The Kudzu Queen

by Mimi Herman

(Regal House, January 2023)

In Mimi Herman’s The Kudzu Queen, 15-year-old Mattie experiences first love, social inequities,
and her best friend’s tragedy all while confronting James R. Cullowee, the “Kudzu King,” whose
true character is slowly revealed. Mattie is a sharply drawn protagonist who grows as the story
develops and tells a tale that is heartfelt and humorous. Herman, an author and Kennedy Center
Teaching Artist shares her journey in creating the novel.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man
standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the
idea for The Kudzu Queen come from?

“I found the idea for this book on microfiche. Seriously.”

HERMAN: I found the idea for this book on microfiche. Seriously. That will tell you how long
ago I began writing it. While roaming through old newspapers in the Durham County Library, I
came across an article about men who traveled the south promoting kudzu, holding kudzu
festivals and kudzu beauty pageants. Having spent many childhood family trips driving though
corridors of kudzu, I had no idea why anyone would want to promote the stuff, so I had to write a
book to find out the answer.

For anyone who’s grown up since the heyday of microfiche, imagine tiny film versions of
newspapers that had to be read on a large, pre-computer machine—sort of a giant magnifying
glass. A great invention at the time, which kept libraries from having to deal with the clutter of
thousands of old issues of daily newspapers.

AUTHORLINK: The invasive power of Kudzu is a great metaphor. How does it serve that
capacity in the novel?

HERMAN: It’s funny, in addition to being a novelist, I’m also a poet so I use metaphor all the
time. But I didn’t think about kudzu as a metaphor until after I wrote The Kudzu Queen. Of
course, kudzu is a metaphor for the Kudzu King, as he plants himself in Cooper County and
begins to take over. But after reading a great review of this book, I’ve also come to think of
kudzu as a metaphor for the type of progress that occurs when we latch on to any new
technology that forces out an earlier way of doing things. Think AI, for instance.

AUTHORLINK: Mattie Lee Watson is a fantastic character. Talk about how you developed her and how you knew this was her story to tell.

“I think most novelists hear voices, and that’s certainly how Mattie came about.”

HERMAN: Thank you. I think most novelists hear voices, and that’s certainly how Mattie came about. I can’t write a novel until I begin hearing the narrative voice in my head. In fact, the narrator for this book was originally a young man in his late teens, but he always seemed a bit foggy to me, and not interesting enough to live with for a whole book. When Mattie came along, my job was to sit back and listen, and transcribe whatever she said to paper. As Mattie told her stories, she created her family, her friends Lynnette and Rose, and everyone else—from the Kudzu King to the mayor’s wife, to Mattie’s nemesis, Glynis. And as Mattie interacted with each of the other characters, her personality emerged. Someone recently pointed out that many of the characters change over the course of the book, not just because they are transformed, but because Mattie, as she becomes more mature (to her own and her mother’s surprise!) begins to see how
complicated they really are.

AUTHORLINK: The period details in the book are really interesting and help build the world of the
story. Talk about your research. What surprising things did you discover?

HERMAN: Well, first of all, I found out that kudzu can be used for everything you see in the
book—except possibly cigarettes. I made that one up. And the Department of Agriculture really did
produce pamphlets on the proper propagation of kudzu and pay farmers to plant it. I also did a lot of research about corn, cotton, and tobacco, and ended up using these crops as sort of a vegetable kingdom chronology to shape the book. Even after The Kudzu Queen was accepted for publication, I spent many hours fact-checking, especially with etymology, clothing, and food. I wanted to make sure my word choices were accurate for the time.For example, the word “sharp” to describe clothing wasn’t used until about 1945, so I had to change that. And Glynis’ outfits were a challenge, since she always had to be stylish but accessible in a small town in North Carolina, right after the Depression. And finally: food. I love to cook, but I had no idea how much food was in this book until I started looking everything up to make sure those recipes were around in the early forties. Unfortunately, lemon bars weren’t invented until the 1960s, so I had to take those out, which may be for the best since originally Rose gave some to Mattie to put in her purse, which is never a good idea!

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Kudzu Queen and how
did you overcome them?

“…I’m a winger, not a planner, at least at first. So my method is to write hundreds of pages…”

HERMAN: I write books for the same reason I read them: to find out what’s going to happen
next and how it’s all going to turn out. But I’m a winger, not a planner, at least at first. So my
method is to write hundreds of pages, jumping into whatever scenes intrigue me at the moment,
then rearranging the pages—on paper at first, and later on the computer—as the story begins to
emerge for me. My first solid “I did it!” draft weighed in at 680 pages, a little long for anyone,
even my friends and family, to be willing to read. I challenged myself to cut the book in half by
playing “pick-up sticks.” Could I remove this word, this paragraph, this sentence, this scene, this
chapter, this subplot, this entire character? I had a wonderful time getting rid of the parts of the
book that didn’t belong.

AUTHORLINK: You teach and I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers
about either craft or staying in the game.

HERMAN: Here are a few of my greatest hits:

 To create believable characters and settings, use at least three of your five senses.
 If you don’t hear your words in your head as you’re writing them, read your work out
loud. Listen for the awkward—and the eloquent—in what you’ve written.
 When you’re having a hard time finding time for your writing, write for fifteen minutes
every day. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be smart. It doesn’t have to
connect with what you wrote yesterday or what you’re going to write tomorrow. Just fifteen minutes, even if it’s right before you go to bed. And if you miss a day—or a week or month—don’t punish yourself by adding up all the minutes you missed. Just start again with fifteen.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

HERMAN: In addition to touring with The Kudzu Queen, I’m working on two books right now.
The first is a revision of a novel called Sophie and Solly, about an older Jewish couple who own
a musty, dusty men’s clothing store in New York—and there’s a ghost involved. The other is a
new novel, set in the mid-eighties in Ireland, a time of traditional fiddle music and hip nightclubs
playing Grace Jones and Prince when the streets smelled of burning coal and laundromats. I’m
excited to be diving into these adventures, to see how they’ll turn out!

About the author:

Mimi Herman is the author of The Kudzu Queen, A Field Guide to Human Emotions and
Logophilia. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab
Orchard Review and many other journals. She is a member of the AWP Board of Directors, a
Warren Wilson MFA alumna, a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and a Hermitage Artist Retreat
Fellow. Mimi co-directs Writeways writing workshop retreats in France, Italy, Ireland, New
Mexico and online. For more information visit