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Q&A with Terah Shelton Harris - One Summer in Savannah

One Summer in Savannah

We are thrilled to welcome Terah Shelton Harris to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release One Summer in Savannah, released on the 4th of July 2023.

By Ashleigh Cameron

It's been eight years since Sara Lancaster left her home in Savannah, Georgia. Eight years since her daughter, Alana, came into this world, following a terrifying sexual assault that left deep emotional wounds Sara would do anything to forget. But when Sara's father falls ill, she's forced to return home and face the ghosts of her past.

While caring for her father and running his bookstore, Sara is desperate to protect her curious, outgoing, genius daughter from the Wylers, the family of the man who assaulted her. Sara thinks she can succeed—her attacker is in prison, his identical twin brother, Jacob, left town years ago, and their mother are all unaware Alana exists. But she soon learns that Jacob has also just returned to Savannah to piece together the fragments of his once-great family. And when their two worlds collide—with the type of force Sara explores in her poetry and Jacob in his astrophysics—they are drawn together in unexpected ways.

One Summer in Savannah

Hi Terah! It’s an absolute joy to get to speak with you about your debut novel, One Summer in Savannah. I adored this book; it was deeply moving and had me challenging my perspectives in ways that will stay with me beyond the final page. For our curious audience yet to read your novel, please could you tell us about the inspiration behind it?

Inspiration for One Summer in Savannah stems from the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. After the parishioners fed him and prayed for him, a man shot and killed nine of them. Days after that terrible tragedy, before they had even buried their loved ones, some of the survivors and relatives of those killed walked into a South Carolina courtroom and forgave the shooter. At that moment, I realized I knew nothing about forgiveness. I assumed that there were crimes and acts that were unforgivable, but I learned the opposite. The loved ones who forgave him taught me to look inward, and I learned that forgiveness is not one size-fits-all. I decided to explore that by writing a book that challenged readers on the definition of forgiveness and what it truly means to forgive.

I also gleamed inspiration from the Saras of the world. One Summer in Savannah is a work of fiction, but portions of Sara’s story are real. There’s a person who lives Sara’s story who conceived a child through sexual assault and practices the act of forgiveness every day. Her story and the millions of other Saras in this world shine a light on an even darker side of sexual assault that no one ever talks about.

Through the intricately woven lives of Sara and Jacob you so beautifully portrayed their differing perspectives navigating feelings of loss and love, identity and belonging, guilt and forgiveness. Was the two POVs a deliberate choice for representing, side by side, Sara and Jacob’s mirrored experiences navigating these feelings?

Absolutely! I wanted the reader to understand that not much separates Sara and Jacob. While the circumstances are different, they are both tackling a lot of the same traumas and feelings. They both have a dying loved one. They were both hurt by the same incident. I think it was important to show the reader this in order to help them understand how and why Sara and Jacob were drawn together.

In particular, the themes of identity and belonging dominate throughout, and both our central character’s struggle with separating themselves with the traumas in their past that others have associated them with. Could you talk to us about why you chose to explore this aspect of identity?

Unfortunately, we are often defined by what happens to us. This is one of the reasons why Sara was hesitant to return home. She knew that no matter how much time has passed that she will always be the girl who was sexually assaulted and excused someone from a prominent family of it. Even Jacob struggles with this. There’s a line in the book that says, “siblings are guilty by association. But Daniel does not come from a broken home or have a previous criminal record. And when the dust settled, he drew a ten-year sentence, which we all get to serve right along with him.” We often are associated by what happens to us and I wanted to show the readers that.

There is also this overarching theme of time. In the novel, our characters are running out of time with their loved ones, have had time taken away being forced to grow up too fast, or feel time has been wasted hiding from the world. With this in mind, why Alana’s obsession with time?

Alana’s obsession with time is symbolic to the story. Time, the passage of it, is very much an important factor in the story. There’s a ticking clock in ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH and I thought having Alana be obsessed with time helped illustrate that. Everything in this story comes down to time and I wanted the reader to be aware of it. One of my favorite lines is, “I’ve always been aware of it (time), as she has, its steady pace in our lives, the invisible force that moves us. There is no stopping time for an extra ten seconds. No matter how hard you try.”

We understand first-hand the struggles Sara has had to overcome as a direct result of SA. It is only through Jacob’s perspective that we are invited to get to know Daniel, the perpetrator of this crime. Why did you choose to give reader’s this chance, and specifically, through the lens of his twin brother?

This is, by far, the most popular question I’m asked about ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH. Everything in ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH is intentional, including making Jacob an identical twin brother and not a cousin or even a fraternal twin. When I started writing ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH, there wasn’t a Jacob point of view. I’ve always felt like it was Sara’s story to tell, and I didn’t want to distract readers from that. Jacob, of course, was always going to have a vital and intricate role in the story but not his own voice. After writing the first few chapters, I realized something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it. After much thought, I realized I was missing another side of Sara’s story and that Jacob could fill in those blanks. Having a Jacob POV offered direct commentary and perspective from Birdie and Daniel that would not have existed in Sara’s single POV. No spoilers and not making excuses for him, but I think being able to hear from Daniel was important. Also, in exploring that other side of Sara’s story, I discovered that Jacob had his own story to tell as well. Jacob is no ally of Birdie and Daniel, and his story offered a peek inside the Wylers and how Daniel’s crime affected them all.

Making Daniel and Jacob identical twins allowed me to stretch and explore an unexpected and unique nuance. It would have been easy for me, for Sara, for the reader, to accept Jacob if he were a fraternal twin. The road to forgiveness is often not paved smoothly. It’s rough. It’s hard and lined with unexpected obstacles. I wanted Sara’s journey to reflect that. She’s been running from her past for eight years and when she finally accepts her plight and begins her walk toward forgiveness, I wanted Sara to face, quite literally, her past. While they are identical twins, certain circumstances (no spoilers) have altered their appearance but making them fraternal twins would have been taking the easy way out when forgiveness is anything but easy.

If you were to write a POV from any other character in the novel, who would you choose and why?

Alana! I love her so much and would have loved to have told this story from her point of view. Because of her abilities, she’s such an interesting character. In my opinion, I barely scratched the surface on her and her voice. It would be interesting to get a look inside her mind to see how she operated, how she viewed life.

Trauma healing is not a linear process, and often societal pressure to ‘move on’ quickly creates internalised expectations within us to bounce-back, as is apparent in Sara’s story, where she berates herself for not having all the answers for Alana, or not feeling ready for certain things. Whilst this is ultimately a story about finding that peace and forgiveness needed for healing, I would love to get your thoughts and perspective on why it was also important to show this conflict.

We live in a fast world. What makes the news today may not make the news tomorrow. What’s important to us today may not even be a blimp on our radar in a few months. Because of this, I think you get that ‘move on’ quickly aspect. But what we rarely stop and think about are the people impacted by these news stories. It’s easier for an outsider to move on than someone currently living in that situation. In ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH, everyone has somewhat moved on, but Sara hasn’t. She can’t. She has a consistent reminder of what happened. It's important to show this conflict because bouncing back from trauma doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a line in the book that says, “trauma changes you, hardens you, leaves it’s scars.” That’s very true and because of that it’s not easy to move on from.

I loved the way you utilised poetry as a form of communication in the story. Had you always planned for Hosea’s character to communicate through poetry, or was this something that came later in the writing process?

Hosea is loosely based on my grandfather who suffered a stroke when I was younger and lost his ability to speak. However, using gestures and sounds, he was still able to communicate with us. I knew I wanted to honor him in some way. Why not as Sara’s father? But I wanted Hosea to speak. LOL! After a little thought, I decided to use poetry as his form of communication. Poems, like with my grandfather’s new way of communicating, require some deciphering. Originally, Hosea only occasionally spoke in poetry, but I learned decided to go for it. Why not?

By the end of the novel, I feel like I truly understand Hosea’s character and intentions -- was it difficult selecting poems to fit the messages being spoken, and in turn to effectively craft someone’s characteristics through this medium in a way that translates to audiences?

I’m asked this question often and completely shock people when I tell them that selecting Hosea’s poems was not difficult at all. I’m a librarian and an English major. I studied poetry in college; however, I’ve always had a love and appreciation for poetry. Poems are not second nature to me like they are for Hosea, but it wasn’t much of a struggle. It helped that I used a lot of my favorite poets such as Yeats, Whitman, and Cummings. It also helped that I could only use poems in the public domain so that narrowed my choices quite a bit. Poetry is such an underrated form of communication and readers have been appreciative of the use of it in ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH. There’s a poem for everything!

At the beginning you juxtapose the language surrounding Alana’s character, who is a ‘big’ and ‘curious’ character, with that of Sara; the ‘bustle and noise’ swallowing her voice... ‘smothered like a whisper in a storm’. However, by the end, Sara has opened up and these descriptions have shifted to that of strength, ‘bravery, silent and loud’. Could you talk more about your process and deliberate use of language as a tool to signify story and character arcs?

What a great observation! As I mentioned earlier, everything in ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH is intentional, from the town (Lubec) where Sara and Alana lived to the language used to describe Sara’s journey toward forgiveness. I believe in showing versus telling because I didn’t want to spoon feed Sara’s plight to the reader. I wanted to slowly show the reader Sara’s progression. This was important to me to make it believable. Throughout the book, Sara is slowly tearing down these walls she built, and I needed to show that through action and language.

Many of our readers are aspiring writers and dream about releasing their own debut novels. What has your journey to getting published been like?

I love this question because it gives me an opportunity to tell my unique story. I finished writing One Summer in Savannah at the end of 2020 and started pitching it at the start of 2021. I got off to an amazing start with lots of full requests that were met with some of the most beautiful rejections you can imagine: “With your language/voice and the characterization—you could go toe to toe with any published author." And: “Terah, I have no doubt you will be published someday.” My favorite: “I have spent the past couple of weeks reading it closely and thinking deeply about it. As a matter of fact, part of the reason it’s taken me so long to respond is that I’ve been pondering it closely. And I hate writing this email, as there is so much to love in your writing—you are hugely talented!” By the end of 2021, I had a few full requests out but was growing leery if I would ever find an agent. One Summer in Savannah is not the first book I wrote, and I began to think that it would live on my hard drive with my first book. Until Erin McClary, my editor, responded to my query and first 50 pages, asking for the full manuscript. It was a miracle that I was able to query her at all. At the time, Erin’s submissions were open to unagented BIPOC writers and I took advantage. After a few weeks, Erin sent me the best news of my life. But I didn’t have an agent! I spent the next few weeks interviewing agents and bonded with Abby Saul immediately. I could have never imagined that I would have a book deal before signing with an agent. One thing that I’ve learned is that everyone’s path to publishing is different. And that’s okay!

How much of your previous work, for example your work as a Librarian, has influenced your writing?

All of it! As a collection development librarian, I’m responsible for the purchase and acquisition of all adult print and digital materials for my library system. Because of this, I read a few hundred books a year for pleasure and work, and I discovered that I am drawn to unique stories, books that I haven’t read before and could not find several comparables to. I knew that if I were to ever write a book that I wanted to write a book that readers found to be unlike anything they’ve ever read before. In fact, when researching comps for ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH I could not find one that was exactly like it. I could only find two books that were similar, but not in the same vein. They are THE ATONEMENT CHILD by Francine Rivers which tells the story of a women who conceived a child following a sexual assault and WE WERE THE MULVANEYS by Joyce Carol Oates which beautifully illustrates how a family dynamic is altered after the daughter is sexually assaulted.

My next question contains a bit of a spoiler, but as a reader I am so curious to know! What was the decision behind Hosea’s letter to Sara, and why did you keep its contents from the reader?

I’ve been asked this question so many times! I debated whether to include the letter and ultimately decided against it for several reasons. The main reason is because I felt like it stopped the story. After Jacob gives Sara the letter and she watches him leave in the elevator, I felt as if the scene was completed. It was such an emotional moment for Sara and Jacob, and I think prolonging the scene by having Sara read Hosea’s letter would have distracted from that. Additionally, the next scene moves back to Jacob’s POV and finally Daniel’s admittance to Birdie about what happened. I wanted to get the reader to that moment and felt that the letter didn’t fit before that moment. Lastly, keeping the contents of the letter private speaks very much to Hosea’s personality. Sara mentioned that when she was younger, she struggled to understand his speech and often had to decipher the poems he used. I wanted the reader to envision what they thought the letter would say.

What was the future you imagined for Alana, the child-genius? Does she indeed go on to solve one or all of the Millennium Problems?

Yes, she does! I mentioned this in the Q & A in the back of the book that Alana does solve the equation and that leads to the definition of time. I think the most important part of Alana’s future is that Jacob and Sara allow her, as much as they can, to have somewhat of a normal life. It’s repeated throughout ONE SUMMER IN SAVANNAH that Jacob and Daniel didn’t have a normal life and that Alana will not have one either. The future I envisioned for Alana is that Sara and Jacob make it possible for her. That they can give her the balance she needs to thrive as a child while nurturing and enhancing her abilities.

One Summer in Savannah

Terah Shelton Harris is a librarian and freelance writer, who now writes upmarket fiction with bittersweet endings. As a freelancer, her work has appeared in consumer and trade magazines including Catapult, Women’s Health, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Backpacker, Minority Nurse, and more. One Summer in Savannah is her first novel.


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