Janet Beard grew up in eastern Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His latest haunting novel is set in the hills and towns of the region.
“The Ballad of Laurel Springs” tells the stories of women from intertwined families from the 1890s to the present day, focusing on one woman after another, as they pass on stories and songs to the next generation.
These songs, which give chapter titles and unify the novel, are usually murderous ballads, which the characters believe were written about their family histories, or “blood hymns,” songs about being. washed in the blood of Jesus.
Beard, 42, is the author of “The Atomic City Girls”. She has lived in Columbus since 2009.
Did you listen to murderous ballads when you were young?
Janet Barbe: Yes, my mother sang to me some of the old ones, and my grandmother too.
At what point did you start to think, “Wait a second, what exactly are these songs about?” They’re so gorgeous that you can kind of slip into the topic.
Beard: I was the kind of kid who was always intrigued by ghost stories and scary stories. When I realized, oh, this is about murder, it was intriguing, and I wanted to know more.
I’m fascinated by how the characters in the novel tend to think of them as songs about their loved ones or their ancestors. Why do you think people feel such a personal connection with them?
Beard: I think these are very real things that happen. Some songs are about specific events, but the ones I chose to use in the book are not. These are older songs, of which there are versions in England dating back centuries. I wanted to pick songs like that so that people could put their own interpretations and see their own family history in those songs even though they weren’t originally written about those families.
Do you think these songs continue to have an influence on people?
Beard: I don’t know how many people know these songs anymore. I mean, obviously, people who are interested in folk music or bluegrass know them better than others. But I think there is a huge element in the culture that is still interested in these topics. The last thing was podcasts, murder podcasts. So it’s still very much alive in our culture to tell stories about these kinds of things.
I never thought pregnancy was such a strong subtext in these songs. And pregnancy has a huge impact on the characters in the book.
Beard: I wrote this book for several years, and part of the reason it took so long is that in the middle of writing it, I had my daughter. Pregnancy was on my mind! The story of a pregnancy going really badly is the first one I wrote after she was born, and I’m sure I was working things on it. Also, because it is about women, it is always a part of the life of the women. The fear of pregnancy or the desire for pregnancy is something that we are always faced with in the middle of our life.
Do you have a favorite song from those included in the novel?
Beard: I love “Wayfaring Stranger”. It’s so beautiful but so sad, You have to be in a good mood, wallow in it. And “Pretty Polly” is the perfect murderous ballad. He has some really haunting lyrics. The line where the girl is about to be murdered and her boyfriend says he dug her grave the best part of last night.
I am also intrigued by the “hymns of blood”. I had never heard this term before.
Beard: I don’t know if it was just used in my family. I heard my mom say that. She had grown up in the Methodist Church singing these songs. I just thought that was a useful term about this kind of hymn that really focuses on the blood.
Did you grow up near Smoky Mountains National Park?
Beard: Yes, it was a huge privilege of my childhood to grow up next to the Smokies. My father worked in schools, but some summers he worked in science laboratories in the national park. So I went hiking with him every summer, accompanying him. I feel like I grew up in the park. When I was a child, huge amounts of development took place where I lived. The tourism industry has really taken off. I loved nature, and I found it so heartwarming that there was this place that was protected.
One of the characters, speaking in the book on Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess des d’Urbervilles”, wonders if she is a strong character or a helpless victim, which seems like a question one could ask. About a lot of characters in your novel.
Beard: As I wrote this, I kept thinking about “Tess des d’Urbervilles”. I hadn’t read it since high school, so I reread it. I felt a strong connection between this book and the book I was writing. I had a lot of English teachers in the book, so it was easy to work on it! For me, the overwhelming thing that intrigued me in writing this book was exploring why we tell certain stories and how stories told by one generation really affect the next generation. It’s not just the events that affect us, but the stories we tell about the events. And how the choices one generation makes about what to hand down affect the next generation.
In one look
Janet Beard will appear in conversation with songwriter Parker MacDonell, who will perform some of the songs from the book, at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at Gramercy Books, 2424 E. Main St., Bexley. Vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test is required. Masks are mandatory. Tickets cost $ 10. (614-867-5515, www.gramercybooksbexley.com)