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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