A charming debut novel is years in the making
Set in south Arkansas of 1956, Jenny Wingfield’s debut novel is about the family of Samuel Lake, a preacher who has lost his congregation. Sam moves his wife, Willadee, and their three kids to his in-laws’ farm, where the children can run free but the drama is high. Sam’s daughter, Swan, makes friends with (then hides) the son of an evil horse trainer—providing the suspense in the story. Willadee’s sister-in-law, Bernice, attempts to seduce Sam. All the while, Sam looks inward—and to God—to figure out what comes next. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is a small-town story packed with action, charm and sweet—but not too sweet—characters. Readers who love Southern settings populated with complicated family dynamics will dig into this big-hearted novel.
You have several screenplay credits, although The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is your first novel. What do you like best about writing in this form? How is it different from writing screenplays?
I think what I love most about writing novels is that it allows me to feel more like a storyteller. I’m speaking directly to the reader, and I love that. With a screenplay, the writer is somewhat removed from the audience. There are all these layers in between, but with a novel, there’s a tremendous sense of intimacy and freedom. Writing this book was work, but honestly, it felt like dancing. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
I understand that you wrote a couple hundred pages of this novel, then set it aside for 12 years before you finished. What about the story inspired you to come back after such a long break?
I always loved the story, and wanted to get back to it, but I think I was afraid of the commitment that would be required to finish it. I was a single mom, so I kept taking jobs in order to get that paycheck.
The terrible thing about this world is that evil exists. The glorious thing is that hope and love and laughter and music exist at the same time.
Then I had cancer, and—for a variety of reasons—there were no jobs. There was no money. Some hard years followed. My friend Charlie Anderson kept telling me to sit down and finish the novel, and I kept repeating a string of excuses. It would take too long. There was no guarantee that anyone would buy it. On and on. I don’t remember what he said to spur me into finally writing the next ten or so pages, but once I got that far, the story started telling itself to me again. I hadn’t been thinking about it all that time, but it was the most natural thing in the world to take up where I had left off, and see it through to the end.
There are a lot of big personalities in this story—from the spunky Swan Lake to the conniving Bernice to the optimistic Samuel. Was any particular character the most fun for you to write?
Swan, of course. She’s who we’d all be, if only we were brave enough.
There are some very painful passages in this book—especially those involving animal and child abuse—yet overall the novel feels uplifting and optimistic. Did you make a conscious effort to balance the darkness with humorous or happy scenes?
Basically, I just wrote a story, and the characters did what was in their nature to do. The terrible thing about this world is that evil exists. The glorious thing is that hope and love and laughter and music exist at the same time—and I believe that good is infinitely more powerful than its opposite.
Samuel and Willadee's relationship with God (and attitude toward religion) is an essential part of this story, even though they don't always see eye to eye. Has religion played an important role in your life? Why did you want to write about a preacher's family?
I didn’t exactly want to write about a preacher’s family. I wanted to write about my family, and my father just happened to be a preacher. It would have been impossible to get inside Sam Lake’s head without revealing his constant and sincere thoughts of God, the same as it would have been impossible to describe [horse trainer] Ras Ballenger without showing the pleasure he took in inflicting pain on others.
My own faith is vitally important to me, although my views are less traditional now than when I was younger. I tend to believe that God speaks to everyone, everywhere, and that we’d all do well to listen more and talk less.
BookPage readers love Southern fiction. What, besides setting, do you think makes a novel uniquely “Southern”?
Oh, Lord, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the inevitable mentions of honeysuckled air and steam rising off the pavement. There’s something languorous about the south that permeates everything we say and do.