Welcome to another installment of If My Book, the Monkeybicycle feature in which authors compare their recently released books to weird things. This week Valerie Nieman writes about her latest novel, In the Lonely Backwater, out now from Regal House.
I love writing this piece for In the Lonely Backwater, because identifying and categorizing things is a major element in the mysteries.
Maggie’s world has been shattered, with her mother abandoning the family and her father dissolving into drink. Her discovery of writings by 18th-century botanist Linnaeus gives her a way to manage a chaotic world by identifying life in nature—and pinning down people into specific categories, a taxonomy of her own devising. Sometimes things need to be investigated further. Sometimes the categories shift: Her estimation of the detective investigating her cousin’s death, Drexel Vann, grows as the story continues, and his unassuming presence early on hides the kind of intelligence that makes her shift him from a hound dog to a half-wolf hybrid, smart and dangerous.
Maggie is not traditionally pretty, and she doesn’t do traditionally girl things. She goes it alone, and she holds her secrets very close.
So, If In the Lonely Backwater were:
A fishing lure: I’m going with DarDevle, a basic spoon, traditionally painted red and white on the top side. It looks too simple to fool a fish, just a dished-in piece of steel, but its unpredictable wobble has been hauling them in since 1906.
An invasive species: The immediate impulse would be to say kudzu because we’re in the South, but I’m thinking of starlings. Much hated in this country, indeed, one of three bird species on which it’s open season, I forgive their destructive voraciousness for the carnival-glass iridescence of green and violet across their backs and those breathtaking, sky-filling murmurations.
A car: It would be a Prius, rather homely on the surface, but under the skin it’s complex as hell. One of the new e-trucks would be a good choice as well, for similar reasons, but definitely not a Tesla. Not in the backwater. (Though if Elon wants to encourage a writer, I wouldn’t mind having one.)
Food: Maggie’s partial to Mountain Dew and a sausage biscuit made by the local convenience store, but I’m going to say pit-cooked pulled pork barbecue with that eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce, and really great homemade sides of mac and cheese and mixed beans, from a little stand on the side of the highway with a big pile of split hickory out back.
A boat: Lots of boats in this book set in and around a marina, everything from cruisers to bass boats to racing dinghies, but I’ll have to go with Maggie’s own little sailboat, a Blue Jay called Bellatrix.
Aquatic life: Otters, which appear in the book. Again, they are not quite what people expect. Their whiskery faces and big eyes and playful habits make them seem almost cuddly, but they are killing machines. Members of the weasel family (Mustelidae, Maggie would say), incredibly powerful and agile, they rule their watery world.
A dollar store item: A book that’s found its way to a shelf of cast-offs and has-beens, but it’s surprisingly good!
A familiar saying: “This that and the third thing.” Because for Maggie and her best friend Nat, it’s not two roads diverge in a yellow wood, but three or more.
Household furniture: A handmade desk, oak, a little battered, turned out in a home workshop somewhere in the South a hundred years ago or more. It stands in the corner, plain and sturdy—but there’s a secret catch and a hidden drawer.
An item of clothing: Gotta be a well-worn ball cap from West Marine, faded and dark with grease and fish-blood.
A kitchen implement: A mandoline. These are practical and effective slicers, but one moment of inattention and you’ve lost a thumb.
Valerie Nieman has been a farmer, a sailor, a journalist, a teacher. To the Bones, a genre-bending novel about Appalachia, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2019, joining three earlier novels, a short fiction collection, and three poetry books. Her award-winning poetry and short prose have been published here and abroad. A graduate of WVU and Queens University of Charlotte, she has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. Follow her on Twitter at @valnieman.