John Lane on Invoking the Woods as a Character in “Whose Woods These Are”

The multitalented environmentalist, memoirist, poet, and novelist John Lane has nearly twenty books in diverse genres to his credit, many of them award winners, collectively forming what he affectionately refers to as “Mt. Lane.” He recently added a second novel to his oeuvre. Whose Woods These Are, published in August 2020 by Mercer University Press, is a literary mystery set in the titular woods of Morgan County, South Carolina, first introduced in Lane’s debut novel Fate Moreland’s Widow in 2015 as a fictional stand-in for Lane’s home in Spartanburg. Lane, who recently retired as professor of environmental studies and director of the Goodall Center for Environmental Studies at Wofford College, is also a co-founder of the Hub City Writers Project and a 2014 inductee into the South Carolina Academy of Authors, the Palmetto State’s literary hall of fame.

In this interview, he shares insights into the origins and themes of his new novel and glimpses into his Faulknerian world-building underway in the dangerous and past-haunted woods of his Morgan County.

Whose Woods These Are unfolds dramatically over the course of a single day — Thanksgiving. How did you come to challenge yourself with that time frame? And have you dethroned Richard Bausch’s Thanksgiving Night as the Great American Thanksgiving Novel?  

I don’t know if I have dethroned the great Richard Bausch, but I like the challenge of a short fuse since I write short novels, and since my main character Jae is a working man and a hunter, I needed to give him some time off. Thanksgiving is the perfect frame for leisure in the Piedmont woods. It’s even better when something troublesome happens. But my novel is not a ‘Who done it?’ It’s a ‘Did he do it?’ And besides Jae, it involves an old man lost in the woods too, so I knew it was going to get cold and it was best to get things resolved by nightfall.

Your novel has four narrators, each with a different history with and perspective on the woods. Can you tell us what each brings to the narrative and how they came to be in the book?

Near the book’s beginning, deputy sheriff Caddy Gallagher is sitting in a Little Cricket parking lot on Thanksgiving morning and her life quickly becoming more complex when she gets a call about trouble in the Robinson Bottoms involving her ex-boyfriend Jae. Her heart is quickly in conflict. Then we get Jae hunting the lovely, dark and deep woods. Sheriff Howard, the third narrator, offers some elderly perspective from outside the hot mess involving Caddy and Jae. And the last narrator, Daren Pagano, is the evil stepson of the old man lost in the woods. He offers a little comic relief, but he’s also a catalyst for pushing the story along. It’s like a game of pinball back and forth in the woods.

Your title — which I understand was not your original title — comes from the opening line of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” What other connections are you inviting readers to make between the themes or images of that poem and your novel?

Well, the most obvious is to draw the reader’s attention to the natural world by invoking the woods as another character and questioning who has a right to be there. The original title was “The Last Stand” (as in deer stand), which also had its appeal.

Narrator Jae Mitchell cautions us, “The woods are full of mysteries and surprises. That’s what makes them the woods.” The woods are a character in your novel as well as the unsettling settling. What draws you back into the precarious natural world as a writer, not just in this novel but across your body of work?

One of the larger themes of this book — and yes, all of my books — is the relationship between people and the land, and even the notion that the land has a full life and history of its own apart from us and deeper than the human conflicts we play out on it. I want my readers to think about how the woods might even be more sentient and aware than we give it credit for.

Whose Woods These Are also brings us back into the fictional Morgan County, South Carolina, the setting of your first novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow. What breadcrumbs did you leave in the woods to connect back to your earlier book?

My novel Fate Moreland’s Widow takes place in the 1930s and 1980s. Whose Woods These Are is set in the present. I wanted there to be a few family names that connect over time — McCane and Crocker, for example. And I wanted there to be landmarks, like the old mill as well. I keep a map of mythical Morgan County over my desk so I know where things are.

Morgan County is to your writing what Yoknapatawpha was to Faulkner, or, to cite another recent interview, what Due East is to Valerie Sayers. Tell us about the origins of Morgan County in your imagination. Does it hold more stories for you to tell?

I’ve had Morgan County in mind since I began imagining novels in the 1980s. The stories I have in mind so far cover the place from 1881 until the present. Two have now been published. I like to remember two points form a line. There could be as many as five or six Morgan novels, a way smaller canvas than Faulkner’s, but still a good sketch with some full detail.

Like the work of our friend George Singleton, you’ve got a bunch of dogs in this novel too, including a pit bull with an interesting backstory. Can you share that with us?

Though we usually think of hunting dogs as floppy-eared hounds, I discovered that hog hunters often use pit bulls as well. While I was writing Whose Woods, I heard a great pit bull hunting story from my friend Phil Wilkinson and borrowed it for the book. I gave the story to Sheriff Howard as I gave the sheriff Phil’s saw-handle cane as well. I don’t know how it happened that the dogs became so much a part of this story, but as canine pinballs they sure help move things along at the end.

Other than the novel’s bookend sections, the story unfolds in the present tense. Was that true from the beginning of your drafts or did the merits of gripping the reader in the immediacy of the novel present themselves over the course of developing the story?

The central action of novel careened back and forth through drafts from third-person past to first-person past until it finally settled in first-person present. I decided that point of view created a hot fire to move us through the action. It’s part of what creates the immediate, kinetic feeling of the story.

Fate Moreland’s Widow was published by Story River Books, the fiction imprint Pat Conroy and I created at USC Press. And while that wasn’t your introduction to Pat — who called you his “Chattooga man” — it was your point of entrance into being on book tour with Mr. Conroy, which you write about beautifully in your essay in Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. Do any of those memories linger with you still?

While we were on book tour for Fate Moreland’s Widow we were in restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, late at night and Pat took me by the arm and whispered, “I want you to remember how much I love your novel.” I will never forget how Pat’s love of stories launched a number of us. Morgan County and its characters still flow out of that love. I wish he had been here to read about a Thanksgiving Day in the woods.

Whose Woods These Are
By John Lane
Mercer University Press
Published August 3, 2020