The Past Won Over the Present: A Guest Post by Kate Southwood

Dear Reader,

The Discover selection committee members were hooked on Kate Southwood’s evocative, atmospheric prose from the first page of  Falling to Earth — and couldn’t stop talking about this tragic story as they were reading.  Southwood doesn’t waste a word in this provocative novel set in small town America, 1925, as she takes readers through the aftermath of the deadliest tornado in U.S. history. But Southwood does something slightly unexpected: her protagonist is a man who loses nothing in the storm, yet suffers grave consequences as a result of his good fortune.

The Discover selection committee readers aren’t alone in their praise: “Kate Southwood has written an absolutely gorgeous — and completely modern — first novel…[This] beautifully constructed novel, so psychologically acute, is a meditation on loss in every sense,” said The New York Times Book Review.

We asked Kate why she chose to set her debut novel in the 1920s, and this is what she told us:

The Past Won Over the Present

A Guest Post by Kate Southwood

“I never intended to write a historical novel. I set Falling to Earth in the 1920s because I had no choice: it begins with the historic Tri-State Tornado of 1925, so if I wanted to use that tornado, the 1920s were part of the deal. Or maybe not.

Falling to Earth is not about the tornado, it’s about what happens in a small Midwestern town in the aftermath of the tornado, so I could have set it in the present instead. Changing the time to the present wouldn’t have changed what interested me about the characters, either; they would have experienced the same range of emotions in surviving the tragedy and having to rebuild, whether it was 1925 or 2005.

But the past won over the present here, so why? In part, because I wanted to honor those who died in the storm, and those who survived. I hadn’t heard about the Tri-State until a handful of years ago, even though it’s still on the books as the worst storm in U.S. history, and even though I lived just a few hours north of the path of that storm.

I stumbled across it on the Internet one day and was riveted. I was amazed that a tornado that had taken over 700 lives had been forgotten by popular history. I also found it sad to think that it was about to disappear from living memory, as well.

In researching the novel, I read all the survivors’ accounts I could find. There was fresh pain in every voice, no matter how many years after the storm people had been interviewed. It brought the past up to the present for me and made the decades in between simply disappear. There was one man in particular I wanted to honor—the only real person to make it into the novel—because of his selflessness and because his name has been lost. He was the cook at the Blue Front Hotel in Murphysboro, Illinois. Two different survivors mention him in their accounts of the immediate aftermath of the storm, saying that although seriously injured, he kept going back into the hotel to rescue people trapped in the wreckage there. He is nameless because he was black. The white people telling their accounts had never learned his name, but they thought enough of his actions to single out his story.

Again, though, that character could have been placed in the present, so why the past? This is where I have to admit that I’m fascinated with the first decades of the 20th century. So much changed in just those years: technology exploded, they had a World War, women got the vote, and the arts and architecture got turned on their heads. In broad terms, I can explain it by saying that this period is modern without being the present moment—and so for me it has equal qualities of remoteness and accessibility 

The past can be a comforting place in books and films. After all, the past is certain, the past is done. It’s the present and future that are worrying. And yet, if we’re reading about the Graves family in Falling to Earth and it’s 1925 for them, we’re viewing them through a different lens: they can say that they made it through the Great War, they survived the tornado, and they’ll rebuild, but we know the Crash is right around the corner and then another World War. I touch on that briefly in the Epilogue when Homer returns to his childhood home as an old man. He’s caught for a moment in exactly the kind of reverie his grandmother warned him against when he was a child, and which fascinates me: the allure of the past, and the desire to return there and escape life’s accumulated pain. Of course, it’s a false escape because it erases life’s accumulated joys as well, but it’s no less compelling for that.” –Kate Southwood

Cheers, Miwa


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.