Ann Hite has one of the best laughs you’ll ever hear. It ricochets off her eyelashes and flickers across her light brown eyes when she’s talking about her writing and the world she has built in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This real place near Asheville is home to Ann’s fictional characters and the haunting stories from her debut novel, Ghost on Black Mountain.
I had hoped to let you hear Ann’s laugh and her own account of the granny and great-aunts who passed down their gift of storytelling in a podcast; the timing was perfect for a few good ghost stories at Halloween. But the background chatter, hip Muzak and coffee grinder at REV Coffee in Smyrna, Georgia, overpowered the recording of our conversation. Or maybe it was one of Ann’s “haints” (the most popular word for ghosts or spirits in the Black Mountain vernacular) interfering with my recording equipment? Fortunately, I was able to transcribe our conversation and let you hear Ann’s voice in another way.
On the dedication page of the book, Ann writes “Granny, your voice still lives.” Granny is what Ann called her maternal grandmother, Inas Elene Lloyd. What Ann didn’t know until after her mother and grandmother had passed away was that Gran’s real last name was Lord. Her cousins told her that Inas had changed her surname shortly after leaving her home in the North Georgia Mountains to move to Marietta, Georgia. Inas Elaine Lloyd was really Inas Elaine Lord.
“We don’t know why she changed her name,” Ann said. “I think that was the basis of the book almost: the secrets that we keep. I hate the word ‘theme,’ but if my book has a theme it’s secrets—how families handle secrets and what the results are of the choices we make.”
What Granny didn’t keep hidden was her gift for storytelling. At least once a month, she took young Ann to visit the home place in North Georgia, where Ann listened to Granny and her sisters swap stories laced with the supernatural and superstitions that were a part of the mountain culture. Granny urged Ann not to repeat the stories that she heard, but Ann couldn’t help making up her own versions of the spooky stories so that she could torment her easily-scared brother back at home.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Ann began to share her stories with the rest of the world via an online magazine called The Dead Mule. And when Nellie Pritchard, the 17-year-old protagonist whose story begins Ghost on Black Mountain, started speaking to Ann, she dismissed her.
“I thought, ‘I can’t write about her,’” Ann recalled. “She’s just this little girl from the mountains. What’s she going to have that people will care about? I can’t write these beautiful, flowery, intelligent sentences from her point of view because she wouldn’t speak that way. But she kept bugging me, and little parts of her story would come to me, so I sat down and wrote her short story.”
Nellie’s story came together in two days, and was quickly snatched up by a New York magazine. More than twenty other short stories followed. By channeling the characters that visited her from Black Mountain, Ann said she discovered her authentic writing voice.
At this point in our conversation, I worried that Ann might be a touch schizophrenic. When you read Ghost on Black Mountain, you’ll find not just one authentic voice, but six distinct characters with their own points of view and dialects. Of course I’m being facetious about the multiple personalities, but Ann did admit to being a rule-breaker when it came to writing the novel.
“In school they give you the rules,” Ann said. “The rules said don’t ever write from more than three points of view because it’ll confuse the reader. Of course, John Gardner said, ‘You’ve got to know the rules to break the rules.’ When the book started out, I was going to tell the whole thing from Nellie’s point of view. I expanded it to six points of view. So much for rules, right?”
Since we were speaking close to Halloween, and ghosts frequently appear in her novel, I asked Ann what she considered to be the essential elements of a good ghost story. While visits from spirits of the departed may be an everyday occurrence on Black Mountain, they’re still pretty foreign and frightening in other parts of the world. So how does a good writer play upon our fears?
“I think that you have to leave a lot to the imagination,” Ann said. “I was so surprised to hear people say that they read the book at night and it really scared them. The reason why it was creepy was that I left a lot to the imagination. Some of the most violent things that happen in the book are left to the reader’s imagination. The readers are so intelligent. I write just enough to where they are participants in the book.”
Ann is teaching a writing class at the Book Exchange in Marietta this Sunday, November 4. To learn more and register for one of the few remaining slots, visit the Book Exchange website. The title of the four-hour workshop is “Does Your Character Have a Pulse?” Ann will also be speaking at the Dahlonega Literary Festival next weekend, November 10-11.
And if you’re ready to hear more stories from Black Mountain, Ann is completing work on a new novel, The Storycatcher. It debuts next September and features some old and new characters. The exciting news is that Ann’s also written a novella, Lowcountry Spirit, which will come out as an e-book a month before the new novel. Lowcountry Spirit promises to enrich your reading of The Storycatcher. Look for them both next fall.