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The Mechanics of Hope | An Interview with Heather Bell Adams

Set in western North Carolina, Heather Bell Adams’s Maranatha Road is the story of two women, Sadie Caswell and Tinley Greene, who are set at odds by the death of Sadie’s son, Mark, on the eve of his wedding. Sadie is struggling to make sense of her loss when Tinley, a stranger, shows up claiming she’s carrying Mark’s child. In interwoven narratives, the novel explores the different ways these women love, grieve, and find their strength.

There are many things I look for in literature: authentic characters, at least one of whom I can root for; a sense of place; a story that moves; a structure that serves the story; and language that’s beautiful without calling attention to itself. But for me, the ultimate question about a novel is, does it sing?

This novel sings. It’s lovely and haunting as a Bobbie Gentry ballad.

I was honored to talk with Heather during her recent appearance at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh. This interview expands on our conversation.


You’ve explained that “maranatha,” loosely translated from the Aramaic, means the Lord, or hope, is coming. Why did you choose this title?

My draft title was “Hold String and Fly,” taken from advice that Tinley’s father gives her when they’re flying kites. At some point along the way, a few people said this title didn’t work and I needed to select a new one. I chose “Maranatha Road” because place is important in the story. The meaning of “maranatha” seemed appropriate since, although the characters travel through darkness, they find reconciliation. I don’t know of a “Maranatha Road” in the Hendersonville area, which is the real-life inspiration for Garnet, but I recall a Maranatha Baptist Church near my paternal grandmother’s house.

Let me ask you what Mary Akers asked me a few years ago: How do you feel about redemption in stories? Do you look for it in the work of others? Do you strive for it in your own work?

I think it’s especially rewarding when a novel satisfies a fundamental and sometimes unconscious desire for redemption. Your novel Byrd and Amy Greene’s Bloodroot are excellent examples of novels that, although largely about loss and people missing each other, end on uplifting notes of hope or redemption.

In her keynote address to the Hub City Writers Conference last summer, Joshilyn Jackson talked candidly about her early years of substance abuse and how, in her life and her writing since then, she has tried to understand what keeps some people, like her, from stepping over the edge. “What are the mechanics of grace?” she asks. Your novel, it seems to me, is a study in the mechanics of hope—where it comes from, who has it, in what measure, and what it does. Does this ring true for you? Can you talk about your characters in terms of their capacity for hope?

I love these ideas about the mechanics of grace or hope. Through most of Maranatha Road, Tinley retains the capacity for hope. Even when she’s struggling or misguided, she can envision a light around the bend. On the other hand, Sadie desperately hopes her son, Mark, will find his way and when he doesn’t she withdraws into her grief. It’s a kind gesture from her husband, Clive, that heals Sadie and gives her the capacity to hope again, to contemplate the possibility of good things to come.

You’ve said this book began with the image of a girl sitting in a dark shed in a rainstorm, waiting for her parents to come home, which they never do. That’s an image of hope, but a disturbing one. Where did it come from?

The image came to me out of the blue. As I mention in the author’s note, when we were in high school, my sister and I waited for our mother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, to return home from a bone marrow transplant in Winston-Salem. Instead of coming home, our mother passed away. I wonder if that experience informed the image on some level. Also, as a young girl, I was equally fascinated by and scared of the abandoned outbuildings on my maternal grandparents’ property in East Flat Rock. That’s probably why I placed poor Tinley in an old chicken shed for the first chapter.

The story is told in alternating narratives by four characters: Tinley, who opens the novel; Mark; his father, Clive; and his mother, Sadie, who gets the last word. How did you decide on this structure? Which of the voices came to you most naturally, and which did you have to work at?

At first, I only wrote chapters from Sadie’s and Tinley’s points of view. Tinley’s voice remained largely unchanged during my revisions. Finding Sadie’s voice presented a nice challenge since I wanted her to be somewhat closed-off and yet sympathetic. I played around with how to write Sadie until I felt that balance was struck.

My former agent and one of the readers from the press encouraged me to add Mark’s and Clive’s perspectives and I’m so glad they did since they help flesh out the story. Mark’s sections came fairly easily because I understood what drove him and wanted to convey how he got himself into trouble. Because Clive is such a quiet character, I sat with him for a while to tease out what he might offer. Ultimately, Clive’s sections center on his unwavering faith in his family.

The tensions between Tinley and Sadie give the story its energy. Tinley is young, in many ways an innocent; Sadie is older and harder, a stern matriarch. Both act out of what they think of as love, though they have different notions of what love is and what it requires. Both feel complicit in Mark’s death, though Sadie seems more reluctant to acknowledge this. Did you connect more strongly with either character? Did either of them ever surprise you?

By virtue of Tinley’s situation and youth, I felt sympathy toward her from the start. As you say, Sadie resists blaming anyone but Tinley for Mark’s death. And yet Sadie always worries about saying or doing the wrong thing—and in fact she does both. Despite those mistakes, I loved Sadie and wanted to do her character justice by showing how she found healing. For both women, part of the healing process involves coming to terms with what they might have done differently and being able to forgive themselves to find a path forward.

Do you think that hope is necessary to healing?

It definitely helps, doesn’t it? I think once we’re able to envision something better ahead, we’re better equipped to believe that healing and reconciliation might be possible and to embark on the journey.

I’ve never met anyone with a stronger work ethic than you. You’re a prolific writer, a mother, and a full-time attorney. I remember having lunch with you one day when your elbow was in a cast, which didn’t seem to slow you down a bit. How do you create the time and mental space you need to write a novel?

Well, that’s very nice of you to say! I always enjoy hearing about writers’ processes and it’s lovely to imagine settling into a favorite chair with a nice cup of tea to write, but the truth is I squeeze writing in when I can, whether that means pulling out my ragged spiral notebook on my lunch break or thinking up plot ideas on my morning commute.

This is your first novel, but you’ve been writing stories for a while. Tell us about your beginnings as a writer and how you made the transition from short to long form prose. Which form do you prefer?

As an English major at Duke, I wrote some short fiction. A few years after starting my legal career, I picked up creative writing again as a hobby, starting with short stories and progressing to a novel. Sometimes it’s easier to find the time and mental space for a short story, but I also like the challenge of a novel. As a reader, I enjoy both but, if I had to pick one, I prefer to dig into a novel-length work.

Maranatha Road is very much a Southern novel—in its setting, its focus on family, its lilting language. I appreciate the way you’ve created authentic Southern voices without relying on dialect. Was that a deliberate choice?

Yes. Dialect is difficult to get right and I don’t necessarily have the confidence to attempt it. And I don’t want to turn off readers, many of whom (myself included) can find dialect distracting. I think it’s good, however, to try to capture the rhythms and cadence of speech, which contribute to a story’s atmosphere and mood.

What inspires you?

My reading fuels my writing, especially authors like you, Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, Amy Greene, Sue Monk Kidd, Toni Morrison, Taylor Brown, and Colum McCann. I’m always eagerly awaiting something new from these inspiring writers.

Also, I’m a visual person, so when I visit an art museum or gallery I often come away with new story ideas.

What advice do you have for other writers, especially first-time novelists?

Have fun with it.

Writing—even serious writing—doesn’t necessarily require angst. My advice is to let your writing bring you joy whenever possible. When we’re hard at work tackling a thorny plot problem, grappling with intense emotion, or wrestling with an uncooperative character, we can get bogged down with the weight of the process. But when we let go of heavy expectations, if alongside focus and discipline we make room for joy, the real magic happens.