A Conversation with Steph Post
Kevin Catalano interviews Steph Post about badass female characters, the writing process, and her new novel, Lightwood.
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked and her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, Nonbinary Review and the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling Award and was a semifinalist for The Big Moose Prize. She is currently the writing coach at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, Florida.
In the best possible way, Steph Post’s Lightwood is reminiscent of Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind than Home and Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain. There is family drama, stolen cash, a meth-cooking biker gang, a gun-hoarding prepper, and a terrifying preacher who doles out punishment through “baptism by fire.” However, Post’s novel is unmistakably feminist, in the sense that its strongest and most memorable characters are women. The main antagonist is not a dude, but a menacing, larger-than-life woman preacher who can make a fierce member of a motorcycle gang piss his pants while in her presence; and while the main character of the novel is a man named Judah, it’s his tenacious girlfriend, Ramey, who steals every scene with her strength and will. The result is a kind of country-noir crime novel that is both satisfying and original.
Kevin Catalano: Bad titles annoy me, and there seem to be a lot these days. Your titles, A Tree Born Crooked and Lightwood, are fantastic. Do you have a method for arriving at the right title?
Steph Post: For me, the title of a book is an extension of the novel itself and is therefore extremely important. With A Tree Born Crooked I got lucky; I had the title before I even started writing the novel and soon the title became a sort of guidepost for thematic moments in the story. I faced much more of a challenge with Lightwood. I was well into the second draft of the book before I was able to settle on a title and this time around, the themes of the story guided the selection of the title. I was thinking about sparks and how small moments can ignite a chain reaction of bad decisions that can take a lifetime to work your way out of. In many ways, Judah Cannon, and his decision to return to Silas, is the spark that ignites the story. Although, you could equally argue for the dark horse Brother Felton. Lightwood is an old Southern word for kindling, and I think it’s fitting that the only time the word appears in the novel is on the lips of Ramey. But I had to struggle to find the right word and figure out how to work it back into the story. The process for the sequel was even more difficult! But, fortunately, I know when it’s right and I’ve never had any doubts about my titles.
There are many Bible verses and references in Lightwood that are delivered with terrifying vehemence from Sister Tulah. Do you have good knowledge of the Bible, or did you need to comb through it looking for the right verses?
Well, I always say that, like Sister Tulah, I’m an Old Testament kinda girl. My mother was raised Pentecostal, though I was not, and I’ve always been fascinated with religion from an outsider’s point of view. I know the Bible thematically pretty well, but to pull off Tulah’s sermons I really had to put myself in her head and then go back to the text. I also did quite a bit of research into Pentecostalism which helped with locating key verses to serve as markers in the story.
One of the most impressive aspects of Lightwood is how you’ve plotted it. There are multiple narratives borne from various characters’ desires that come together quite brilliantly (and organically) at the end. Can you talk some about how you plotted this? Do you outline? Did you get the plot right the first time around, or did it take many drafts to figure it out?
I find out how a novel is going to end at the conclusion of the first draft, which is thrilling, because the whole time I’m writing I’m wondering to myself, ‘How the hell are these characters going to get out of this impossible situation?’ I do a vague outline in advance, more of a narrative arc really, and then outline as I go, usually a few scenes or sections in advance of where I’m at in the story. I write the first draft straight through, without looking back, and the plot is usually set by the end of the draft. There are some tweakings in subsequent drafts, but the plot of Lightwood is the exact same as it was in the first draft. It was a bit of a challenge, bringing all three factions together throughout the story, but it somehow makes sense in my head to write that way.
The last time we talked about A Tree Born Crooked, you told me about the need for more badass women in writing. You certainly delivered that here. I noticed that almost without exception, the women in your book force the men’s hands in one way or another: Sister Tulah intimidates the baddest of dudes by her sheer presence and will (and never with a gun); Shelia uses information to manipulate men and, in a way, orchestrate the final climax; and Ramey’s strength, courage, and independence are necessary for Judah to succeed, and survive. (I especially love when Judah tells her, “You’ve always been mine.” and she responds, “No. I’ve been my own.”) How deliberate were these choices?
This is one of the moments when I get so excited for people to read the sequel, because as the story develops, these three women really come into their own in powerful, unexpected ways. I don’t have an agenda in the writing of badass female characters; I just write the sorts of characters that I would want to read about and who I identify with. And those characters are badass women. But I definitely, wholeheartedly, feel like we need more of these types of female characters, especially in this genre. Unfortunately, the grit-lit, country-noir, whatever-you-want-to-call-it genre, is a bit of a boy’s club, and I think that landscape needs to expand. I could go on for hours on this topic, but to go back to your original question, I do make these character choices deliberately, because for me they are authentic to both the story and to real life.
Man, I love Golden Corral, and you described it to meat-dripping perfection in one scene. Are you a proud patron of GC, or do you limit your visits to special occasions?
I love this question! As a gluten-free vegetarian, Golden Corral doesn’t do much for me, so it’s been quite a while since I’ve been a patron. I started thinking about food, though, with your question and I think some part of me unconsciously includes food I can’t or don’t eat into my novels as a way to vicariously live through my characters. It’s the same with smoking. Sometimes I think about that scene with Sister Tulah, when she’s in her office, eating a platter of biscuits and gravy, and it makes me so happy and jealous at the same time. I haven’t had biscuits and gravy in over twenty years now, but still, what I wouldn’t give …
Some people write to music, others read novels or poems, or watch films or shows that inspire a certain mood they are attempting to capture in their own writing. What are your tricks that help you get into a certain mindspace?
When I’m in the research-planning phase of the novel, leading up to the first draft, I really try to get myself into the mindset of the characters and surround myself, mentally, with the atmosphere of their world. This is particularly necessary as I write in two different genres and switch with every other book. So I immerse myself in television shows and movies, though usually not in novels. I definitely have an anxiety-of-influence thing going on, and so I won’t read anything in the same genre that I’m currently writing in. Particularly with Lightwood, I spent some time driving up and down Highway 301 with the windows down, trying to breathe in and absorb as much as possible of the area where I knew the story would take place. I took a lot of photographs and notes, while driving, which I don’t recommend doing, by the way.
Can you say more about your writing process? Do you do it daily, in the same place at the same time? Do you have daily word-count or page goals?
It’s a little different for each phase of the novel process, but it averages out to about six hours a day, every day when I’m not at work (I teach part-time). As it’s the summer now, and school is out, that means every single day. Sometimes, when I’m really in the zone, this can stretch to twelve-plus hours a day. Occasionally, I’ll need a break or a beach day and only put in a few hours early in the morning. But I look at writing as a job, one that I love and couldn’t live without, but still a job, and treat it as such. This system doesn’t work for everyone, I know, but it works for me.
What is it you’re working on now? Put another way, how soon can I read your next novel?
I’m so secretive about works-in-progress, but I can tell you that the sequel to Lightwood will be out early next year. There are other novels waiting in the wings and in-progress, so you’ll be seeing much more from me in the future. As for what I’m working on right this moment … let’s just say that I’m taking that whole ‘badass female character thing’ to a whole new level.