Dershie McDevitt, whose book, Just Holler Bloody Murder, was just released in a kindle edition, is a Dewees islander with some great stories to tell. I enjoyed the book, and caught up with Dershie to ask her some questions about it. When she was approached by the Arts Council to do a reading, Dershie graciously agreed to read selections of her book to islanders on her now-famous porch on Sunday, March 24th.
You have set this book on an island near Charleston named Timicau. Is this our Dewees Island? Why name it Timicau?
Timicau is Dewees, at least geographically. The critters, the ocean, the tides, the salt air…it’s all Dewees! I named it Timicau because I love this place so madly that I wanted to set the mystery here. But if I set it in present time, the development of the island would have hampered my ability to tell the story that I wanted to tell. Timicau was the Sewee Indian name for the island and is the name of the lake in the middle of the island.
Were you a writer before coming to Dewees?
Yes, I aspired to be a writer long before writing this book. My first novel, which is thus far unpublished, was my Masters thesis at UNC- Asheville. I’ve been in a professional writing group ever since, for 19 years.
Actually, I realized I was a poet in the third grade when Miss McKay, the Deity’s most tactful third grade teacher, told me my poetry had excellent strong meter rather than telling me I had only half done my assignment to illustrate a small booklet on five of Wyoming’s most common birds. As in…”Dershie, dear, you don’t seem to have spent much time on your drawings or collecting the facts, but your meter, now, that meter is very strong and well rhymed.”
After that, I felt free to take pen to paper in all moments of emotional trial and excoriate the fates. I wrote some of the most meaningless, overly emotional drivel… for example when I was ten and my cat died, I took on God with: “where did you take her? How did she die? Oh Tulip, Tulip, is your tail held high?”. It took a lot of good professors to channel my passion into something you just might enjoy reading now.
How is Dewees different from Timicau Island? How is it the same?
Dewees is really just the Timicau Island of the book about thirty years later.
Can you describe your first experience of visiting the island? How do you think it has changed since then?
There is a whole moving short story I could write about the first time we came to Dewees, but since I’ve shared the Tulip poem, I think I will spare you that. Suffice it to say, I was transported, enthralled, wild with joy when I realized there was a spot so close to civilization where I could return to the wild. I grew up in northern Wyoming, as free as the little Callahan in my novel, and the chance to observe all the elements of nature at such close hand on Dewees, birds, gators, dolphins, shells, shifts in light and weather systems seemed a gift from heaven.
Dewees Island has changed, but not dramatically. The manner in which the island has been developed means that much of the time, it seems like just a few residents are there. Even when lots of visitors are on the island it is still possible to escape all human presence because so much of the island remains (and will remain) undeveloped. A golf cart trip to the northern tip of the island, a sundown cruise around one of the docks on the west side of the island…it is just you and nature at peace together.
As a matter of fact, the island is such a dynamic ecosystem that there are always thrilling developments. In the sequel to Just Holler, Harry will be astounded, as my own grandaughter was, one day when she came rushing in and said, “Grammie I have just seen–i am not kidding– a pink bird.” And she had! That was four years or so, and now we regularly see the roseate spoonbills mixed in with the wood storks and egrets in the impoundment. The wood storks were rare when we first came here, as were the ibis. Now we see a lot of them regularly. I remember my absorption the first time an anhinga emerged from under water in our pond. No wonder it is nicknamed a snake bird…and then for the last two years, the nesting bald eagles…! Paradise!
Did you do any research while writing this book? Learn anything surprising?
Oh yes, I am always doing research because Callahan Banks, my protagonist, knows way more about the facts the natural world than I do, so I have to keep ahead of her discovering tidbits like why seagulls cry or spiders dont get stuck in their webs. I read and clip constantly.
In your book, most of the island geography is identifiable, but there is a big plantation as a central location in the story. On Dewees, where would Twelve Oaks be located? Is that where Huyler House stands now? Or were you researching where the original plantation houses on the island stood?
No, no historical research here. I had to put the plantation house where I wanted it for the elements of the mystery to work, and your guess is just about right. I imagine it probably would take in the Harry’s house, all the Huyler House property and probably HH pond and the intersection of the roads there.
When Callahan returns to her beloved Timicau Island, there are only seven people who live on the island. Is this nostalgia for the early days of Dewees when it was relatively undiscovered?
Good question, I have read all the books I can find written by people who lived here then, but I don’t think I would quite call it nostalgia, because the early inhabitants underwent great hardship, with few creature comforts. I have given Pepper, Honey and Francie a more cushy, upper class existence than would probably have been possible without considerable means to afford such a life.
In the novel, there is some tension between those people who had always thought of the island as theirs, the same way the sky is… and those who built their homes there as part of the newer neighborhood being established…. Is this rooted in fact? Do you think some of those tensions are still being played out today?
Our developers said for us to consider it a ” private island to call our own”. And a lot of us feel that way so rules and time schedules and limitations feel like we are losing some of that glorious freedom we came to the island to experience. Just like Callahan, in the novel, we all have to keep open and creative minds to figure out how to best live here and yet not infringe on the rights of our neighbors while doing it.
I love this characterization of Lila: she “had decreed that no house of hers would ever have a mirror–”a waste of time and a distraction from what really matters”– is there a character inspiration for her?
Not really, except I personally have always chafed under the expectation that I needed to be coifed and groomed to met societal expectations when all I wanted to do is go out and explore the world. People like Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey are my personal heroes.
There are a lot of Dewees names in the book. How did you come up with the names?
Naming was great fun. I asked the Pasquinis if I could borrow their name because it was perfect for Irene, though she is hardly their stature and nothing like them. I’ve always loved the shortened form of Wharton, so Whart Applegate, the triplets father, got part of our former island resident’s name. Juby T. Roy’s first name came from an obit in the Asheville paper, and the deceased even was wearing that weathered felt hat he wears in the novel. What I didn’t add– it doesn’t fit my character– was that according to the obit, he was also a member of The Columbia Record Club. Lets see, Francie had to have a formal name with a bit of class (Francis), but get shortened to something a bit trashy. Varina needed dignity. I found her in a history book , and Wallace was a dear heart I knew long ago. I wanted the triplets’ surname to appear to have a bit of a Charleston pedigree, but Annie had to be approachable and spontaneous so it took me a while to sort out the right first name for her.
Who am I missing? The triplets? Once I got to know Annie, she told me their names. And then of course Callahan and Pepper. She was the hardest to name b/c the name needed to be distinctive, non-traditional and shorten-able to an affectionate nickname. Larry named Pepper. I was looking for an old SC name that could be his middle name. It had to be shortened to something Charleston-ish and hold a little spice and sex appeal. When Larry mentioned Culpepper , all I had to do was find compatible one syllable names to tack on front and back- John and Dade. Oh, and I saw a really sleazy- looking Ruby who was an embezzler in a newspaper somewhere, which made her great for Juby’s sister. Pepper’s late mother, Mignon, is an old southern name I’ve saved, along with old buttons and funny stories, for ages. Finally that bad guy, Reggie Banks. The Banks (from Kathryn) seemed a solid British name and Reginald a bit snooty while a Reggie could be a rake. I REALLY was writing this long before I got to know another island Reggie.
Some of these names were changed three or four times in the ten years that I was writing the book until I felt like I had it right. I think because it was set on Dewees, I unconsciously leaned towards a lot of Dewees names.
One of the main themes of this book deals with connections between people and the natural world around them. I enjoyed this description of a turtle nest hatching:
In a second, the one small creature becomes the many as tiny turtle babies who’ve hatched under the sand and waited, stacked together, for this perfect moment to boil out of their nest high up in the dunes, swarm towards the beach ahead of her. (Callahan) frowns uneasily. Predictably guarding the shoreline, their shadows casting spidery images on the sand, are the ghost crabs, large claws waving in fiendish anticipation.
There are cougars on Timicau. Do you think there are cougars on Dewees?
I do, even though SCDNR says not. I have spent years trying to see that big cat, but no luck so far. My daughter and son-in-law, brother-in-law and niece (both very scientific doctors who drew pictures of its long tail) and the Henry Savages, and several Dewees employees have all described spotting the same cat off and on over a period of years. I think the question is whether it is a released exotic pet or a Florida panther that has somehow survived a shadowy existence on wild islands like Capers, but I want to believe the latter theory and since I get to write the fiction, I have decreed it to be so.
Thanks so much for answering all of these– we can’t wait for your island reading, and the sequel to this book. Kindle copies are now available. Click the link below to go right to the kindle edition.