Saturday, 3 April 2021

Anna Bailey on writing Tall Bones

 When I was 23, I found myself living in a small town in rural Colorado. I worked at a Starbucks just off the highway, where you could see the mountains from every window and where truckers would come through early in the morning and tell me stories about Timberwolves and car wrecks. One morning, while I was walking to work in the dark, I met a coyote in the road, chewing on some shapeless piece of roadkill. We stared at one another. His muzzle was red and glistening and I could feel my own blood rushing in my ears. Am I going to die on the way to Starbucks? I thought. Jesus Christ, that sounded tragic. But then his big ears pricked up and he trotted away into the undergrowth, and that was how it was out there. Frightening and beautiful all at once.

My debut novel Tall Bones also takes place in the Colorado Rockies, and I wanted to imbue it with as much of that fear and wild beauty as possible. In the book, the Tall Bones are a stone circle on the edge of this remote mountain town, and it’s where the local kids go to drink beer and blow off steam and escape their oppressive home lives. One night, seventeen-year-old Emma, sees her best friend Abigail disappear into the woods that surround this stone circle, and the rest of the book follows Emma’s increasingly desperate search for her. But in trying to figure what happened, Emma unearths this small town’s secrets – the violence, prejudice, and religious control – and in the end, nobody is left unscathed.

This was a book that I wrote during quite a difficult time in my life. I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and I moved to America hoping to find space for myself. The landscapes there are some of the most evocative and overwhelming that I have ever experienced, and I certainly had space, living in the brutal beauty of the Rockies, but that vastness cuts you off from the world too, which is very much how the characters in this novel feel. Emma and Abigail are also trying to discover themselves as they come of age, but they’re restricted by their deeply conservative town with its extreme religious undertones.

My own experience of Christianity had a major influence on Tall Bones as well. Frankly, I’d never given God much thought, but in rural America, religion went hand in hand with the landscape. I often felt like the Rockies’ rough, snow-buried peaks were trying to push civilisation out. And so these places created hard people who looked after their own first and filled the huge spaces with whatever they had in common that could tie them together. This usually meant God. If I wanted to be accepted here, I would have to observe the rituals of church and self-loathing, the latter of which came easily enough being gay in a community that openly labelled homosexuals as an abomination. It became hard to ignore God. His supposed hatred of me was so strong, I thought I could feel Him behind every rock and tree, watching me and knowing that I didn’t belong there, and when I eventually extricated myself, I was so angry that anybody had made me feel like that, I knew I wanted to write something about this.

Hidden away from consequence, deep in the mountains, the town in Tall Bones is also heavily governed by Christianity. The local pastor knows how to use people’s shame to keep them in line, and this creates an atmosphere of secrecy and dread, so that when Abigail goes missing, nobody wants the police poking around in case any of their own secrets are dragged into the light in the process. But Emma, with her mixed-race heritage and turbulent past, has already been deemed an outsider by the community. She believes somebody knows what happened to Abigail, and with nothing left to lose, she is determined to expose them.

Writing this book, I was channelling all my awe of great wild landscapes as well as the fear of what they can hide; amongst all this, I was trying to find myself, and Tall Bones is what emerged. It’s a dark story, yes, but it’s a love story too. I think that’s something those small-town preachers often overlooked – that you can hate as fiercely as you want, but things are made to endure in the world’s hard places, and so are people. That’s what I hope readers will take away from this book.

Tall Bones by Anna Bailey (Published by Transworld Publishers Ltd) Out Now

When seventeen-year-old Emma leaves her best friend Abi at a party in the woods, she believes, like most girls her age, that their lives are just beginning. Many things will happen that night, but Emma will never see her friend again. Abi's disappearance cracks open the facade of the small town of Whistling Ridge, its intimate history of long-held grudges and resentment. Even within Abi's family, there are questions to be asked - of Noah, the older brother whom Abi betrayed, of Jude, the shining younger sibling who hides his battle scars, of Dolly, her mother and Samuel, her father - both in thrall to the fire and brimstone preacher who holds the entire town in his grasp. Then there is Rat, the outsider, whose presence in the town both unsettles and excites those around him. Anything could happen in Whistling Ridge, this tinder box of small-town rage, and all it will take is just one spark - the truth of what really happened that night out at the Tall Bones....

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