WRITERS TELL ALL
Steph Post on what it means to be a Southern writer (and what it means to those we've marginalized), religion, planning out series, and so much more--she's a genius, and the Judah series is genius. A must read.
Matthew Turbeville: Steph, it’s so great to talk to you about your books and your writing and everything else. I am and have been fascinated with the Judah Cannon trilogy. First, I love his name, but most of all I love how honest it feels—not just Judah, but also Sister Tulah. Few people—few Southern writers—write about religion in such an honest way these days, not since books like Wise Blood maybe. What do you think the role of religion is in Southern literature (and Southern noir) and why is it so essential to talk about?
Steph Post: First of all, thank you! For reading and your support. As for religion, I’m not sure I can speak for all Southern writers as a group. For sure, the South is steeped in religious tradition- I think there’s a strong level of belief, but also of disbelief, because so much of the power of religion has been abused in this region. For me personally, I have always been interested in the role religion has to control people and to create their identities, as I’ve witnessed much of this firsthand.
MT: The trilogy is great, sprawling, epic. Did you have the whole series planned out from the beginning? What was writing the series like for you? What kind of writer are you—feel free to share anything you feel comfortable with!
SP: I didn’t have the series planned out all- I only knew that I wanted to write a trilogy. Most of the planning came naturally. As I’m working through a novel, I can be very organized, but I don’t plan it out ahead of time. I like to be surprised all the way through the first draft.
MT: Who or what inspired Sister Tulah (I know I’m obsessed but, well, I’m obsessed—she’s a brilliant villain in so many ways). She’s the ultimate villain for the series, and she’s one of the best villains (and her juxtaposition against and alongside Judah) I’ve come across in years. Please tell me about her and the inspiration and what about religion and problems in the South Judah is facing and fighting against? (And who are your favorite villains?)
SP: Again, thank you! Sister Tulah comes from, again, different experiences with religion I had as a child. Control and fear can be a tremendous factor in organized religion and I wanted a villain who clearly understood how to use these elements. One of things I love about Sister Tulah is that she IS a true believer- just not in the religion she is a figurehead for. On the one hand, she’s the ultimate villain. I’ve created villains (say, Daniel from Miraculum) who have a sympathetic side to them, but Sister Tulah does not. However, that doesn’t mean she’s not complex. If you go all the way through Holding Smoke, things begin to come clear about who she is and why. Yet, she never falters in the path she’s chosen.
MT: Did you ever decide to change Judah’s path along the way? Was there anything which came up and helped you decide to switch directions and try something new, or did you always stick to strict guidelines? Was there anything about Judah or any of the other characters which surprised you when you were writing the novel?
SP: So much surprised me as I went throughout the series. I was particular surprised at how minor characters came to take center stage by the last book. Characters like Shelia, Felton and Ramey. By the end, the story is more about Felton and Ramey than Judah and Tulah and I thought that was important. In many ways, this change reflected back my development as a writer and the themes I became interested in during the four years of writing the series. For example, Ramey goes from being the tough-chick-sidekick to a woman caught by her own strength. I wanted to be able to use her in the final book to explore a different side to the ‘badass woman’ motif. And to show how complicated life can be for someone in her position.
As for Judah himself- the biggest surprise came at the end of the series. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that I didn’t know how it was all going to turn out with him until I actually wrote the ending.
MT: I come from a family of crime, so maybe I relate too much to Judah, but what inspired his family for you, and how did each character in the family—and outside the family—come into being? When killing off someone, when losing another character in another way, were you ever hurt as writer in losing them? I know I’ve tried to cling on to characters myself.
SP: Let’s just say that all of the characters are inspired by people I’ve known, but on a general level. No one is a direct inspiration, but the world of the Cannons is one that I feel a certain kinship with.
MT: Was there ever a different ending to the series? Was there ever a different fate for Judah? Do you feel—I read an author talk about this recently, and am not sure I agree—that there’s only one way a book (or in this case, a trilogy) can end?
SP: I think Holding Smoke could have ended in several different ways. Sister Tulah’s fate was always sealed, but things could have gone very differently with Judah and Ramey. I think often authors are set on an outcome when they start writing, but I don’t agree that there’s only one way a story can end. The plot of a story is built up by the choices of the characters- so change any of those choices and the entire outcome can be different.
MT: What books and movies and tv shows helped inspire this series? I’m assuming Wise Bloodand other Flannery works came into play (I say Flannery as if I knew her in a previous life and we were best friends, and I wish that was true), but what else helped inspire this amazing trilogy?
SP: The television shows Justified, Sons of Anarchy and Peaky Blinders were all inspiration.
MT: Before you wrote Holding Smoke(or released it, I have no idea if, perhaps, it was written first), you released Miraculum, a very different book from the Judah series. Can you tell me about what inspired this change (which I loved) and what brought you back to Judah for a grand, if not explosive finale?
SP: So, Miraculum was written in-between Lightwood and Walk in the Fire. I like to switch genres with every book, but I knew I had to go back to wrap the series up. In some ways, I had already veered off in another direction with my writing, but I felt I owed it to the story, the characters and the readers to give it my all for Holding Smoke.
MT: Who are the Southern writers—especially marginalized Southern writers—you read and love today who you think are the best at their jobs? What do you think are the most overlooked writers or books people need to pay attention to, in your opinion?
SP: I’ll just stick to the Southern genre here- I think everyone needs to keep an eye out for Beth Gilstrap and Meagan Lucas. They are two of the most badass writers I know and both are poised to take the literary world by storm. They’re both brilliant in their own way and are going to shake up the Southern literary establishment.
MT: Do you think you will ever visit the characters from the series again, or its world in general?
SP: Possibly the world, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to these characters. I know when a character has gone to bed, and these have said goodnight.
MT: What is your favorite part about writing a series, about writing a Judah novel, about writing in general, other than gaining crazed super fans like myself?
SP: Ha! My favorite part is just that- the writing. Being completely immersed in a world I’ve created. When I’m really in the zone, focused, writing 6 hours a day, it’s hard, but it’s the best feeling in the world.
MT: Are you working on anything new? Is there a work-in-progress? You tend to move fast, so I’d love to know and see what’s up for you next! And I’m sure your fans and anyone reading this would love a hint at what the next great work from Steph Post will be, if you’re willing.
SP:I am Always working on something new. I’m also incredibly secretive about new work. So, I’ll just say that you can expect me to keep changing up genres in the future.
MT: Steph, thank you for stopping by Writers Tell All. I love you, we love you, and we are so thankful to have you writing today. You are such a necessary talent. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, lingering issues or problems or anything else, and know that we are so thankful to have read your novels so far!
SP: Thanks so much for having me! And for all your support to myself and all the authors you champion. J