Cathie Pelletier’s first novel, The Funeral Makers, made a big splash when it came out in 1986, and over the next two decades she wrote 10 more, including two under the pen name K.C. McKennon. One of those, Candles on Bay Street, garnered a million-dollar advance from Doubleday in 1998; the book was translated into 10 languages and made into a movie. All of Pelletier’s novels are set in her home state of Maine, but all of them were crafted, at least in part, here in Tennessee, where she lived between 1976 and 2006 — and where, in her words, “I found my voice as a novelist.” She moved to Nashville hoping to become a songwriter, but books turned out to be her stock in trade; in addition to the novels, she collaborated on nonfiction works with Tanya Tucker, Skeeter Davis, Doug Kershaw and other country music luminaries. Her latest novel, The One-Way Bridge, has just been published. Prior to appearances in Nashville and Memphis, Pelletier answered questions via email:
You first came to Nashville from your home state of Maine in 1976. Tell us the story of that migration.
I had started college at the University of Maine when I was 16 and was expelled at 17 for what they called “radicalism.” (It wasn’t. It was more like childish insubordination and campus pranks.) So I set out, hitchhiking across the country with a girl I’d just met. When we hitchhiked through Tennessee, I knew I’d come back to live there. The South spoke to me. It’s that simple.
In 1976, after I went back to college and graduated without noticeable incident, a friend and I moved to Nashville. I was 23 years old then, and my first collection of poetry was published that summer. I figured writing poetry meant that I would soon be a successful songwriter. Man, was I wrong. Country songs have character, and story and even dialogue. “Long Black Veil.” “Clayton Delaney.” “Middle Age Crazy.” If I wasn’t at Mills Bookstore at noon, I’d be at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel bar at 2 a.m.
It was so exciting to be in Nashville back then. Would Elvis Costello go behind the bar at the Rock ‘n’ Roll and serve customers? Would one of the Eagles walk in the front door? Look, there’s Shel Silverstein out on the patio! For a young writer, Nashville was a hell of a playground. Listening to songwriters talk about their work was like being in a perpetual workshop. I knew I had found a place to roost and to study my craft.
Was your first novel written here?
I had always thought I’d be a poet and maybe even write a good song occasionally. I worked very hard at both. Then, in 1984, I attended a writing conference at Vanderbilt with Lee Smith as instructor. Lee read my short story and said, with that wonderful accent of hers, “Why don’t you write a novel?” So I wrote The Funeral Makers. Lee read it and then found me an agent. Imagine that. All 11 of my novels are set in Maine, and yet nine were completely written in Tennessee, and the other two were begun there. I found my literary voice in the South.
You lived here on and off for 30 years, often returning to Maine for family visits in the summer. Talk about the pull you felt, in both directions, as time passed.
In 1993, I met my husband when I was on book tour in Toronto. So I let love lead me north of the border. But after two years of looking out at Lake Ontario from 19 floors up, I packed up again and moved back South, bringing my husband with me. He fell in love with Tennessee, just as I had. But it’s tough to be so far from family. With my father living in the family homestead alone (93 now and the oldest citizen in Allagash), I decided it was time to move back home and be with him.
Did any pieces of Southern culture rub off on you for keeps, or have they all washed away?
A few years before my mother died, she heard me talking to the UPS driver. “Sir?” I asked when I didn’t understand him. Later that same day, I said, “Oh yes, ma’am,” to a woman at the grocery store. That night I heard Mother telling my sister, “Cathie is so much more polite since she’s been living in Tennessee.” When I have a couple glasses of wine, the Southern accent comes out. No self-respecting Southerner would endorse it as genuine, but I’ve lived in Tennessee longer than I’ve lived anywhere. When I say “I could hug your neck,” you can see a flash of panic in some eyes. You’d think I was asking to put a rope around their necks and hang them until dead.
What brings you to Nashville this time? Does it feel like a homecoming?
I’m coming to sign my new novel. I simply can’t wait. Each time I ever stepped off a plane in Nashville, I could feel the South. It descends, like a muse. There’s a weight to the South, a constant reminder to me that I’m not in Maine. When I sit on my river here and think of the South, I smell wisteria and honeysuckle. I’m sure it probably grows somewhere in Maine, but you need humidity and the background rattle of cicadas to appreciate those two words. And I have longed for the sound of the mockingbird, which we don’t have this far north. Last year, one appeared at the family graveyard, sitting day after day on the fence and guarding its territory. No birders up here have ever, not once, sighted a mockingbird before. I’m convinced it came from Nashville.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage—please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.