Interviewer: Joshua Salmans. Salmans has lived in Greenville, SC for the last sixteen years. He’s a typical quirky-librarian type who normally travels the world in the stacks at the library; however, at present he is stepping out of the stacks and discovering what else this small blueberry has to offer by traveling with his wife. He has contributed to Appalachianhistory.net and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Katherine Crawford’s Keowee Valley interweaves historical research and storytelling into a dynamic, personal saga that intimately appeals to any reader of Appalachian lore. Drawing from her obsession with anything Cherokee along with her years of backpacking, biking, and paddling the beautiful, lush area surrounding what is now Lake Keowee, Crawford creates a mesmeric tale of one Charlestonian woman who defies the social expectations of her gender and the often overprotective wishes of her grandfather to pursue a lead on her kidnapped cousin.
Quinn McFadden, an unlikely adventurer by her own admission, will lead you on an expedition to the wild frontier of Upstate South Carolina. Not only will you rediscover Lake Keowee as a fertile yet untamed valley inhabited by the native Cherokee, but you will also have your own assumptions of Revolutionary-era South Carolinians challenged by Crawford’s rustically robust prose. Quinn is no Southern-belle and is often surprisingly frank, giving her the disposition of an invulnerable leader; yet, her vulnerability and her sensitivity is betrayed by her encounter with another unlikely character, Jack Wolf. Jack, a half-Cherokee and half-Irish descendent with a Scottish accent, joins Quinn in an audacious adventure that repaints our own picture of South Carolinian history and its people.
Keowee Valley was inhabited by the Cherokee during the Revolutionary-era. It is situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains, just north of Clemson. In the early 1970s, power companies flooded this beautiful area to form Lake Keowee for cooling a nuclear power station.
Mrs. Crawford was gracious enough to sit down and talk with me about her historical adventure, as she puts it:
Katherine, as a fellow Southerner and Greenvillian, I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me about your evocative and adventurous novel. Southern Romance novels have, over the years, kept their relevance by appealing to an increasing desire to challenge the stereotypical identity of women within the Southern belle culture. Why do you believe this appeal is still relevant today?
Thanks so much for asking about Keowee Valley! I’m excited to be a part of Appalachian History, which is such a wonderful site offering so many fascinating stories and insights into our part of the world. I could spend hours online there.
While Keowee Valley isn’t a straight romance novel, it certainly has strong romantic elements, and I like to think of my protagonist, Quinn, as a romantic heroine–though I doubt she’d describe herself that way. I’m not too familiar with Southern romance as a genre, but I did read Gone With the Wind when I was a preteen and again as an adult, and if we’re talking about the Scarlett O’Hara type heroine, I think you’re absolutely right! Scarlett–and Quinn, too, I like to think–challenges assumptions about Southern women: that we’re sweet and prim and always poised, always mannerly, always well groomed and willing to stand behind our men. And most of all, that Southern women can be lumped into one sort of category, which is certainly not the case in real life or in fiction.
Challenging stereotypes is always fun. And I think readers like to get swept up in a world where they can root for a character who does things her (or his) own way, despite society’s dictates. If we’re going to be completely honest, a strong central character, I think, has to be extraordinary in some way, whether it’s the way in which she thinks or the way in which he lives his life. Imaginative transport is key, and challenging the stereotypes of people (especially women) who lived long ago is always a transporting experience. It makes us think. Certainly, I’ve always been drawn to those types of stories.
Interestingly enough, when I was researching the setting of Keowee Valley–18th century colonial South Carolina and the Southern Appalachian backcountry–I constantly had my own assumptions challenged. I’d always thought most women of this time were second-class citizens with little autonomy. But while life then certainly wasn’t a cakewalk for women of any age or cultural background, there were plenty of those who broke the mold.
Especially if a woman was widowed or single (like Quinn), then she had some power, could control her own finances, property, etc. But if she married, then all this was ceded to her husband. It was really cool to discover that at this point in South Carolina history, there were women–white women and free women of color–in cities like Charleston who owned and operated businesses. Things would change quite a bit over the next 50 to 100 years for women in South Carolina, and not in a good way, but at this point in South Carolina’s history, women like Quinn seemed to have a bit more opportunity to break the mold.
As an avid history non-fiction reader, I was entirely thrilled with your inclusion of many familiar historical accounts such as Fort Prince George, Keowee Lower Towns, and the Creeks. You also include a dialogue involving Lt. Andrew Pickens, an iconic name in the Upstate’s history. Rarely do I find it easy to label books as one genre or the other, for I’m convinced that many can easily be classified in several; nevertheless, would it be more accurate to characterize your book as historical fiction?
Thanks so much for the wonderful compliment. The interweaving of research and story was something I hoped beyond hope I could do successfully when writing Keowee Valley, so it’s gratifying to hear that you think it worked! Confining a book to one genre is a slippery business, isn’t it? Not to incur the wrath of the publishing industry, but they–at least the numbers folks–are pretty much the reason authors are forced to slap a genre on our novels.
My favorite novels are always the ones that can’t fit into one genre but instead manage to take a bit from many. That being said, lots of people in the industry (including my own literary agent, publishers, editors, librarians, authors endorsing the novel) have called Keowee Valley by many genre names. It certainly has elements of historical fiction, literary fiction, historical romance, women’s fiction, popular fiction, etc, but the closest I can come is calling it historical adventure. Which isn’t an official genre, really. So I’m launching a campaign for it to become one!
My agent did find it (the genre business) a bit of a rigamorale when he was first submitting the novel to editors. Many, especially at the “Big Six” publishing houses, weren’t keen on the fact that Keowee Valley is a combination of genres. They felt like it could be better marketed if I honed the story style to just one. I had one editor tell me that if I rewrote it as straight romance, they could sell it easier. Another said that the novel needed to decide “what it wanted to be: a frontier story, a story of the Cherokee, a story of the American Revolution, a romance, an adventure story, etc?” Well, I wanted it to be all those things.
To answer your question, though, yes: characterizing Keowee Valley as historical fiction probably is the best bet.
Your novel is set in Keowee Valley, located in Revolutionary-era South Carolina. Keowee is situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just north of Clemson. It was once populated by the Cherokee and is filled with a history of tragic clashes between colonists’ insatiable appetite for land and the Cherokee. Why did you choose this setting for Quinn McFadden’s settlement, which lies on the very edge of South Carolina’s untamed wilderness and is no place for a proper lady from Charleston?
The Keowee River Valley, the entire foothills region and on up into the Blue Ridge Escarpment, is just a gorgeous place. I was lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time there growing up: my parents have a lake house on a small lake that sits right at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Half (or more) of the lake is bordered by the Sumter National Forest. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the forest, creeks, and pastureland surrounding the lake growing up, and my parents were outdoor lovers. So we got to hike, camp, river paddle and just explore some incredible places. Then, I went to Clemson University, and when I was there I got even more into paddling, hiking, and backpacking in the surrounding areas.
If you spend any time in the area, you immediately realize the Cherokee influence: street names, town names, names of rivers and mountains … any pretty spot has a Cherokee name. As a kid I started reading anything about the Cherokee Indians that I could get my hands on, and became pretty much obsessed. I couldn’t believe that such a large and powerful nation of people had once populated the land, and were now gone. Plus, the more I read about them, especially about the egalitarian nature of their government and society, the more fascinated I got.
I always knew I wanted to write about the area, though, because I love it so much. When I was in high school and college, I always went on runs or drove past this particular spot near my parents’ lake house: a cattle pasture on the side of a country road that had a lonely stone chimney sitting at its crest. Behind it were the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of the last battles of the Revolutionary War had been fought literally right next to it, between General Andrew Pickens and the Cherokee Indians.
But one of the locals knew about the people who’d lived there, and no one remembered a house being there, though it had to have been. Whenever I’d run or drive past that spot, I always saw in my imagination a woman standing at the crest of the pasture next to the chimney, her back to me, looking out towards the mountains. She wore 18th century clothing and had long hair. It felt like she belonged, but didn’t at the same time. I just couldn’t shake the image of that woman. I felt like she loved “my” mountains. I had to write about her.
So the story of Keowee Valley had really been percolating in my imagination for years. I knew I wanted to write about the area and about the Cherokee in this specific time period, the 1760s, because the land was sheer wilderness: gorgeous and dangerous. The Cherokee were at their most powerful during the 1700s, and truly influenced the course of South Carolina’s history. I decided to take that dream woman–later, I’d name her Quinn–pluck her from her privileged and fairly tame existence in colonial Charleston, and plop her down in the wild Appalachian backcountry, and see what happened to her and who she’d meet.
I agree! Challenging stereotypes is fun and usually has a worthwhile shock value when the social norm is broken. I love it! Quinn is a woman of two worlds: a feisty, atypical Charlestonian who is “an unlikely adventurer” yet develops into an intrepid heroine and founder of a settlement in the “savage” wilderness of South Carolina—hard to believe that my Greenville was once the Wild West. This question might be an author’s least favorite, but I must ask: Do you see yourself in Quinn?
My family friends and close friends who’ve read the novel insist that Quinn is me. But the truth is, Quinn is somebody I’d like to be! She’s not me; she’s much smarter and braver than me. I don’t know that I could’ve done what she did, leaving all she knew behind for a new life in a dangerous, unknown place. There are qualities we share: I’m an avid and eclectic reader–I most definitely would’ve been considered a “bluestocking” in the 18th century, like she is; we both have blonde hair, and I’m short like she is. We’re both impatient. But Quinn’s an orphan, and though she was raised alongside her cousin by a loving grandfather, I come from a big extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and family-friends. Really, she’s her own creation.
How much of her character mirrors your own life experiences?
What a great question–one that no one has asked me yet, which means I’ve really got to think about it. We certainly share a love of adventure and travel, and a particular and abiding love–hers new, mine deep-seated–for the South Carolina Upcountry and the Blue Ridge mountains. Since I grew up hiking and exploring the Southern Appalachian backcountry, those moments of wonder and joy that she experiences in the novel certainly mirror my own. And I’ve definitely had moments of illumination, “God moments,” if you will, like the one she has crossing the Great Smoky Mountains on the way to the Cherokee capitol of Chota.
Though on a much smaller scale than Quinn’s, there have certainly been moments where I felt stifled by my own life, stifled by tradition and wanting to break free of the roles offered me as a woman in society, especially (perhaps) in a fairly conservative Southern society. I have directly felt, as Quinn does, that I loved my family and my home but wanted desperately to do something different, something on my own. When I was a preteen and teenager I felt very much like Jo March in Little Women, who tells her mother, “I love our home, but I’m just so fitful and I can’t stand being here!” I drew from those emotions to create Quinn.
That some of your own assumptions were challenged intrigues me and makes me interested in more than just your novel, but also in your research. For those of us who enjoy obscure historical details, are you able to elaborate on any noteworthy South Carolinian women you found in your research who may have collectively led to the culmination of Quinn’s character? Perhaps even from Greenville?
It’s been quite a while since I researched colonial South Carolina, so please forgive me if my details are off! (In addition, for the past couple of years I’ve been researching South Carolina in the 1850s, and it’s easy for the historical periods to meld in my mind–not good.) There weren’t many real South Carolina women in particular who stood out to me, or that I used to build Quinn’s character–though I did come across some interesting ones, like Catherine Backhouse, who shows up in the novel and who really did co-own the Sign of Bacchus tavern in Charleston, the one that Quinn, Jack, and Campbell visit at the end of the novel.
There have been South Carolina women in history who’ve fascinated me over the years, like indigo producer Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the abolitionist Grimke sisters, and the diarist Mary Chesnut–all of whom I hope to include in later novels. Unfortunately, because of the tenor of the times, women simply weren’t written about as much as men. Their accomplishments weren’t considered as important, and rarely made the history books.
I’ve loved history, especially South Carolina history, since I was a child. I read early, and when I was in the first grade my teacher (whom I adored) ran out of books for me to read, so she gave me a copy of the 5th grade history book at the time: South Carolina from Mountains to Sea. I can still remember it; it had a painting of Edisto Indians on the cover. Ever since then I’ve been hooked. There’s no accounting for how many South Carolina women I may have read about over the years, who’ve inadvertently influenced the character of Quinn. I’m probably forgetting quite a few.
Quinn’s first and foremost a product of my imagination, but she’s certainly a culmination of people–woman and men–in my life, myself, and the real and fictional characters who’ve influenced me and intrigued me over the years.
Keowee Valley also has this quality as it questions the typical Southern moral narrative in terms of sensuality, sex and marriage. In an era in which traditional values are being reevaluated, how do you respond to critics who may deem your use as contributing towards the erosion of such values?
As a reader, researcher and fan of historical fiction, I’m never more frustrated than when a novel–or, too, a work of nonfiction–paints an inaccurate portrait of a time, place and/or people. It’s easy, I think, to look back on an era and assume that the people living then were somehow more moral or more elevated, ethically, than we are today.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned researching the antebellum period of the United States–the founding–it’s that as open-minded and intelligent, truly touched by greatness as the founders, especially, were, they were human. They were incredibly flawed. And to me that’s the beauty of writing about people, especially historical figures. When you peel the layers back there’s always a chance you might not like what you find, but to me those nuances make an historical figure all the more fully-fleshed.
With Keowee Valley I didn’t set out necessarily to write a “moral narrative,” but a narrative of a time and place, and a story of the people–particularly one person, Quinn–who lived then. There’s sensuality and sex in the novel for several reasons, but mostly because in the 18th century people were sensual and had sex. Quinn and Jack make love for many reasons, but mostly because they love each other. Jack, as half-Cherokee, comes from a background that views sex much more pragmatically than Quinn’s Anglo-Saxon, Protestant background does (at least in the 1700s).
I don’t believe that sex in fiction erodes traditional values. I do think gratuitous sex in fiction–just like gratuitous violence or misogyny or sexism/racism/any act that is birthed from hate–has dark power, only because it exists for no other reason than shock value. It’s easy, then, to think of it as the norm. Fiction, like any art, I believe, should open our eyes more fully to the world. I wanted my characters in Keowee Valley, especially Quinn, to be multi-dimensional, and for me that meant exploring as many aspects of human nature as possible.
I don’t necessarily think I was as successful at this as I wanted to be when writing; hopefully I’ll get better at it with future books! When I was younger, I was satisfied with cookie cutter characters and stereotypes in my novels and in my history classes: the perfect student, the jock, the nerd, the angel, the devil. But as an adult, I need more. Other authors may disagree. Thank goodness there’s room for all of us!
Your novel gave me such entertainment as I became an observer of Quinn’s adventure and romance. You caused me to rediscover my own backyard in South Carolina. Thank you again for your time and willingness to talk with me.