahala. Velvet’s art was strongly influenced by the artist Mary Whyte. Her book Down Bohicket Road in particular. Ms. Whyte tells stories in her paintings, and I wanted to capture Velvet in paintings. She is such a complex, flawed woman. So, in words, I created the paintings I’d like to see from my Nantahala, the emotions the gorge brings to the top.  

DM: Your stories consistently combine elements of the supernatural, yet I wouldn’t exactly classify you as a speculative writer. Can you explain how your haints and allusions to magic fit into a realist text?

AH: What’s an Appalachia woman without her haints and spells? I was raised by a granny who was well-versed in the Appalachian ways. She could flip a switch and become a well-read southern woman, but Appalachia was her heart. For me, haints (ghosts) were just everyday life. I craved the stories my great aunts told on a Sunday afternoon on the front porch as they passed around a tin of snuff. I learned some useful things; one being haints can look just like they are alive. So you never know if you’re talking to a haint or not. Also, when a love-one visits you from the grave, they are not considered a haint. Folks just see them as being kind enough to check in. Pulling fire and stopping bleeding was deeply believed to be powers passed from one generation to another. I know the plants used to heal before there was modern medicine. I’ve heard stories of spells being sewn into quilts for recipients who had offended the maker.

DM: Thanks so much for sharing your influences and inspiration for Going to the Water. I wish you much success.

TO PREORDER (RELEASE DATE NOVEMBER 9, 2021): FoxTale Book Shoppe or GOING TO THE WATER.

MEET ANN HITE: FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA is hosting a reading and book signing event with Ann Hite on November 13th, 2021 at 2:00 pm. For info, visit: FoxTale/ Going to the Water.

Ann Hite is a wife, mom, grandmother, and book junkie. At age 51, she became a published novelist. Ann’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, won Georgia Author Of The Year and was a Townsend Prize Finalist in 2012. She is the author of the following novels: The Storycatcher (2013 Simon & Schuster), Where The Souls Go (2015 Mercer University Press), Sleeping above Chaos (2016 Mercer University Press), a novella, Lowcountry Spirit (2013 Pocket Book), and a memoir, Roll The Stone Away (2020 Mercer University Press). Her books have been finalists in IndieFab and Georgia Author of the Year Awards. A chapter from Roll The Stone Away was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her upcoming short story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2022. Her novel, Going To The Water, will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction in November 2021. Being a city girl most of her life, Ann now writes each day in her home office that looks out on a decent clutter of trees. 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ANN HITE, VISIT HER AUTHOR WEBSITE: A SOUTHERN NOVELIST, A STORYTELLER FROM BIRTH

Immerse yourself in the music that inspired Going to the Water:

Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s Deja Vu, The Band’s Whispering Pines, Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me, Joe Cocker’s Woodstock version of Just like a Woman, Judy Collins’s Amazing Grace. James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, Carolina in my Mind , Paul McCartney and Wings’s Band on the Run.

Going to the Water: A Review of Southern Novelist, Ann Hite’s, Latest Novel

Our small group stood by the gaping six-foot deep hole in the little cemetery on Mama’s property. Thunder rumbled in the distance and black clouds thickened in the west. Grass swayed in the wind, brushing at the older headstones, touching the edge of the forest that seemed to have moved closer over the years. I had lived away from the river for so long, my memory of the ebb and flow wasn’t what it should have been. But then, I had never planned to return either.

If you love mysteries and family secrets and an Appalachian setting, you’ll want to get a copy of Going to the Water: A Nantahala Novel by Southern novelist, Ann Hite. Hite, who isn’t afraid to reveal skeletons from her own ancestor’s closet, recently released her memoir, Roll The Stone Away, which dealt with her family’s history with racism. Going to the Water unfolds in a similar way to how Hite uncovered her family history—by digging through records, letters, photos, newspaper articles, visiting cemeteries—and it’s her research that makes the narrative feel so authentic.

In Going to the Water, Hite turns her attention to one of the most magical places in the South—Nantahala, North Carolina. Hite enjoys lifting the veil and it’s not uncommon for her haints to make appearances. Often, her characters take their presence in stride, interacting with them as if they were alive. And there’s always a thread of magic running throughout her work. Perhaps, part of this is her choice in settings, equally as enchanting as her storytelling.

The Nantahala River and the surrounding mountains are Southern jewels—a rain forest nestled between the Blueridge and Smokey Mountains, and literally one of my favorite places in the south. “Nantahala” means land of the noonday sun in Cherokee. The Nantahala River runs through a steep gorge that blocks sunlight and in some areas sunlight only comes through when the sun is directly above it. The main character, Isla Weehut describes it best: “But I believe deeply that God is here, Randal. Right here in all of this true beauty. If we want to worship him, this is the most exquisite church in the world.” There’s a feeling you get when you enter the Nantahala Forest. There’s something special about this place, an energy you simply have to experience to understand. It’s a shadowy landscape, literally and figuratively, which makes it an ideal setting to tell this story of murder and family secrets mixed in with ghosts and superstition.

When Isla Weehut’s sister, Velvet Leech, is murdered in an act of arson Isla is drawn back into her family’s drama. Seventeen years ago, Isla left Nantahala, North Carolina and her family with zero plans to return. She wanted a different life from the wild ways of her sister. Now she is forced to deal with her sister’s murder, her orphaned nephew, Randal Leech, and a mother, Darlene Leech, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s living in a nursing home. Isla would like nothing better than to bury her sister and return to her “real” life of country club committees, the Junior League, and church in Mountain City, but Nantahala and her “ancestral roots” start calling her back to the river.

Isla initially comes off as bossy, uptight, rude, demanding, judgmental, and a little heartless. Yet there are two sides to Isla. The façade of the stodgy Bible thumping conservative who only cares about making a good appearance is at odds with the river girl who fearlessly traveled the white rapids and learned the ways of her ancestors from her half-Cherokee Indian father. She marries into money, but her wealthy, chicken farmer husband, Scott Weehut, stays drunk most days and has had numerous infidelities. Death has a way of unearthing old memories and family secrets and Going to the Water is packed full of deceptions that threaten the lives of the characters, particularly seventeen-year-old Randal.

Randal was born in the gorge, but like Isla, he remains an outsider. He’s bullied for being gay and he wants out of Nantahala as badly as Isla wishes she never came back. With a mother who suffered from depression, a reputation for going on benders and hanging out with a bad crowd, it’s largely left to Randal’s Grandmother Dar to step in. Grandmother Dar loves the boy, but she’s no shining example for motherhood and struggles with dark spells as well, both shocking and disturbing. And Randal isn’t the camo-wearing, good old boy you sometimes find in small Southern towns. He has a flair for fashion, enjoys cutting hair, cooking, and loves Flannery O’Connor. Randall has an old soul and it’s his love for the river and wisdom beyond his years that begins to etch away at Isla’s heart; she comes to love him against all the odds.

Randal’s influence isn’t the only element disrupting Isla’s world. The natural beauty of Isla’s childhood home of Grassy Bald stirs old passions and Isla begins to write, a pleasure she has denied herself, scared if she begins to express herself, she may go too far:

My words turned me into a painter, a visual artist bound to show every vein in a leaf and each minnow in a stream. Small wild violets, delicate and fragile, became my childhood wishes hidden away for years. A worshiping emotion unlike any I felt in church moved me into contentment. When I finally stopped, I sat in stillness, listening to the songs that continued to whistle around me, braiding together something more tangible than all my years of effort could have delivered to my soul. Why had I stopped writing? But I knew the reasons that lined up in my thoughts. I had to control those places in me that wanted to burst open and tell everything, to scream at the top of my lungs.

I read this paragraph multiple times. Hite captured something difficult to convey here—the mutual love and fear that comes with letting go and expressing one’s art freely and I suspect most artists can relate to this.

Deep-rooted grudges and dark secrets between generations of family living in the gorge threaten the future of both Isla and Randal. Isla must uncover the truth to save Randall, but in doing so she risks exposing deceptions she hoped to bury forever. Murder, kidnapping, suicide, infidelities, mental illness, and even love at the end, for a small mountain town, Hite’s Nantahala has a lot of going on. Though Going to the Water has its twists and turns, it’s ultimately a story about family loyalty and healing by forgiving.

TO PREORDER (RELEASE DATE NOVEMBER 9, 2021): FoxTale Book Shoppe or GOING TO THE WATER.

MEET ANN HITE: FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA is hosting a reading and book signing event with Ann Hite on November 13th, 2021 at 2:00 pm. For info, visit: FoxTale/ Going to the Water.

Ann Hite is a wife, mom, grandmother, and book junkie. At age 51, she became a published novelist. Ann’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, won Georgia Author Of The Year and was a Townsend Prize Finalist in 2012. She is the author of the following novels: The Storycatcher (2013 Simon & Schuster), Where The Souls Go (2015 Mercer University Press), Sleeping above Chaos (2016 Mercer University Press), a novella, Lowcountry Spirit (2013 Pocket Book), and a memoir, Roll The Stone Away (2020 Mercer University Press). Her books have been finalists in IndieFab and Georgia Author of the Year Awards. A chapter from Roll The Stone Away was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her upcoming short story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, will be published by Mercer University Press in fall of 2022. Her novel, Going To The Water, will be published by Firefly Southern Fiction in November 2021. Being a city girl most of her life, Ann now writes each day in her home office that looks out on a decent clutter of trees. 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ANN HITE, VISIT HER AUTHOR WEBSITE: A SOUTHERN NOVELIST, A STORYTELLER FROM BIRTH