Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Kelly Mustian

Kelly Mustian grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, the southern terminus of the historic Natchez Trace. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and commercial magazines, and her short fiction has won a Blumenthal Writers and Readers Series Award. She is a past recipient of a Regional Artist Grant from the North Carolina Arts and Science Council. Mustian currently lives with her family near the foothills of North Carolina.

The Girls in the Stilt House is her debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles almost never come easily to me, but I was in love with my working title for the book that became The Girls in the Stilt House. I wanted a title that was symbolic, meaningful, and intriguing, with a nod to nature. All of that. My publishing team, however, wanted a title that works to draw readers into the story. The Girls in the Stilt House does that. It introduces the young women who are the main characters and speaks to the setting, which is a stilt house hidden away on a swamp. It hints at intrigue. This title has served the novel well. My first love, though? A Jury of Trees.

What's in a name?

I’m a big fan of symbolism and analogy, but not so much with my name choices. I tend to lean toward names that begin with vowels for soft characters (Ada) and consonants for bolder characters (Matilda). Other than a set of twins who appear briefly (“Serena and Tranquilla—wishful thinking, those names”) and an Easter egg or two, I chose the names in this novel based mostly on the way they sound. The name “Annis,” though, is central to the mystery at the heart of The Girls in the Stilt House.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Not surprised at all. My world view was shaped by books I read growing up in Mississippi while trying to make sense of the world around me during some particularly turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Books like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. An old soul, I came of age reading work by Southern Gothic authors from the thirties and forties—Carson McCullers and Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty. So writing a novel set in 1920s Mississippi about two young characters grappling with a disturbing and dangerous cultural landscape is, I think, what my teenage self would have expected.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are the worst. There are so many possibilities, so many choices to make, so many false starts. But with this project, I began with an image of an overgrown cemetery in the woods and an old, broken tomb with a cracked lid, a scene I remembered from my Mississippi childhood. And that’s where I started with this story—two young women in need of a place to hide a body, a broken tomb in the woods off the old Natchez Trace, and a swamp that lent itself to lush language and a slight Southern Gothic mood.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music and time in the woods. I can’t listen to music while I work, but I make a playlist for projects—songs that have a connection to the story or the characters—and load it into an old-school iPod, plug that into an equally old-school docking station with pretty decent speakers, and listen in the kitchen while I cook. Something about the music filling the room gives it more impact, and I find that inspiring.

Also, I made friends with the physical landscape of my childhood early on, as Ada did in my novel: “When she was a little girl, she believed she loved this place, the trees offering themselves as steadfast companions, the wildflowers worthy confidants, but passing through now with eyes that had taken in other wonders and a heart that had allowed an outsider to slip in, she knew she had only been resigned to it. As she was again.” I left Mississippi at nineteen, and my landscapes have been many and varied since then, but I’m always at peace in the woods. Nature is an endless source of inspiration.
Visit Kelly Mustian's website.

--Marshal Zeringue