Weird stuff happens in writer Deborah E. Kennedy's fictional world. In the case of her compelling debut novel, Tornado Weather, that weird stuff includes the beer-fueled antics of a two-man militia, an off-the-grid, off-kilter funeral ceremony undertaken by a clutch of middle-aged knitters and the mysterious disappearance of five-year-old Daisy Gonzales.
Daisy, whose vanishing opens the book, is last seen rolling away from her bus stop in her wheelchair, trailed by a scruffy yellow dog. The ensuing chapters introduce the reader to the people of Colliersville, Indiana who, each in their own weird way, attempt to solve the puzzle of Daisy's presumed abduction as they traverse the peaks and bottoms of their daily lives.
Kennedy, a Fort Wayne native currently living near Portland, Oregon, returns to the city to read from Tornado Weather on Sunday, July 16 at the Barnes & Noble at Jefferson Pointe.
Tornado Weather, set to hit bookstores nationwide on July 11, has received good buzz from a variety of publications, including Publishers Weekly. Kennedy said iBooks plans to name it as the featured book for July. O, The Oprah Magazine is going to review it as well.
Readers of whatzup already know that Kennedy has a way with words. She started as a contributing writer in 2009 and was the obvious choice to take on the editing position when it opened up later that year. She edited my work, which is how we met. We started dating and wound up living together, first at my house on Bass Lake in Angola and later in Iowa City, where in 2013 she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop.
When we spoke recently via Skype she reminded me that she began what was to become Tornado Weather at my house in the fall of 2009.
"I started the Renee story there," she said while bouncing her 5-month-old son, Ben, on her knees. "The book has changed a lot since then."
Then, the novel was called Collarsville and was intended to be a book of linked short stories about the people of the town and included a set of Siamese twins and a serial killer. Its focus was the relationship between a town and its immigrant population.
"Originally I was going to write about the dynamic in Fort Wayne between the natives and the Burmese population," she said. "Then I felt I was unqualified."
She switched to the much broader reality of illegal Mexican immigrants hired by white Americans to work in agriculture and moved the setting to the fictional town of Colliersville.
Still, the overall story sprawled. It wasn't until her editor at Flatiron Books, Christine Kopprasch, suggested narrowing the focus that Tornado Weather found its path.
At first Kennedy said she bristled at the thought of changing her concept for the book, but she later saw the value of trusting someone else to suggest how to make it better. Like a lot of writers, Kennedy said she was arrogant in thinking that her version of her story was the only one that counted. But she learned that finding a good reader is key to producing a good book.
"I have a wonderful editor at Flatiron who shared my vision for the book and I think really helped shape it into something a lot more comprehensive and meaningful," Kennedy said. "So I'm really grateful to her for her help through the process. The Daisy element was always there, but she was just one part of the serial killer aspect, which I cut. Christine thought she was the heart of the book. It's not a traditional mystery; it's a story of how the little girl unites and divides the characters."
And it's the characters she creates that drive Kennedy's interests. She has a knack for approaching disparate personalities with humor and pathos.
She wrote her first story in fifth grade.
"I personified a pencil," she said. "I followed it through its day. On the bus, it rolled down the aisle and went from its owner to a different owner. A pretty big deal. High-stakes. And my teacher read it aloud to the class. I think it was right around then I realized I wanted to write. If you can personify a pencil, you can do anything."
Kennedy graduated from Northrop High School in 1995, Hanover College in 1999 and in 2001 earned a Master's in Fiction Writing and English Literature from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 2011 she was accepted into the fiction program at Iowa's Writers' Workshop. Just getting into the workshop is a noteworthy accomplishment. Each year some 1,200 applicants vie for one of 25 spots in the fiction program or 25 in the poetry program.
Literary agents from New York City visit the workshop frequently, all in search of the next big, and usually young, writer. At 35, Kennedy was older than nearly everyone in her class. And she was one of the few from the Midwest, the "flyover country" often dismissed by East Coast agents and some of her classmates alike. An agent from New York found her and got behind what she wanted to do with her writing.
"My main project as a writer is to write about lives that a lot of times people underestimate or think would be boring or mundane," she said. "Lives that most writers would overlook. So that's my goal. To write about the unsung in society. To show to people that there's nothing horrible or mundane or boring about people just because they happen to be poor or from the Midwest."
Her publishers at Flatiron diverted her attention briefly when they asked her to write a novel about the "big one," the West Coast earthquake seismologists say is long overdue. But with that book, called Sanctuary City, already finished, Kennedy is eager to get back to Colliersville and the characters she loves.
"When I was at Iowa, I was writing another book of short stories," she said. "It's turned into kind of a prequel. If Tornado Weather is a success, then I can have this other one come out. And I also started another book about the town. I really want to explore every aspect of [it]. Tornado Weather sort of tells about the whole town, but I want to tell about the neighborhoods. I think the Midwest is a lot weirder than people give it credit for. That's what I love about it."
Book Review Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy, Flatiron Books, 2017
Colliersville, Indiana is desperately in need of a renaissance. The small town at the heart of Deborah Kennedy's debut novel has seen better - albeit not much better - days, and its residents would appreciate some improvements in their lives. Unfortunately, none of them is really sure of the true cause of the town's decline, making their stabs at fixing things generally ineffective; if rebirth comes, it's going to come by chance and at a substantial cost.
Kennedy explores the town resident by resident, devoting a chapter to each member of a broad cast of characters, all of whom are linked together by a web of sticky small-town threads. The most overt of those threads is Daisy Gonzalez, a young girl who goes missing one May day after she gets off the school bus. Few of the residents of Colliersville spend much time worrying about poor Daisy's fate as the spring wears on, but her disappearance is always lurking in the background as a symbol of the town's unease.
The characters have more in common than just Daisy, though. Helman Yoder's large dairy farm is Colliersville's main employer, and when his operation is raided for filling its staff with undocumented immigrant workers, the bust sends shock waves through the town and through the Yoder family, including his medication-addicted wife Birdie and his transgender child Wally/Willa. For some in Colliersville, the Mexican immigrants who worked at the farm and live in the impoverished Bottoms are the reason that things are so bad, although they'd be hard pressed to explain exactly how.
There's also the Seaver clan who live in the Bottoms, too, and are looked down upon by the rest of the town. They make up most of the town's racist "militia" movement, and their mean spiritedness makes life difficult for those around them.
Kennedy hops from house to house and business to business in Colliersville, and she even makes a brief journey to Iraq. Gradually, she uncovers the links between the many characters, their past loves and conflicts, their hopes that have faded, their grudges that have festered. She builds the town's complex history, the interlaced interactions that have made Colliersville into what it is today: an economically downtrodden town whose institutions (the laundromat, the little grocery store, the abandoned amusement park outside of town) have not met well with the demands of the 21st century.
There is hope for redemption here, however. In one particularly moving vignette, a group of women who have been pulled apart by circumstances outside their friendship are drawn back together by some of those same circumstances. In an extraordinary scene of grief and forgiveness, we're given a glimpse of the strength that could hold the town together if only it were allowed to come to the surface.
Few in the town see the Mexicans in the Bottoms as the only source of all the town's problems. They're much more likely to ignore the exploited foreign workers than to insist that they be forced to leave. Instead, the residents seem to see the town's decline as a simple fact of life, an inevitable consequence of the way the world is.
Kennedy finds the roots of America's current agitation in Colliersville, however. The town's residents are resistant to and afraid of change, and their complacency ensures that the town's downward slide isn't going to end any time soon. Ultimately, the author assures us that there is hope that things will get better, but it's going to be a painful process. (email@example.com)
Deborah E. Kennedy, a Fort Wayne native, was editor of whatzup from April 2009 through July 2011. She now resides in Forest Grove, Oregon, where she continues to write for whatzup and others.
A public reading, question-and-answer session and book signing will be held from 2-3 p.m. Sunday, July 16 at Barnes & Noble in Jefferson Pointe. For more information, call 260-432-3343.