When she was writing her latest book, “Sweetie,” author Kathryn Magendie thought she had a good handle on the main character. Sweetie thought otherwise – and let Magendie know, in no uncertain terms, that the story was not right.
“I was walking on a trail behind our house,” Magendie said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. “I wasn’t really even thinking about the book when Sweetie just kind of appeared there. She told me I was writing the story all wrong. She said I had to go back and redo it.”
So Magendie went back to the drawing board and made changes. After she was satisfied with the re-write, she shipped the manuscript off to her editor at Bell Books, thinking her job was finished. Not so, said Sweetie.
“She poked me again and said, ‘Hmmmm. You’ve done something wrong,’” Magendie explained. “Only she didn’t say it very nicely.”
Making the second set of changes really pushed Magendie to meet her publisher’s deadline.
“It was literally down to the wire,” she explained. “I think about how close I came to not having it right.”
Having a character show up like that was a shock to Magendie, who usually just sees the people in her books in “pieces and parts.”
In the book, Sweetie lives with her mother in a primitive mountain cabin in Haywood County, North Carolina. She has no father, causing the townspeople to question her mother’s reputation and to be suspicious of the wild child. There’s something else that makes Sweetie stand out in her 1960s world. She is oblivious to pain. When she rips part of her little finger off on the school’s jungle gym, she doesn’t cry or carry on. She just bleeds. There are scars all over her body, silent reminders of Sweetie’s separateness.
Wikipedia calls Sweetie’s condition congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) or congenital analgesia, but Magendie never gives it a name, preferring to let her readers come to their own conclusion about Sweetie’s affliction.
An outcast at school, Sweetie befriends fellow sixth grader, Melissa, a newcomer, who is overweight and has a stutter. It’s the two misfits against the world.
The girls make it through the school year and spend a glorious summer exploring the woods around the cabin Sweetie shares with her mother. Melissa, who serves as the book’s narrative voice, gains confidence and sheds weight, thanks to her fearless friend. In turn, Sweetie has a chance to glimpse a world she’s never known – a world with a mother, a father and a fixed dinnertime.
Sweetie and Melissa’s idyllic summer comes to an abrupt end, culminating with a dramatic scene in a revival tent that packs a powerful wallop.
“I don’t think I realized how dark that scene was going to be,” she explained. “It just came out of my brain and hit the paper.”
Magendie says she goes to a different place when she’s creating what she calls “the tough stuff.”
“When I’m writing scenes that could be upsetting, I’m in my own little world,” she said. “When I finish, I’m drained and exhausted.”
“Sweetie” has received a warm welcome, charming fans and critics alike. One review of the book said, “the novel is full of quirky characters, regional dialect, mountain spirits and overall good storytelling make it a quick, enjoyable read, especially for lovers of magical realism, coming-of-age or Southern novels.”
Readers tell her that Sweetie’s story felt real to them, which pleases Magendie – and the wild mountain girl who could not be silenced nor contained.
“That’s just about the best thing a writer can hear,” she said with a laugh.
She also believes Sweetie is happy with the book.
“I think telling her story allowed Sweetie to let go of the burdens she carried,” Magendie said. “Now she’s free.”
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