11 minute read



Donna Everhart is full of surprises! She is the USA Today bestselling author of authentic, vivid Southern fiction, including the Southeastern Library Association Award-winning The Road to Bittersweet, Indie Next Pick and Amazon Book of the Month, The Education of Dixie Dupree, The Forgiving Kind, The Moonshiner’s Daughter, and her most recent, The Saints of Swallow Hill. Her sixth novel, currently untitled, will be released February 2024.

Before we get started, here’s just a few of the great endorsements Donna’s writing has received:

"Rousing...movingly explores Jessie's struggle with her eating disorder, viscerally describing her twin desires for nourishment and purging in relation to a deep need to define herself...Everhart's story of self-discovery, rife with colorful characters and a satisfying twist, will thrill readers." —Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW for The Moonshiner's Daughter

"Reminiscent of the novels of Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, and Sandra Dallas, Everhart builds a firm sense of place, portraying the tiredness and hope of a dry southern summer and voicing strong southern women." —Booklist on The Forgiving Kind

"An adventure story and coming-of-age story wrapped into one satisfying package... Donna Everhart skillfully evokes a harsh landscape and harsh times, squarely placing the reader in Appalachia right along with the family. Wallis Ann's complicated relationship with her sister is well explored and serves as a catalyst for her growth into a mature young woman." —Historical Novels Review on The Road to Bittersweet

"With gravitas and heart...Donna Everhart does a deft job of writing about innocence lost." —Business Insider, Insider Pick for The Education of Dixie Dupree

“The distinctive setting of the turpentine camps in the South during the Great Depression will make an imprint on readers, just as the characters of Rae Lynn and Del do. Fans of Sarah Addison Allen won't be able to put it down.” —Booklist

She is one of my favorite authors and this five star reader review I found for Saints was too good not to share. The reader says it all in two short sentences - “I have never read a book I became so obsessed with and excited over I would find every second possible to get in a few pages. I loved it so much I couldn’t help but narrate the story to my husband.”

I found myself reading lines out loud myself from The Moonshiner’s Daughter. I stopped dog-earing every page I wanted to go back to and realized it would be easier just to read Donna’s books over again. Which I did, and I’ll keep doing it until the pages fall out.

Her latest novel, The Saints of Swallow Hill takes us to the turpentine camps and pine forests of the American South during the Great Depression. I didn’t know anything about Turpentine camps before reading Donna’s novel. I was almost embarrassed to admit it, but I did.

“Neither did I,” Donna laughs, “and I come from the state known as the Tarheel State.” Donna goes on to explain, “My research tends to kind of meander. I found myself doing a lot of research on the history of North Carolina and came across the term Naval Stores. I had no idea what that was, and that interest in wanting to understand what it was about uncovered the Turpentine camps that were prevalent in North Carolina and the southeast in general.”

In learning about the history of the Naval Stores, Donna read a lot about the beginning of the turpentine industry which was during the seventeen-hundreds to the late eighteen-hundreds.

“But I didn’t want to write about that time period, I already had it in my head I wanted to write about the Depression era, and what was fascinating is that these camps existed - and were heavy during that time frame.”

That comment brought me to my next question. Donna’s settings, like using the Turpentine Camps for Saints, are unique. For example, The Moonshiner’s Daughter (one of my personal favorites) is set in the 1960s. When I picked up the book I assumed it was going to be set between the 1920s - 1940s.

I asked Donna about her writing process. Particularly if she has the characters first and then the setting comes after, or if she has a setting and builds the characters from there.

“When I first started writing I would have a character in my head and no idea where I wanted to put her.” Donna’s love of research brought her to the 1940 flood in western North Carolina which became the setting for her first novel, The Road to Bittersweet, and gave the main character, fourteen-year-old Wallis Ann Stamper, a place to take root. The same thing happened with her second novel, The Forgiving Kind, and her next character, twelve-year-old Martha “Sonny” Creech.

“I knew I wanted to write about a young girl growing up on a cotton farm who knew how to divine water, but I didn’t know when or where. But for The Moonshiner’s Daughter, I wanted to write about moonshining. I didn’t really have the character in my head yet.”

Donna’s research gave her the setting of Wilkes County known as the moonshine capital of the world - “But I’ll be honest, I’ve heard the same claims in counties in Kentucky and Tennessee,” Donna laughs - and it also gave her the time frame, the 1960s. By that time Donna had her main character, Jesse, and The Moonshiner’s Daughter was ready to be written.

Some people like to read stories with happy ever after endings, all tied up with a shiny bow. I like stories that hurt a little bit and so does Donna.

“I think people think I’m a little insane when I say I love Cormac McCarthy. I love him because he has a unique way of writing. I’ve often heard the phrase, when you’re good enough you can break the rules, well - he’s one of those writers. He writes very dark and very taboo subjects. One of my favorite books of his is Child of God. It’s very sick and twisted, so I don’t know what that says about me,” Donna laughs.

“The main character is not right in the head and he does these very sick things but it’s almost funny,” she grins. “I mean let’s face it, yuck… but the dark humor. Cormack was able to pull it off and actually make you feel sympathetic towards Lester Ballard, a very sick individual.”

For those of you who haven’t read Child of God, it’s been described as “... the most sympathetic portrayal of necrophilia in all of literature.” And it “... depicts the most sordid aspects of life with dignity, humor, and characteristic lyrical brilliance.”

“I couldn’t get into McCarthy’s novel Suttree, because I felt like it was disgusting for the sake of being disgusting. I have a strong constitution,” she laughs again, “but there were points and times in that book that I was just…ick.”

Somehow that made me think of Bukowski’s poetry. The poem, The Laughing Heart, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read but in the same book there are poems that are so raunchy, I’ll catch myself looking behind me to make sure nobody’s reading over my shoulder.

Donna admits that she never really was into poetry until recently when she was given the book, Sam Ragan, written by Lewis Bowling. Sam Ragan, also known as North Carolina's Literary Godfather, is the kind of poet that Donna says makes you want to read poetry. She said the same thing about another poet, Zacharia Claypole White. “He’s very talented, and even though I’m not one to read poetry, he not only makes me want to read it, but he’s going to make me love it.”

I asked Donna what she’s been reading. Some of her most recent favorites are Loving the Dead and Gone by Judith Turner-Yamamoto, The Quickening by Michelle Hoover, The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles, The Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and The Wind Drinkers by Franck Bouysse. It’s always fun to get reading recommendations from someone who gets excited to tell you what they’ve been reading - and Donna didn’t disappoint. She is a voracious reader and her stacks of books to be read fill up several shelves of her bookcase. Donna also shared a secret - you’ll never guess who she hasn’t read! If you want to know who that is (and believe me, you’ll never guess), you can find out soon in the full interview at Between the Pages.

Two authors whose writing impressed Donna early in her career are Kaye Gibbons, The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster and Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought up those two names and those two books because those were the books that more or less gave me the impetus to write. I’ve read them numerous times, knew those were the types of stories I wanted to tell about girls and young women struggling through some of the most complicated and difficult times.”

I can testify that Donna mastered the craft of telling those stories. Donna says she struggled to find the idea for book number six which is due to be released in February of 2024.

“Saints was a hard book to follow. There was so much about that story that resonated with me as a writer where I found myself doing that thing some writers talk about - breaking through in particular scenes. It was a very different book than my other books because all of those are coming of age, written in first person; but Saints is written in third person from the perspective of two different characters, and they’re adults.

It was my husband who told me I should write about the civil war. He told me more than once, and finally pointed out - what does it say on your website?” At the time her byline read She writes about family hardship of troubled times in a bygone South. “He said I don’t know of any more troubled times than the civil war.”

In true Donna Everhart style, her take on the subject is unique.

“I wanted it to be different. My main character, Joetta McBride, and her family are subsistence farmers. They never had slaves, don’t want to have anything to do with the war, and they are trying to maintain their neutrality until their son, who is influenced by his grandfather, runs off to join the war. This sets off a chain of events that causes Ennis, Joetta’s husband, to go look for their son and he ends up inscripted - which means he’s in it for three years. Joetta, like so many women at that time, is left to run the farm on her own. She continues to maintain her neutrality and becomes a pariah.”

Keep an eye out for her First Sentence Fridays where she’ll introduce the first sentence to each chapter (and fill us in on a little bit of the story) each month over on her Author Facebook page; something she’s been doing since The Education of Dixie Dupree.

We talked about Donna’s personal publishing journey, which she explains in her essay, An Education in Determination, that follows the interview. “I can say this - I am grateful every single day of my life that it happened, even though it happened in a very unusual way. It takes a little bit of luck, it takes talent, and it takes determination.”

We closed the interview with this piece of advice from Donna for writers -

“You’ve got to keep writing, that’s the main thing because nothing is going to happen unless you do.” Donna laughs, “This is a bad analogy but it’s right off the top of my head. If you play golf and you want to be able to hit a hole in one - you’re never going to hit a hole in one unless you keep playing.”

She adds, “Rejections are rough but one of the most encouraging lessons I ever received for myself is to read other author’s journeys. Think about Katherine Stockett and her book, The Help. I believe she had over a hundred rejections. So if you’re writing and you’re in that dark tunnel where you don’t see a light at the end of it, and you’ve had people read your work and they’re telling you it will happen - you’ve got to keep on. It helps to seek out other people’s stories about how their publication took place.”

I agree, and that’s exactly the gift she gives us with her essay. Donna Everhart is a writer who all writers can look up to.