Long-time Great Smokies Writing Program faculty member Vicki Lane published her most recent novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes, in fall 2020. About this novel, Charles Frazier commented: “Lane’s richly detailed vision of the past expertly underpins a dark story of complex divided loyalties in an isolated, war-torn mountain community.” Her previously published novels include Signs in the Blood, Art’s Blood, Old Wounds, In a Dark Season, The Day of Small Things, and Under the Skin. Upon her retirement from teaching GSWP classes, Vicki talked with Janet Moore, Special Features Editor of this publication, as well as a former student of Vicki’s, about the author’s rich and accomplished writing life.
Janet Moore: As a former English teacher myself, I'd be interested in knowing how that experience influenced your approach to writing, and to the demands of being a writer.
Vicki Lane: Teaching English Lit to grades six through twelve had me reading widely—always a must for writers. Trying to keep the students engaged with unexpected twists to the daily routine morphed into writing and the ever-useful plot twist. As for writerly duties, having spent time talking to roomfuls of wiggly, hormonal, captive audiences, public speaking to folks who are there because they are interested in my books is a breeze. Though once, when I was speaking to a large group, a kind of joint meeting of three book clubs, there were two women in the back engaged in a furious conversation while I was speaking. I really wanted to send them out of the room, perhaps to the principal’s office, but I contented myself with glaring at them over my glasses.
JM: You taught me the importance of getting the details right, not just in nonfiction but also in fiction. Could you talk a bit about how you go about getting the details right?
VL: Hurrah for Mr. Google! And libraries and microfiche of old newspapers. As all of my fiction is set in Madison County—more or less—I have almost fifty years of lived experience to draw on. In my latest novel, And The Crows Took Their Eyes, I had to imagine life and language during the time of the Civil War. Some of my characters speak much as the older folk I met when we first moved to Madison County. Others, the more educated, are based on letters from the time. In one of my mysteries, I have a character who is a modern-day Brit. But I had only Monty Python and PG Wodehouse in my head, so I asked a friend in England to read the Brit’s chapter to see if I’d gotten the Brit-speak right. Fortunately, I enjoy research and happily spend hours down a rabbit hole to get one sentence right.
JM: You've retired from teaching in the Great Smokies, but not from writing, I hope. What next for you? A short story collection?
VL: Maybe. I have a number of loosely linked short stories set in modern-day Madison County. Whether I can muster the energy to pull them together and pursue publication is the question. Nowadays the burden of promotion falls heavily on the author, and I have grown more and more averse to self-promotion. So, we’ll see.
JM: I was delighted to see that you've taken up painting. I particularly like your rabbits. Now that you are a grandmother, is there any chance that you will try your hand at a children's book?
VL: I think about it a lot. I have sketched out several, one about a visit to The Museum of the American Housecat. But I’m not confident enough about my painting skills to attempt that one yet.
JM: In addition to pondering a new book of your own, what are you reading now?
VL: I just finished Heather Newton’s Puppeteer’s Daughters. Before that I read Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Modern World. I’m listening to The Once and Future King and making dabs at a mostly dreary bit of academia titled Appalachia On Our Mind about the national perception of Appalachia up to 1920 due to the influence of “local color” writers.
JM: If you had to choose one so-called “regional” writer who especially influenced you, who would it be?
VL: Probably Lee Smith, with her Fair and Tender Ladies.
JM: One of the most important things I learned from your classes is the importance of asking Who is going to read what I’m writing? I now wonder about other questions writers need to ask themselves.
VL: Am I enjoying the process? Am I writing from a place of truth? (There’s truth, even in fantasy and sci-fi.) Am I only writing this in hopes of wealth and fame? (You may recall, I often began my Great Smokies classes by saying, Don’t quit your day job.) Is this plot going anywhere? Am I getting bored? (Plot twist!) Is there someone in here that folks will relate to, or even like?
What publishers want today is a book similar to a recent best seller, but not too similar. One could go mad chasing this because unless you’re a fast writer, last year’s zombie vampire cow craze will be over and something else will be big. So, write what you love, what you would want to read, because you will be reading it many times in the process.