Tiffany McDaniel joined us for a Q & A in our Behind the Pages group and shared some wonderful insight into her book Betty and I am so happy to share the Q & A with you all today!
Brenda: Thank you for joining us Tiffany and answering our questions about Betty. How did you learn your mother’s story?
Tiffany: Nearly twenty years ago, my mother Betty shared with me a family secret. There were things I already knew about her family. She raised us with the knowledge of the Cherokee ancestry, and the knowledge of how important and loving her relationship with her father Landon was. But this secret she told me when I was seventeen, opened the door on a side of the family that had been hidden for decades. After learning that secret, I started to conduct Q&A sessions with my mother, my mamaw Alka, and aunts and uncles, learning more about the lives they had lived and the experiences that had shaped them as adults
Brenda: When did you decide you wanted to write your Mother’s story and how long did it take to write Betty?
Tiffany: From the moment Mom had opened up about those long buried secrets, was the moment I started to have those sessions with her. It was like picking up shovels for the both of us, and digging deeper into that past. Then I approached Mamaw and my aunts and uncles about sharing their stories. I would have been seventeen when I started to sit down with them and compile notes. I had what would be the first draft of the novel by the time I was eighteen. From then on, I started querying agents. At that time, it wasn’t done through email, but postal mail, and often it would take six months or longer to hear back from one. They would respond that they enjoyed the writing, but suggested things like I should remove the female talk that approached the topics of bras or menstruation. They suggested we see the women friendlier, happier, in romantic relationships. There was more than one who suggested I turn Betty into a boy, because as they said, male narrators sell better. They said the novel was too female and too risky. There was sexism the characters were dealing with in Betty, but the book itself was up against the same sexism on its path to publication. So what started out, became a nearly two decade journey to get the novel to the shelf. I think the new feminist movements we’ve seen in the past couple of years has helped. And we’re starting to lean into these stories more, rather than away from them and realizing there’s nothing too female about a story, but that they are all human stories that will give us the opportunity to hear these types of voices more.
Brenda: How did you go about plotting the story? Did you collaborate with your mother as you were writing Betty?
Tiffany: Whenever I set out to write a new book, I always go from beginning to end, without jumping back and forth. I also do not write outlines or character sketches before hand. Because I write with pen and paper first in a notebook and transfer later into the computer, I like writing in the moment, allowing the plot to evolve organically. With Betty, it was a little different in that I had notes from those sessions. So as I was writing, I would refer to those notes and to those memories the family members had shared with me. As I continued to query agents over those years, I would return to do more sessions with family members. Mom has been there from the first draft written. So she’s been my companion on the twenty year journey. If I hadn’t been writing this book, these things would have died with that prior generation. I feel incredibly fortunate that I had the chance to talk with not only her, but Mamaw, and my aunts and uncles. It goes to show how important it is to hear the stories of our elders and preserve them, both the happy and the painful parts, for the next generation.
Lindsay: Hi Tiffany! Thank you for being here with us! I will never forget reading Betty. What an impactful novel!
I’m curious to know how your mother feels about her story being out in the world? What a strong and brave woman to have been through all of those childhood struggles and be able to have her story told all these years later.
Tiffany: Thank you for reading my book. It makes me so happy to hear you enjoyed it. Mom is so thrilled the book is finally on the shelf. It was hard not to feel like a let down when over the course of those twenty years, when one of the family members or Mom would ask me about the publishing progress, I would have to tell them the book wasn’t picked up yet. They were all so eager to see it out. Some of the family members have since passed, so the release of the book is bittersweet for my mother. She’s excited it’s now out, but she also reflects on the ones who are no longer here to share in that joy with her. It’s one of the reasons why I am making a scrapbook of the book for her that will include articles, reviews, and photos. To give her something physical to hold on to, and to feel the weight of the book’s presence in the world. Maybe through that she will feel the weight of those family members we’ve lost, and know at least in spirit they are here, too.
Lindsay: Was it difficult for you to write this book? I can only imagine how upsetting it would be for you to learn about these childhood struggles your mother endured and survived. Did you have a hard time with the writing process because it was such a close personal story?
Tiffany: It was hard to listen in those sessions to my mother talk about the racism she faced. I have fair skin, so I haven’t personally experienced racism. I listened to the racial slurs she was called, and how much she was bullied by not only peers, but teachers and other adults, too, simply because she had brown skin. She also spoke about how Papaw Landon had been beaten up by groups of white men because of his skin color. Another difficult subject to listen to would have been of the abuse stories. When I spoke with Mamaw Alka about what she experienced as a child, she spoke of how her mother had carried her to that abuse. It was difficult to hear, and later when I was writing scenes like these, I didn’t have the cushion of fiction to know Mom, Mamaw Alka, and the others hadn’t experienced these things. But I also knew how important it was to preserve these stories. When Mamaw spoke of her abuse, she said she didn’t tell anyone about it when she was a little girl, because it was both her mother and her father involved and she believed it was what happened in every family. As an adult, she became a supporter of those with their own stories to tell. In her mind, if there had been an open discussion about these things when she was a child, she would have known it’s not what happens in every family. So for her, and for the other women in the family, to finally speak about these horrors, was done with the hope that it inspires other abuse victims to share their stories. And with the hope that speaking about these things openly will save another child from the same fate. As we see in the book, keeping such secrets leads to generational abuse. That’s the cycle Mamaw, my aunts, and my mother hoped to break.
Brenda: How did you go about creating the voices for your characters? Did you feel you were creating the voices of your characters or the voices of your family members?
Tiffany: Since I had grown up around these family members, I had been exposed to them from an early age. Lint was always the uncle who made sure there were butterscotch candies for me in the glass dish on the counter. Flossie would be dancing in the background somewhere. Mamaw Alka would be in the kitchen with flour on her hands. These sorts of things I held on to as I wrote the book, infusing the characters with those moments I knew of them. But also infusing the book with the voices and feelings that came out of those Q&A sessions with them. Writing a book like this is much like going out with a glass jar to catch the fireflies. The light all looks the same at first, but once you catch one, you see the individual beauty that makes each one their own person. That was my goal here
Brenda: While Lindsay and I were discussing your story we talked about it being as beautiful as it was ugly. You showed us as much beauty through the love in the family as you did the ugly and through Landon’s stories and history and love for the land and what it provides. I love these quotes from your story
“I remember the fierce love and devotion as much as I remember the violence.” “our family tree grew with rotten, broken branches and fungus on the leaves.
Can you tell us a bit about how you went about creating that balance and why it was important to you to show us that?
Tiffany: I look at this book as a story of light with moments of darkness, rather than a dark book with slivers of light. With my writing, I try to find that balance that exists in life. Everyday in the world, there is joy, but there is also pain. In books, we must acknowledge this. Without the ugly bits, we lose the ability to be grateful for the things that are beautiful. Having both experiences, balances our lives. I turned to Landon to be the one in the book who struck that balance. Papaw Landon died over a decade before I was born. I never got to meet him, but I met him best I could through the stories and memories of my mother, her siblings, and Mamaw Alka. What I wanted to preserve from those sessions was their love of the father, and his love for them. Landon was a champion for their education, their hopes and dreams. Especially for Mom and her sisters, Landon was their ally in a time when girls and women were facing even more stereotypes than we do today. He taught them that being female was powerful, and that what they had to say mattered. He was such an important figure in their lives, and through his stories, he became their compass. I found that balance in this book with his love. Not only for his family, but for nature and his Cherokee heritage. Papaw had been raised in a household with several generations of his family. The elders only spoke Cherokee, while he was of a generation who also had to learn the English of the white man. From an early age, he had to find that balance in his own life. The balance of the love and hate for the world he was entering that had been taken away from his elders. What I think made Papaw Landon a great man, was that he didn’t abandon those teachings of his elders and he didn’t abandon his kindness. He became the lighthouse in the distance of the raging storm for his children and wife. And as I wrote this book, I myself saw his light, beckoning all to the safety of the shore.
Brenda: What were some of the struggles you had along the way? I read that you were told the story would work better from a man’s POV. I have to say in a world where we need to hear the voices of women that shocks me.
Tiffany: I, too, think we need to hear those female voices, and that’s why I refused to turn my mother into a boy. I remember one of the agents who suggested I change her gender say he thought this book could be the Huckleberry Finn of my generation, but that wasn’t the book I was writing. It was important to me and my mother that we preserve her gender, as her identity and her life, and the lives of her mother and sisters were shaped by that. It’s hard to imagine an agent saying to an author, you should change your narrator from a boy to a girl, and yet it seemed an easy thing to be said in regards to a female narrator. I had heard agents saying male narrators sell better so much, that eleven years into my journey with Betty, I realized it would not be my first book published. I took a look at the other books I had written, and they all had female narrators, except for The Summer that Melted Everything. I put that book on submission, and it sold in a month compared to years of fighting for Betty. So in some ways that did show the appetite in the industry for male led fiction. But at least with The Summer that Melted Everything I felt as though some of my family’s story was being published. In that book there is a character named Sal. I infused him with the same kindness, creativity, and love of books and reading that my mother had. I also looked at him as representing another side of my papaw’s story, as Papaw Landon grew up having similar racial experiences as a young boy to Sal. The Summer that Melted Everything also takes place in Breathed, Ohio, a fictional name but inspired by the town my mother, and later I, grew up in. So both books share the same setting. The racism Sal faces in the town was me carrying my mother’s and my papaw’s story forward. So in many ways I feel as if a part of Betty was first published. After the publication of TSTME, there was still some struggle to find Betty a home. I think the MeToo movement and the other feminist movements that grew out of that, opened the door on more leaning in to these types of stories. I remember one agent saying I had made sex into a bad guy. He wanted Betty and the other girls to have boyfriends. He overlooked these women were saving themselves and didn’t need a boyfriend or a man to fulfill their knight in shining armor. The girls were their own knights. What publishers do well is they lean into a moment, but I hope this becomes more than a moment. I hope it becomes a movement where we see more female driven novels being acquired, read, and having an equal place on the shelf.
As female authors, we face similar sexism as our books do. It was even suggested to me by agents that I use my initials, rather than my name “Tiffany,” which is very feminine and they said was “fluffy”. They thought initials would serve me better, because readers might think those initials belong to a man. This story isn’t unique, and we see that across the board with female writers. But like I refused to turn Betty into a boy, I also didn’t want to use my initials because I hoped that for those female artists, writers, and creators who come after me, that if they see names like mine, they, too, can feel as if they have an equal voice and that being female isn’t something we feel we need to hide, but rather is something beautiful to embrace.
Brenda: What would you like readers to get from reading Betty? Is there anything else you would like us to know about your book?
There are a few things I hope readers come away with after reading Betty. For those readers who have experienced similar abuse, I hope they are inspired to come forward and tell their own stories, and to know they are not alone. I have received reader emails through my website from readers who said after reading Betty, they feel they, too, can come forward with these secrets they have held on to for years. I received another email from a woman who said her mother had shared her abuse story, and after reading Betty, she feels she can now go back to her mother and talk about these things without feeling shame or guilt. I know Mamaw Alka and my aunts would have loved to hear their personal stories were inspiring others, just as they had hoped they would.
Another thing I hope readers come away with is knowing the strength and grit of my mother Betty. I hope she inspires other little girls to stay determined, and know that there is light at the end of the path. To this day, my mother continues to inspire me with her intelligence, creativity, and kindness. It has been an honor of a lifetime to introduce readers to this strong woman who I have been fortunate to have been raised by.
I also hope readers see in Landon the beautiful father he was. I remember when my aunt spoke to me about the abuse she had experienced, and the abuser had said to her, “If you say anything, I won’t kill you, I will kill Landon.” To protect their father, the girls didn’t say anything. And after his passing, they lost the one person who they had loved so dearly. So I hope as readers are brought into the intimate folds of this book, that they feel as if they can share their own secrets. It’s secrecy like this that breeds this type of generational abuse, and it also presents the skill set of the abuser.
Ultimately, I hope Betty becomes a book mothers want to share with their daughters, sisters with their sisters, and men with the women in their lives. That it becomes a book that shows all sides of what it means to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, that it shows the complexities of motherhood, while also emphasizing the individuality of each of us.
As far as if there’s anything else to share, readers can visit my website at tiffanymcdaniel.com. On the “Behind the Novel” tab, readers can see photos of my mother Betty, Papaw Landon, Mamaw Alka, and other family members. It’s a scrapbook in progress as I find more photos to upload, but readers can see the folks who inspired this work. I do also personally answer any emails I receive through my website, so readers can always reach out to through there, too.
Brenda: Are you working on anything right now you can share with us?
Last time I counted, I have over twelve novels written. I’ve written more since the count, so it’s now closer to twenty unpublished novels. I also have short story collections, poetry collections, even some children picture book manuscripts. So I write often. There are two books that I think would be good to follow Betty up with. One is titled On the Savage Side and is inspired by a true crime case out of Chillicothe, Ohio, which is the town next door to the south central town I also grew up and live in. This case was called the Chillicothe Six, and centered around women who had gone missing. Some turned up dead, while the rest have never been found. This case remains unsolved today. Because the women were prostitutes and drug addicts, their case seems to have been forgotten. I wrote this book as a way to show these women were more than addicts and prostitutes. They were mothers, daughters and sisters, too. I hope sharing their story gets more eyes on the case, and hopefully turns the wheel to finding them justice.
Another book I think would be good to follow Betty up with is When Lions Stood as Men, which follows a brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany and deal with survivor’s guilt in Breathed, Ohio. Breathed is a setting I have used in the majority of my novels. At this point, the town is a character itself, and a love letter to my southern Ohio roots and home.
As far as new work, I’m writing three books at the moment. Because I write in a notebook first, it allows me to have several notebooks around, and allows me to go from one story to the next, following the path of the pen.