Greene’s second novel, Long Man, is a family chronicle set in Tennessee, in which a girl disappears and a river keeps rising.
The major event in this novel is a cataclysmic, man-made flood in East Tennessee in 1936, resulting from a TVA hydroelectric dam project. You grew up in the region and still live there—did any of your forebears experience this historical incident?
My family’s 40-acre farm was spared by the floodwaters, but Cherokee Lake [the lake created by the dam], which inundates our part of the valley, is less than 10 miles from the house my grandfather built. When the water is low in winter, you can see the beginnings of roads leading to the town underneath. As a child, I was fascinated by the silos rising from the middle of the lake. When I started doing research for the novel, I learned land that had been in families for generations was lost underwater. The bones of loved ones were disinterred [from graveyards covered by floodwaters] and moved, and thousands of families were displaced. It was easy to imagine the heartbreak Roosevelt’s New Deal caused during the 1930s, but for my own family, it was a blessing. Before, people here were starving and drowning in floods and dying of malaria, struggling to survive on a few hundred dollars a year. The Tennessee Valley Authority not only “modernized” East Tennessee by providing us with cheap electric power; it saved lives, bringing flood control and new jobs. My maternal grandfather had eked out a living as a subsistence farmer, but both my parents went to work in the factories.
Which comes first for you as a writer, themes or characters?
For me, both as a reader and a writer, the characters are the most important aspect of any novel—its beating heart. Once I figured out what motivated my characters, I began to fully realize what Long Man is about. Themes emerged through the storytelling process. In a way, these characters are all pieces of me, imbued with my own ideals, my own conflicted feelings about whether progress is always a force for good. I gave the characters my passion, then put them in situations in and outside their drowning town.
Tell us about the character Annie Clyde Dodson. She defies the government with hours to go before her land is flooded.
I was inspired by more than one woman. I thought of my grandmother, who survived the Great Depression by farming alongside her husband to support eight children, and refused to sell her land even when times were leanest. I thought, too, of my mother, who wanted to be a teacher. As a girl, I spent more than one hot afternoon working alongside her in tobacco fields and never once heard her complain. I guess she’d learned from her own mother to love rather than resent the land that both gave and took away from her. I wanted to make Annie Clyde strong, but I had to consider the complex meaning of strength. More than anything, I wanted to make her human. Her emotional response to displacement, and her self-destructive willingness to put herself and her family in danger, could be seen as weakness.