What's in a Page: Tiffany McDaniel on the ways her mother inspires her literary career
Tiffany McDaniel's mother made her a voracious reader, and now she's the subject of (and inspiration for) her latest novel. In Betty, the author traces her mother's childhood and the Cherokee heritage that defined it. It's a sweeping epic of pain (poverty, loss, racism) and beauty — one that will leave any reader wondering how she pulled it off so effortlessly. Below, the author tells us her trade secrets, from her earliest attempts to put pen to paper to why it meant so much to write about her own family.
What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
I've been writing since I was a kid old enough to grip the crayon, so I can't remember the very first thing I ever wrote. But one of those very early books would have been The Big Bad Toothbrush. I wrote it when I was six. It was about two toothbrushes who were twins, one of which was evil. I still have the book on my shelf, and always remember the opening lines, "Once there was a toothbrush. It was a mean one, it was." The evil toothbrush would do things like turn people's teeth black. The story ended with the toothbrush going to toothbrush heaven. As a kid, I had laminated construction paper to turn into the book cover, and bound the early novel to be published under the publishing house I created as a child, which was named after my cat at the time, Sunshine Publishing. One of the early series I wrote was based on that cat. There were about four books written just about his stinky socks, all titled My Cat's Smelly Socks.
What is the last book that made you cry?
I have a pretty high tolerance level, so I've never cried during a novel, but children's picture books that feature the loss of animals are ones that stay with me like The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye. And books like The Giving Tree and Donkey, Donkey.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
I read more non-fiction than I do fiction. Among those to read is a book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and another book about the birth and ultimate fate of the sun. Science, and planetary science, in particular, is fascinating to me.
Where do you write?
I write with pen and paper, so where I write is not always defined by a desk or a room. But it does tend to be in the company of my cats: two brothers named Grand and Fielding.
Which book made you a forever reader?
Growing up, my mother Betty made sure books and reading were part of our lives. From the time my sisters and I were born, Mom was reading to us. And it became a bedtime ritual as we grew older. That's what made me a forever reader. Having had a mother who made sure that from the time we were kids, we understood the importance of story. It goes back to her father, my papaw Landon, who was a storyteller, too. Landon is an important character and part of my book Betty. He was someone who had grown up with several generations of his family in one household. The older generations used story to preserve their Cherokee heritage, language, traditions, and customs that were being lost. That celebration of story was something that Papaw Landon passed down to my mother, who passed it down to me.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
I find eating during writing to be distracting, but one of my favorite snacks, in general, are grapes harvested from our garden that we then freeze. It becomes a snack that is always a reminder of summer and the harvests from the garden. I was raised in the garden, especially those modeled after Papaw Landon's, nurturing a love of plants and the environment from a very early age.
If you could change one thing about any of your books what would it be?
I have twenty novels written to date, and I can't think of anything that I would change in them, simply because it's through editing that I get to create and explore the characters, always staying true to who they are.
What is your favorite part of this Betty?
My favorite part is that it features my mother Betty and her story. I wrote Betty to celebrate the voices of my family, and in particular the voices of the women in my family. This book is a personal journey for me and the generations who have come before me. It's why this book will always cast ripples in my life.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
Any time you're reflecting on and writing about trauma, you reflect on the individuals who experienced that. Which is why one of the hardest scenes to write in the book, would have been the scene in which my mamaw Alka is retelling the abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents. You feel the grief of what she experienced, and you feel the echoes carrying through each new generation.
Write a movie poster tagline for the book:
"A girl comes of age against the knife."
It's the first line of the novel. I think it captures the entire journey of the book.