SAINTS AT THE RIVER began with a single image, a child’s face peering up through water. Soon afterward I began a novel about a twelve-year-old girl whose body is trapped in a whitewater river. I chose to write the novel from the perspective of a male newspaper reporter named Allen Hemphill, an outsider who comes to the South Carolina mountains to cover the conflict among parents, environmentalists, and local people about what can and should be done to retrieve the child’s body. But I soon realized that it was not the reporter who could best tell the story but the female photographer who accompanied him, a woman named Maggie Glenn who had grown up in the Appalachian community where the drowning had occurred. That Maggie would reveal insights an outsider would not have was important to the novel, but that wasn’t why I made the change. As soon as I had introduced Maggie into the story, I sensed that there was some deep connection between her and the drowned girl. The connection was not something I could articulate, but I did know that Maggie, not Allen, was the narrator who would best allow me to enter into the mystery of that connection.
One other, more conscious decision came early on. My family has deep roots in the southern Appalachian Mountains, and it is this landscape that is the setting of almost all my work. The natural beauty of the region has been greatly damaged in my lifetime-rivers dammed and polluted, mountains leveled and scarred for developments, government-sponsored clear cutting of forests. Even what is “protected” is threatened, as is the case of the Chattooga and Tuckasegee rivers where silting and pollution are caused by construction on each stream’s headwaters. But despite my environmental leanings, I’m a writer first, and fiction works best in muddied waters. So I tried to write a novel where issues of right and wrong (as well the characters who held them) were complex, where environmentalists and those who opposed them would both vie for the reader’s sympathies as these true believers in their causes, these saints, gathered at the river.