Q&A with Cheryl Anne Tuggle
Have you always been a writer?
I’m a late bloomer as a novelist, but I’ve always written something.
Some novelists begin a story knowing how it ends. Others write their way toward an ending they haven’t yet imagined. Which are you?
I suppose I’m closer to the first. Once the idea for a story comes to me, I get to a skinny first draft in short time—and an ending. After that, I begin to slowly (an understatement) work over the interior, getting to know my characters and their motivations by putting them into situations where they can reveal themselves. My husband tells me it’s a lot like building a house, the way I go about it. I get it framed and roofed and “in the dry” then starting filling in.
Where did you get the idea for Lights on the Mountain?
At the risk of being cliché, Lights on the Mountain began as a sort of waking dream while I was sitting in the car one afternoon, waiting for my daughter to finish a vocal audition. It was autumn, and it was raining, and looking through the windshield—through the rain—I could see a man and a woman sitting together at a kitchen table. Immediately I knew that there was some sadness, and that the story I wanted to tell was the man’s, not the woman’s. I took out my notebook and began to write, to discover what his story was.
Ecology is an important theme in this novel, with the lush natural surroundings of Western Pennsylvania appearing almost as another character. The relationship between people of different cultures is an important theme as well, especially as to their religious faith. Are these things you think about a lot?
Simpler, more sustainable living and caring better for our only world, as Wendell Berry callsit, until we pass on to the next, is something I think about a lot. When I decided to set this story in one of the most beautiful and subtly ill-used places I know first-hand, it naturally followed that there would be a multi-cultural element. The area is a sort of crazy quilt of cultures, although the bright colors in the design have faded, and the sharp, zig-zag lines defining the pieces have softened. As for religious faith, I don’t believe you can dismiss it, or leave it aside, and write about Western Pennsylvania with any amount of honesty. It would be like describing the landscape without mentioning the hills, or saying rivers are out of favor and therefore irrelevant.
Is any part of the novel true or any character taken from real life?
No. And yes. Each of the characters has traits of people I’ve known. Most of them are composites, the result of time spent peeking on the humans that inhabit my world, and from paying attention to the observations other people make about the humans in theirs. The setting is real, you can find Rose Point and Prospect, PA on a map, though Hazel Valley is fictional. I happen to hold to the theory that all novels are true and from real life in a certain sense. It’s like water. For all the rivers and oceans, creeks and small ponds, there’s still only one primeval substance continually being reabsorbed and reused. In the same way, I would claim, there’s only one story. A novelist simply takes the elements of that story and repurposes them, sanding them down or building them up, giving us a chance to look with interest at this thing we’ve grown tired of seeing. Ourselves.