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'Publishers wanted me to turn my mother into a man' - Tiffany McDaniel

Ohio author Tiffany McDaniel tells Sarah Gilmartin about the sexual abuse in her family that inspired her latest novel

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Too risky, too female’: Tiffany McDaniel 
wrote Betty when she was 18 and it was initially rejected by publishers. Photo by Jennifer McDaniel

Too risky, too female’: Tiffany McDaniel wrote Betty when she was 18 and it was initially rejected by publishers. Photo by Jennifer McDaniel

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

Strong: McDaniel's mother is the central character in Betty

Strong: McDaniel's mother is the central character in Betty

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Too risky, too female’: Tiffany McDaniel wrote Betty when she was 18 and it was initially rejected by publishers. Photo by Jennifer McDaniel

There is a scene in Tiffany McDaniel's new novel Betty that stands out for its complex, nuanced portrayal of trauma. A mother, Alka, pins her nine-year-old daughter to a bed and re-enacts over the child's clothes the sensation of being raped by her father when she herself was a young girl. Reading the scene, we immediately identify with Betty, the book's narrator, as her damaged, depressed mother passes the legacy of abuse on to the next generation.

It comes as a surprise then, when speaking to McDaniel from her home in southern Ohio, that she has a far more generous view of her character's actions. "I see Alka as someone who has this past and really wants to tell it," she says. "Betty was the first person in her life that she actually told about her views. She didn't tell her husband or any of the older children. She singled Betty out because she felt that she was strong enough to withstand it and to hold it inside her."

What makes this view even more remarkable is that Betty is based on real life. McDaniel's mother is the central character. Her grandmother Alka was sexually abused for years by her father until she escaped the family farm through marriage to a Cherokee Native American. The history of the Cherokee people in America is the other focus of McDaniel's book. Set in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Ohio, the novel is full of interesting details on Cherokee culture, which work as a counterbalance to the grim aspects of the family's history.

Although Betty is McDaniel's second book, it is the first novel she wrote, nearly two decades ago at the age of 18. She spent a long time trying to find an agent and publisher. Those in the industry told her it was too dark, too risky, too female.

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Strong: McDaniel's mother is the central character in Betty

Strong: McDaniel's mother is the central character in Betty

Strong: McDaniel's mother is the central character in Betty

"They wanted the women characters to be more welcoming," she says. "They wanted me to change the narrator to a man. They said I could write the Huckleberry Finn of my generation. But my story was nothing like that. I didn't write that."

McDaniel heard the male narrator advice so much that she decided to apply it to The Summer That Melted Everything, her 2016 debut novel. "That book went out on submission and sold in a month. It's certainly harder for female stories to get noticed and if it wasn't for the #MeToo movement, I feel that Betty might not have been published."

Betty skilfully depicts the coming-of-age of a young girl in 1960s America. It's impossible to conceive of the novel without her as the central voice. "Her experiences were so defined by her gender," says McDaniel. "She had all these encounters growing up that were so integral to being a girl. We would hope that things have changed in the time since, but we can see that we haven't yet gotten equality in 2020. Betty is someone who wants to hold on to her Cherokee heritage - a matriarchal society - while trying to fit into a world where Christianity is the dominant religion."

In a novel that deals with the abuse done to women by men over generations, the requests for a male narrator seem at best misguided, at worst unethical. "Yes," she says. "I wanted to stay true to the story. And," she adds wryly. "I didn't want to turn my mother into a man."

In Betty, sexual abuse affects a number of female characters who later become mentally ill and suicidal. Growing up, McDaniel heard a lot about her Cherokee heritage, but she only discovered at 17 the history of abuse on the other side of the family. It was a defining moment in her life that made her see how vital it was to give victims a voice. "Most people don't realise that these things happen as regularly as they do," she says. "It's only when people share these stories that they realise they're not alone in that abuse."

McDaniel (35) no longer lives with her family but is based between two locations in central and southern Ohio. An insomniac who often writes at night, she prefers to keep other personal details to herself. She does say that she grew up in a house of three sisters. It was the same in her mother's family, and this sense of sisterly solidarity is deftly explored in the novel. As research, McDaniel carried out Q&A sessions with her mother, grandmother and aunts.

How did she manage to get emotional distance when it came to turning fact into fiction? "In the main it was really difficult," she says. "My mother was describing what went on in her life, details I kept intact for the book. Those sorts of things were really hard to hear. I actually stripped some of the abuse that happened in real life from the book. In reality my grandmother had brothers who were raping her as well. I also had a Q&A session with my aunts about their experiences of abuse. I knew that these women had become addicts and lived really difficult lives. I saw how they had tried to survive."

In addition to exploring generational abuse, Betty looks at the struggles of a mixed-race girl growing up in mid-20th century, small-town America. Sexism and racism are ingrained in the culture. Some of the most affecting scenes depict Betty's experiences at school, where she is bullied by peers and belittled by teachers for having brown skin.

With the death of George Floyd in Atlanta in May, the issue of race is once again to the forefront of American politics. Black Lives Matter protests have been held across the world. What does it feel like on the ground in Ohio?

"There is the sense that these protests are different because they're persistent and collective," McDaniel says. "People have really engaged in a way that the leaders of the civil rights movements from the 50s and 60s say is new. White people have never been so involved.

"My mother and grandfather grew up with brown skin in predominantly white communities. I didn't experience what they did [because I'm fair-skinned] but with the novel I wanted to explore how it felt to be them. My mother told me how teachers basically told her she'd do nothing with her life.

"They'd have career days at school and they'd tell her to sit out. How do you get the confidence to rise out of that? She somehow did and I'm grateful for it."

Confidence is an important part of a career as a writer too, particularly when dealing with reviews. An initial review of The Summer That Melted Everything in the Guardian was highly critical of McDaniel's lyrical style. Did she feel vindicated when that same paper awarded her its coveted Not the Booker Prize later that year and followed it up with a glowing review?

"I did," she says, laughing. "It was nice there was a critic who enjoyed it much more than the first. That felt good. I'm one of those people that any time there's a bad review, those are the ones I remember. There can be a thousand good reviews but I'll remember the bad one. I think it's that I always want to please every reader and I have to remind myself that I can't. I have to write for the characters, and for the readers who do love the work and the writing."

With McDaniel's personal connection to Betty, and the long wait for the book to be published, one suspects the stakes this time round are even higher. "It is very important to me," she says. "I think with family stories in general, but especially when we're talking about generational abuse, we need to give victims the chance to talk about what happened to them. To try and preserve something for the next generation."

'Betty' by Tiffany McDaniel, published by W&N, is out on August 20

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