On the way to my sister’s, there is an abandoned house. It sits on a rocky hill with trees crowded close, overlooking a creek that parts a briar thicket. The windows are broken and the front door is gone, the tin roof rusted and the chimney stones tumbled down in a heap. I’m not sure when I first noticed the house, but now I look up there each time I pass. Sometimes cows are grazing in the shade of the yard. Sometimes there are cords of firewood stacked against its sooty clapboard. Once I saw a man riding a tractor on the hillside. I can understand why he lets the house stand empty. There’s a sadness about it.
One evening three summers ago, I happened to be passing with my camera in the car and stopped to take pictures. I stood in the weeds beside the road as the sun was going down, the woods quiet and still beside the rustling creek water. The abandoned house had never looked more haunted. I remember the lonesomeness that came over me, and the sense of a story attached to the place. Whatever happened under that roof had cast a pall. Then a car rounded the curve and the moment was gone. But the feeling stayed with me.
A week or so later, I was folding clothes when it came to me who belonged in that house. I saw a black-haired woman with wild blue eyes and her two hungry-looking children. The children were twins, a boy and a girl. There was something mysterious about the three of them, especially the woman, and I needed to figure out what it was. I pictured her and the twins living in isolation on that hill in the mountain woods, maybe hiding from some kind of danger. I don’t know where the image came from, but I was captured by it.
When I sat down with my notebook, I didn’t start with the woman, even though I knew she was the heart of the story. I saved her for last, discovering her through the eyes of the characters whose lives she turned upside down. I wrote about her son, Johnny Odom, first. Somehow I identified with him the most, in spite of his violent streak. Almost from the beginning, I saw Johnny as a poet. His evolution into a writer felt beyond my control. It was the part of me that seeped into the narrative, my understanding of the power of words and of books. Perhaps because I felt a kinship with Johnny, he’s the character I imagined standing as I did in the roadside weeds looking up at the abandoned house. That lonesome moment I had one summer dusk became the first scene I wrote for Bloodroot, of teenage Johnny returning to his empty childhood home after six years in foster care.
It took a year to write the first draft of Bloodroot. In the process, I found the woman with wild blue eyes and named her Myra Lamb. I wrote about how she was raised by her grandmother in that house on Bloodroot Mountain, a free spirit born with “the touch,” an inherited gift for communing with nature. I learned what made her a destructive force in the lives of the other characters, her tortured relationship with a man named John Odom that affected all of them. I wanted to explore whether a love like theirs was destined for a tragic end or if they could have resisted their dark passion, and whether or not a person’s blood dictates how they turn out. Getting to know Myra in that very first draft, but also in the subsequent drafts I wrote over the next 18 months, I realized that while my characters might be products of their upbringing, they have a choice: they don’t have to let their fates be determined by where they come from or who their parents are. This was something I didn’t know before I started writing, something the characters had to tell me.
The last time I passed the house on the way to my sister’s, one side of it was stripped to the studs and there was rubble piled in the yard. The man on the tractor must have decided to demolish it. He doesn’t know that his place has meant something to a stranger. I might glance up there from time to time and be sad to see it gone. But I won’t ever forget how it looked from the road that day three years ago. Whatever the true story is of that house on the hill, in my eyes it will always be where Myra lives with her twins, where she was raised by her grandmother and where she ran home after escaping her cruel husband. Myra Lamb may be the heart of the story, but she didn’t give birth to it. For me, that abandoned house will always be where Bloodroot was born.
Bloodroot is Amy Greene’s first novel. She was born and raised in the foothills of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children.