Ashley Eyvanaki catches up with Bethany Pope to discuss their latest novel, The Hungry and the Lost, a book set during the Edwardian period in Tampa, Florida depicting the swampland inhabited by characters confronting a wild landscape of herons, alligators, and coyotes.
Ashley Eyvanaki: What inspired your choice of Tampa, Florida, as a setting?
Bethany Pope: I grew up (mostly) in the Bradenton/Tampa area. The swamps are in my blood. They are the scene of some of the happiest parts of my childhood— as well as a few of the worst. I was always very aware of the effect that humans have on the environment (mostly negative: I saw many knife-branded manatees and invasive pythons that had been carelessly released by bored former-owners. Not to mention the troupe of hepatitis-laden monkeys currently at large in Myakka) and the effect that the landscape has on people. When I was nine the river by our house flooded and an alligator came right into the kitchen— alongside a slew of fat, brown river rats. As I wrote it was honestly more as though the landscape chose me.
Ashley Eyvanaki: Do you feel that your experience as a poet helped you when writing your detailed descriptions of the swampland setting?
Bethany Pope: When I’m writing poems, I always start with an image. I’ll think of something I’ve seen, something I’d like to forget, or something I would like to see, and build the poem out from that image. Honestly, I’m usually trying very hard to do in writing what my favourite artists do with paint or pencil. I want people to inhabit (for better or worse) the world I’m showing them. Poetry tends to be easier for me, because it’s easier to finesse a small thing. Novels have a lot of Les Murray’s Quality of Sprawl — it’s so easy to get something wrong. So yes, in a sense. I viewed each chapter through the same loupe that I use to examine my poems and I think that helped me get the brush strokes right.
Ashley Eyvanaki: How did you go about researching life in Florida during the Edwardian period? Did you reach out to a historian, museum, or archive for historical accuracy?
Bethany Pope: When I lived there I spent a lot of time (a potentially unhealthy amount of time) in the museums, antique malls (the Red Barn Flea Market) and the parks. Especially Robinson’s Preserve and Myakka State Park. When I was writing this novel I revisited the surviving early (in Florida, the Edwardian era is very early) landmarks. I spent a lot of time at DeSoto Point (where they have a great deal of history surrounding the conquistador invasion of native nations) and I read a great deal about period-appropriate art and design. In the UK, I read all of the Jung (and Jung-related books) I could get my hands on. Marie-Louise Von Franz wrote an amazing book called The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. That really helped shape the direction of the story. I also watched every episode of Antiques Road Trip. Antiques Road Trip really added a lot of punch to my details, I thought. So did Bargain Hunt. My brain is a car boot sale, in the middle of a swamp.
Ashley Eyvanaki: There are many mentions of religion and mythology throughout the novel. In particular, there are repeated references to Christian allegories and Greek mythology through The Odyssey, The Iliad, and the Goddess Hecate. What inspired you to interweave this with your narrative?
Bethany Pope: The American South is many things. Recently, it’s the lynchpin of covidiocy alongside its more traditional racist trappings. But alongside all the Trumperism, there are vestiges of a culture that values a very Victorian ideal of Classicism. That’s a long way of saying that I grew up hearing, and then reading, the Greek myths. My dad used to take us (my siblings and I) camping in Myakka State Park. We’d drive out in a beat-up champagne-coloured van with the back seats taken out. After dinner, we’d curl up on the floor with the dogs, and we’d listen to our dad telling us about Orion the Hunter and Odysseus. I wanted to drag Hecate into it because she’s one of the gods who has been the most buried. Of course, she’s a woman. That has a lot to do with it. I’m non-binary, and it’s interesting (frustrating) to me that only the very emphatically male gods (or their aspects) tend to get cultural recognition. My father is a Presbyterian minister and that pretty much explains the Christian allusions. I’m an Anglican myself. It’s a broader church than the one I grew up in, with a better opinion of other religions. I converted when I moved to Aberystwyth. Personally, I think that all religions are probably as right as each other, and I’ll pray anywhere and with anyone who asks (only if they ask) but my brain echoes with the old, old song of Southern Presbyterianism as much as it does with the hunter hanging, caught by his belt, up in the stars.
Ashley Eyvanaki: In terms of our protagonist, Joy is a very multifaceted character. Both fiercely independent yet desperately in need of help, she proves time and again that she’s perfectly capable of looking after both herself and her mother. Why were these traits appealing in a protagonist?
Bethany Pope: I think that ‘appealing’ is the wrong word for my connection with Joy. I don’t think that it’s possible for anyone to write anything that isn’t in some way biographical. Everything we see and experience is processed through the lens of our history. Everything we produce goes out the same way. Every character in this book, from Joy to the Johnsons, even down to the coyotes, is me. A part of me, anyway. I wrote Joy the way she is because that’s the way that I was, in a similar emotional climate. The biggest difference is that she’s emphatically female and I’m non-binary. I like to play around with gender. Nevertheless, she’s a part of me — as I was when I was a teenager who was dealing with an absolute tonne of unprocessed trauma. She’s strong, in some ways. She’s also fragile (in every sense of the word). Sometimes she’s beautiful. Sometimes she’s awful. And, yes, she needs help. I’m done writing overtly about my time in the emotional equivalent of the lost, lonely swamp, for now (if you want to know about it, pick up Silage, my poetry collection that deals with the years I spent in an American orphanage) but it bubbles up in other ways. Tell the truth/but tell it slant. And all that jazz.
Ashley Eyvanaki: In terms of our antagonists, both Johnson Senior and Junior are men motivated by a greed for status, money, and land. They are also both subjects of their patriarchal societies, in that they position themselves above female characters. Why were these traits appealing in an antagonist?
Bethany Pope: I grew up surrounded by, manipulated, and hurt by that kind of malignant personality. The Johnsons aren’t based on any one family in particular, but it was extremely satisfying to write them in this context. And also, as I said above, I have internalised some of this toxicity. Writing this book enabled me to work some of it out. It’s always fun, putting paid to a couple of misogynistic Good Ole’ Boys.
Ashley Eyvanaki: Did you have a favourite or least favourite side character to write during the drafting stages of the novel?
Bethany Pope: My favourite tertiary characters were easily the coyotes. I tugged at the truth a little bit, with them, because coyotes only started really coming down to Florida in the late 20th century, but they definitely fit the themes of the story and the symbolism that’s attached to them was (and remains) absolutely intoxicating. Who doesn’t love a good Trickster? The character that was the most difficult for me to write was Malda. I love her, and I love who she is and what she does. I’m just aware that I am a white person who is trying to write a realistic and believable Black woman and I know that I have cultural blindspots, as well as internalised racism, that I need to combat. But Florida was not and is not a White place. It would not be moral, or realistic, for me to only write white characters and thereby paint a picture of a whitewashed landscape. Especially since so much white-led genocide took place there. So Malda was tricky for me. I believe that she’s got agency, beauty, and as real an inner life as any of the other characters, but she was definitely one of the characters that I thought the most carefully about as I was writing.
Ashley Eyvanaki: Was there a particular message you wanted to give through your novel?
Bethany Pope: I honestly don’t think that it’s possible to write a book that is both didactic and good, or even stylistically interesting. If you go into it thinking about a ‘message’ you wind up writing propaganda. If you go into it wanting to access some level of collective myth, if you want to descend into the underworld (the dark land, where the Stories are) and transcribe what amounts to a new (or newish) myth, you’ll do a little better. I think that there is definitely a message there, but it’s not something that I intentionally shaped. It’s baked in, not topping, and I think that you’ll probably have to find it yourself.
Ashley Eyvanaki: If you were to give an aspiring poet or author advice for getting their work published, what would you tell them?
Bethany Pope: You have to find out who you are before you can tell anyone about it. Otherwise, you’ll say things that you definitely don’t intend. Writing a lot, and reading what you wrote, is a great way to get into the rhythm of producing stories and poem. Personally, I don’t think of poems, collections, or novels, as individual things. Rather they are beads on a string. The string is my soul, I guess. Or whatever passes for that sad bit of trumpery. Read as many contemporary poets as you can get your hands on. Read as many novelists, too. There are plenty of them on the Parthian website, if you were after a little bit of direction. Finally, when it comes to getting published: submit, submit, submit. Try not to get too dejected when the rejections come (they come all the time) but rather believe in your work. Believe in the story that you’re telling and tell it the very best way you can.
Ashley Eyvanaki: Having just seen The Hungry and the Lost become published, are you currently working on any other creative projects?
Bethany Pope: I’m still simmering in joy and gratitude, frankly. And it’s summer vacation, here in China. I’m spending it by parenting my sproglet. He’s my little Lockdown Baby, and thank goodness, he’s thriving. Watching him grow occupies a lot of time. It’s difficult to compose anything very long, when you have a baby in your arms, so I’m focussing fairly hard on writing a series of apocalyptic stories. Everyone loves a good apocalypse. That should hold me, for now.
The Hungry and the Lost is available via Parthian.