A Conversation with Author Joy Jordan-Lake: Blue Hole Back Home

Updated: Oct 31




Blue Hole Back Home is inspired by a true story. How does this novel represent your own story, and what ultimately motivated you to write about it years later?


JOY: Honestly, I’ve felt haunted by this story.

All the characters in Blue Hole Back Home are purely fictional, as is the town of Pisgah

Ridge, North Carolina, but the story has its roots in several incidents during my own teen

years. One of these incidents involved a family from Sri Lanka who moved to our all-white

town in the mountains of East Tennessee. I grew up on Signal Mountain, a small town on

top of Walden’s Ridge just outside Chattanooga. TheSriLankanfamily’s older daughter was

about my age, a year behind me in our high school down in the valley, and we became

friends. She was beautiful, small-statured, and had the thickest black hair and a smile

that knocked you clear off your feet.


I remember her explaining to me that her family had moved to the United States

because her father was convinced that America was “the end of the rainbow.” She just

beamed when she said it, so full of trust and excitement. And I recall even then being

uneasy. They were the only dark-skinned family living on our mountain, and my friend

seemed happily oblivious to the fact that perhaps not everyone thought it was just peachy

that she and her family had moved to our town. She began attending my church—and in

fact, the church still has some old photographs someone snapped of a group of us

teenagers together. So far as I know, she was accepted there, at least, without question.

Her family had come from a Muslim background in Sri Lanka, but they weren’t practicing

Muslims, and I’m guessing her father allowed her to become involved with a Christian

church because it seemed the American—and certainly the southern—thing to do in

order to fit in.


Then one night my father announced he’d been notified that the Klan was burning a

cross on the family’s front lawn, and he was rushing there to be with my friend and her

family. He and I had different memories of what happened next: whether I went with him

that night or desperately wanted to and wasn’t allowed. At any rate, here’s what I recall of

what actually happened: The Klan had, in addition to burning the cross on the lawn, also

shattered the plate-glass window in front of the house and burned the family’s car—and

generally destroyed, of course, any sense of welcome or safety. In the midst of that night’s

terror, my friend’s father turned to my dad and asked, “Which way is Mecca? Please, can you

point me toward Mecca?” My father pointed him toward the east and then knelt beside

him to pray.


Immediately after the cross burning, the family decided to move to Washington, DC,

where my own family had moved from ten years before. And when I stood there saying

goodbye to my friend, she looked me in the eye and, with tears streaming down her

cheeks, demanded, “We thought America was the end of the rainbow—we believed it.

Explain this tome.”


And you know, I’d like to tell you that I made an inspiring little speech that revived her

faith in God and in the United States of America—with freedom and justice for all—and

that I exchanged addresses with my friend and that we’ve been close to this day, emailing and text messaging regularly. The truth is, I have no idea what I said in that

moment as we stood there as frightened teenagers. I just remember being so rocked by

the whole thing, so embarrassed, so powerless to say anything even remotely helpful. I

never saw or heard from her again.


So maybe that’s why I initially wrote a short story about it that was included in my

first book, Grit and Grace. The book editor for the Chattanooga newspaper suggested in

her review of Grit and Grace that I should consider making a novel of that story, “Blue

Hole.”And I thought, “Yeah, she’s right. I’d like to do that. I’d like to have another chance to

say, through fiction, what I wish I’d actually said to my friend back then.” So even though it

took me years to get around to writing the novel, maybe I’ve been trying to get it right all

along, trying to make the story turn out differently, with more closure, more healing,

more hope.


Interestingly, though, even in writing what I’d intended as a more hopeful version of

the story than the reality, things in the fictionalized world still refused to tie themselves neatly into a bow of perfectly resolved reconciliation. Maybe life is just more open-ended

and complex than that.





One of the editors of this book, Nicci, who was fabulous to work with, found it

disturbing, I think, that justice isn’t really served at the end of the novel—nobody really

gets nailed for [spoiler alert] the death of a central character—and Nicci leaned on me a

little, appropriately so, to make things happen more justly. I took her input seriously but

just couldn’t do it. Maybe something inside me kind of rebelled—maybe, not consciously,

but maybe I couldn’t because historically so many African-American deaths resulting from

race crimes in this country went so utterly unpunished.



Any idea what happened to the Sri Lankan girl of your actual

experience?


JOY: Over the years, I’ve tried to find my old friend a number of times—and I’ve even had

readers from a number of book clubs join the effort to find her—but so far, we’ve not

been able to make contact, and all my letters to various addresses have been returned. No

one I’ve found on social media matches her name so far. I changed her name for this book

to protect her and her family, and also because the fictional Farsanna figure is only

inspired by my friend, not a replica. Still, it’s occurred to me to dream: wouldn’t it be

incredible if somehow, someone who knows her now and knows something of her early

days having settled in the mountains of East Tennessee . . . What if this someone

stumbled across Blue Hole Back Home and showed it to her—and we had a chance to

reconnect? The possibilities are more than a little remote, I realize, but wouldn’t that

make quite an afterword for a later edition? An afterword, perhaps, more valuable than

the story itself.



Your novel involves the Ku Klux Klan, racism in America in general, and evidence that it still exists today. What specific bits of history are particularly relevant to Blue Hole Back Home? How did that history drive your characters and storyline? What did your personal experiences teach you about such discrimination?


JOY: In addition to the cross-burning, other elements in the novel that were inspired by

actual events and that occurred during this same time period—the late 1970s and 1980—

include a Ku Klux Klan roadblock on Signal Mountain and a downtown Chattanooga

shooting spree that injured several African-American women. During the eight or so years

that I lived as a young adult in Boston if I ever ventured to tell my northern friends any of

these stories, they looked at me like I must be about a hundred and twelve years old. They

were convinced that the South remained an illiterate, racist backwater, but it still struck

them as utterly impossible that someone my age (I was born on the last day of 1963) could

have seen an actual Klansman anywhere outside a history book or known anyone whose

yard had been the site of a burning cross.


The novel’s scene with the KKK roadblock was inspired by one my family ran into

driving back from swimming on the backside of the mountain. My father was driving. To

that point, I’d never seen the Klan in person before, and I recall when we saw these

figures up ahead, all dressed in what looked for all the world like bedsheets and

pillowcases, I thought it was a joke—until we got closer. And they were holding fast-food

chicken buckets—an utterly ridiculous image, you’d think. But there was nothing amusing

about these guys. They were collecting money in the buckets, and they poked shotguns in

the driver's side window to “encourage” contributions. My father declined to contribute.

At the time, it seemed only natural that he would calmly refuse—exactly what I

expected, and I don’t recall being as terrified as I probably ought to have been, maybe

because I knew what he would say.


But as a parent now myself, I realize how frightened he must’ve been, not so much for his own safety as for the safety of his family there in the car. He was declining to contribute to guys who’d just shoved a shotgun muzzle into a car with his family in it. And then—this is what my mother recalls being the most terrifying part—the bedsheets started rocking our car back and forth so violently it seemed sure to flip over.


My parents did what they needed to do morally, even at the risk of whatever might

have happened. And I recall resting in the knowledge, even scared as I was in the

backseat, that my dad would tell the bedsheets no. That there would be no compromising

with racist ugliness and evil.


That’s been an ongoing lesson to me as a parent myself: That our gut instinct as

parents is always, always to protect our kids and keep them happy and safe. But that we

also have to live in a way that grows and nurtures their souls, their characters, their moral

and ethical sensibilities. And sometimes, as in the case of this roadblock, you just straight

up have to say no to ugliness and evil—even when that’s not the safest decision.



You mentioned the shooting spree was also inspired by actual events?


JOY: Right. The novel’s shooting spree down in the valley was inspired by an incident on

April 19, 1980—again, while I was in high school. In response to some Klan members having met with leaders of the NAACP, three local Klan renegades who viewed this as

evidence of the KKK’s becoming too soft drove through a predominantly African-American section of downtown Chattanooga with one of the three guys shooting

randomly at the sides of the street. One of these guys, I’m told, graduated from my high

school, though several years before I did. I’m happy to say we’ve never met.


Four African-American women were shot, though not killed that night, and a fifth was

injured by flying glass from the blasts. Incredibly, two of the three men were acquitted,

and the third, the one firing the gun, spent only nine months in prison. When the verdict

from the all-white jury came down, the city’s African-American population erupted, quite

understandably. Again, we were well past what could be considered even the broadest

definition of the Civil Rights era, and yet here were these atrocities going essentially

unpunished. I suppose it made an early cynic of me about racial hatred ever being entirely

eradicated from any part of our country—and at the same time, made me someone who is

doggedly, even unreasonably, hopeful about the potential for individuals and towns and

whole regions of the country to admit screw-ups and tragedies and brutalities, and

genuinely change.


In the wake of a number of recent events including the white supremacist march in

Charlottesville, years after this novel’s original publication but just months before its rerelease in the fall of 2017, it has become clear all over again—to anyone thinking we live in

a sweetly post-racial society—that we still have a long—a painfully long—way to go as a

culture in terms of racial equality. Still, I’ve seen so much change for the good in my

lifetime: individuals and whole towns.


I’ve read and admired the work of acclaimed writer and thinker Ta-Nehesi Coates and

I hear his warnings about the glibness and just plain not-getting-it-ness of white people

wanting to make ourselves feel better by ending a story about race with hope as if that

could somehow whitewash over present pain or present inequities of, for example, who

gets arrested for what and how they get punished. I do hear this. And I do believe I have

an absolute obligation to listen well to the perspectives of friends and cultural leaders and

writers who aren’t white and can tell me what I cannot know or live out in the same way.


I do believe in how far our country and our culture have to go. But I still also believe in

the power of love and of hope to transform people and towns and nations—what the

characters of Blue Hole remember about Jimbo, his “always digging out room for a chance

that somebody could change.”



What about one of the chief villains of the novel, Mort Beckwith? Any basis for him in real life?


JOY: Actually, yes. His first name is just a play on the French word for death, morte. But the

last is a point toward Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of African-American Civil Rights

activist Medgar Evers, whom De La Beckwith shot in 1963 in front of Evers’s home and

then watched crawl, bleeding, dying, to his wife and children. De La Beckwith was set free

in 1964 by two all-white juries in Mississippi, who failed to reach a unanimous verdict. All

this I knew, vaguely, from history courses. But in the 1990s, when Ghosts of Mississippi

came out in theaters, I was living in Boston and sitting by my husband and several friends

watching the movie. In one pivotal scene, a central character insists that De La Beckwith

has gone unpunished all these years, living free and easy up in his home on . . . and then

the character’s voice rises to what I recall as a shout—SignalMountain, Tennessee. Or

maybe it only sounded like a shout because of its exploding inside my head.


So the man whom everyone knew was Evers’s assassin had been living on our

mountain all those years and none of us knew it? And what was it about my beloved

hometown that made it a place where he thought—or knew—he’d be safe, infamous as he

was? I called every childhood friend I was still in touch with. Like me, this movie was the

first any of them had heard of the fact. So if none of us knew as children or teens growing

up there, and presumably none of our parents knew, who exactly did know?


In speaking to book clubs and school groups after this novel’s initial 2008 publication,

I learned that some folks on our mountain did indeed know and that De La Beckwith had

his own little group of old men with whom he’d gather and smoke and share ugly ideas.

One book club member told me how her son would come home from his after school job

at an establishment where these old men gathered in a backroom, and the son would be

shaken to the core by the kind of talk he’d overheard. But our justice system, the envy of

much of the world but far from infallible, had acquitted a white supremacist murderer.

Legally, Byron De La Beckwith was a free man.


De La Beckwith apparently did begin to talk, even brag, about the murder. Jerry

Mitchell, an intrepid reporterforJackson’s Clarion-Ledger, worked with Evers’s widow to

reopen the case in 1989 and, finally, in 1994, to send De La Beckwith to jail, where he died

of heart failure. But even now, if you look up my hometown on Wikipedia, it will tell you,

essentially, that this is a remarkably beautiful place with a remarkably high average income level, and that it is the residence of Byron De La Beckwith. It’s so sad.


But this wasn’t ancient history—these were my growing up years. And I’m not entirely

ancient yet, last time I checked. This wasn’t just any old racist, decrepit southern town

straight out of Faulkner’s fiction; it was our own peaceful, neighborly, dogwood-covered

hometown. How could it be that I learned of this particular ugly secret of my hometown

thanks to Hollywood speaking through a cinema in New England? Maybe that was when

the incidents from my teen years, the cross burning and roadblock, and shooting spree,

began to strike me as more than a string of unrelated events. Maybe that’s when this

particular white chick writer woke up to racial realities I’d never really connected the

pieces to before—or at least never let it break my heart enough before.



How did the story behind Blue Hole impact your own ideas about

spirituality or faith?


My teen and adult years have been a spiritual journey with plenty of unlovely

stumbles, but a journey, at least, of seeking God—of being, on my best days, knocked over grateful for grace.


Looking back, I realize how formative—and maybe fragile—those early years were, in

terms of forming some kind of idea of who God is, what a powerful, ferocious, radical love

is about, and what a faith community ought to be. Although the church I grew up in was

all white, I just naively assumed that when I invited my Sri Lankan friend to church, she’d

be warmly welcomed. And she was. There were rumors sometimes about someone or

another in the church being known as a racist—this was a small town, after all, and

people knew things about other people or thought they did. But my friend seemed to feel

genuinely comfortable there. I suspect a number of people went out of their way to be

sure she felt cared for and included. It didn’t seem particularly monumental at the time—

and shouldn’t have—that a church would welcome anyone wanting to walk through its

doors. Wouldn’t that be precisely the point?


I imagine that if my hometown church had in any way rejected this Sri Lankan girl

because of her skin color, lots of us my age would’ve rejected anything and everything the

the church tried to teach us from then on out.


Instead, despite what happened there on our ridge with the Klan, at least this

particular southern church didn’t bolt its doors.


The fictionalized church in the novel, though, I depicted more along the lines of how

miserably so many other southern churches behaved during the Civil Rights era and years

after. And the Baptist preacher of the novel, who is initially passive to the point of

cowardice is decidedly not based on my own father, who was our church’s pastor. One

reason I probably pictured the good Reverend Riggs as a round, blond, balding mouse of a

man was that he was diametrically opposed to my own tall, dark-haired, slender dad,

whom I watched over the years take a lot of heat for his position on any number of

issues.


If anything, the character of Reverend Riggs comes from my own fundamental

tendencies to value harmony, as in the lack of conflict or turmoil, over just about anything.

It can be a very dangerous trait, one I’m forever learning to battle. By nature, I just want the

lion to lie down with the lamb twenty-four seven and be chummy, so I can relax and digest

my food.


I was once privileged to eat dinner at the next table over from Archbishop Desmond

Tutu—though he wouldn’t know me from the pork tenderloin that was served. He said in

his speech that night that taking seriously the teaching of Jesus means becoming not

peace lovers but peacemakers. There’s an enormous difference there, a difference that calls

for active engagement on our parts, for speaking up. Which is why Dr. Martin Luther

King Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reamed out the “nice” white clergy of the

South as being ultimately more harmful than the Klan—letting things roll along for the

sake of not upsetting the social order or disturbing anyone’s day can contribute more to

the perpetuation of evil than all the blazing crosses in the world. It’s something I know I

need to hear every day: are there ways that even today my keeping my mouth shut on an

issue—because I am so blasted conflict-averse—actually helped evil along on its way?



How are you like Shelby? How are you different?


JOY: I’m certainly not Shelby, and Shelby is not me. I was never, for example, in love with a

Jimbo. Shelby, though, is about the same age I was when my Sri Lankan friend moved to

town, and like me at the time, Shelby is skinny and awkward, more comfortable with her

brother’s friends than girls her own age. In my own early teen years, my own brother,

David, let me run around with his buddies, who accepted me for no good reason other

than that, I suppose, they respected my brother. Maybe Shelby partially comes from the

more cynical, skeptical side of me, the side of me that screws up and then refuses to feel

forgiven. And I suppose I share in common with Shelby that while she is capable of being

fiery and feisty, she can also clam up just when she ought to speak out—and she despises

that about herself.



What about the Blue Hole itself, where the novel’s teenagers go to swim and to be together and escape heat and the tensions of the outside world? Is there a real Blue Hole?


The Blue Hole of this novel is loosely based on two swimming holes in my hometown:

one actually called the Blue Hole and another reached by a trail that descends sharply at

Rainbow Falls near Signal Point. The natural beauty of the mountain is stunning. Now

that I live in the Southeast again, I love going to visit.



What do you hope most for your readers to glean from this novel?


JOY: I’d like to think that any story of bigotry or blind hatred or deceit reminds us of the

ugliness any of us are capable of—not just by actively perpetuating it ourselves,

necessarily, but sometimes by choosing to look the other way and let it continue. I also

hope this is a story about the possibilities that always exist for a complete and total

transformation, against all the odds. The history of racism in the United States is a tragic

one, no doubt about it. But I’m always fascinated by the individuals or groups along the

way who, despite what they’d been taught to believe, despite how everyone around them

behaved, held to an ideal of equality in God’s eyes and couldn’t be shaken from that. My

most recent novel, A Tangled Mercy, explores many of these same themes.




Why set the novel in the late 1970s, rather than, say, the ’60s, which was better known for racial turmoil?


JOY: For one thing, this was an era I remember well from personal experience, whereas I

was a young child in the ’60s. And it was important to me to set this novel in 1979, at a

time that was supposed to be safely beyond the horrors of slavery or of early twentieth-century lynchings or of mid-twentieth-century legally segregated buses and sidewalks and

school systems. The summer of 1979 was beyond that, yes—yet racially motivated ugliness

was still far from underground. I hope this story suggests our taking a serious—and maybe

intentionally skeptical—look at the not-so-distant past and our own era.


In fact, when several colleges and universities such as Baylor University and Amarillo

College chose Blue Hole Back Home as their Common Book after its initial 2008

publication, I often heard from (white) students that their generation had “solved” the

the problem of racism, but that they saw things in this novel that were helpful for discussion

on other areas of compassion for outsiders. It was like they thought their generation had checked off that particular box on the older generations’ To-Do list. Peace, justice and

the equitable pursuit of happiness for all? Yep, got that covered. Now, though, as the novel is being re-released in 2017—in the wake of numerous events including white supremacists,

startlingly young, carrying torches in Charlottesville—I suspect I won’t be hearing that

anymore.



Have you always wanted to be a writer? What turned you into a writer?


JOY: I’ve wanted to write ever since I learned to read, I think. And the more I read, the more I wanted to write and keep reading and write better.

I remember in fourth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Gross, read aloud to the class a poem I’d

written about having spotted a buck in the snow. Now, I don’t know thatI’d ever seen a

buck in the snow before, and it was probably an atrocious poem. But it was a turning point,

letting my imagination create this scene, then creating that scene for a group of other

people and having the teacher hang up my poem for everyone to see. I was never the kid

who could knock the kickball clear out of the field—the skill that matters the most when

you’re nine and perpetually picked last for teams in P.E.—so it was a real gift to be

noticed that way. For days, I’d pass my poem hanging there on the bulletin board and just

couldn’t believe anyone else had taken notice of it or that my words had actually

connected with other people. In fifth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Buckshorn, quietly left me

an article on my desk one day and whispered, “This is for you to read now, for when you

grow up and become a writer.”I don’t know thatI’d told anyone about wanting to be a

writer, and I’ve always been spectacularly insecure, so, again, her insight was an enormous

affirmation.


I have times of wishing I didn’t enjoy writing so much since unlike lots of other

professional endeavors, there’s not necessarily a direct correlation between how much

time you put in and how far you get in the field. I enjoy teaching at the university level

too, and I often try to convince myself that since I dedicated all those years to gathering

the proper credentials, I should simply, and only, teach. But teaching, if you try to do it

well, often crowds out time to write, and I become . . . well, out of balance, off-kilter with

the universe, when I can’t write. I just want to snarl and snap at anything that moves. So

it’s probably best for all concerned that I try to write on a regular basis.



What else have you written, and what intrigues you for future novels?


JOY: Blue Hole Back Home was my fifth book, but my first novel. Earlier, I’d written a non-fiction book, Working Families, on navigating kids and career; a collection of stories,

Grit & Grace; a collection of reflections, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous; and an academic

book, Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that looks at nineteenth-century women

novelists’ responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe. That era, nineteenth-century America,

continues to fascinate me.


My most recent novel, in fact, was birthed out of that dissertation research. Originally a purely historical novel set in early nineteenth-century Charleston, South Carolina, A Tangled Mercy became a dual timeline story in which a Harvard graduate student desperate to discover what caused the dissolution of her family and struggling to save her torpedoed academic career finds her life intertwined with a slave revolt two hundred years earlier and the gifted blacksmith who became its weapon maker.


Regarding the next novel, I’ve begun work on a story set during the Gilded Age at

Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. The Vanderbilts themselves were

fascinating, of course, along with all the intrigue of financial crises and jockeying for

social position, but I think a lot of us forget about the uproar during the 1890s over

immigration and who ought to be allowed in and which of all these new groups flooding

the country might “ruin” America. My husband’s people are from Southern Italy and one

of my daughters was born in China, two groups of people particularly reviled and feared

in this era. It can be incredibly chilling doing research and reading the sorts of things

highly educated cultural and political leaders were saying about the lack of intelligence or

worth ethic or the criminality of the Southern Italian and Chinese newcomers. And it

makes for interesting discussion in terms of our own current debates about newcomers to

this country.


Like a gazillion others, I loved the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” This Biltmore novel

(so far) is being told from the perspective of four different characters, two from the

privileged upper class and two from immigrant and refugee populations. I hope it will be

suspenseful and engrossing. Right now, I’m still doing a lot of whacking around in the

weeds. But that’s always where my books seem to start so…here’s to hope and hard work

and the brilliance of a good editor—God bless that entire profession.


Finally, I’d like to thank readers of Blue Hole Back Home once more. Truly, I am

grateful for your time in traveling through these pages to Pisgah Ridge—and perhaps to

some past stories of your own—and I value hearing your thoughts.




About the Author


Joy Jordan-Lake is the author of eight books, including the #1 Amazon Bestseller A Tangled Mercy and Blue Hole Back Home, which won the Christy Award in 2009 for Best First Novel. Her upcoming novel Under a Gilded Moon to be released on 12.01.20.


She holds a PhD in English Literature, is a former chaplain at Harvard, and has taught literature and writing at several universities.


Joy Jordan-Lake lives outside of Nashville with her husband and three children. www.joyjordanlake.com


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