My fourth novel, Serena, began when I visited a resort in Waynesville, North Carolina, and saw a table once owned by a timber baron. The table had been hewn from a single piece of a yellow poplar and was fourteen-feet long and over a yard wide. The immense tree had been cut down in what is now the Great Smokies National Park. Shortly thereafter, in September, 2005, I began a novel about a timber baron named Pemberton, a Bostonian come south to the Smokies to make his fortune. The novel would be set around 1930 and deal, at least in part, with the fight between Pemberton and those wanting to create a national park on land owned by my timber baron. I wanted to write a book that, though set in the past, resonated thematically into the twenty-first century’s concerns about the environment and our endangered natural world.
All three of my previous novels had begun with a single image, and Serena was no exception, in this case a table that would quickly find its way into my novel. However, a second image arose early in the writing of my first draft that I believed was the true heart of the novel. This image was of a woman astride a magnificent stallion. Horse and rider were on a ridge crest, and a rising sun veiled her in a radiant light, as if a goddess set down upon the earth. I immediately realized it was this woman, Pemberton’s wife, who would be the novel’s central character. She would grow up in Colorado, the daughter of a timber baron, and her knowledge of timber as well as horses and guns would be so extraordinary and so formidable that the workers in the camp would view her in nothing less than a mythic light. Her name would be Serena.
A more conscious decision was my desire to have the novel read, at least in part, like an Elizabethan drama. I structured Serena in the manner of a four-act play. I included a chorus to comment on the novel’s main action as well as certain decisions about the rhythms and diction of the characters’ language. I did not want to make this Elizabethan aspect of the novel intrusive but hoped it might instead give a novel steeped in the particulars of depression America a more timeless feel by structurally evoking an older literature, just as thematically I wanted the novel to evoke contemporary concerns.
But ultimately, Serena is a novel about the intertwined lives of three characters: Serena Pemberton, whose will to power and ruthless wielding of that power inspire both devotion and fear, a woman whose love is as fierce and uncompromising as all other aspects of her personality; her husband Pemberton, a man who comes to realize that he is no match for his wife, most importantly in his desire to have some part of himself continue after his own death; and, finally, Rachel Harmon, a young woman from the North Carolina mountains whose love of a child will make her the character most capable of thwarting Serena’s will.