This originally appeared as a guest post for Nina Mansfield’s blog Not Even Joking
For many years, I had a vacation home in north central Florida on the Suwannee River. Divers come there from all over the world to explore the primeval under water caves and beautiful marine life beneath the Suwannee River. Some of the caves are as tall as ten-story buildings, wide as three football fields, carved for thousands of years by the Suwannee rushing through limestone that yields to the Suwannee’s force.
At night, river dwellers sit around campfires on the river’s sandy shores telling stories of lost divers drowning in the twisted, turning underwater caves, stretching miles beneath the earth—cavers running out of air, stabbing each other with dive knives to steal a last breath from their partner’s tanks. Tales of corpses wrapped in tangled guidelines, entombed like mummies, arms tightly pinned against their stiff bodies. Stories of bodies so bloated that rescue teams have to pry them out of narrow passageways. And of goodbye messages hastily carved in limestone walls during final dying breaths.
It occurred to me that the underwater limestone caverns were the perfect setting for a novel because it’s one we don’t hear much about. I remember sitting around the campfires, listening to the harrowing tales, watching campfire shadows dance like ghosts against the white sand, trying to ignore my thudding heart and the chills that lifted the hair on the back of my neck, thinking, “I have to write about this.”
I read or re-read all of my favorite Southern novelists among whom are Pat Conroy, John Hart, Flannery O’Connor, Fannie Flagg, and Zora Neal Hurston, just to name a few. Plus, being a researcher by trade, I researched cave diving and actual cases of divers drowning in the caves. I listened and watched the people and customs of locals with the ardor of an anthropologist (Margaret Mead would’ve been my best friend). I read the history of the area, including a 1948 novel, Seraph on the Suwannee by famed novelist Zora Neal Hurston. I frequently kayaked the Suwannee, tubed down Itchtuknee Springs, and listened to locals’ tales about the history of the area. I read books about the Florida laws and dangers of underwater cave diving, conducted Internet research, and interviewed local expert dive outfitters about the technical aspects of their underwater treks.
The protagonist in my novel is a psychologist who has the ability to see beneath the obvious. When 35-year-old Dr. Brad Pope returns to his boyhood hometown to settle a debt with his long-lost father and reconnect with his cantankerous Grandma Gigi, he becomes a prime murder suspect. Limestone gumption is a metaphor for when Pope—after being accused of cutting the guideline of a popular local cave diver who drowns—must call upon his limestone gumption to deal with overwhelming forces.
The whole concept of “limestone gumption” comes from solid theory and research—that yielding to the forces we cannot control empowers us—that grass grows through concrete. Since childhood, Brad Pope’s nemesis Voodoo Sally, an old black medicine woman living in a dilapidated shack on the banks of the Suwannee River, doled out her version of wisdom that she called “limestone gumption.” In psychotherapy, having limestone gumption is equivalent to being in your resilient zone—that place where you feel confident, calm, clear, and courageous. Ultimately, they connect on this common ground.
I use the Suwannee River and underwater caves as essential inter-workings of the unconscious minds of the characters. I use the river and caves as threads to weave parallels to the plot and character development. For example, the title of the book originated from the fact that for centuries the Suwannee River has cut through limestone, forming huge under water caverns. The limestone yields to the force of the river instead of resisting it. Through yielding, the limestone becomes a powerful feature of the river, a beautiful and smooth, well-polished cavern, and the strength of its true character is revealed.
It was a challenge to strike a balance between the beauty and brutality of small-town Southern life without idealizing it, yet without vilifying it, either. For example, the paradox (or Tao, if you will) of the townspeople of Whitecross (my fictional small town) doddering along in their pickups, throwing friendly hand-waves at strangers, their shotguns perched firmly behind their heads or the church ladies planning a reunion under the shade trees in the churchyard while shunning outsiders because they’re “different.”