by Wendy Besel Hahn
Melissa Scholes Young’s debut novel, Flood, testifies to all of the ways in which the past haunts us while simultaneously offering us roots from which to grow. Like the Mississippi River, which once actually ran backwards, Laura Brooks attempts to return home to Missouri after a ten-year absence. Much to her surprise, Hannibal’s inhabitants and her own family have changed—except for the ways in which they haven’t. As the metaphorical and literal water rises and threatens to overflow, Laura must once again find an escape route.
Admirers of Mark Twain’s work will appreciate Young’s exquisite homage to her literary patron saint and his fictional characters. Flood’s characters themselves carry marks of Twain: Laura’s new raft tattoo and the nails in the shape of crosses embedded in Trey’s work boots. Young’s novel portrays Hannibal’s yearly parade at which two adolescents are named honorary “Tom” and “Becky” after the main characters from Adventures of Tom Sawyer. On a more subtle level, Young creates plain-speaking folks who “school” the more educated: early in the book Mama tells Laura, “We don’t all need fixin’, you know,” and in the final scene Sammy’s daddy asks Laura what gave her the impression that life was fair.
Young departs from Twain’s shadow when she alternates between Laura’s narrative and expository passages detailing the history of the river, the town, and its famous inhabitants. This “book within a book” has a distinct voice—an outsider trying to explain Mark Twain and Hannibal’s history to an insider. With the novel’s structure, Young forges a new path.
As one of the first readers of Flood, I enjoyed talking with Melissa Scholes Young about the origins of her novel, her good fortune in finding a wonderful agent, and the perseverance needed to revise what was a promising manuscript with a strong voice into a marvelous debut novel.
Wendy Besel Hahn: Writing this novel involved a great deal of research into Samuel Clemens, the Mississippi River, and Hannibal, Missouri, as evident in your Notes. What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching?
Melissa Scholes Young: That the Mississippi actually DID run backwards. In 1812 a series of earthquakes on the New Madrid fault line in Missouri caused the river to run in the wrong direction for a few hours. I read accounts of that harrowing event from witnesses on the shoreline, mothers in boats with their babies, and historians trying to explain it all. The idea of recalibrating, of needing to run in the wrong direction to survive, and of how floods destroy but also make fertile ground was the beginning of my writing Flood.
WBH: Like the Mississippi River, which regularly leaves the confines of its banks, your novel breeches some genre boundaries by including expository sections preceding each chapter. Was this risk taking intentional on your part or instinctual?
MSY: I wrote the expository sections when I was researching almost as tales to myself. They were definitely from my subconscious and what was working in my brain behind the explicit plot of the book. The idea to incorporate them as a Tom and Becky manual written by Mrs. B that Laura helped edit during high school came much later. The form gave me a way to connect Bobby, who is competing to be named Tom, and Laura, who has always wanted to be a Becky. It was a risk, but I’m unreasonably wedded to pushing boundaries.
WBH: Mark Twain addressed inequality, both in terms of race and socioeconomic status, in his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Flood also explores this terrain. Did these parallels surprise you as you wrote about your hometown?
MSY: The parallels didn’t surprise me, but race and socioeconomic status became more acute themes in the drafting. I wanted it to be an affectionate portrait, but I also needed it to be true. Characters are lovely and flawed. So are settings. I reread so much Mark Twain while I was writing that of course it infused my own work. Fiction writers have to reveal truth, even when it’s painful to do so.
WBH: What progress have you seen in Hannibal since 2003 when your novel comes to a close?
MSY: One important change is the opening of Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center in 2013. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum has incorporated more of Hannibal’s slave history into their exhibits as well.
WBH: One reviewer called Flood the fictional companion to Hillbilly Elegy. Do you agree with that assessment?
MSY: I appreciate the comparison. Hillbilly Elegy was a difficult read for me because I’m also from a struggling rural community. JD Vance’s book is brave, but doesn’t offer much hope. Hannibal survives and thrives because it’s built a tourism industry and invests in new types of manufacturing. Many rural communities that are losing population and economies need compassion and hospice rather than blame and condemnation. In writing about Hannibal, I wanted my portrayal to be more compassionate. There is so much to celebrate, and hope is necessary.
WBH: Both works address a crucial topic for our American culture today.
MSY: The biggest challenge we’re facing as a nation is rural/urban polarization. I worry we are speaking different languages and have lost contact with what unites us. I stumble trying to explain my love for rural people to my east coast friends who know so little of small towns, and I’m worried for my hometown folks who often reject outright what seems unknown. Like Mark Twain taught us, travel changes the individual, and I think we all need to expand our cultural and literary imaginations.
WBH: In Flood, the protagonist Laura Brooks tries very hard to play by the rules, but she struggles to right her course. Part of that process involves her crossing the lines of fair play. Is it accurate to say she transforms from playing the role of Becky Thatcher to behaving like Huck Finn?
MSY: It’s an accurate and astute assessment. Laura wants to be like Becky, but it’s an ideal she just can’t achieve. Becky has a charmed life; she’s wealthy and beautiful, demure when she needs to be. Laura just doesn’t fit, her life has not been easy, and she’s pushed to extreme choices. Also, Becky didn’t get to grow up, so who knows how she would have consented or rebelled. It’s a limited perspective based solely on Tom’s crush. I like to think she wasn’t as well-behaved as Tom believes her to be. Laura discovers how complicated judgment is and how right and wrong sometimes shifts depending on whose eyes we’re looking from.
WBH: Flood includes a cast of strong supporting characters in Mama, Trey, Aunt Betty, Josh, Rose, and Bobby. Which character was most fun to write and why?
MSY: Tough call! Rose, Laura’s best friend, was so naughty and fun that she kept stealing the story. She loves fiercely, her loyalty is her strength, and yet she just can’t seem to believe she deserves to make better choices in her life. Or she feeds on drama and loves stirring it up so she can star in it. Rose surprised me every time I wrote her.
Bobby, Rose’s twelve-year-old son, was the most challenging to write. I originally tried to find his voice through the first person. It gave me access to his character but this is Laura’s story with Bobby in a starring role. I had to call a lot of friends with teen boys and ask a lot of questions to understand him.
But Mama was actually my favorite to write. She’s tough. I get that. She’s raw and real and absolutely doing the best she can with the equipment she has. Mama loves her chickens and she loves her kids, even in flawed ways.
WBH: Sammy, Laura’s love interest, makes a late entrance in the novel while Rose and Laura are shooting pool in a bar, yet his presence through flashbacks haunts Laura from the start. Why was it important to hold off his appearance?
MSY: I think Sammy is stuck in time for Laura when the story begins anyway. Sammy and Laura haven’t seen each other in ten years. They’ve never sorted out their past, yet they’ve both made life choices based on their understanding of each other. Part of the plot is figuring out whether the stories we tell ourselves are ever really true.
WBH: Like Laura Brooks, Huck Finn, and Mark Twain, you left Hannibal. How much of Laura’s story is your own?
MSY: Laura’s story is different than mine, but we both had to make our own paths. I left Hannibal when I was seventeen. Like Mark Twain, I’ve never moved back. But I do visit often. What fascinated me so much about telling Laura’s story is that I had to imagine all of it. Laura is returning as an outsider needing to be let back in. I understand what it’s like to straddle homes and to have the skills to function in different ways of being.
WBH: Is the accusation Sammy’s brother levels at Laura (“You aren’t from here anymore”), one you’ve encountered?
MSY: Like Laura, I’m still from Hannibal. It was and is my hometown. I’ll always be from Hannibal, no matter where I travel. It’s true that you can’t go home again, but it’s not necessarily home’s fault. You’ve changed too much. Home expects you to be who you once were and can’t quite recalibrate to your new self. It’s exhausting and unfair to expect your people to know all of this. Laura has to learn this by returning. She has to get stung further by the feeling of not belonging to realize she never really did. Then she has to dust herself off and get back up again. What I think Laura figures out through the process is how important it is to have roots to grow from. Those roots have served me well, but I’ve never returned permanently.
WBH: Your novel ends with some ambiguity, but also on what I would consider a redemptive note: “A flood makes fertile ground on both banks.” Is that a fair interpretation?
MSY: I hope so. I want it to be so. It’s true in both a physical and metaphorical sense. Flood devastation returns the earth to fertility. Tragedy brings new beginnings. But it’s impossible to see any of that when you’re in the middle of the loss.
WBH: I had the pleasure of reading your first draft of Flood. During multiple rewrites, you changed your protagonist’s name and many elements of the plot. You’ve joked you had to write everything “wrong” before you could get it correct. What did you get “right” the first time around?
MSY: The final scene may be the only part that never changed during revision. I wrote that scene during the first draft. Five years and twenty some full revisions later, it’s the same. I always knew the ending, and I was always writing to it. During the process, I was trying to earn it.
WBH: In your Acknowledgements, you thank your agent, Claire Anderson-Wheeler, for believing “in this voice before it was really a book.” In comparing notes with other debut novelists, do you think this relationship is unique in today’s literary world?
MSY: I do. Claire is really special. She plucked my very rough manuscript out of a slush pile because she saw potential in my voice. She actually passed on it when I first queried her, but she said to follow up if I did another revision and gave me notes. She definitely didn’t have to do that with a ‘no.’
We worked together editing for two years before Claire thought it was ready. It sold relatively quickly and found a perfect home. Claire is the best type of agent for me because she’s patient when I’m not. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have an agent that reads as critically and as carefully as Claire, you are lucky indeed.
WBH: You are at work on a second novel. Because I have read an early draft of the first pages, I noticed some overlap with Flood. What else can you reveal about your novel in progress for Bloom readers?
MSY: The novel I’m working on is also set in a rural community. The push and pull of family is constant, but this one delves into family businesses. This family is part of the ‘prepper’ population, specifically the mother believes there will soon be a catastrophic disaster or emergency, so there’s a lot of preparation in survivalist training. The radicalization of rural communities is new and fascinating territory for me. It’s also the story of four sisters and their mother rather than a single point of view. That’s a much wider lens to manage.
WBH: At age 40, you are embarking on your first book tour. Why was this a novel you couldn’t have written when you were Laura Brooks’ age?
MSY: I wasn’t even writing when I was Laura Brooks’ age. She’s 28 and I came late to the writing life. I entered an MFA in my mid-thirties. I’d grown up a lot. I was rushing out to nurse a baby while my fellow students took smoke breaks. I think it takes this long to know yourself and learn what you want to say. I know how to listen better—to myself, to my characters, to my readers—than I did at her age. I also know that it matters where you’re from but it matters more where you are going.
Wendy Besel Hahn’s work has appeared in Washington Post, Sojourners, Redivider, and elsewhere. She lives in Reston, VA and is working on a memoir about growing up non-Mormon in Utah.
Homepage image photo credit: Missouri State Archives