Since I read his brilliant novel Floating Twigs, I wanted to have Charles Tabb for a Q&A. Tabb is an author of mostly literary and detective fiction, with occasional forays into other genres. He received his degree in English from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and taught English in North Carolina for three decades before retiring to begin his second career. His coming-of-age novel, Floating Twigs has received numerous accolades. While Floating Twigs is for readers of all ages, his Detective Tony Pantera series is more adult-oriented. The first in the series is titled Hell is Empty; the second, The Purger. Charles lives near Richmond, Virginia, with his wife, two rescued dogs, and the many characters that live in his mind. Following is my e-conversation with Tabb about the development of Floating Twigs and his approach to literature.
Ernest: Charles, I’d like to start with how you told the story in Floating Twigs. The novel shows the story through a child’s eye in flashback while using the grown-up protagonist’s voice in first person. Tell us a little about your choice of narration for Jack’s story.
Charles: For some reason, I always saw this as a first-person narrative, which I think is more personal. I’ve always felt closer to characters in books when one character is telling the story from his or her point-of-view, and I felt Floating Twigs needed that sense of personal connection as well. I also wanted what is called in literature a “frame” in the story, in this case where the older Jack is remembering his past, to provide a sense of a circle, much like the circle of life. We end up where we began in the book, with Jack and his original purpose of visiting his hometown for the first time in years becoming the denouement with its final declaration that I believe shows how we not only affect the lives of others, but also how others’ lives affect ours, and how lucky we are to have love in our lives. I purposely left the adult life of Jack ambiguous because I’m planning a sequel in which Jack goes in search of his brother, whom he’s not heard from since he joined the army years before, which is mentioned in Floating Twigs.
Ernest: The book’s cover and the beginning chapters convey it to be a dog rescue and child-dog friendship story. Was that how you originally conceived it and did the story change in some important way over the course of its development in your mind?
Charles: To be honest, I wrote the first two chapters years ago and stopped because I wasn’t sure where to go from there. These two chapters are based on real experiences in my own life (no, I’m not Jack), so after realizing that a book about simple adventures would likely have no staying power with readers, I knew I had to come up with more. The manuscript languished for years until I retired from teaching. That was when the criminal trial of Hank occurred to me and how it fit so well with my story. In fact, I was embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before, given how easy it fits with what is happening in the earlier portions of the book.
Ernest: I see on the back cover the book is tagged as Where the Red Fern Grows meets To Kill a Mockingbird. Were these two books the combined source of inspiration for Floating Twigs?
Charles: No. In fact, a writer friend of mine wrote the cover-blurb you see on the back cover. He said mine was too wordy and needed streamlining. He included what are called in the publishing world “comps,” or comparable books, in his description. I am always quick to point out in discussions of Floating Twigs that someone else came up with that comparison. Some readers don’t understand that a publisher or agent will want to know what “comps” relate to the book being offered, so doing this is very common and even expected. That nearly three dozen Amazon reader reviews mention To Kill a Mockingbird specifically as a comparison, (i.e., “I could so relate the comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird … “) illustrates that the comparison is not overstated.
Ernest: I feel immense semantic appeal in the metaphor of “floating twigs” as used in Jack’s story. Tell us about how you created this metaphor?
Charles: I came up with the metaphor while trying to come up with a working title of the book. I was a twig floater myself when I was young, and I would endow the twigs with life, as Jack does in his own imagination. I long ago realized that such childish games could be seen as a metaphor for the lives we all lead. The debris piles the twigs often become mired in represent the obstacles in our lives, and sometimes those obstacles will stop us from moving forward. I knew Jack would be a “floater of twigs,” and wrote that in the beginning of the third chapter, which was the first chapter written upon taking the book up again, as explained earlier. I also knew while writing that there would be another episode at the end of the book that would cement the metaphor and its symbolism. That second time would be the last time Jack ever played the game, which is mentioned in the final chapter, signaling that he was no longer a child at that point.
Ernest: While writing the book, did you have any particular demographic in mind as your audience? Did you think today’s teens and tweens would be attracted to a realistic story set in the late 1960s?
Charles: Actually, I considered my audience to be anyone who enjoyed a good literary, coming-of-age novel. I was shocked when someone suggested it belonged in the Young Adult category. I consider it as appealing to all ages. Therefore, while I do think teens and tweens who enjoy reading a good novel would like it, I didn’t exactly think of them as my audience, though I certainly considered them an important one. In fact, based on the demographics of who clicks my ads and buys Floating Twigs, the older the age group the reader belongs to, the more likely he or she is to click the ad and purchase the book. I intentionally wrote it with having it taught in schools in mind. I wanted to present a story that was compelling and taught lessons about life that would resonate with the readers for a long time to come. Based on what I read as far as comments go, I would say I’ve done that since many readers mention they had a difficult time putting the book down and would think about it long after finishing it. I am happy to say that several teachers are teaching Floating Twigs in their English curriculum.
Ernest: Let’s talk a little now about the author Charles Tabb. What are some of the books you had a huge crush on as a child, say around age 8 to 13?
Charles: The first book I ever read that would qualify as a novel for young readers was a Hardy Boys mystery. I don’t recall which book, but my older brothers had received several copies each year for Christmas until they became too old for the stories. When I reached an age where I would enjoy reading them, I took them up. I recall that I read the entire book in one night as I lay in bed, supposedly to sleep. As my tastes matured, I started searching for classics. I loved Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows, but I also loved Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Of course, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read when my mother and I watched the movie on TV and she told me the book was a hundred times better. I also read Catcher in the Rye at a young age, maybe thirteen. I read that one in a single day, and when I told my mother when she arrived home from work that I’d read it, she was a bit taken aback. I assured her the language was no different from what I heard every day at school, something I think a lot of adults should realize about their children, since adults are usually much more bothered by language in a book than older children and teens are.
Ernest: Aside from literary fiction, what genres have you written in and what are the ones you can’t wait to experiment with?
Charles: As mentioned, I have a detective series, but I also write in other genres. I have written a few horror fiction short stories, as well as some dealing with supernatural abilities, such as clairvoyance and other advanced mental capacities. I’ve written humorous stories and psychological thrillers. I consider myself to be a multi-genre author, but so far my novels are either literary or detective crime fiction. I have a yearning to write a horror novel, probably based on one of my short stories, since a novel is nothing more than a short story on steroids. I have written a crime story and a psychological thriller/horror story that have won awards.
Ernest: And what are some of the genres that you find hard to read or relate to?
Charles: While I enjoy good science fiction and fantasy, I would never attempt to write in those genres. Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, mentions that we all have filters in our brains that “catch” those things that become of particular interest to us. The legal system, crime, the supernatural, and literary stories are some of the things that “catch” in my brain’s filters. And while I like reading science fiction and fantasy, I am not interested in them enough to write such a story. I loved The Hobbit, which my brother introduced me to, and went on to read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I would never attempt to write anything like it. I love a good Asimov story and enjoy the works of Ray Bradbury, but those are not the styles of writing I would pursue.
Ernest: What’s the most challenging part of the creative writing process for you?
Charles: I would definitely say managing my time. I know that’s probably a dull answer, but the act of writing is usually not a problem for me, though I do face occasional bouts of writers block. At those times, I will take a walk and think about where I want to go in a story or perhaps read a book to get the creative juices flowing. Considering the final outcome-the goal-is always helpful in those instances. However, managing my time is a constant wrench in my gears. The fact of having to market my own material and do my own bookkeeping, can interfere with the fun part: writing. I enjoy the interviews I’ve done recently for blogs, podcasts, and streaming radio and TV my publicist Josh Mitchell sets up for me, but I sometimes get bogged down in the bookkeeping and other minutiae that goes along with being a published author.
Ernest: Lastly, tell us a bit about your next project.
Charles: I am currently finishing my next literary novel, titled Canaries’ Song. It is about a teacher who has recently become a widower. He must balance raising his three daughters with his job and other responsibilities. The novel focuses on his triumphs and mistakes as a father, the troubles at work, a gifted student who can’t or won’t attend college, his desire to be helpful in all aspects of his life, and his daughters and the struggles they have. Lisa, the oldest at fourteen, loves riding in horse events. Monica, the youngest at ten, is headstrong and having difficulty adjusting to their new life. Grace, the middle daughter at eleven, is intellectually challenged and has other health issues as well. The title comes from the fact that Grace asked for canaries after her mother died, and her father bought some for her. She loves to listen to them sing in their cage. Eventually, they become the focal point of the book’s themes about happiness much the same way the floating twigs in the book of that name. I recently received the cover for this book, and it can be seen, along with a preliminary blurb, by going to charlestabb.com/books. After Canaries’ Song, I will be writing my next Pantera novel, The Whirligig of Time, followed by the sequel to Floating Twigs that I mentioned.
Ernest: Thank you Charles!
Charles: You are very welcome! Thank you for the glowing review of Floating Twigs! And if you like a good detective story, I know where you can find one or two.
Visit https://charlestabb.com/ to learn more about Charles Tabb and his work.