Author of 'Southernmost' Discusses Setting His Novel In Key West
Key West is a popular locale for writers to set their stories. Beyond the aquamarine waters and swaying palm trees, the Keys provide openness, tolerance and isolation.
Those are among the reasons why author Silas House decided to set his novel in the southernmost city in the United States. The November title for the Sundial Book Club, "Southernmost" is the story of Asher Sharp, a former preacher in a small Tennessee town who kidnaps his own son after losing a custody battle. Of course, they end up in Key West.
Seeing life through Asher's eyes it's hard not to feel constant anxiety, as he is always looking over his shoulder. The 10-year-old Justin is a voice of calm and maturity and compassion. And even though the two cannot hide from their fate for very long, they share a surreal bond in the time they spend hiding in paradise.
We spoke with House about what inspired him. And we started by having him describe Asher.
HOUSE: I think that Asher sort of represents most people that I know who really want to be good to people but they're struggling with things they've been taught all their lives. And he just wants to go against everything that he's been taught and everything that his culture is teaching him and really embrace being good to people and to act on that instead of just thinking about it. So to me Asher is where a lot of us are now in that I think a lot of us have reached the point where we really have to stand up for what we believe in and act on that and not just be quiet about it anymore. So in that way I think the book is more relevant now than it was when I was even writing it. I grew up in the evangelical church and so I knew the world that he inhabited very well. But I also knew that even though lots of people were so fervent in that church they were also quietly, privately questioning things a lot. And so instead of just being quiet Asher comes right out with it and that doesn't sit right with people in the story.
WLRN: Asher and his wife Lidia eventually get divorced because he's willing to question a lot of his beliefs but she cannot let go of what she believes. Eventually there's a legal battle; he loses. So he makes a decision. He takes his son Justin and they drive off to Key West. I think a lot of us know someone who's been through a horrible custody battle but what makes a person like Asher, someone you think is reasonable, make a decision that's so extreme?
Well I think it's very easy to lose your reason when you feel like you're losing your child. And this book actually started with a little piece of some newspaper about somebody that had taken their child. It was a custody battle and they had run off with their child. I thought it would be more interesting to do it from the point of view of this man who had taken his little boy and that would enable me to look at a lot of the assumptions we have about gender and fatherhood and all those things in a really complex way. And I've thought a lot about it; I have two children and I just thought 'what if?' How far would I go if I was at risk of losing my child? I think that a big part of being a parent is you make so many mistakes and as soon as you make them you realize it and it's too late. And that's what happens. Asher is just pushed too far and the law is not on his side. And so he does what he feels like he needs to do in the moment and quickly realizes it's a mistake. But at the same time he wants his little boy with him. He just can't stand to be away from him.
Asher goes to Key West because he has an estranged brother living there. His brother Luke was thrown out of the home when he was young because he is gay. I wonder why you picked Key West. His brother could have gone to Canada, could have gone out West or could have gone anywhere. Why Key West?
I had just started writing the book when I was invited to the Key West literacy seminar in 2008. And as soon as I got here I knew this is where Asher would take Justin. Key West embodies everything that Asher wants. It's a place of openness and freedom and it sort of the opposite of everything that's going on in his little Tennessee town. It's the opposite in every way in the climate and the music and the food and in just the way people interact. And there's just such a feeling of openness and I feel like in Key West there's just a real love that's often on display between people in other parts of the country is often repressed and people don't feel as willing to show that. So it was the perfect place thematically of course but it's also just, as a novelist you can't ask for a richer place to write about than a place like Key West; the flora and fauna and just the people and the history. It's just such a wealth for a writer.
I encourage anybody find you on Twitter because you've been going around different parts of Key West and going to spots that you talk about in the book. One of them for example had a photo of the St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Why was that location so important in the story?
Well I guess that's a little representative of my own experience. This is not an autobiographical book but of course a novelist can't help but add autobiographical elements in it. And like I said I was raised evangelical and it just took me a long time to come to terms with the strict way I had been raised. I witnessed a lot of homophobia and racism, xenophobia and so finally I found a congregation that I felt like I could belong to in the Episcopal Church. And so that happens for Asher to some degree and in the church here in Key West and just this one little moment he feels the acceptance he's not felt in a long time in his home church.
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