The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue
Books In Conversation

Tiffany McDaniel with Carissa Chesanek

Tiffany McDaniel
On the Savage Side
(Knopf, 2023)

I first learned of Tiffany McDaniel’s work while shopping around in a bookstore one hot summer years ago. I picked up what I considered a fitting title for that late August, McDaniel’s first novel, The Summer That Melted Everything. What I didn’t expect was to fall desperately for her writing: the lush sentences, the specific details, and the characters that did melt your heart. She isn’t afraid to tackle tough subjects, such as race, class, abuse, and trauma, and the impact our actions can have on everyone around us. McDaniel has a knack for creating characters you can’t help but want to follow and root for by making even those unrelatable, relatable.

Her latest book, On the Savage Side, is no different. In this third novel, she takes us on a journey of addiction and abuse through the eyes of two twin sisters, Arc and Daffy. We see these twins as children growing up in a home of addiction, with an absent father and a mother who spends most of her time in bed, often in the company of strange men. The only stability in their lives is their grandmother Mamaw Milkweed, a strong and beautiful soul who shows them true love and affection in a world that is usually cold and brutal. We later watch as these twin sisters grow up, walking into a life similar to the one their mother and aunt chose, all while women in the community are going missing and later found dead in the river. The locals seem barely concerned by these victims, as they view them only as addicts and prostitutes and assume they would be tangled in a life of danger. Something sinister lurks along the corners of these pages with a story that dabbles in mystery but holds us in with deeper meaning and a message about people worth entertaining. 

As I expressed before, McDaniel isn’t ever afraid to go there, and some of the scenes in her newest work can be hard to digest. But it is her respect for the characters and her craft that keeps her work from ever feeling too forward. She writes for a purpose and that purpose is for the reader to understand, learn, and grow. McDaniel is a true inspiration in literature, but also in humanity.

I sat down with McDaniel to chat about her latest book, the importance of creating relatable characters, and the power of holding onto your imagination.

Carissa Chesanek (Rail): Thanks so much for chatting with me today. I’m a big fan of your novels and really enjoyed reading your latest, On The Savage Side. Did you always know you wanted to write novels?

Tiffany McDaniel: I did. I've been writing since I was a kid. I've always known that I wanted to be a writer. In 2020, I found an old box while going through some storage, and I found an envelope from when I was a kid and had sealed it. Inside the envelope, I'd written when I grow up I want to write books that people want to read. It was written in crayon and child scribble, and I probably sealed the envelope to kind of seal the wish.

Rail: Sounds like it was your destiny to be a writer. You’ve definitely done what you set out to do as a child: writing books people want to read. I’m sure it's come with its challenges along the way. Can you tell us some of the challenges you faced when writing On the Savage Side? What part of writing this novel was the most enjoyable?

McDaniel: I think one of the most challenging would have been making sure that I was capturing the spirit of who these women might have been. The book was inspired by the crime and violence toward women, but the characters are fiction. They're not based on any of the real-life victims, but I still wanted to write something that would honor their memory and something that would help readers to identify with them as being individuals and being women who mattered.

The most enjoyable would have been getting to imagine who they might have been and I think in the case of Arc and Daffy, the two sister characters in the book, the enjoyment of writing their relationship with Mamaw Milkweed, hopefully, that was one of my favorite aspects of the book—was the way that the three of them interacted with each other. I found a lot of joy in those moments when Mamaw Milkweed would be crocheting with the two girls and knowing that those moments were those tender memories for them. There was a lot of joy in writing those three characters. 

Rail: You write about these types of relationships well. The relationship with Arc, Daffy, and Mamaw Milkweed makes me think of Betty and her father, Landon, in your other book Betty. I loved that relationship. It was also very tender and loving and captured many sweet moments with them.

McDaniel: I definitely felt Landon’s spirit with Mamaw Milkweed. She definitely had aspects of him and so she was a lot of fun.

Rail: As you said earlier, On the Savage Side is based on a true crime story. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

McDaniel: This crime happened at Chillicothe. I grew up in both central and southern Ohio and Chillicothe was the town right next door to me in central Ohio. I was always very familiar with Chillicothe. I had memories of first going there to see the paper mill and going there during Christmas time. I've had extended family and friends in Chillicothe. When these murders started to happen, it was at a time when drugs were especially impacting communities. Since I was a kid, I lived in communities that had been impacted by drugs and so I'd grown up playing with kids like Arc and Daffy, whose parents were addicted. From a very early age, I knew what finding a syringe on the street meant. 

When I started to research this case, I was looking at the photographs of the women. One face stood out to me and when I started to research more, and I saw her name, I realized this was someone I had gone to school with, and she was one of the victims who had disappeared up in Columbus. She's never been found to this day, but her disappearance was linked to the Chillicothe disappearances. There were a few threads that I was seeing and connected to these women and what had happened to them. That was kind of something that made me want to research this more and discover and write this down and try to amplify those voices.

Rail: What inspired you to want to write this book now?

McDaniel: I remember when the crime first took place and these women went missing. There were some in the community who felt that because these women were dealing with addiction, and they were linked to those lifestyles that come with it, they were active participants in their deaths. I wanted to show the circumstances that led them to that lifestyle and hopefully help people identify with them a little more in the case of Arc and Daffy. For people to see them as kids and help readers understand what brings someone to that point in their life where they're dealing with those issues. I wanted to have people see them as not just drug addicts or their links to prostitution, but to see them as fully formed women and hopefully, sympathize with them and understand what happened to them. They weren't murdered because they were active participants in their death, but they were murdered because of the violence upon them. That was important to me to make sure that that got across to readers.

Rail: The book definitely paints a raw portrait of addiction and how it impacts lives. What was that like for you to write?

McDaniel: As I said, I’d grown up with kids like Arc and Daddy. I remember their clothes would be worn and torn. I wanted to represent that aspect of neglect and that aspect of abuse and make sure that people understand what it's like to be a kid in those homes of addiction, and how these parents are dealing with their issue of addiction. The kids are kind of left to fend for themselves. Having known individuals dealing with addiction, I wanted to reflect on those women and their connection to prostitution and write about those feelings that I knew from a very early age when I first heard about those things, that impact of understanding what that was, and what that would mean for their own lives. I wanted to uncover those emotions that would be tied to not just addiction, but to the lifestyle that's associated with it. Those were the things that I wanted to dig into and uncover. I think reflecting was a big way for me to kind of discover those things.

Rail: Did you have to do research for the book around the opioid epidemic in America?

McDaniel: Not so much because I already had those connections to the drug issue. I think in the past few years, a lot of people who might not have been impacted by drugs kind of saw it as more of this epidemic, but my aunts and uncles had been dealing with addiction, and in some cases, since the 1960s and 1970s. For me, it's always been in the background of Ohio. I did research on the history of opioids. I wanted to go back a little bit further to the origins of heroin, how it first got started, who were the players in that, and what the history was like in terms of the impact on not just individuals but the community.

Rail: The book shows us the devastating effects of when the trusted bonds of our family fail us. I found it especially heartbreaking when Arc was sexually assaulted and her aunt and mother did nothing to protect her from it.

McDaniel: Those scenes are always difficult to write because of the subject matter that you're dealing with, and I think the goal with those scenes is always to lean back on the details so that you're just giving the readers enough sense of what's happening. You're not writing it for the sake of the violence itself, but you're writing it for what that will mean for the rest of that character's life. Again, it goes back to those kids I played with who were like Arc and Daffy and who suffered similar abuse, whether it was physical, sexual, or emotional. When you have parents who are absent because of their addictions and you don't have that guardian looking out for you, the kids are trying to survive on their own from a very early age and have to do it with these predators around. It's about these kids who are surrounded by wolves, and yet they're expected to survive. That was a scene that I hope helped readers understand how Arc’s life ended up the way it did. That the abuse didn't just happen those nights in that bedroom, but it was something that she carried with her throughout the rest of her life. It was continual abuse that she didn't get the help or therapy to navigate and understand and help her. I think if you never resolve that trauma, and you never get that help, it does attach to you like weights throughout the rest of your life.

Rail: There are many moments of surprise in this book. Do you know about these twists and turns beforehand, or do they develop as you write the story?

McDaniel: I write with pen and paper. I’ve never been a computer writer. When I write something, I'm kind of sitting there and going over it. I had no idea when I first started the story of the direction that it was headed in, but then I got to a certain point and realized where it was going. You never know. It sort of is determined by the scenes and by the characters and sometimes it doesn't become a fully formed idea until you're at a certain point in the book. In some ways, I surprised myself as well.

Rail: It's great when you can surprise yourself with your writing. I also like that you say you write by hand. I write by hand, too. I feel like the words flow more organically on the page with pen and paper rather than on the computer.

McDaniel: That's a beautiful way to put it.

Rail: Where do you write with your notebook and pen? Do you have a specific spot, or do you kind of move around?

McDaniel: It's hardly ever at the desk. It's usually sitting in a comfy chair with the cat or on the bed at night. I get a lot of ideas, and I'm jotting them down in a notebook. I take a notebook with me when I go on a walk in the woods and so if I think of something I just bring out the pad and I write it down. I've always found nature to be very inspiring to me and just being in the company of cats helps.

Rail: Why do you think nature and cats help inspire creativity?

McDaniel: I don't know. I think maybe it's just them being present. It's not a vocal thing, but it's more of a spiritual thing. You can feel the ease and I guess it's just the way they speak to you. And the way they look at you. It's similar to the way the trees speak to you as they're blowing in the wind. There's just something that speaks to that primal part of us and awakens that nature inside us. I think that's a conversation between the spirit of those two things perhaps.

Rail: Your books take place in your home state of Ohio. Can you talk to us about your inspiration to write about this particular area and what it means to you?

McDaniel: I was fortunate enough to grow up close to nature. I always had the woods to run through. I think having those things helped me develop that sense of the environment around me and to make sure that I was paying attention to certain things. When you live out in the country, you're always aware of your surroundings. You're aware of the night sounds because you kind of have to be able to have that sense of security. When you hear a sound at night, you're like, “Oh, that's a cricket, that’s a bullfrog.” I developed this heightened sense of paying attention to the environment around me and I think that allowed me to develop that within the book and in the case of Chillicothe. As I was writing, I reflected on first seeing that paper mill smoke floating up to the sky. As a kid, it made me think the paper mill was this monster and the smoke was the monster’s breath, kind of like this breathing dragon. Going back to those feelings and the imagination of a kid really helps me develop that sense of play. It helps that I've been able to see these things in person. When I described them in the book, whether it's the woods of Ohio or the hills of southern Ohio, it allows me to pull from my memory, which I think is such a valuable asset.

Rail: I love that image of a breathing dragon. It's amazing what our imagination comes up with when we're children, and to channel that as an adult is something very special.

McDaniel: It's something I think some adults can lose. I hope that most of us continue to hold onto our imagination. Keeping that childlike spirit allows us to nurture ourselves as we age. It's part of capturing that wisdom, too, because we are also preserving something that helped us develop as children and help us see the world around us. I believe in holding on to that childlike imagination.

Rail: Definitely. How do you hold on to the childlike imagination as an adult?

McDaniel: Oh, that would go back to nature. When you look at a fallen leaf and you think what does this leaf look like? Maple leaves land on the ground with those points facing out in three directions and I always think that they look like Brontosaurus footprints. When you keep that alive and you're walking through the woods and you think, “Oh, I'm walking with a Brontosaurus in the woods,” I think that helps. You keep your imagination alive. And you allow yourself to say something as fantastical as you know, “I'm walking in the woods with dinosaurs.” I think that's so important to keep the imagination fueled.

Rail: I'm going to think about walking with dinosaurs the next time I’m in the woods. Speaking of next time, can you tell us what you are working on next?

McDaniel: I have a few previous books I've written that I'm currently editing and I've started two new books. I won't say too much about what they're about. I will say that when I work on something new I tend to work on a couple of projects at a time, building the foundation, and then I'll focus exclusively on one or the other. I have adult works and then I am wrapping up the first two of middle-grade fantasy. That's been fun. Getting to kind of release that imagination in middle-grade fantasy is such a joy.


Carissa Chesanek

Carissa Chesanek is a writer in New York City with an MFA from The New School. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

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