Author Rhett DeVane discussed her recent release, Mama’s Comfort Food, with SLR contributor Donna Meredith. We’re pleased to share part of their conversation with you.
SLR: Why did you choose a woman facing breast cancer treatment as your focus for this third novel in the Chattahoochee series?
RD: I’ve lost one dear friend to breast cancer, and have three friends who have battled it—not counting the numerous long-time patients of my dental hygiene practice who are in various stages of treatment or, thankfully, remission. I like to include current issues faced by women in my southern fiction.
The main character, Mary Elizabeth, needed a compelling reason to return to her family and hometown after so many years of living under a false identity. Mama’s Comfort Food is as much about her transition to a genuine life as the struggle with cancer.
SLR: Will there ever be a fourth in this series?
RD: Yes. Book four follows the same characters, with a surprise main character returning to Chattahoochee. After that, three novels await revisions, all set in North Florida with a few overlapping characters from the previous books. One book is the memoir of Aunt Piddie Longman, the beloved matriarch of the Davis family.
SLR: Mary Elizabeth has fairly severe and unusual identity issues, yet many readers will sympathize with some of her struggles. In what ways are M.E.’s problems universal?
RD: Everyone reaches that point: when who you really are becomes more important than the roles you have created. A turning point. A chance to either stand tall and claim personal power or remain stuck in the sometimes ill-fitting skin imposed by others, or yourself.
Also, the idea of “coming home” finds its way into your life. Facing down any demons from childhood, owning mistakes, and allowing yourself to move forward free as possible of the old worn-out luggage. Some may call these mid-life crises, but people often face them early-on.
SLR: The novel travels through many characters’ viewpoints. Could you discuss this choice and what it adds to your story?
RD: Cancer, or any kind of life-threatening disease, does not occur in a vacuum. We are connected—to family, to friends, to community—and what affects one affects all. By allowing the other characters to weigh in, the story becomes well-rounded. Changes ripple through Karen/Mary Elizabeth’s family as each character reacts and takes action.
In this case, the different viewpoints are essential, adding dimension to the story.
SLR: Anyone reading your novels will notice the outrageous metaphors since they usually result in belly laughs. How do you think of these things?
RD: I come from a long line of Southern storytellers, people who spoke in metaphors and similes. Comedy comes easy to me. My father was the ultimate practical joker and my mother often left me breathless with her sayings and insights.
In the South, we approach most things with humor. Uncle Albert can be laid out in the next room in a coffin, dressed in his Sunday best, and somewhere, someone is telling a funny story about him. It’s the way we cope, or at least how my family coped.
The most important ongoing metaphor in Mama’s Comfort Foodcomes from the main character’s reoccurring dream/nightmare. As she progresses through her unwinding, she experiences dark images of a cave and a monster lurking within. She and friend Jake Witherspoon often hold late-night conversations about the “cave dream.” Jake provides the humor Karen/Mary Elizabeth needs.
SLR: How long have you been writing and what got you started?
RD: I can’t recall a time when I didn’t write. In high school, I had a wonderful English/Creative Writing teacher who encouraged me to continue. Then, there was my mother, who thought my grocery list was inspired. After she passed away, I found a hidden cache of my writing, dating from elementary days.
The South is so colorful, brimming with rich characters. How could I notwrite? And I come from a town with two stoplights and a state mental hospital on the main drag. Wouldn’t it be a shame to let all of my experiences go to waste?
SLR: What is your favorite part of book promotion? Least favorite?
RD: I love meeting the readers, receiving emails and Facebook messages. Book signings are a blast. Like one of those Bowerbirds who drag everything for miles to make their nests attractive, I enjoy decorating the signing table to match the theme of the book.
From childhood, my mother taught, its okay to toot your own horn, just don’t start up the whole band.I find it difficult to continuously promote myself; it doesn’t feel natural. I would rather spend time writing, but what author wouldn’t?
Oh, and lugging heavy boxes of books—I go through the anti-inflammatory meds and use enough Ben Gay to shellac heaven.
SLR: You are a dental hygienist. Since you hold down a full-time job, how do you find time to write?
RD: With the first two novels, I worked all day and wrote whenever I had a chance. Sometimes, I got up in the middle of the night so I wouldn’t lose the idea for a scene. Luckily, I work part-time now. Mornings, I devote to the dental office where I have worked for over twenty-five years. In the afternoons, I write. A perfect blend. I’ve never been one who requires a lot of “stuff”. As long as I have the basics and a place for my laptop, I’m content. Too much time spent chasing life’s meaningless baubles can suck the energy from you.
SLR: Rumor has it that you threaten your clients with gigantic metal hooks held over their canine teeth while you ask if they are going to buy your latest novel on the way out. Is there any truth to this?
RD: That made me laugh so hard, coffee nearly flew from my nose. My patients have become friends over the years. We share tidbits of our lives and dreams. I look forward to seeing them every few months. Yes, they have heard about my writing, probably to the point they want to bite, but they’ve been incredibly supportive over the years since my first novel was published. We talk about the characters like they were real—kind of how my family discusses our favorite soap opera.
SLR: What are you working on now?
RD: Revisions, revisions, revisions! The next novel in the line-up is under the red pen. This one is highly personal, based on one year during the end of my sweet mama’s life. As she and I moved through the funny, poignant, and often difficult end-of-life issues, I wrote the story of a woman caretaking her elderly mother. This one, I allowed to sit for three years before I revisited it. I’m glad I recorded things as they happened. So many memories fade with time, or are lost. This one is, indeed, a gift to me.
Immediately before my mother died, two days shy of 92, she urged me to revise and publish a series of children’s’ chapter books I had written several years prior. I’m busy on that. A sequel to a coauthored Southern vampire parody (Evenings on Dark Island) is a possibility too. No telling what I might do. It worries me at times, as I am sure it concerns my family. Bless their hearts.