I live in Chapel Hill, home of the Tar Heels and many illustrious University of North Carolina alums, including Thomas Wolfe who famously said, “You can’t go home again.” And yet most writers would disagree with his sentiment. The concept of home is one huge, goopy gray area that echoes with contradictions and powerful emotions—positive and negative. Home represents beginnings and endings; home represents moving on and never letting go.
My second novel, The In-Between Hour, is my love letter to our little corner of rural Orange County, North Carolina, and I was thrilled when it was chosen as a SIBA Okra Pick. Who knew I was a Brit writing southern fiction? But my new novel, Echoes of Family, is about the pull of memories buried in an English village.
Marianne Stokes is the infamous wild child of the fictitious Newton Rushford, which she left thirty years earlier after a public psychotic break. When she returns on the cusp of another mental health crisis, the village welcomes her back as one of its own—despite the gossip about why she’s set up base in the unmarried vicar’s guest bedroom. That understanding of community comes from living in an English village for most of the first 25 years of my life. Until I fell for an American professor, I had hoped to live, love, and be buried in that village.
Thirty years on, my heart is permanently split between rural southern England and the forests of North Carolina where my husband and I have raised our son. I love to listen for hawks in the mature trees that provide shade for my sprawling woodland gardens, and I love to hear a cuckoo in the fields behind my mother’s house. I miss hedgehogs and badgers, but I rush for my camera every time a wild turkey struts past the kitchen window. I wish I could grow a fuchsia hedge, and yet I adore the tropical plants that thrive in sticky southern heat. “Carolina in My Mind” brings me to tears, and my office is strung with Union Jack bunting.
Because I have an 86-year-old mother with health problems, I travel back and forth between my two worlds every six months. Each trip is deeply disorientating, and when everyone says welcome home, my jet-lagged brain is tugged in opposite directions. I feel as if I’m always saying goodbye to one home and haven’t yet quite arrived at the other. It takes days to sink back into the groove of village life and even longer when I return stateside to rediscover the rhythms of family and work. And for some reason, turning left out of our driveway onto the far side of the road fights every driving instinct.
However, this constant physical and mental shuttling back and forth provides endless raw material for my stories. I write emotionally layered family drama inspired by the joy and heartbreak of my own life. I adore my husband and my son, but I wish I didn’t have to share them with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); I’m grateful that my sister lives near my mother and can deal with the nitty-gritty of her life, but I can never turn off the guilt. I’m obsessed with the light of the gloaming in the North Carolina forest, which turns treetops gold, but I hate the summer darkness that descends rapidly at 8 p.m. Every July and August I yearn for the navy-blue skies that accompany the long hours of twilight living in southern England. If you’re read my novels, all of this will sound familiar.
I turn the roller coaster of these emotional reactions into research and recycle them through my fiction. BCW characters—as my agent calls them—have strong connections to home, whether home represents the places they live or the places of their childhood. Sometimes those bonds come with healthy, happy memoires. Often they don’t. As Stephen Barr of Writer’s House once said in a workshop I attended, “Setting tattoos character.” Amen.
The concept of home provides rich material for writers to excavate. The gardener in me thinks of it as compost because it’s packed with emotional nutrients to feed the imagination. My real and imaginary worlds have a co-dependent relationship. I never see a contradiction between the two, especially not when I’m trying to find new stories that explore the different ways in which home and family matter.
BARBARA CLAYPOLE WHITE is the bestselling author of four novels, The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family. She is a native of Turvey, England where she grew up the daughter of the village vicar, studied history at York University, then moved to London to work in fashion. She revisits her homeland of England in many of her novels. Read more about Barbara Claypole White on her website here.