In the Lonely Backwater

By Valerie Nieman

(Fitzroy Books, May 2022)

Valerie Nieman isn’t afraid to explore the world through writing whatever the genre. She is the author of five novels, short fiction collection, and three poetry collections. Her latest, In the Lonely Backwater, follows her protagonist Maggie, a solitary teenager in the rural South, as she explores the natural world around her inspired by the journals of a long-dead biologist. Her quiet life is interrupted when she becomes the prime suspect in her cousin’s murder. Nieman shares her journey in writing the novel here.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?

NIEMAN: My first mentor would have been Mr. Ervin Milks, sixth-grade teacher, who sparked my interest in writing by bringing a real live author to class, and Miss Marcia Lawson, who kept that flame alive in high school. The wonderful short-story writer and teacher Gail Galloway Adams was a great influence on my development as a prose writer in the years after college. Timothy Russell was my guru and guide for poetry. Fred Chappell has been an inspiration and an enthusiastic supporter for many, many years, while Kevin Rippin has challenged every suspect line. Many more, so many wonderful writers and readers. And my parents!

“The biggest reason writers fail is attrition.”

Advice? Everyone who came through the Queens (University-Charlotte) MFA knows Fred Leebron’s maxim: The biggest reason writers fail is attrition. So don’t attrish.

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 do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?

NIEMAN: Each book is different. With Blood Clay, stories about dog maulings kept drawing my attention but I did not know why until childhood memories surfaced. Leopard Lady arrived as a voice—Dinah began talking to me one night and I couldn’t take notes fast enough. I wrote down 13 pages of poems and fragments in one sitting. To the Bones came as a result of a challenge. I was talking with a friend about my frustration at not being able to get going on a new book. Back when I lived in West Virginia, I said, I’d threaten to throw an inconvenient body down a mine crack. He said, so do it. And I did.

AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for In the Lonely Backwater come to you?

“I had a computer folder with notes about various approaches…”

NIEMAN: That’s a long story! I had a computer folder with notes about various approaches to a novel involving a lone woman in the woods, botanizing. I found an inscription in my senior yearbook that mentioned a forgotten disagreement with a classmate. Then Maggie began talking—the opening lines came just like that, and I was off.

AUTHORLINK: You mentioned a photo exchange exercise in a class you were teaching helping bring your protagonist Maggie into focus. I’d love to hear more about that.

NIEMAN: I’ve taught for several years at the John C. Campbell Folk School. For a session on character development, I had students bring in candid photos of people in action. We traded them and then imagined a scene out of the random image. I was already working on Backwater, so when I saw that face, I knew it was Maggie.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have on writing an unreliable narrator?

“I let the point-of-view character lead me…”

NIEMAN: Is there such a thing as a reliable narrator, really? We all think we see what we see, remember what we remember. I let the point-of-view character lead me, which means I’m getting her angle on things, as is the reader. Whether that’s reliable or not remains to be seen.

AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of this mystery?

NIEMAN: This book was influenced by a couple of childhood favorites, A Girl of the Limberlost and Green Mansions. I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes, and devoured Agatha Christie and Mike Hammer paperbacks one rainy vacation week in the Adirondacks. Appalachian influences include Ruth Ann Musick, Manly Wade Wellman, and Breece D’J Pancake. And then there’s Poe. Always Poe.

AUTHORLINK: Maggie is drawn to the natural world. Is this a quality you share, and if not, what sort of research did you have to do to make her passion for it real to the reader?

NIEMAN: There’s a lot of me in Maggie. I, too, was a solitary girl wandering the woods, intensely interested in the plant and animal life. Her devotion to Linnaeus and the comforts of taxonomy were sparked by the Chappell story “Linnaeus Forgets,” which reawakened my interest in the great botanist. My research, other than continued wandering, included time spent at the University of North Carolina libraries with a 19th-century translation of A Tour in Lapland, the fascinating account of Linnaeus’s early explorations and a book that comes into Maggie’s hands at a critical point.

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape In the Lonely Backwater?

NIEMAN: This book took so long from first inklings to final draft. It began in the form of a journal, that last couple of summers that I sailed, so 2008, maybe? I thought I’d finished it in the summer of 2012, when I was staying at my parents near Southport during my mother’s final illness and my pending divorce. The manuscript landed with three different agents, all of whom went belly-up on me, but it truly was not finished. I kept recasting the end until it finally came together.

AUTHORLINK: What are the greatest challenges when writing a mystery and how did you overcome them?

NIEMAN: I’m a novice mystery writer. I am amazed at the intricacy and puzzle-solving skills of the masters. How to reveal, and how soon? I think that’s the difficult part for me, handling the pace of revelation and dropping clues that don’t seem to be clues until later.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?

“Each new beta reader, each agent, brought some new idea.”

NIEMAN: Each new beta reader, each agent, brought some new idea. The ending went through several versions until the right one clicked. Pam Van Dyke is my editor at Regal House, and under her guidance, I added new material near the beginning, reduced some explanatory sections, and clarified where needed. Apprentice writers should seek out beta readers who can provide honest feedback.

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice mystery writers?

NIEMAN: I guess the same advice given to all writers: Read a lot, write a lot, and believe in your own voice. I’m not the best model for mystery writers, as I do standalone novels and most write a series of books based on the lead character.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

NIEMAN: I’m working on three things at once, as usual. I’m writing a To the Bones sequel, which is a first for me, as well as a historical novel series with speculative elements. I’m trying to pull together another collection of poetry.

Valerie Nieman is the author of five novels, short fiction collection and three poetry collections. She has published widely in journals and anthologies, and has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. She holds degrees from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and was a journalist and farmer in West Virginia before moving to North Carolina in 1997. She is professor emeritus at NC A&T State University.