A CONVERSATION WITH JESSICA MARIA TUCCELLI

1. Glow is steeped in the geography and folklore of northeast Georgia and Southern Appalachia. Why did you decide to set your novel in this region, and how did you come to learn about this part of the world?

It was an adventure. I had written the first chapter, but I didn't have a setting yet. In the world of Glow, ghosts inhabit the landscape just as easily as living beings, sometimes the two being interchangeable. I needed an environment that could support and evoke that. So my husband and I drove from Manhattan down the east coast, and when we arrived in Northeastern Georgia, I knew I had found the ideal surroundings for my story: The forest was wet and lush and fertile with spooky pockets of light and dark, and exotic flowers the likes of which I'd never seen before in the United States. There were mountains, hidden coves, cataracts, and cavernous gorges, the perfect playground for my characters, the perfect place to befriend a ghost. The confluence and clash of cultures lured me as well—Cherokee, African-American, Scotch-Irish—with such deep-rooted histories, yet still vibrantly alive.

2. How did you go about crafting such an intricate plot?

My background is in film and theatre, and my strength is improvisation. I basically arose every morning, allowed a voice to come into my head, and wrote down what it had to say. If nothing came, I would pose a question to one of my characters. The key was to leave my desk with the scene unfinished, so that I had something to come back to the next day. My first mentor gave this advice to me, and it fuels my writing engine. It does make for an unbridled first draft, but that kind of freedom is crucial to my process.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother took me to the Uffizi in Firenze. As we passed a series of four unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, the guide told us that Michelangelo believed the sculptures existed within the marble and his job was to reveal them. I like to think of a first draft like that marble, where the narrative is within the draft, and one must actively, thoughtfully, chip away and reveal it.

3. Of all the characters in your novel, who are your favorites?

I'm sure I would not be the first to say that picking favorites amongst my characters is like picking a favorite child. That being said, I wish I had a Willie Mae Cotton in my life.

4. You're a graduate of MIT. How did you make the leap from that sort of atmosphere to the world of literature?

Science is investigation, observation, creativity, and the use of imagination. For me, there is an easy logic in going from MIT to writing. The difference, of course, is that a scientist is working on a new theory of physics, and the writer is working on inventing the physicist who is working on the new theory of physics.

5. Glow covers a large span of time—from Andrew Jackson's expulsion of the Cherokee to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. What kind of research did you do to get a detailed historical understanding of each period?

I listened to oral histories and the music of the period, and even took to the sky in 1929 biplane for the barnstormer scene. I also read material from those times: Life Magazine, Harper's Weekly, cookbooks and newspapers, especially the obituaries. But what made it all come alive for me were the people I met in my travels through the Georgia mountains, in particular Robert Murray, Appalachian born and raised, a living encyclopedia and the former curator of the Foxfire Museum in Mountain City. He showed me how to hem a hog, gird a tree, and weave rope out of dog hobble, amongst many other skills of simple living. And Mary Mance, the oldest living descendant of the slaves of Rabun County, who invited me into her church and shared with me stories of her childhood. Understanding the recorded facts of a certain period is important, but even more vital is connecting to the experience, and then making it personal.

6. What was it like writing from not one, but several very unique perspectives?

Natural. Prior to writing Glow, I had been working for many years in film and theatre, most recently crafting one-woman shows; so multiple voices came naturally to me. Also, my ear is atuned to the nuances of language. The music, the beauty or ugliness of words, the cadences and tropes—these are my toys and my tools. The challenge for me learning to write beyond dialogue. Subtext is the lifeblood of a script, and the actress and her connection to her inner life feed those unsaid words.

7. Who are some of your literary influences?

There are so many. Toni Morrison for her use of language, her themes of mother love and identity, and her daring with language and the narrative form, especially in The Bluest Eye. Alice Walker for her entire oeuvre. Edward P. Jones for The Known World, a masterpiece in storytelling. I especially enjoy experimental writing, including Finnegan's Wake, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, most of Gertrude Stein and all of William Faulkner. For magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. For the art of detail, Flaubert's Madame Bovary. For her eloquent and powerful short stories, Flannery O'Conner. For economy and potent images, the poets Victoria Redel, Billy Collins, and T.S Eliot.

8. How did you get started writing? Do you have advice for aspiring novelists?

When I was a child, my best friend, Darice, lived miles away. So we wrote each other letters. We pretended we were twins and that our parents had sent Darice on holiday to visit a quirky old aunt in Paris. Neither of us had ever been to Paris, but Darice gleaned what she could from the encyclopedia, while I filled my letters with the antics of our fictitious brother who was busy blowing up things with his new chemistry set. In this way, Darice and I would be a little less lonely. It was my first foray into storytelling. For me, it is a most intimate of experiences, sharing my imaginary world with someone. It's a way of connecting to my fellow human being.

The best advice I ever received was “get a voice in your head, and let it do the writing.”