Deep South

Almost a decade ago, April Reynolds, the author of Knee-Deep in Wonder, went to the hospital with her family to say good-bye to her father, who was expected to die. But he didn't, surprising doctors by waking up from his coma with a grin on his face. After his brush with death, the first thing Reynolds's father wanted to do was tell her the story of his own father's death by drowning as he tried to save a young boy.

"Seeds of the novel come from my father trying to relay his family history to me," says Reynolds, who's from Dallas and teaches literature and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "Together we tried to piece together this story. In doing that, I had to fictionalize all the various gaps, and I started writing Knee-Deep in Wonder."

Reynolds began the novel when she was still in college; in 1996 an early manuscript received a Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation Award for unpublished work.

Because she heard her family's story in bits and pieces, with huge chunks missing, Knee-Deep is thick with themes of loss and memory. In the novel, Reynolds's first, protagonist Helene Strickland leaves her home in the Northeast and returns to Lafayette County, Arkansas, after the death of the woman who raised her. It's 1976, and the young, stylish Helene, who has some major questions about the past, visits the mother she's been estranged from her entire life. As mother and daughter talk, parts of a complex family history spanning four generations are unveiled. But Helene -- like Reynolds herself -- is stymied by muddled recollections and, perhaps, half-truths.

"I thought that it was important that Knee-Deep mimic that reality," says Reynolds, "that there will always be spaces where you don't know why people do what they do…In that way Knee-Deep is very much a black novel. Most black people in this country have a history that goes back only so far, and then it's lost to us."

Some of the novel's characters are based on real people, and others are fictional. Chess, a womanizing looker who may or may not be Helene's father, is based on Reynolds's grandfather. But the only certain similarity is that both die in the same way. "I tried to create a reason as to why my grandfather -- who is such a mystery to my dad -- why he did the things he did. I ended up creating this world around my grandfather who I never knew."

To conjure that world, Reynolds had to research lots of details. "It's strange the sort of information you feel like you have to collect when trying to create a world," she says. "How much did a steak cost in 1937? It drives you nuts…Especially in my case. I'm not nearly as old as I would like to be. Every day I think, 'Please, Lord, give me a gray.' In 1976 I was two."

The author is already working on her next novel, a murder story -- "Think Crime and Punishment," she says -- that takes place in New York in the '80s. The setting couldn't be more different, but that hasn't stopped some of the folks from Knee-Deep from making a reappearance in the new book. "I haven't let go of the old characters yet," says Reynolds. "I don't think I'm going to be able to."

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Cathy Matusow
Contact: Cathy Matusow