An Ohio native, Tiffany McDaniel’s writing is inspired by the rolling hills and buckeye woods of the land she knows. She is also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and artist. The Summer that Melted Everything is her debut novel.
|Photo credit Jennifer McDaniel 2016|
Hello Tiffany, welcome to The Haphazardous Hippo.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Hello to you and thank you for your questions here. A little bit about me…Well, I’m an Ohio poet and novelist who would love to chase aliens with Fox Mulder and get snowed in at the Overlook Hotel with Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson.
How would you describe your book to someone who has never read your work?
A man named Autopsy Bliss puts an invitation in the local newspaper inviting the devil to town. Who comes to answer the invitation is a thirteen-year-old boy in overalls and with bruises. His arrival coincides with a hell-hot heat-wave. The Summer that Melted Everything is about what melted in that heat. It’s about the flames inside and outside of us all, burning the world to a drip.
The Summer That Melted Everything is an unusual title for a book how did you choose it?
The Summer that Melted Everything title was born one Ohio summer that was so hot I just felt like I was melting. I didn’t choose the title. The title chose me in that summer and in that heat.
One of your characters is called Autopsy Bliss, how did you come up with this and your other characters names?I had seen the word autopsy one day and it stuck with me. I looked up the definition and its meaning of ‘see for oneself’. When I was naming Autopsy there really was no other name for him. He’s a man after seeing things for himself. This name is his truth. I would like to say I create their names. But their names are already certain. I just have to be able to figure them out.
Where do your ideas come from?
I always say my ideas come from the elements that make me. In the spinning chaos of my soul exists the ideas, as they exist for all authors. Ideas that swirl mad with monsters and dance with gentle spirits. Emotions of grief and happiness, fury and joy mixing together into one big bang. An intense answer, but isn’t creation intense by nature?
When did you first decide you wanted to write a book?
As a child, writing was the first thing I remember doing without being told to do so. I was driven by that internal gear cranking me toward story. Writing to me was, it is, as natural as breathing, so I never really decided to write, it was something I was drawn to do. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen-years-old. I didn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine. It was eleven years of rejection and fear I’d never be published. I honestly never thought I would be published, so I know I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am now, about to see my book on the shelf for the first time. Writing is my rope across the volcano. It is my balance when I’m unsteady. It is my safety on the other side. I don’t exist without it.
Can you describe how your novel took shape?
I never outline or pre-plan a novel. It evolves as it goes along. I do always start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Together these two things partner to lead the direction of the entire story. I only hope I craft the best beginning, middle, and end for the characters. That their story is authentically theirs.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Let Me Tell you, New Stories, Essays, and Collected Writings of the wonderful Shirley Jackson. She’s a billion beautiful nights lined up at once. Starry wisdom and all that…
Is there a particular book that you’d like to have written?
There are so many books I love. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. But what makes these books, and every book special is the fact that they were written by these very people. Every book has its true author. The stories and characters belong to them. There’s no book I wish I would have written, because their true author has already written it so much better than I ever could.
Who is your favourite author?
That’s just too hard. We’ll be here for eternity. I will say I love Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Poet James Wright. I can’t really choose. It’s like choosing what heart-beat is my favorite. The heart-beat that starts my life or the one that completes it. I’m not here without all the heart-beats. I’m not here without all these authors.
Are you currently working on anything that you can tell us about?
I have eight other novels completed. Currently I’m working on my ninth novel. The novel I hope to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is When Lions Stood as Men. It’s a story of a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and end up in Ohio of all places. Struggling with the guilt of surviving the Holocaust, they create their own sort of camp where they punish themselves, realizing in the end it was each other they truly had to survive.
Is there anything you’d like to say to the readers?
That you readers have all the power. It’s not the agents or the editors or the publishing houses that determine a writer’s career. It’s the readers. Without readers buying books, there are no novelists to be had. Readers give meaning to an author’s words. So if you like a book, tell everyone you know. Be that book’s champion because if you do, you’re being a champion for the author herself. My only hope is that readers like what I’ve written. That they can count on me to deliver a story that is worth both their time and their hard-earned money. Nothing would make me happier than to know a reader has finished one of my books with the pleasure of having read it. That’s what I strive for as an author. To be someone’s favorite author as so many authors have been mine.
Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by my blog today, it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for the opportunity. The pleasure is all mine.
You can find out more about Tiffany on her website here.
The Summer That Melted Everything is released in the US on July 26th and August 1st here in the UK. Tiffany has very kindly agreed to let me give you a little taster so please read on.
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World
—MILTON, PARADISE LOST 1:1–3
THE HEAT CAME with the devil. It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat had not. It should’ve been expected, though. Heat is, after all, the devil’s name, and when’s the last time you left home without yours?
It was a heat that didn’t just melt tangible things like ice, chocolate, Popsicles. It melted all the intangibles too. Fear, faith, anger, and those long-trusted templates of common sense. It melted lives as well, leaving futures to be slung with the dirt of the gravedigger’s shovel.
I was thirteen when it all happened. An age that saw me both overwhelmed and altered by life in a way I’d never been before. I haven’t been thirteen in a long time. If I were a man who still celebrated his birthday, there would be eighty-four flames flickering above the cake, above this life and its frightening genius, its inescapable tragedy, its summer of teeth that opened wide and consumed the little universe we called Breathed, Ohio.
I will say that 1984 was a year that understood how to make history. Apple launched its Macintosh computer for the masses, two astronauts walked the stars like gods, and singer Marvin Gaye, who sang about how sweet it was to be loved, was shot through the heart and killed by his father.
In May of that year, a group of scientists published their research in a scientific journal, revealing how they had isolated and identified a retrovirus that would come to be called HIV. They confidently concluded in their papers that HIV was responsible for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS, as the nightmares say.
Yes, 1984 was a year about news. It was the year Michael Jackson would burn for Pepsi, and the Bubble Boy of Houston, Texas, would come out of his plastic prison, be touched by his mother for the very first time, and moments later die at just twelve years of age.
Overall, the 1980s would prove industrious years for the devil. It was a time you couldn’t just quit the horns. Satanic cult hysteria was at its height, and it stood tall. Fear was a square that decade so it could fit into our homes better, into our neat little four-cornered lives.
If a carton of milk turned over, the devil did it. If a kid showed bruises, he’d be put in therapy immediately to confess how his own parents had molested him around a bonfire while wearing black robes.
Look no further than the McMartin Preschool investigation, which started in ’84 and ended with fantastical allegations of children being flushed down toilets and abused by Chuck Norris. While these allegations eventually would be flushed down the toilet themselves, that time of panic would always be remembered as the moment when the bright, bright stars could not save the dark, dark sky.
Breathed’s own devil would come differently. The man who invited him was my father, Autopsy Bliss. Autopsy is an acutely strange name for a man to have, but his mother was an acutely strange woman. Even more, she was an acutely strange religious woman who used the Bible as a stethoscope to hear the pulse of the devil in the world around her.
The sounds could be anything: The wind knocking over a tin can. The clicking of rain on the windowpane. The erratic heartbeat of a jogger passing by.
Sometimes the things we believe we hear are really just our own shifting needs. Grandmother needed to hear the spook of the snake so she could better believe it actually existed.
She was a determined woman who pickled lemons, knew her way around a tool box, and raised a son by herself, all while earning a degree in ancient studies. She had the ancients in mind when she named her son.
She would say, “The word autopsy is a relative of the word autopsia, which in the ancient vernacular of the Greeks means to see for oneself. In the amphitheater of the great beyond, we all do our own autopsies. These self-imposed autopsies are done not on the physical body of our being but on the spirit of it. We call these ultimate examinations the autopsy of the soul.”
After the summer ended, I asked my father why he had invited the devil.
“Because I wanted to see for myself,” he answered with the definition of his name, his words doing their best to swerve his tears lest they be drowned on impact. “To see for myself.”
Growing up, my father was the wood in his mother’s lathe, held in place and carefully shaped over the years by her faith. When he was thirteen, his edges nearly smoothed, the lathe suddenly stopped turning, all because his mother slipped on the linoleum floor in their kitchen and fell backward with no parachute.
The bruises would come to look like pale plums on her flesh. And while not one bone had been broken, a spiritual break did occur.
As Dad helped her to her feet, she let go of a moan she’d been holding. Then, in a giddy woe, she dropped her knees back to the linoleum.
“He wasn’t there,” she cried.
“Who wasn’t there?” Dad asked, her shaking contagious to him.
“As I was falling, I reached out my hand.” She made again the gesture of that very thing. “He didn’t grab it.”
“I tried, Momma.”
“Yes.” She cupped his cheeks in her clammy palms. “But God didn’t. I realize now we’re all alone, kiddo.”
She took the crucifixes off the walls, buried her Bible in the infant section of the cemetery, and never again poured her knees down to the ground in prayer. Her faith was a sudden and complete loss. Dad still had the fumes of his faith left, and in those fumes, he found himself one day walking into the courthouse, where his mother was getting reprimanded by the judge for unabashedly vandalizing the church—the second time.
While Dad waited outside her courtroom, he heard voices a few doors down. He went in and sat through the trial of a man accused of pulling out a shotgun at the coin laundry, leaving bloodstains that couldn’t be washed out.
To Dad that man was the devil emerged and the courtroom was God’s filter removing that emergence from society. As he stood there, Dad could see tiny breaks in the courtroom wall. The holes of a net through which a bright, warm light shone, pure and glorious. It was a light that made him want to stand and shout Amen until he was hoarse.
While his soul had before paced back and forth from doubt to belief, on that day in the courtroom, his soul settled on believing. If not in everything else, then at least in that filter, that instrument of purity. And the handler of that filter, in Dad’s eyes, the person who made sure everything went the very best of ways, was the prosecutor. The one responsible for making sure the devils of the world are trapped by the filter.
Dad sat there in the courtroom, hands shaking, his feet swinging just above the floor they were too short to reach. When the guilty verdict came, he joined in the applause as he smelled a whiff of bleach that he associated not with the janitor in the hallway but rather with the filth trapped by the filter and the world being cleaner for it.
The courtroom emptied until only Dad and the prosecutor remained.
Dad sat on the bench, wide-eyed and waiting.
“So you are who I heard.” The prosecutor’s voice was like a pristine preaching to Dad.
“How could you have heard me, sir?” Dad asked in pure awe.
“You were so loud.”
“But, sir, I didn’t say a dang thing.”
The prosecutor laughed like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. “And in that silence, you said it all. Why, you were as loud as shine on chrome, bright and boisterous in that silent gleam. And such loud boys will grow to be loud men who are meant to be in the courtroom, but never—no, not ever—as the ones in handcuffs.”
That was the moment Dad knew he himself would become a handler of the filter. And while his mother never regained her faith, he kept his in the courtroom and in the trials of humanity and, most important, in that filter.
They said he was one of the best prosecuting attorneys the state had ever seen. Yet there was something unsettled about my father. Handling the filter did not prove to be an exact science. Many times after winning a case, he would escape from the applause and congratulatory pats on the back to come home and sit quietly with his eyes squinted. That was how you knew he was thinking. Squinted eyes, arms folded, legs crossed.
It was on one such night that he uncrossed his legs, unfolded his arms, and widened his eyes, in that order. Then he stood, rather certain as he grabbed a pen and a piece of paper. He began to write what would end up being an invitation to the devil.
It was the first day of summer when that invitation was published in our town’s newspaper, The Breathanian. We were eating breakfast, and Mom had laid the paper in the middle of the table. With morning milk dribbling down our chins, we stared at the invitation, which had made the front page. Mom told Dad he was too audacious for his own good. She was right. Even the atheists had to admit it took a fearless man to audition the existence of the Prince of Darkness.
I still have that invitation around here somewhere. Everything seems so piled up nowadays. Hills all around me, from the soft mounds of laundry to the dishes in the sink. The trash pile is already waisthigh. I walk through these fields of empty frozen dinner trays and beer bottles the way I used to walk through fields of tall grass and wildflowers.
An old man living alone is no keeper of elegance. The outside world is no help. I keep getting these coupons for hearing aids. They send them in gray envelopes that pile like storm clouds on my table. Thunder, thunder, boom, boom, and there the invitation is under it all, like a bolt of lightning from the sky.
Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,
I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.
May you come in peace.
With great faith,
I never thought we’d get an answer to that invitation. At the time, I wasn’t even sure I believed in God or His antonym. If I had come upon a yard sale selling what was purported to be the true Veil of Veronica beside a bent Hula-Hoop, well, I was the type of boy who would have bought the Hula-Hoop, even if the veil was free.
If the devil was going to come, I expected to see the myth of him. A demon with an asphalt shine. He’d be fury. A chill. A bad cough. Cujo at the car window, a ticket at the Creepshow booth, a leap into the depth of night.
I imagined him with reptilian skin in a suit whose burning lapel set off fire alarms. His fingernails sharp as shark teeth and cannibals in ten different ways. Snakes on him like tar. Flies buzzing around him like an odd sense of humor. There would be hooves, horns, pitchforks. Maybe a goatee.
This is what I thought he’d be. A spectacular fright. I was wrong. I had made the mistake of hearing the word devil and immediately imagined horns. But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil? In Wyoming, there is a magnificent intrusion of rock named after the same. There is even a most spectacular breed of praying mantis known as Devil’s Flower. And a flower, in the genus Crocosmia, known simply as Lucifer.
Why, upon hearing the word devil, did I just imagine the monster? Why did I fail to see a lake? A flower growing by that lake? A mantis praying on the very top of a rock?
A foolish mistake, it is, to expect the beast, because sometimes, sometimes, it is the flower’s turn to own the name.
Copyright © 2016 by Tiffany McDaniel
I'd like to once again thank Tiffany for taking the time to chat with me and I wish her every success with her novel.