Donna Meredith interviews Mimi Herman, author of “The Kudzu Queen”

DM: Mimi, I fell in love with your coming-of-age novel, The Kudzu Queen. Writing any book is a big undertaking that takes many months if not years. How long did you work on this book?

MH: I’ve recently discovered something that surprised me. For a long time, I was convinced that I’d spent sixteen years writing The Kudzu Queen, but as I was going through some old boxes I came across the very beginnings of this book—over sixty pages, handwritten on yellow legal pads—that I wrote in 1994-95. By the time I’d finished my first two days of writing this book, I’d already developed the main characters, conflicts and setting. In fact, not only the title, but also many of the sentences and entire scenes I wrote in 1994-95 ended up in the published book.

I took some time away The Kudzu Queen to write a book on arts-in-education for the North Carolina Arts Council, a draft of a how-to book on flirting, a draft of another novel, several hundred poems and a number of short stories, occasionally touching base with The Kudzu Queen, but mostly focusing on these other projects.

Then, in 2011, I rediscovered The Kudzu Queen and fell in love with it again. I worked on it steadily for several more years, ending up with a 241-page preliminary draft in 2013 and a 685-page draft—too long for even my mother to read—in 2014. I continued to work on it, sharing it with a few close friends and agents, until I was invited by David Sedaris to open for him at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in December 2019, when I read from the first chapter of this book. From there it was a matter of honing the book until I felt completely satisfied with it. The Kudzu Queen was accepted for publication by Jaynie Royal, founding editor and publisher of Regal House Publishing, in 2021, twenty-seven years after it was first conceived.

DM: Why kudzu? What motivated or inspired you to write about it?

Mimi Herman drives the bookmobile.

MH: I love libraries and found myself one day in the early 1990s on the microfiche machine in our downtown library, where I happened upon an old article about the men who’d made it their life’s work to promote kudzu throughout the South, traveling from town to town to encourage farmers to plant this vine, and holding kudzu festivals complete with kudzu queen beauty pageants.

Having grown up in the North Carolina, where kudzu turned trees and telephone poles into topiary, and made tunnels out of highways. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would intentionally plant the stuff, so I had to write a novel to try to figure out why.

DM: Did any particular character really speak to you as you worked on this story?an’t start writing a novel until I start hearing the voice of the narrator, and Mattie’s voice—her inquisitiveness, her stubbornness and her naiveté—shaped the novel for me. But it wasn’t just Mattie I heard. When I write, I hear everything in my head, especially dialogue. So whenever anyone spoke, I could hear the grit or velvet in their voices. If it didn’t sound quite right, I went over it again and again, tuning the lines of dialogue by changing a word here, a comma there, until I created the voices of characters that I hoped readers would hear exactly as I heard them.

DM: You feature a sexual predator in your novel. He is especially dangerous because he is handsome and glamorous and has a position of power. What motivated you to create James T. Cullowee?

Mimi Herman

MH: I don’t usually write about things I’ve experienced, but for me the core of this book is a certain quality that fourteen-to fifteen-year-old girls sometimes have, where they’re testing out their own sexuality, hoping someone will take them up on their offers, but not entirely sure they’re going to like what they get. When I was around that age, I came across men who bear some similarity to The Kudzu King—charming and smooth, with a darkness underneath that’s not visible to most people—who seem to feel that these teenage girls are sending an engraved invitation explicitly to them, and that they’d be remiss in not accepting it.

I wanted to create a character who thought he was doing good, who thought he was offering what other people wanted. No one believes himself to be a villain, and there are always reasons why people behave badly. If you look closely, you’ll find a few hints in James T. Cullowee’s history as to why he became the man he was, but they are, as my mother has always said, “explanations, but not excuses.”

DM: Can you picture any particular actors playing the roles of your major characters?

MH: I think Bella Ramsey would make a great Lynnette, with Brooklynn Prince as Aggie, her younger sister. Lyric Ross would be wonderful as Rose, and Lily-Rose Depp could play Glynis, Mattie’s nemesis. For Mattie’s parents, I’d want to go back in time to feature the early Gregory Peck at Mattie’s father and Patricia Clarkson as her mother. And a younger Matthew McConaughey would be a perfect Kudzu King. As for Mattie, I’d love for this to be a breakout role for some fabulous new actress we haven’t heard of yet!

Donna Meredith

DM: What research was required for the writing of this story?

MH: A book like this takes a ton of research. In addition to the original microfiche article I read in the early 1990s, I ordered a DVD called “The Amazing Story of Kudzu”; read through pamphlets produced by the US Department of Agriculture in the 1930s and 1940s on the proper propagation and uses of kudzu; pored through decades of kudzu research; cross-referenced charts on the growing and harvesting seasons of corn, cotton and tobacco; and spent endless hours looking at old catalogues and websites that featured clothing from the late 1930s and early 1940s.

I thought my research was done once the book was accepted for publication, but I wanted the details to be visceral and true, so after the almost-final edits, I went through it one more time, looking for anything that might wake the reader from what the wonderful writer and teacher John Gardner called “the fictive dream.”

I looked for every item of clothing, every food, and every word that might not have been around in 1941. I ended up making about 320 changes, everything from lemon bars—which I had to take out of the book (and out of Mattie’s purse, where they really didn’t belong)—to the word “sharp” to describe someone’s clothing. My favorite fact check was when I called the Bosco chocolate syrup company to make sure it was sold in the south in 1941, and discovered, to my relief, that it was.

DM: What details were most challenging to get right about the setting?

MH: Oddly enough, the most challenging part was coordinating the crops that grow throughout the book. How high would the corn plants between Mattie and Lynnette’s houses be when Mattie crossed through them? What would Mattie, her father and the Kudzu King be weeding after heavy rains? And what would days of rain do to threaten those crops? The crop cycle became sort of a calendar for the book, along with the 1941 calendar I created on iCal to keep track of what was happening in each chapter.

DM: Tell us a little about your writing process.

MH: I teach writing in France, Italy, Ireland, New Mexico and online in the Writeaways workshops my partner John Yewell and I created and direct, as well as through my work as a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. And I teach teachers all over the country how to integrate the arts into every area of the curriculum. All of which I love. But the same kinds of thought and energy that I need for writing go into my teaching.

So I find that I have to set aside what I call “writing weeks” when my entire focus is on writing ten pages a day, every day. Before my teaching career took off, I was able to schedule a writing week every month. Now they’re harder to pin to my calendar, but I’m working to make that happen.

When I define planners and wingers, I say that planners know what they’re going to wear tomorrow before they go to bed at night, while the motto of a winger is “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?” a quote attributed to both Flannery O’Connor and E. M. Forster, among other great writers. I’m more of a winger than a planner—up to a point. When I get enough pages written that I have a sense of what I’m writing, I start planning, then return to winging it. I write for the same reason I read, to find out what’s going to happen, so I don’t want to plan too much and miss the chance to be surprised!

I used to write everything longhand, then edit as I transcribed those pages to my computer. I still do that with poetry, and to get started on a new book. The book I’m writing now has over a hundred pages scribbled into notebooks, with slashes between phrases I’m considering and arrows for ideas I want to insert.

At home, I tend to float around the house to write: sometimes at my desk, sometimes on the sofa, sometimes at the dining room table, and sometimes playing Colette, propped up on pillows in bed. I’ve also been fortunate enough to write in two locations away from home: Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, a beautiful old home in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where I started writing The Kudzu Queen in 1994; and The Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key, Florida, where I was first given the generous invitation of time and space to write in 2008, and which has continued to support my work in various ways to this day.

DM: Tell us a little about your background and what got you started as a writer.

MH: In fourth grade, I had a wonderful teacher, Miss Stevens, who got me interested in writing poetry. She was the first adult outside my home who really saw me, and I think if she’d taught nuclear physics or birdhouse building, my life would probably have taken an entirely different path. Then I had another extraordinary teacher in sixth grade, Mrs. Williams, who encouraged us to explore the things that mattered to us. From then on through adolescence, I wrote hundred of pages of poetry. I attended Carolina Friends School for high school and delved deeply into writing, theatre, literature, visual art and dance, all of which I think have made me a better writer.
In college I had the amazing fortune to work with Doris Betts and Max Steele, two of the most gifted teachers I have known, and in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, my fortune continued when I was able to study with the brilliant writers and teachers Richard Russo, Robert Boswell, C. J. Hribal and Charles Baxter.

Throughout my life I’ve been blessed with teachers who were as passionate about teaching as they were about writing. This is one of the great gifts of my life.

DM: What writers or works have influenced your writing?

MH: I’m a huge Alice Munro fan. I was reading her long before I started my MFA program, where Munro, Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver, along with a few others, were the writers we studied most to learn the craft. I’ve also learned much from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist. And I have to confess that I read a lot of mysteries, not only for the pleasure of getting lost in them, but also for what they teach about plot. I think the best fiction is crafted around a core of mystery, so reading mysteries offers me insight as well as escape.

DM: What are you working on next?

MH: I’m excited about my next book, which is set in Ireland in the mid-1980s. This novel starts in Dublin and escapes to Galway, and involves a young American woman working abroad, the “missing” grandchild of a powerful IRA leader, listening to traditional ballads in 100-year-old pubs and dancing to Grace Jones and Prince in nightclubs, a rundown stone house in need of renovation, and a drag queen named Holly Unlikely.

DM: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you?

MH: What advice would you give to other writers to keep them going?

My advice for other writers is this: If a story is meant to live in the world, and you’re willing to put in the hours and effort, the attention to detail, the exploration of craft—and to find editors you can trust, and listen to them—there will a place in the world for your story to live. It may take time, but it will be worth every moment you’ve invested.


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