Set in the Bible Belt of Deep East Texas, Visiting the Sins is a darkly funny story about mothers and daughters, naked ambition, elusive redemption, and all the torment it's possible to inflict in the name of family.
Down through the decades, the lofty social aspirations of the feisty but perennially dissatisfied Wheeler women -- Pokey, the love-starved, pistol-packing matriarch; Rebanelle, the frosty former beauty queen turned church organist; and Curtis Jean, the backsliding gospel singer -- are exceeded only by their unfortunate taste in men and a seemingly boundless capacity for holding grudges. A legacy of feuding and scandal lurches from one generation to the next with tragic consequences that threaten to destroy everything the Wheeler women have sacrificed their souls to build.
Melanie Denman is a native of Nacogdoches, Texas and a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University. An eighth-generation Texan, and a former banker and cattle rancher, she currently lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is working on a second novel.
Can you tell us what prompted you to first start writing? I come from a long line of colorful storytellers, so it’s in my blood. Because I’m more of an introvert than the rest of them, writing is easier for me than talking.
Can you summarize your latest work in just a few words? Visiting the Sins is a Texas tale of three generations of mothers and daughters whose conflicting ambitions tear their family apart.
What was the inspiration for this book? My real life grandmother was the inspiration for “Pokey,” the pistol-packing matriarch in my book. She landed herself in quite a few scandalous escapades over the years, and never repented of any of it. The plot was built around her adventures.
Did you do any research for the book? I did a lot of research on the Conner-Smith-Lowe feud that took place in Scrappin’ Valley, Texas back in the early 1900’s. Some of my mother’s people came from Scrappin’ Valley, and I was interested in the impact of the feud on later generations.
What does a typical writing day involve for you? It depends on what stage I’m on with a chapter – brainstorming, storyboarding, or writing. If I’m brainstorming, I try to get out of my usual surroundings. I might take my journal and go to a playground or a cemetery for a few hours. Once I’m ready to actually type the chapter, I work in my home office with my storyboards to guide me. I tend to get into a zone, taking a break only to get coffee or walk my dogs.
How do you decide on the names for your characters? I take almost as much trouble deciding on my characters’ names as I did with my own children! Of course the names need to fit the time and place, but more importantly, they reflect the hopes, dreams, values, and culture of the parents who would have chosen the name. I give a lot of thought to whether they would have chosen to name the child for a relative, or someone from the Old Testament, or even for a virtue they hoped the child would have. Occasionally a name I choose just doesn’t end up fitting the character and it has to be changed.
Tell us about your travels. I love to travel “low and slow.” You miss all the good stuff if you fly over it. I’ve gone across Tanzania in a Land Rover, over the Sahara on a camel, around Italy by train. One thing I still want to do is go on a long cattle drive on horseback. I have a Lonesome Dove fixation.
Tell us about your childhood. I grew up on a cattle ranch near Nacogdoches, Texas. My parents believed in working hard, saving your money, and never giving up.
Do you plot your novels or allow them to develop as you write? My plots are almost always driven by the characters. I might have an idea of the general direction the plot will take, but ultimately it all springs organically from the character.
Have you taken any creative writing courses and would you recommend them? I completed Stanford’s two year novel-writing program. I recommend that program or something similar, for what you learn about the craft of writing as well as the networking and support you find in the faculty and fellow students.
What book(s) are you reading at the moment? I am staying up way past my bedtime reading “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins.
Do you have any advice for new writers? The best advice I have is to get objective feedback on your writing, either through a critique group or in a class environment. It will make you a better writer and help you get accustomed to criticism.