Donna Meredith Interviews Betsy Reeder

Donna Meredith interviews Betsy Reeder for Southern Literary Review. Reeder is the author of an historical trilogy: Madam’s Creek (2017), Broomstraw Ridge (2019), and her latest, Salt in Boiling Water (2022). These stories center around the lives and loves of characters caught up in vivid events of the Civil War and its aftermath in southern West Virginia.

DM: All three of your novels are set in the New River area of West Virginia. What attracted you to this particular region?

BR: I lived there for twelve years, having moved from Maryland in 2007. I have never lived anywhere that enchanted me so much. The scenery is stunning, and the people are strongly tied to the natural world. Very quickly I was struck by the blending of past and present. People often speak of their ancestors as well as events that happened in earlier centuries. One example is the story of Mary Draper Ingles, who was kidnapped by the Shawnee, taken to Ohio, and made her impossible way back home to Virginia by following the Kanawha and New Rivers across hundreds of miles of Appalachian wilderness. I had never heard of this legendary woman, but everyone seemed to speak of her as if she was a familiar neighbor.

DM: Your trilogy follows three generations of the Lilly family. Did you set out from the beginning to write a trilogy?

BR: No, I had no intention of writing a trilogy, but after I finished the first book I missed the characters so much that I wanted to spend more time with them. After writing the second book, I felt quite sure the Lilly-Farley-Cook story was finished. But then two friends asked me about Jenny Lilly, and I began to think about her and wonder who she was and how her life would unfold. I began writing without much idea where I was going, until Jenny and Caleb took charge and told their own story.

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DM: Each time period in your novels feels authentic. Please share a little about the three time periods and the research you did.

BR: The first novel required the most research because it involved a lot of historic events surrounding the Civil War. I wanted to insert as much factual information as I could, and I was able to find quite a bit: some from the local library, some from online sources, some by word of mouth. My greatest regret is that I didn’t spend time with the local historical society, which was gathering, unbeknownst to me, material for a book about the Civil War in that region.

The next two stories also involved historical research, but it was less extensive. The second one involves the Industrial Revolution’s first real impact in the area, with the advent of the railroad and a new town it spawned, Hinton, West Virginia. People were becoming more mobile, and that mobility plays into the story.

For the third, I did research about the early suffrage movement, as well as 19th-century Charleston and Lewisburg, West Virginia. Set in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the time period foreshadows much coming societal change. Women were beginning their long, slow revolution as they organized and took advantage of better educational opportunities. I didn’t get into the devastating setbacks the Black community faced at that time, at the end of Reconstruction, although I considered it. (Some of that is in my recent nonfiction effort.) I didn’t think Jenny and Caleb, in rural Appalachia, would have had much awareness of that aspect of their era.

DM: Was each era equally difficult to immerse yourself in or did one stand out as harder to discover appropriate details to include?

BR: I think the third novel represented the biggest challenge in terms of finding appropriate historic details. But sometimes something just lands in your lap. For example, when I researched the Female Institute in Lewisburg, I came across an actual tuition schedule. That was hugely helpful to me because without it I would have been only guessing what classes were offered and how much they cost. I was also very fortunate to have been to Organ Cave and that my daughter saved the photos she took there.

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DM: It’s not only the historical details that stand out in your novels. The setting is enhanced by specific descriptions of plant and animal life in southern WV. How did you develop such a sharp eye for the natural setting?

BR: It’s nice of you to say so! I was one of those “wild-child” kids who wandered the countryside. And my background, career-wise, is biology. I’ve spent a lot of time wading in West Virginia rivers, exploring the woods, birdwatching, and otherwise enjoying nature. I consider myself greatly blessed in that regard.

DM: Do you have a favorite character from the latest novel, Salt in Boiling Water? What do you see as his/her strengths and weaknesses?

BR: It’s hard to choose between Jenny and Caleb, but I think I would say Caleb. He has so much to overcome, especially his low self-esteem and lack of confidence, compounded by life events. Yet he never fails to have a good heart and good intentions. To me, he is genuine, through and through; I trusted him from the start.

DM: Tell us a little about your antagonists in this story.

BR: There are several, primarily Caleb‘s father, Lila, and Otis. Caleb’s father returns from the Civil War as an abusive figure Caleb and his mother must endure. Lila turns Caleb’s head but keeps secrets…. Otis is the antagonist we get to know best and he is a bit of a puzzle. I don’t want to give away too much detail here, but Otis presents Jenny with the first great relationship challenge of her life. I’ve never liked for an antagonist to be strictly villain, and Otis is not that. His greatest fault may be immaturity, or it may be something much worse. I leave that for readers to determine.

DM: What do you hope readers take away from Salt in Boiling Water?

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BR: As I wrote Salt in Boiling Water, I kept thinking about teenagers and how terrifying it can be to step out into the world of adult relationships and responsibilities. Add to the mix poverty, lack of education, personal loss, childhood traumas…. It’s a recipe for mistakes and hard lessons. I hope adolescent readers will come away with a sense of how they deserve to be treated, and how to trust both their instincts and latent strengths. I hope adult readers will enjoy a journey into the past, when life was simpler in some ways yet presented many of the same coming-of-age challenges we all remember. Mostly, I hope readers find inspiration somewhere in the pages. It inspired me to spend time with Jenny and Caleb.

DM: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your writing that isn’t covered here?

BR: Maybe, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve written?” The New River trilogy was nothing but unadulterated joy to write. Before starting the third novel, as I waited for a story seed to germinate, I compiled-more-than-wrote a biography about a great-great grandfather. It felt like the world’s longest homework assignment, and I would never have finished it if I hadn’t gotten so interested in John A. Broadus. He was a well-known Southerner in his day, especially among Baptists. I’m not saying this because I share an (insignificant) amount of DNA with him, but the man-on-fire was fascinating. His life, from the antebellum South, through the Civil War and well beyond, was lived in the fastest of fast lanes, which is not what we associate with the 19th century. A remarkable number of his letters have been preserved; I had a difficult time sorting through them and pulling together a biography. I hope it does the preacher/teacher/writer/speaker justice. I will never attempt such a thing again! (This labor of love, Broadus Unbound: The Oversized Intellect, Will, and Influence of a Small Baptist, was published December 2021.)

DM: Thank you, Betsy, for sharing a little about your writing process and for bringing these uplifting stories to the world.

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