How What I Came to Tell You Came To Be

by Tommy Hays, Executive Director, Great Smokies Writing Program

When my son Max was in fifth grade, he came to me and said he’d read all the books in the house that he’d wanted to read, and asked if I had any suggestions. I told him there was one book I knew he hadn’t read. Max looked puzzled for a minute and then, with an expression somewhere between disappointment and resignation, he groaned. He knew I was talking about a novel of mine called In the Family Way, which I’d been after him to read for some time. The book is set in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina in the 1960s. It’s not really autobiographical but it is in many ways about Greenville as I remember it growing up there as a boy.

Back then Max could read a book in a day or two if he put his mind to it, but in this case I noticed that several days passed and his bookmark had stalled out about fifty pages into In the Family Way. One night at the dinner table I mentioned that I’d noticed that he didn’t seem to be making progress with my book. He sighed, put his fork down on his plate and then, looking up at me, said, “Daddy, it’s good historical fiction, but it’s just not my cup of tea.”

“Historical fiction!” I cried. “That’s my childhood you’re talking about!”

He shrugged then took a bite of green beans.

It’s not easy when it’s pointed out that your childhood has become a historical period, like the Paleozoic Era or something. But Max’s comment got me to thinking about trying to write a novel he and his sister might enjoy, one that would come out of Asheville, North Carolina, their hometown and was about a time and a place they knew, which is how I ended up writing my new young adult novel What I Came to Tell You.

When I first started What I Came to Tell You the place that I kept thinking about was the Bamboo Forest, Max’s name for a stand of bamboo bordered by a little creek at the back of our neighbor’s yard. Every day when he came home from school Max would head back there, lugging pruning shears, a little handsaw, twine and other tools. He’d spend the afternoon making things out of bamboo–tables, chairs, walls, and gates with twine hinges. He also made spears, bows and arrows, and blow guns which shot pointed thistles he’d tied together and which, if you blew hard enough, stuck deep in the bark of a tree. He’d prune the dead bamboo stalks and make little rooms, which he would assign to neighborhood kids. The Bamboo Forest wasn’t big, the size of somebody’s living room, but it was big enough for a neighborhood of kids to lose themselves in for hours every afternoon, and big enough for me as a writer to lose myself in for the years I worked on What I Came to Tell You.

My daughter, now eighteen, read What I Came to Tell You in the spring and said she liked it very much. Max, now twenty-one, didn’t read it until his girlfriend read it and told him it was good and even then he didn’t read it until this summer when he was stuck in the bottom of an old gold mine turned physics lab a mile underground in South Dakota. Max had to spend nine hours a day down in the science lab looking for neutrinos, a mysterious and elusive atomic particle. When things got slow down there he’d open up What I Came to Tell You and read a few chapters. He didn’t say much to me when he finished it, but his girlfriend tells me he read it in two days.

Tommy Hays is Executive Director of UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. He also teaches in UNCA’s Master of Liberal Arts Program. His most recent novel, What I Came to Tell You, was published in September, 2013, by Egmont USA. (For more about his other books, go to Tommy took first place in the “Creative Writing Teacher” category of the Mountain Express 2013 Best of WNC poll. The Great Smokies Writing Program won first place in the category of Best Creative Writing School or Organization. (See “Fit To Print,” this issue, for more.)