Tara Staley in #litchatTara Staley: Guest host for Friday, November 30, 2012

A good Southern story is set in a place as realistic and vivid as the characters are colorful and meaningful, yet it’s the author’s voice that gives Southern fiction its distinctive flavor. From this trinity of setting, character and voice comes Tara Staley‘s debut novel, Need to Breathe.

Where else but a town called Union Cross, North Carolina can a guardian angel named Millie Rose look over the premature infant of a dysfunctional teenage couple? When that premature infant is born with chemical burns across her body, her lungs bursting to breathe, it’s Millie Rose who gets beside her and chants, “you need to breathe.” After several harrowing minutes of neonatal heroics, breathe she does. The miracle of breath fills her lungs, pumps her heart and haunts her imagination throughout her life.

This 26-week-old preemie is named Claire. Her parents, Mick and Mandy, haven’t a clue about their own lives, let alone raising a child. Saddled with the special needs of Claire–medically challenging, intellectually precocious, socially awkward–they sink into the abyss of too much responsibility at too young of an age. This is where Millie Rose works wonders.

For all her Southern wisdom, Millie Rose is a Yankee. She’d dreamed of being a mother herself once, but died in childbirth in 1922. Officially she is a “Corporeal Agent,” and though she answers to God, there’s very little angelic about her. She has demons of her own that sidetrack her from her mission to watch over Claire and lead her to her future soul mate.

Despite her having a guardian angel guiding her—or attempting to in the case of the headstrong Claire—Claire manages to mess up her life as much as her mother and father had their own. Her father hides away in his muscle car projects, while her interior designer mother is obsessed with finding the perfect shade of white. Each of them are riddled with shame from the secret they won’t even discuss among themselves behind the reason for Claire’s premature birth.

Characters such as the endearing geriatric twins Gerta and Grace enrich the Southern voice, while the geeky Charlie and the androgynous Big Mac strike a contemporary chord.

Tara Staley’s writing background includes undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and Creative Writing, an RWA award for a past novel, and involvement with the North Carolina Writers Network. She is also a founding member of the online writers’ community Backspace. Her fiction has been blurbed by nationally bestselling and award-winning authors such as Caroline Leavitt and Cornelia Read. As a freelancer, her work has appeared in such publications as UNCG Magazine, BizLife Magazine and the Winston-Salem Journal. She grew up, lives, and will most likely die in Kernersville, North Carolina (except for a one-year study abroad stint in Australia thanks to a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship). She and her husband have two sons. Staley is currently finishing up her next novel, Conditions Are Favorable, biographical fiction that brings to life the world of the Wright brothers and the Kitty Hawkers in the early 1900s.

Follow Tara Staley on Twitter: @TaraStaley