A Conversation with Author of Drowned Town, Jayne Moore Waldrop


Jayne Moore Waldrop, photo taken at Lake Barkley

DM: How did you research this subject? Do you have any personal history with drowned towns?

JMW: I grew up in Paducah, which is about twenty miles from Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, and Land Between the Lakes so I know the area well but didn’t have any personal or familial connections to the drowned towns or the land formerly known as Between the Rivers. I’ve always appreciated having the lakes and the LBL recreation area right in my backyard, so to speak, but it wasn’t until adulthood that I began to consider the enormous environmental changes that happened in western Kentucky with the damming of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in the mid-twentieth century. Kentucky Dam was built long before I was born as part of the New Deal projects for rural electrification and flood control. Lake Barkley and LBL were created when I was a very young child. They were just part of the landscape for people like me.

Flooded Eddyville, Corps of Engineers Archive Photo

But my perspective changed in 2003 when my husband and I bought at auction one of the remaining original homes in Old Kuttawa, a beautiful old Victorian where we spent time in the summer and on holidays. We owned the house for twelve years, and that period corresponded with the time I worked on my MFA in Creative Writing at nearby Murray State University as well as when I started these stories. As I researched the history of the house, I dug deeper into the history of the town as it once existed before Lake Barkley. Kuttawa had been a small but bustling river town, and that was hard for me to envision. Fortunately, there are several photographic archives from multiple eras that exist through our library system, as well as the Lyon County Museum at Rose Hill in Eddyville. At the museum, I found a picture of our house in its heyday. It was surrounded by lush gardens. There were young women with Gibson Girl hairstyles in the upstairs windows. I was smitten by the house and the history, but that came with a recognition of what was lost when the lakes were built and Between the Rivers was purchased by the government to create the recreation area. In speaking with individuals displaced by the projects, I heard a familiar and shared yearning for home, all these years later. There’s a melancholy despite the natural beauty of the region.

DM: Some of my favorite writers have written linked narratives (Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again, or Alice Munro’s Runaway). Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in writing linked narrative collections? AND, what made you settle on linked narratives as opposed to a traditional novel?

JMW: As far as advice to other writers, read as many linked story collections or novels-in-stories as possible to see how other authors have used the form. In addition to the ones you mention – Olive Kitteridge is my all-time favorite – I recommend Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Munro’s The Beggar Maid. That said, writers should know that publishers generally favor novels over story collections, so I think they’re a little harder to sell. In fact, I’ve noticed that some books that read like linked stories are labeled as novels or perhaps not labeled at all to be more marketable. Maybe the description “novel-in-stories” solves the issue. As a reader, books like Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and News of Our Loved Ones by Abigail DeWitt seemed like interconnected stories but are called novels. So, at submission time, maybe an author shouldn’t set a fixed label of where the manuscript fits on the fiction spectrum.

Old Kuttawa, Kentucky–Corp of Engineers Archive Photo

I love a linked narrative because it allows for broad storytelling from multiple points of view, which is why I chose the form to tell these stories. It allowed the narrative to flow back and forth in time and setting, which I thought was important to connect the history to a modern-day story. It also provided space for an ensemble of characters from around the lakes and Between the Rivers. Each told a distinct perspective.

DM: I recently read that current Land Between the Lakes residents are protesting the government’s management of the property, i.e., clearcutting, neglect. What are your thoughts about this?

JMW: LBL should be funded and managed in ways consistent with the promises made to the former residents, that the area will not be commercially developed and that roads be maintained to allow the descendants of the former residents to reach family cemeteries and other significant landmarks. Personally, I wish LBL could be part of the National Park Service to better emphasize the recreational, historical, cultural, and natural elements of the area, instead of part of the U.S. Forest Service.

DM: I identified with Margaret Starks character more, so maybe that’s why I think this is her story. It’s actually both Margaret and Cam’s story as well as the townspeople’s story. What are your readers saying about who the main character is?

Flooded Eddyville before the town was torn down- photo by Gar Pursley

JMW: I hope readers see that Margaret and Cam’s friendship is the thread that runs throughout the story. They’re quite different–different backgrounds with personalities that tend to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Sort of a yin and yang friendship that sustains them through their lives. They become chosen sisters. In many ways I also identify with Margaret because she’s the outsider who comes to know the lakes and LBL without any of the associated personal loss or grief for what existed before. As she learns more about the past, she comes to understand the depth of their loss.

Low lake levels reveal stairs–photo by Jayne Moore Waldrop

DM: At any point did you think you were finished with Drowned Town and then decide to add a story? Or, the opposite, did you remove a story from the collection?

JMW: “Signs” was one of the last stories I wrote. The manuscript needed more of Rose’s story, which culminates with “Mint Springs,” one of the first ones I wrote. There were a couple of stories that were cut from the final version that still lurk somewhere on my computer.

DM: If you could decide on the essential takeaway from Drowned Town for your readers, what would that be?

Bricks from Old Kuttawa–photo by Jayne Moore Waldrop

JMW: I think readers will have a better understanding of Western Kentucky and its history, but I hope the essential takeaway from the book is a recognition of the profound grief that comes from loss of home and place, whether it’s of our own making or outside our control. The yearning for a home is a shared universal experience.

DM: Writing about real towns can be risky because they’re full of opinions. Has the feedback been positive? What’s the funniest remark someone has made about Drowned Town that you would like to share?

JMW: Yes, writing about real places can be risky. To give myself a little more freedom from the actual history, I created the fictional town of Sycamore. The drowned towns of Eddyville and Kuttawa are real, as are the “new” relocated towns that used the same names. I wanted to signal early on that, while based on historic events, this book is fiction. Eddyville and Kuttawa have an old rivalry, one that’s in some ways bitter. I decided to avoid that issue completely by creating a fictional new town.

The funniest remark about the book I’ve heard was from a woman who said she didn’t like some of the words in it. She didn’t elaborate.

DM: Are there plans to redevelop the Land between the Lakes?

JMW: Not to my knowledge at this time, but there’s always that fear. There was a movement with support from elected officials to commercially develop the area in the 1990s but due to public outcry, organized by the former residents and their descendants, the plans went nowhere. There has since been federal law put in place known as the Land Between the Lakes Protection Act, which transferred management of the area from TVA to the U.S. Forest Service. The unfortunate part is that there has been reduced funding for educational and cultural programming, which is important in keeping the history alive.

DM: What’s next? Are you working on another collection or novel?

JMW: I am working on a continuation of the story with these characters as they hit deep middle age. My next three books, though, are children’s picture books to be published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press. The first one will be released later this year. It’s a biography of the artist Ellis Wilson, who was born in western Kentucky and became one of the first African American students accepted at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was an acclaimed artist of the Harlem Renaissance and a two-time recipient of the Guggenheim Award. Nashville artist Michael McBride is currently working on the illustrations, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see the story come to life in Michael’s watercolors. The second book in the series is about Kentucky outsider artist Helen LaFrance, and the third is about a child noticing the similar life patterns of humans and birds on a lake.

DM: Thanks for the opportunity to learn more about Drowned Town. I wish you all the best with your new novel!

Jacket Design-Hayward Wilkirson

TO PURCHASE A SIGNED COPY OF DROWNED TOWN: Joseph-Beth Booksellers

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jayne Moore Waldrop is a Kentucky writer and attorney. She is the author of Retracing My Steps, a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, and Pandemic Lent: A Season in Poems, both published by Finishing Line Press. Her linked story collection, Drowned Town, was published in 2021 by University Press of Kentucky through its Fireside Industries imprint, a partnership with Hindman Settlement School. Waldrop earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Kentucky, and her MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) in 2014 from Murray State University’s low residency program. She is a former book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal and literary arts liaison at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. She was a writer-in-residence at Rivendell Writers Colony and has attended the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Workshop, and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Waldrop was appointed by the governor to serve two terms on the Kentucky Arts Council and she’s an Art Meets Activism grant recipient from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Photo by Tim Webb

To learn more about Jayne Moore Waldrop and for author events, visit her author website: JAYNE MOORE WALDROP | AUTHOR

Interested in discovering the history of the drowned towns of Western Kentucky, read Jayne Moore Waldrop’s article in Kentucky Monthly: “Lost Places of the Western Waterland.”

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