A pastor performing a baptism drops the mic in the baptismal pool, electrocuting himself and the baptismal candidate, and things pretty much go downhill from there. That's the basic set-up of Denver author Tiffany Quay Tyson's Three Rivers, which follows the parallel narratives of three characters as a flood wrecks their fictional Mississippi Delta town. The novel debuts tonight at 7 p.m. at the Tattered Cover Colfax, where Tyson will read from the book and sign copies; in advance of her appearance, we chatted with Tyson about learning to write, her native Mississippi and being on the outside looking in.
Westword: Congratulations on getting your first novel published! That must feel pretty good.
Tiffany Quay Tyson: Yes! I should say it's the first published book — not the first book I've written. I mean, you want to say you've had success right out of the gate, but I know a lot of people that's true for, who have that first novel that just sits in a drawer.
Did you try to get the first one published?
I sent it out to some agents, and really just felt like it needed some work. And the more I grew as a writer, the more I started really seeing the flaws. Eventually I kind of learned that I needed to write the stuff I'd written prior to this novel in order to learn how to write a novel. So it's really thrilling to see it coming out.
Tell me about Three Rivers.
Sure. It's set over the course of about three days when a massive flood threatens the fictional town of White Forest, Mississippi, and there are three story-lines that kind of come together as the floodwaters rise. There’s a scene not quite at the beginning, but a little ways in — they actually published an excerpt of it today on a blog called Traveling With T — there’s a scene in there about a baptism that goes terribly wrong, in that the pastor performing it ends up getting electrocuted and dies in front of the congregation. I read a similar story in a newspaper over ten years ago, and I didn’t write about it right away, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it — actually I think even when I first read about it, it was like, "I’m going to use this somehow."
The situation, it’s a tragedy for sure, but what I was thinking about was less the tragic aspect than what the kind of ripple effect would have been on the people who were there — the people watching, the families. The book has gone in wildly different directions, but it still has to do with those ripple effects. So that was the first scene I wrote, and then I just started writing the book around that. I don’t really write in a linear fashion — I write a scene here and a scene there — and eventually I realized that these scenes could be set on top of each other, so that’s how the book took shape.
The title of the book is of course Three Rivers, and there's a lot of other threes — three story-lines, three characters, three days — and there's the baptism. Was that a reference to the trinity, or to Christian mythology?
Yeah, kind of. I didn’t start out thinking, like, "I’m going to do a lot of threes." The fictional town is set at a place where three rivers converge — the levees break, and that’s what causes the flood, which is something that happens in places like that. And I was working on these three story-lines, so when I brought those together, it made sense to make the arc a sort of three-day arc. I did that partially because there definitely are biblical things in the novel. There’s a big flood, which is pretty biblical. One of the main characters is questioning religion and faith and the value of that culture, and other characters are searching for different types of meaning. So yeah, using that theme of three made sense.
You grew up in Mississippi; what made you want to set a book there?
Honestly, I almost never write about any other place. I don’t know if it was because I spent my formative years there — I lived there until I was 21 — but I guess the place you grew up forms you, how you view things, how you feel about the world. There’s something about growing up in Mississippi that just looms large in my imagination. It’s a rich, fertile place, an interesting place with a really terrible history, but that's a lot of contributions to the arts — tons of artists and writers are from Mississippi. So it’s a place of really strong contrasts, and I think that makes for a good story. I guess the reason I write about it is because being a Southerner shapes who I am.
How do you think being a Southerner shapes how you write?
First of all, I think the rest of the world, when they hear a Southern accent, they bring some assumptions to that. I don’t have a huge accent anymore, and sometimes people don’t notice it, unless I'm talking to friends or family back home or I have two glasses of wine. But when people first hear your accent and know you’re from a place like Mississippi, the first impression people get is how Mississippi is last in everything — the most racist, the most obese. There are these really broad stereotypical assumptions.
I mean, there are things about Mississippi that I don’t love — reasons I choose not to live there — but it is also my home. I feel like people in the Deep South are constantly walking that tightrope of offending and then apologizing, and it definitely colors the way I view the world. I’m a pretty progressive person living in a progressive town, and I don’t subscribe to a lot of the views I grew up with, but I can also understand where people might be coming from about those views. So that outsider perspective is something I think is valuable when I’m working on my characters, and it’s an interesting thing to explore. It helps to make a richer world, I hope.