Mesha Maren on writing queer Southern noir novel Sugar Run

Sugar Run serves up Southern-fried suspense as you likely haven’t encountered: doused in melancholy, spiked with queer themes, reveling in the complexity of its milieu. The debut novel from author Mesha Maren, it’s a tense, atmospheric saga that feels both plucked from personal experience and uniquely, imaginatively crafted. It’s among the first batch of great 2019 reads.

Maren manipulates two timelines in her portrait of Jodi, who’s just finishing an 18-year-prison sentence for, we hear, killing her girlfriend, Paula. The past sections build unnervingly to the fatal event; the present tracks Jodi’s hopeful pending return to her West Virginia home, a quest she embarks on with a woman she meets along the way. Their histories, as LGBTQ people growing up and living in a place known both for its tight community and anti-gay attitudes, draw them together, while also illuminating sensitive topics for readers such as trauma, domestic violence, and addiction.

EW caught up with Maren to discuss writing about the South as a queer woman, balancing suspense and character, and more. Read on below. Sugar Run publishes Jan. 8 and is available for pre-order.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This took you several years to write. What did the initial sketching of Sugar Run look like?
MESHA MAREN: Jodi came to me very strongly, and everything fell into place around her. In about 2010, she took up residence in my brain. I don’t have a sense of where she came from or what specific person or experience. But I started thinking about her, and became infatuated with her. I started daydreaming about her all of the time, working on the book then, on and off. I was teaching myself how to write with this being my first novel. There were many times when I felt like I wasn’t sure if I could write a novel, and definitely wasn’t sure if I could write this novel. But Jodi was very strongly in my mind. I’d put the pages in a drawer and be like, “I’m giving up on this project,” but she haunted me!

During the time I was working most intensively on the novel, I was working as a waitress in a little diner in Iowa City. I remember attempting to abandon the project and then going through my day waitressing, and really feeling like I was giving up on a friend or a partner or something. Like I’d neglected her. I felt guilty, like she was mad at me. I kept coming back to it because I felt like I owed it to her in some kind of way. I remember at some point, too, I made this pact in my mind with Jodi, where I was like, “I’m going to try my best to write this novel — if I try my hardest and it doesn’t work out, then I’m off the hook and I get to write something else.”

It’s interesting you say Jodi haunted you because she has such a tough, vivid backstory here. Specifically, how did she come to you?
When I first started to write it and hang out with Jodi in my mind, it was a lot of the 1988-89 section, before she went into prison. They were very vivid to me. I grew up in West Virginia and I left when I was 18; I always really wanted to go back for a period of time. My parents had rented out their house and I didn’t really have a home base there. This feeling of having left a place and expecting to go back. When Jodi leaves with Paula, she doesn’t think she’s leaving for 18 years. That was the kernel that started — this looking-back-over-the-shoulder to this place that means so much to Jodi, and also to me. She’s in prison, and the main thrust of the story begins the day she gets out. What happens if you do actually get to go back home? It doesn’t usually look like it did in your dreams. I realized I wanted to follow that trajectory, of, what if after 18 years of dreaming about it, you really do get to make good on your dream?

She’s almost envisioning a sense of utopia with the farm on West Virginia. Was the farm a personal detail as well?
The descriptions of the farm and the land that they go back to are 100 percent based on my family, which is where I now live and where I wrote much of the novel. When I started writing it, I was living in Iowa City and thinking back, re-envisioning and writing my memories of this place. The descriptions of it and the descriptions of the town are very based on the town that I grew up in. The story of the family having lost their land is a story I’ve heard a lot growing up. There were a lot of neighbors and folks in the community who would put their land up for a lien and then lose it. The piece of land was super important to their family, so there was always this thread of, the loss of the land and the taxes leading to that — something that was quite common, sadly.

You offer such a complicated, full portrait of the South. Did you find yourself struggling with how to depict it along the way?
I appreciate when you say “complicated.” My experience of growing up in West Virginia and then also living in other parts of the South… especially as a queer woman, it was quite complicated. Not that that doesn’t exist in any novels or books, but I couldn’t not write it that way because it’s completely how I experienced it. It’s such a beautiful place and now, especially with West Virginia, with such intense community; but also, a pretty hard place to live as a queer woman. Naturally, when I started working through it, it seemed like, “Yeah, all of those dichotomies are present all the time,” pretty much, in my experience in living in West Virginia and other parts of the South. They got folded into the narrative.

This is a queer story set in a place that can be unforgiving to queer people, as you mentioned. But it struck me, too, that this is a Southern-noir narrative, centered on people who ordinarily would not be the center of this kind of story.
Especially this being my first novel, I didn’t set out to write a queer story. I didn’t set out to write a noir story. But that’s how it came to me. In revising it, I realized, “This is a story that’s not all that common.” It’s not all that common! I do think the noir genre needs more of this, but this just came about in that way. I knew pretty early on in the drafting of it that there would be a violent, pivotal moment in Jodi’s life where everything changed after that. I structured it around that. One thing I was pretty aware of intentionally: There [are] not a lot of depictions of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships. That’s something that very much exists, unfortunately. That was something I knew I was writing into, that isn’t written about that much. When it was all finished, it was kind of like, “What is this?” Some publishers weren’t sure what to do with a Southern book and a noir book that also had a queer narrator. It doesn’t fit neatly into any box.

I did want to ask you about the pacing, too. It’s a suspenseful read, toying with thriller conventions a little bit. Why did you feel that matched these characters and this story?
In a very early version of the novel, the scene where Jodi kills Paula came in the very beginning. In the very beginning of writing it, I consciously didn’t want it to be leading up to this “gotcha!” moment, this huge revelation. But then I realized that wouldn’t have worked too well either. It’s through a lot of trial and error of trying to figure out exactly how to weave several threads: Jodi’s violent past, and also what’s going on with her in the present moment, and also the more quiet thread of needing to back home and how it feels to go back home. I needed to balance those. I didn’t want to lean too heavily on the thriller, “What’s she in prison for?” aspect of it. I didn’t ever want it to overshadow the other story that I was trying to tell.

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