For Books’ Sake Talks To: Peggy Riley
27th Mar 2013
Award-winning American author Peggy Riley’s début novel Amity & Sorrow has been released to rave reviews. Riley’s novel is a beautiful piece of work, handling sensitive subject matter – cults, sex and the struggle to farm in arid conditions – with skill.
Riley was inspired by two photographs: one of a prairie church on fire, and the other of a trio of Mormon wives in old-fashioned dresses. For the rest of her research process, Riley says, “I tend to start writing first and then figure out what I need to know.”
I think that if you feel something strongly in the writing, it will somehow leak onto the page and be passed on to the reader.After initial reading on early churches and polygamous cults, Riley says, “[It] soon became glaringly obvious that what I really needed to research was farming. The book is framed within a growing cycle in the Oklahoma Panhandle, so I needed to understand the crops a small, struggling farm would still be growing as well as the politics of keeping a family farm alive.”
It transpires that this element of the novel’s creation provided a certain structure: “I read the Oklahoma Farm News Report for several years while I was writing and rewriting, following the rhythms of their land and seasons, living through their drought with them.”
With the setting taking shape through solid fact, did central character Amaranth have any roots in reality? “I hope that she feels real, but she is not based on anyone,” replies Riley. “I tried to create a character who would act out of her own sense of logic. I like that she isn’t easy to like, but I hope she grows on readers.”
The decisions facing Amaranth and her daughters are difficult, to say the least. Riley explains that she worked hard to ensure the choices they make appear organic.
“Amaranth is prickly, frightened and guilty, and damaged by her own abandonment. I knew she couldn’t make choices that were healthier than she actually was. I believe that her choices – the choices that all the characters make – are the best ones they are capable of at the time.”
At the same time, Riley “wanted to make sure that Amaranth wasn’t a victim. She was culpable for much of what happened because of her fear, her desire, and her inability to make decisions. “
Meanwhile, Sorrow and Amity are both disturbed in different ways. Riley explains, “Sorrow was the harder sister to write, because I was never sure what she was going to do – which also made her the most fun. I knew she was desperate and vengeful, but I wasn’t sure how far she was willing to go to get what she wanted.”
Amity, by contrast, presented far fewer challenges. “Amity was the easiest character to write, for me,” says Riley. “Her eyes were able to see the farm and her family most clearly, most cleanly. She had the fewest filters for responding to her new world.
Having tied them together, I had to keep them tied, and follow their logic through to find what would ultimately pull them apart. The ending of their story was rewritten a lot while I grappled with them.”
As for what happens after that ending, Riley explains that the sisters will continue on very separate paths. “I think that Amity will certainly survive, but she will continue to be haunted by Sorrow. She will continue to try to make sense of what happened and long for what she remembers. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Sorrow creating her own faith on her family’s land, still waiting for the world to end.”
Riley has a sensible outlook on the moral behaviour of her characters; she says her novel does not contain villains and heroes. “It would have been easy to make villains of Sorrow or her father, but they are making their choices because of their own damage,” she says.
“If you are treated as if you are special, it can be very hard not to believe it. It is, ultimately, why utopian societies collapse. We are all so human in our failings. Zachariah and Sorrow might each believe that they are heroes, but they clearly are not. Amity would like Dust to be a hero, but he is not. Bradley’s actions are often heroic, but he would certainly not perceive himself as one.”
Her skill in creating rounded characters comes from an interesting place, as Riley is a former playwright. “My writing is definitely informed by being a playwright, from the planning of it, how the ideas come together through a sense of place and voice, to the rhythms of drama in an Aristotelian sense, the rising and falling of action, the conflicts and crises that lead toward the inevitable end of the story.”
Of courses, there are some variations: “In writing fiction, I am using different tools – point of view, tense or metaphor, for example.” There is, however, one benefit of writing fiction that Riley exalts in.
“You don’t have to worry about the shape or size of a theatre, or the budget for actors. If you want to set a church on fire and send fifty wives running from it over a prairie, you can!”
Despite the entertaining possibilities Riley experienced, the book’s subject matter remained hard-hitting. Actors rehearsing a tragedy often develop methods to prevent themselves being negatively affected. Did Riley?
“No, I think I’m probably trying to stay in that darkness for as long as possible,” she says. “I am trying to feel it, so that I can create characters from within the situation and emotions of it. The more time you spend with a story and its details, the easier it is to become desensitised to it.
There usually comes a time in the writing of any dark piece where you are terribly affected by it, by some scene or discovery that makes you burst into tears having got through it, and at that point I know I’ve gone as deeply into it as I can. I have found the bottom of that darkness.
I think that if you feel something strongly in the writing, it will somehow leak onto the page and be passed on to the reader.”
She may be an accomplished writer, but given the chance, Riley knows who she’d like a writing workshop with. “It’s a toss-up between the Brontë Sisters and Angela Carter,” Riley enthuses.
“As three sisters might be breaking the rules, I’ll pick Angela Carter. I’d love to talk about fairy tales and her unwritten sequel to Jane Eyre. That’s the first book I’d put in my ‘library of books that should exist’.”
Riley might not be able to make that book exist, but she reveals that she is coming closer to creating another of her own. “I’m currently editing my second novel,” she says. “It’s at that hard point where I’m hacking back at it, like it’s some kind of savage hedge, while also still trying to hold it all the various strands together.”
This time, the story takes place in “the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man in World War Two.” The novel seems set to further demonstrate Riley’s skill at forming strong female protagonists, a moving situation, and a gripping story.
(Photograph of Peggy Riley by Sara Norling)