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Question and Answer with Lori
Lori answers a few question about the inspiration behind LET ME DIE IN HIS FOOTSTEPS
While you have done historical research for your previous two novels, Let Me Die in His Footsteps is very much based on an actual historical event. What was that story, how did you come across it, and what made you center the book around it?
I had decided to set my third novel in Kentucky, and while doing some general research on the state, I came across a historic event that initially caught my eye.
In 1936, in the small Kentucky town Owensboro, the last person was publicly and lawfully hanged in the United States. The facts of the case were troubling. An elderly woman was robbed, raped and murdered in her home. A few days later, a young black man named Rainey Bethea was arrested on suspicion of having committed these crimes. Bethea was indicted, tried, convicted and after numerous appeals, he was hanged. This entire process, from arrest to hanging, took approximately ten weeks. But the single fact that most intrigued and disturbed me was the decision made by the Commonwealth’s Attorney to ask for an indictment only on the rape charge. At the time, a murder conviction carried with it a death sentence that would have been administered privately. Alternatively, the sentence for a rape conviction was a public hanging in the county in which the crime occurred. The attorney, seemingly, wanted to ensure a public execution.
The case drew national attention. Newspaper reporters came from across the country, not only to report on the public execution (because only history would tell us this would be the last such execution), but because a female sheriff was to preside over the event. As many as 20,000 people descended on the small Kentucky town to witness the hanging. There were reports of hanging parties, hotdog and popcorn sales, and a carnival-like atmosphere. Some newspapers reported,mthough witnesses to the event have denied this, that spectators tore bits of clothing from Bethea’s body to be kept as souvenirs.
It was this hunger for a public hanging that drew me back to the story of Rainey Bethea again and again. It didn’t feel like a hunger for justice but instead like a hunger for something else. I began to wonder why society chooses to cast out certain people. I began to wonder how that choice is made and what yearning it satisfies. And lastly, the event reminded me why I am so often drawn to writing about the past. Many years have passed since that last lawful, public execution, and yet in our daily headlines, we continue to read about those who are singled out, cast aside and deemed dispensable.
What other type of research did you do for this book? And which parts are strictly from your imagination?
In addition to having visited Kentucky, I visited a lavender farm and did a great deal of research on lavender and its various uses. I baked with lavender, cooked with lavender and made homemade lavender ice cream. (Adults tend to like it. Children do not.) I also interviewed a number of people who grew up in Kentucky during the fifties and who worked the tobacco fields. Lastly, I studied the folklore, traditions and superstitions that have come out of Kentucky. I used various combinations of these traditions and altered some to suit the world I had created in the novel. The characters
in the book are entirely from my imagination, and I fictionalized the town and county. And the central crime, while inspired by actual events, involves a significantly different set of circumstances and all characters are fictional.
Your writing has been compared to some of the Southern literary greats like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Is this something that you were aware of when you chose to write a story based in the South?
As I remember, I had already begun writing this novel when I first saw those comparisons. Had I given them serious or extended thought, I believe they would have intimidated me. I’ve long lived in the South, almost twenty years, and I was happy to feel inspired to write something that let me sink into this rich and varied world.
Let Me Die in His Footsteps oscillates between 1936 and 1952. Was it difficult to write the book in two different time periods?
I did initially find this difficult. It always takes me some time to get to know my characters and to get comfortable with my setting. For parts of the novel, I wrote long stretches of the 1936 storyline and then long stretches of the 1952 storyline. This allowed me to sink into the setting and also into the tone. I found the 1952 storyline, which is largely set on a lavender farm, particularly difficult. Conjuring suspense amidst the beauty of a lavender field was a challenge.
Tell us about the title.
The title was inspired by the Bob Dylan song LET ME DIE IN MY FOOTSTEPS, which he wrote in the early sixties. While searching for a title for this novel, Dutton Editor Denise Roy came across this song and forwarded it me. Like Denise, I thought the title embodied an important element of the novel. Though I will shy away from discussing theories on Mr. Dylan’s intended message when he wrote the song, to me it is about living life without allowing the weight of fear or judgment or prejudice to put us in a figurative grave long before we are put in a literal grave.
We made a slight change to Mr. Dylan’s title—choosing to use ‘his’ instead of ‘my’—because one character in the novel demonstrates the courage to live without fear and to seek a better life for himself. Although this character doesn’t appear often in the novel, he is one of the most significant. Alternatively, when many of the novel’s other characters succumb to fear and a judgmental nature, the consequences are disastrous and deadly.
Let Me Die in His Footsteps opens on the eve of Annie Holleran’s 15 ½ birthday, and there is a belief held widely in her town that if she looks into a well at midnight on that night she will see the face of her future husband. Was this an actual ritual or are these superstitions that you created for this story?
This is a great example of actual folklore that I adapted to suit the circumstances of the novel. Various parts of Kentucky have reported versions of this superstition. Some versions specify the woman must look in the well at midnight on the first day of May. Other versions do not specify a particular day. And yet others warn of seeing a coffin in the well. I altered the tradition and created the ‘day of ascension’ that occurs on a young woman’s 15 ½ birthday. It is on this day that each young woman in my fictional county can look into a well in hopes of seeing her intended.
Two of your characters, Annie and Juna, have what they call “the know-how,” an uncanny sense of knowing that something will happen before it does. Where did this idea originate?
The idea of the know-how developed in a very organic way as I wrote the novel and got to know my characters. I first imagined, after having spent much time researching the many traditions and superstitions of Kentucky, that someone would have to be the keeper of all that history. One generation would have to pass it along to the next or it would eventually be lost. It will be up to the reader to decide if the know-how is truly a gift, or if it’s simply the keeping of history.
What did you enjoy most about writing Let Me Die in His Footsteps?
It took me about twenty months to write the first ¾ of the novel, and about a month to write the last ¼. Those final chapters, when I finally knew my characters and setting and tone, were thrilling to write. The other ¾ was excruciating.
The Baines are the other central (and conf licting) family in the story, a family made up of brothers who are very different from one another. Walk us through writing this family dynamic. Did you base this family or the brothers on anyone?
There is a long and well-known history of family feuds in and around the Kentucky hills. Much of what is known about these feuds has been handed down by word-of-mouth, which means the details have been largely dependent upon which side was doing the recounting. While these feuds were often romanticized, they generally involved average people trying to protect their families. This is what I envisioned springing up between the Baines and the Hollerans. In the novel, the facts of this feud depend entirely on who is remembering them, and both families are simply trying
to protect their own. As to the Baine Family, Joseph Carl Baine was the first brother to walk onto the page. I knew he
would be the weakest among the many Baine brothers, at least physically, and that he would be important to the plot, although I didn’t know how important until the book was complete. Ellis Baine is the strongest among the brothers. Both of these characters were constantly surprising me as I wrote this book. I was never entirely certain if they were good guys or bad guys until the very end.
You won the Edgar for best debut for your first novel and your second novel was a finalist.
How did that feel?
Both experiences were wonderful. I can honestly say I was much more relaxed the second time around. I have had the pleasure of meeting many terrific people because of the Edgar nominations. The recognition has also been a great reminder to stay focused on my favorite piece of advice—write the book you want to read.