Well Read Magazine Publishes Dawn Major’s Article: Supernaturalism in William Gay’s Works, October Edition


IT WAS IN MY CARDS…

For years, I wanted the space to write about supernaturalism in William Gay’s works. I have had the honor of lecturing at writing conferences and festivals, teaching, as well as writing short essays on this topic, but always within a word-count or a limited time to speak. Unless I wanted to self-publish (which I still may do), I would have to find an online journal or magazine willing to entertain my obsession. The beauty of online publishers is that they tend to allow for longer pieces. But even online publishers balked at what I was proposing. They have to be judicious because every page adds up or takes away from another author. I get it.

I realize I was asking a lot. I wanted as many pages as it took to cover this subject. I wanted colored images of Gay’s paintings along with passages of his prose that complemented those images on full pages. I wanted the cover. Did I mention I wanted a lot?

One thing I’ve learned over the years of writing and working with publishers is to ask for the moon first. They may not agree. They may laugh at you a little for your extreme ask. Typically, I find that if what you are writing about is unique and provides insight into something new or reimagined, they will try to make you happy. My advice is to go ahead and ask. If they say no, hey, you’re a writer and familiar with rejection. In my experience, the publisher will try and meet you halfway.

Well Read Magazine has given me the freedom to write this piece the way I wanted to write it. I got my wish list and William Gay got the cover he deserves. I couldn’t be happier. These are the moments where all those rejections and “thank you for your submission, but unfortunately…blah, blah, blah…you know the drill” makes it worth it. Don’t give up.

To read my article in full visit: Well Read Magazine. It’s a great read for Halloween. I cover Gay’s haunted forest, the Harrikin, ghosts, haints, fortune tellers, witches, necromancers, and so much more. If you enjoy my article, please consider sharing with others. Authors get known through social media and every post helps get their name out there.

Was Southern Author, William Gay, Writing Horror?

A Conversation with Southern Author, Robert Gwaltney, about his Debut Novel, The Cicada Tree


DM: The cicada is such a wonderful working symbol. For me, the cicadas connected the past with the present and exposed the dark secrets in The Cicada Tree. And of course, the muse! What drew you to this incredible creature?

Headshot by Robert Kim

RG: You are spot on. Within the novel, cicadas do represent the bridging of the past to the present. For the novel, I created a cicada mythology, the sense that they consume secrets through the years, later bringing them to the surface to shine light upon them—right wrongs. For me, cicadas also represent reinvention and renewal. I am rather taken by the idea that a person can transform—have second chances.

DM: I specifically heard the voice of Truman Capote in your novel, but will you share your other influences?

RG: Dawn, thank you so much for the comparison to Truman Capote. You are too generous, and I take that as an immense compliment. His debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, is a favorite, and was a bit of a boyhood obsession. Another childhood obsession was Charles Dickens’ character, Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am a disciple of the Brontë sisters. As you know, I reference Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre in The Cicada Tree. And Anything by Tennessee Williams sets me on fire. On occasion, for a boost of inspiration, I obsessively re-read the prologue to Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours. I also possess a fond affection for Shirley Jackson’s, We Have Always Lived In The Castle. The opening sentence of Robert Goolrick’s, A Reliable Wife, often ticks through my head like an incantation: “It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.” And Pat Conroy. His writing moves me to tears. 

DM: The setting is stunning and quintessentially Southern Gothic. Was there a particular location in Georgia you used to base The Cicada Tree on that you’d like to share with the reader?

RG: The Cicada Tree takes place in Southwest Georgia within the fictitious town of Providence. When building the world of my novel, I took inspiration from my hometown, Cairo, Georgia, a place named after the capital of Egypt. Mistletoe, the estate of the wealthy Mayfield family, is also a fictitious place, but the name is taken from an actual plantation close to Cairo, Georgia. My great great grandfather once owned a farm that was sold many years ago and folded into Mistletoe Plantation, so I have a personal connection to Mistletoe.

Robert Gwaltney’s Writing Space

DM: Music plays a huge role in this book to the extent that the reader can hear it while reading. Will you talk about how music or any other art form helped shape your novel?

RG: Music absolutely plays a significant role in the novel and in my writing process. Lyrically, The Cicada Tree is inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, popularly referred to as Moonlight Sonata. The sonata consists of three movements: Adagio, Allegretto, and Presto. The pacing of the novel is inspired by the tempo of each movement, each movement an act within the novel.

Along with music and art, I draw inspiration from fashion, specifically the designs of Christian Dior which were used to dress Cordelia Mayfield.

To listen to Gwaltney’s playlist, visit: The Cicada Tree Playlist.

DM: The Cicada Tree is a tribute to strong female characters. The male characters aren’t weak but are secondary in my opinion. What inspired you to write about such empowered females?

RG: I grew up surrounded and fascinated by strong Southern women. Always, I have possessed an emotional connection to women much more so than men. When I was a boy, wherever women congregated, I was there listening—the kitchen during family gatherings, eavesdropping on Mama’s garden club shindigs. I have always admired the grace, strength, and resiliency of women. Women possess great gifts, and I let that inspire me with the extraordinary talents I bestowed upon the female characters within the novel.

DM: Although I would classify The Cicada Tree as literary, you did some genre-bending here. How are you promoting it?

RG: When I set out to write the book, I had one goal, to write a novel I would want to read. I knew from the beginning that the novel would be Southern with gothic tendencies and elements of magical realism. What I was surprised to learn is that some consider it historical fiction. When promoting the novel, it will be categorized as Southern fiction, literary fiction, Southern Gothic, and historical.

DM: I appreciate your time answering my questions and wish you the best of luck with your new novel, The Cicada Tree.

RG: Dawn, thank you for being an early reader of my debut novel, and for such an in-depth review of my work. I am grateful for your support. I look forward to seeing you at my book launch on February 26th.

WHERE TO PURCHASE: To purchase your copy of The Cicada Tree, attend the author’s book launch on February 26th, 2022, from 7PM – 9 PM at the Easter Seals Office located at 815 Park North Blvd, Clarkston, GA 30021-1904. Click here to RSVP to: BOOK LAUNCH PARTY: THE CICADA TREE OR Support independent bookstores like one of my favorites, FoxTale Book Shoppe.

MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Gwaltney, an author of Southern fiction, resides in Atlanta Georgia, where he is an active member of the local literary community and serves as Fiction Editor for The Blue Mountain Review. The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, is Gwaltney’s debut novel. To learn more about Robert Gwaltney, visit his website at robertlgwaltney.com and follow Robert on FB and IP.

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“The Cicada Tree,” by Robert Gwaltney


Hordes of nymphs clawed their way free from the deep down, all of them desperate for a place to molt. To every trunk, shrub, and post they clung, hail battered branches drooping from the weight. They clicked and skittered up the house, gambling on bowing shards of paint. No other place to claim, the cicadas relented, glittering beneath the mottled light of a half-woke moon, accumulating quick and dangerous as fast falling snow.

Robert Gwaltney
Design by Ebook Launch

I finally met Robert Gwaltney at a local author’s book signing, but we’d become virtual friends during this never-ending pandemic. Robert is a writer and book advocate like me, so it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. Gwaltney is also the editor for Blue Mountain Review and is highly active in the literary scene promoting authors, helping them get their names out there—something most authors do not enjoy doing themselves. I look forward to seeing the latest book he’s reading as he sets up the scene on his social media pages as one would imagine a display window would appear in the good old days when Rich’s Department Store was thriving in Atlanta. Now he has authored a stunning novel, The Cicada Tree, and though it’s his debut novel it feels more the work of an old soul author.

Dark secrets lurk beneath the town of Providence, secrets of obsessions and betrayal, secrets that must be unearthed. Donaldbain, in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, said, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er the blood, the nearer the bloody.” The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, has its share of Shakespearean betrayals, some perceived, some real, but crueler still for the one who draws the knife, or lights the fire is family in this novel. Analeise Newall, the young protagonist, has set her mind on exposing those secrets—her family and town be damned. Set in segregated 1950’s Georgia, it requires something biblical to unearth these secrets, something like a swarm of cicadas.

Analeise isn’t the easiest protagonist to champion. She’s self-centered, jealous, impetuous, conniving; essentially, she’s the epitome of a girl entering her teenaged years. She’s diametrically the opposite of sweet, naïve, orphaned, Etta Mae. Grace Newall, Analeise’s mother, and Miss Wessie, Etta Mae’s Granny, scrape by as single mothers raising their two girls in the same house and Analiese and Etta Mae act more like sisters. Though the women in the household don’t share the same skin color and outside the home, Miss Wessie and Etta Mae aren’t treated equally, inside the home the relationship is more modern. One thing these two girls do share in common is an innate gift for music; Analeise can play the piano by ear and Etta Mae has an operatic voice. Neither have the formal training the small-town aristocrats—the Mayfields—have. Yet, the Mayfields have more than just talent, money, and stature; they possess the power of enchantment. Reminiscent of the Latin magical realists, the speculative elements in The Cicada Tree are simply part of the everyday and the characters take these unusual abilities and events in stride. Grace, a master seamstress, can read fortunes in her stitching. Her gift isn’t overly explained, other than she received the gift of second sight after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Analiese and Etta Mae’s “power” is untapped, but that all changes when Analeise begins piano lessons and Etta Mae starts voice lessons. It’s enlightening reading about characters whose value is based on talent and artistic expression rather than brute strength or an improbable superpower.

As antagonists, Marlissa Mayfield and her mother, Cordelia Mayfield, meet the mark. You can’t help but admire Cordelia’s impeccable taste, and Gwaltney’s description of the Mayfield’s home, Mistletoe, is captivating. Cordelia has instilled her style into Marlissa, along with wrath, pride, envy—basically, the seven deadly sins. Marlissa has learned from the best, her mother, and is always three steps ahead of Analiese. Bewitched, Analiese walks into Marlissa’s spiderweb again and again. Marlissa, also a talented pianist, isn’t used to competition; she refuses to share the limelight with Analiese. The town’s talent show becomes a battle royale. On the surface, it may appear this is a novel about good versus evil, rich versus poor, but it isn’t as black and white as that because there are flaws on both sides. What’s compelling is watching “good” characters make “bad” decisions. Gwaltney’s characters are multidimensional. His plots and subplots are compelling, pushing the narrative towards an epic conclusion.

In Greek mythology, cicadas were once believed to be humans who so inspired by song, sang all day and night forgetting to eat or drink and eventually dying. The Muses, moved by their dedication to music, turned their spirits into cicadas. The Cicada Tree pays homage to the muse and the love of art, for sure, but symbolically cicadas have deep roots across cultures, religion, and art. This idea that an ugly history has seeped into the earth and now the characters are living above a cursed land, haunted by a past, is a common theme in Southern Gothic literature and is present in Gwaltney’s novel. But cicadas, along with their darker representations, can also bring hope. With all the biblical references in The Cicada Tree, the theme of resurrection is the most predominant, especially at the end. It’s 1956 in the deep South where churches and schools are segregated. Through the power of music, a white and black girl, together, expose not only the sordid past of one powerful family, but the town’s, and society’s as well.

The language in The Cicada Tree is ornate and lush, and reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote. In a largely visual society, it’s refreshing to read a novel where all the senses are explored. Oftentimes, authors neglect these opportunities, leaving it to the poets. Gwaltney’s language is rich in metaphor and simile; the poetic elements are balanced and appropriate, always reminding the reader we are in the South: “Another shower of applause rose up, the sound of sizzling bacon grease,” and, “There was no use in trying to break free, her grip tight as a canning jar lid.” As both protagonist and antagonist are musical rivals, it makes sense that the narrative includes music and loads of sound imagery. Cicadas make their own special music. There are multiple allusions to song titles as well. The Cicada Tree is so rich in sound imagery, you feel as if there’s a symphony around you: “I imagined Miss Wessie’s boom boom hips as I listened to the crinkle of the grocery bags. I hummed the sound of her walk to myself. It calmed me—helped me think through the fear. Boom Boom. Crinkle,” or, “A cluster of lightening bugs flashed in quick succession. I imagined the quick firing of their lights to sound like the ping of quarter notes. A clumsy “Chopsticks” playing in the night.” What is uniquely Gwaltney, is how he merges the senses together, layering his imagery: “Still, I played, hungry for what might come next. For the first time, I taste my own music, swallowing down the sweet peony-flavored notes, the rapid accumulation of saliva clotting and forming a knot in my throat.” Allusions to art, literature, poetry, and music are fitting and add a richer element to the story. These allusions function as stories within stories if the reader chooses to go down that rabbit hole.

I wonder what shelf in the bookstore The Cicada Tree will settle on. It’s definitively Southern Gothic, but Southern Gothic writers tend to walk the line between speculative, horror, literary, magical realism, and popular fiction. And as such, Gwaltney’s genre-bending novel will appeal to a multitude of readers. The speculative elements build tension but also suggest something deeper at hand with the cicadas working as an extended metaphor. Put The Cicada Tree on your 2022 Must Read List. And if Gwaltney’s debut novel is any indication of what’s to come, we’ll be fortunate to be reading his works for years.

Come celebrate The Cicada Tree’s book publication and meet the author, Robert Gwaltney, at his book launch on February 26, 2022, from 7PM – 9 PM at the Easter Seals Office located at 815 Park North Blvd, Clarkston, GA 30021-1904. Click here to RSVP: BOOK LAUNCH PARTY: THE CICADA TREE

WHERE TO PURCHASE: Get your copy of The Cicada Tree and support independent bookstores (like one of my favorites) by ordering online or visiting FoxTale Book Shoppe.

Headshot by Robert Kim

Robert Gwaltney, an author of Southern fiction, resides in Atlanta Georgia, where he is an active member of the local literary community and serves as Fiction Editor for The Blue Mountain Review. The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, is his debut novel. To learn more about Robert Gwaltney, visit his website: robertlgwaltney.com

If you like what you’ve read, please share!

Interested in learning more about Southern Author, William Gay? Join me next week for the Lost Southern Voices Festival on March 26th.


Join me on March 26th from 1 p.m. to 2.15 p.m. ET for the Lost Southern Voices Festival. I’m presenting last in this panel: Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic. Two William Gay books are up for raffle for local residents. Registration information is below. This event is entirely online, but you do need to register.

To specifically register for my panel (but consider signing up for more): Revival:Lost Southern Voices 2021: Session 2 Tickets, Fri, Mar 26, 2021 at 1:00 PM | Eventbrite

About the festival: The festival is for readers and celebrates lost or underappreciated Southern writers’ work. Every year, invited authors and scholars discuss writers whose literary voices no longer receive the attention and reading they deserve. The public, scholars, students, writers, and readers are welcome to join us as we revive these lost voices.

This year, the festival is back with a full virtual festival next week, from Wednesday, March 24, 2021, to Saturday, March 27, 2021! Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is the keynote speaker, and five additional sessions, complete with Q&As and virtual door prizes, are planned. More information on the raffles is below, but know you must provide your address during registration to be entered, and you must be a resident of DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett. The keynote, which is sponsored by Perimeter College’s Department of English, Honors College, and Student Affairs, and is in conjunction with Revival: Lost Southern Voices, does not include a raffle.

Scroll on for the full festival schedule. You can visit the Facebook event here for the registration links, and you’ll find them all below. You must register for each event separately. For the keynote, you will register through Georgia State University’s website. For the rest of the sessions, you will register on Eventbrite. Again, all the links are available here and below. Once you’ve registered for a session, you’ll receive an email with the link to view that presentation.

Join to hear presentations about William Gay, Ella Gertrude, Clanton Thomas, Alice Walker, Padgett Powell, and so many more. On Saturday, March 27th, the entire session devoted to James Baldwin’s work, and while he may not be “lost” in the traditional sense, this panel will explore the many important ways his work is being rediscovered and taught in modern times. You won’t want to miss it.

Full schedule:

Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Keynote
1 p.m. ET, WebEx
Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. Poet Laureate
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
Register here.

Thursday, March 25, 2021
1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar
Art Vs. Artist: Works of Merit and the Controversial Authors Who Wrote Them
Moderator: Gina Flowers
Chip Bell: Augustus Longstreet, lawyer and writer
Janet Williams: Sidney Lanier
Melissa Swindell: Harry Stillwell Edwards, novelist and journalist
Register here.

Friday, March 26, 2021
1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar
Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic
Moderator: Joe Davich
Eli Arnold: Ernest Hartsock, poet
Matt Dischinger: Brad Vice, fiction writer
Dawn Major: William Gay, fiction writer
Register here.

4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar
Unruly Women in Southern History
Moderator: Kari Miller
Brenda Bynum: Helen Matthews Lewis, sociologist and historian
Caleb Johnson: Kathryn Tucker Windham, folklorist and journalist
Carolyn Curry: Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, political figure
Register here.

Saturday, March 27, 2021
1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar
Reading Baldwin in the Twenty-first Century
Moderator: Laura McCarty
Tareva Johnson: The Fire Next Time
Jamil Zainaldin: “Stranger in the Village”
Stephane Dunn: Cinematic Adaptations
Register here.

4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar
Reckoning with the South throughout the Twentieth Century
Moderator: Jessica Handler
James Stamant: Elizabeth Madox Roberts, novelist
Valerie Boyd: Alice Walker, novelist and short story writer
Christopher Merkner: Padgett Powell, novelist and short story writer
Register here.

About the Raffles: Books will be raffled at the end of sessions 1-5. Trethewey’s Keynote is excluded from raffles. One raffle for a gift card to Revival (a restaurant in Downtown Decatur), at the end of the festival, will include all festival attendees. Books will be raffled off at the end of each session as well, for attendees of that session. There is no cost for entry. Entrants must be 18 years old or older, and provide a home address for receipt of prizes. Due to the pandemic, prizes will be delivered contact-free to the home address provided, or pick-up may be arranged. Entrants must be residents of Georgia, USA, and must reside in DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett counties. Residents of other metro Atlanta counties will be considered on a case by case basis. One entry is permitted per person, per household, each session.

Follow the festival on Facebook at @RevivalLostSouthernVoices for more updates! You may also follow the festival on Twitter (@RevivalLost) and Instagram (revivallsv).

See you there!

As you know, your Zoom panel takes place Friday, March 26, 2021, at 1 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. ET. If you’d like to advertise the link to your specific panel, you can direct people to register on its Eventbrite page, here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/revivallost-southern-voices-2021-session-2-tickets-144080036267?aff=ebdsoporgprofile&fbclid=IwAR32gkAWb_jBjvZrwjkDv4rWWje4n_IU1U2m-clBOJ5cQ63BQTCMkRKzyIw.