"Seek the Living once more puts [Warlick] in the first ranks of American novelists." Pat Conroy
"A book to envy . . . A deeply wise and sensual rumination on the hard secrets of love and family." Stewart O'Nan
"A novel to savor." Booklist, starred review
With her third book, Seek the Living, Ashley Warlick delivers an accomplished, atmospheric tale of family drama and secrets. Acclaimed for creating young women of passion and spirit, Warlick lends her lyrical southern voice to Joan Patee, an archivist whose passion for the past distracts her from facing the future.
Joan wants a baby and a new beginning for her marriage, but instead she has a family that's falling apart. Her husband, Marshall, has a job that keeps him on the road; her wayward brother, Denny, is a charmer with a cheating heart; and her father is a pushy patriarch always close to scandal.
When Denny is beaten up for an unknown transgression, as the novel opens, their father sends Joan to deliver an ultimatum. She discovers that Denny has been digging up the graves of the cemetery he tends, finding mysterious remains that might be from the Civil War. Joan knows the pull of history, and its price. She's drawn into the mystery, only to have her own secrets shockingly unearthed, among them a steamy affair that still haunts her. At the climax of the book, Joan finally finds strength in what she has instead of what's gone forever; she learns to seek love from the living and let go of digging up the dead.
A story about expectancy the sway and cost of waiting for the best or worst things to happen and the way we allow it to shape our lives, Seek the Living displays the author's deep understanding of human nature. Infused with the warm compassion, sensual melancholy, and rich sense of place that define her work, Warlick's new novel reveals how history affects us all, and what ties us forever to places and to one another.
Ashley Warlick is the author of The Summer After June and The Distance from the Heart of Things, for which she was the recipient of a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. A graduate of Dickinson College, she teaches creative writing at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. She lives with her family in South Carolina.
A Conversation with Ashley Warlick
This is your third novel. Is it getting easier?
I think writing novels is like travel in a foreign country. You go somewhere, and you don't speak the language, and you're a little afraid to try the public transportation, and so you lose some days to wandering. You might find lovely things, but still, you don't really know the country, how you're going to get back to where you came from. With The Distance from the Heart of Things, I just worked and somehow made something. I didn't know how, or what was going to happen next, and I struggled with slow spots in the manuscript for weeks false starts, wrong turns that I would just feel my way out of. It was a very satisfying experience, but also kind of baffling.
Then, with The Summer After June, I figured I knew what I was doing. I had done this all before. But somehow I ended up in different places I'd never been, and in the process of editing, I threw 120 pages away, whole characters and story lines that just didn't belong.
With Seek the Living, I felt like I had learned this language, could read these maps. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
So the process went according to plan?
Oh, no. I just knew what to do when plans changed, how to recognize that, before I headed too far in the wrong direction. I've been writing now for over ten years. This book was something special to me, the point at which I began to feel that I had control of myself, a measure of confidence.
Where did the book begin for you?
When he was in college, my own brother lived in the caretaker's cottage of a historic church and cemetery in Clemson, S.C., much like the one in the novel. It was just too much to pass up: the church with its narrow balconies for slaves, the cemetery with its Confederate generals. One weekend, my brother and his roommate got into a bar fight, one of those "we were just walking down the street and they came out of nowhere" kinds of things, but we're a very close family, and it was the first time any of us had been hurt like that, by someone else's hands. When I heard, I drove all the way down from Pennsylvania. I remember being flooded by a combination of love and fear for him. The first chapters of the book arose out of those feelings, quickly taking on a life, a cast, of their own.
The Patee family is very complicated. I don't know that any of them fully understand their pull on each other, but they trust it. It was very interesting for me to look at how someone might carry that kind of faith into the other relationships in his life.
My original thinking had been to put Marshall and Joan on the rocks. He spends so much time away from her, and we enter their story at a point of so much longing and desperation, I was sure the tension would mount until he returned home and then entirely explode. But instead, they crawled into each other's lap. Everything I threw between them, they climbed over. It was lovely, really, to write about people with such a strong sway over one another.
Their relationship is very romantic, very elastic and forgiving. Joan has a similar generosity with the other men in her life her brother Denny and their father.
Yes. I think that is a central quality in her character, the need to smooth and bind and pull together. From the novel's opening, when she goes to Denny's house after he's been beaten up, she is moving on an instinct of preservation. This instinct is related to her loss of her mother, her desire to be a mother herself, her job as an archivist, but also to the sense she has of things slipping from her grasp. It's a pervasive force in the book.
You mention Joan's job as an archivist. Could you talk a little about that?
I have always been interested in why people save the things they save, what they think they're doing, because nothing retains it's original form or context, its relationship to memory. But I myself have boxes of photographs and letters and ticket stubs, notebooks upon notebooks, and occasionally I'll clean out my office, but I can't throw these things away. I actually feel bad to see them in the trash. The thought, then, that there are people in charge of saving things for the public good is fascinating to me. I mean, do they feel bad to see things in the trash?
I read an article a couple of weeks ago about how digital files pose a tremendous preservation problem, as there is no way to anticipate the computers that'll be available in ten years, let alone fifty or one hundred. It's something I thought about a great deal while writing this book how quick we are to trust the little bits and pieces of our lives to computers, and how that might be a foolhardy thing.
A lot of the southern texture in the book comes with Joan's job.
She gets a stack of newspapers on her porch every morning, and her whole day is spent sifting through this daily southern life. I loved that dimension of the book, how the small detail could spark a whole run through time for her. Of course, this relationship to the past brings all kinds of issues to the fore for her concerning the South's complicated history, but she is charmed by where she comes from. I myself am the mill towns, the eccentrics, the sweet potato pie.
Food in your work adds a rich dimension.
I love reading cookbooks, food magazines. I got Nigella Lawson's How to Eat as a Christmas present a few years back and would take it to the gym with me, read it like a novel. I have lost weeks to the cooking shows, or the idea that I can or should or need to make a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies.
Writing about food seems to have a lot in common with writing about sex. I think you have to use a light hand, use suggestion as much as description, because food is so personal, so linked with our deepest parts. There is a scene in Seek the Living where Joan pulls some things out on the kitchen counter to make dinner, some cheese and peppers and Arborio rice, and if you cook, you know she's making risotto, but even if you don't cook, there are colors and textures and tastes there. There is another sensory layer to the scene.
Advance Praise for Seek the Living
"Ashley Warlick's new novel, Seek the Living, once more puts her in the first ranks of American novelists. She creates an entire world out of a family that has edges, crevices, and seems to have gotten their clues by studying the wrong side of the moon. Her prose is silken, and barbed, and clean. And she writes sex as though she has invented it for the pleasure of the world." Pat Conroy
"A book to envy. Ashley Warlick's narrator, Joan, has the world-weary wonder of Walker Percy's Binx Bolling and the precise eye and discerning palate of the great James Salter. Seek the Living is a deeply wise and sensual rumination on the hard secrets of love and family." Stewart O'Nan
"Seek The Living is bold, haunting, tender, and taut. Warlick writes some of the tangiest prose around sentences and paragraphs you'll want to read aloud, just for the pleasure of tasting the words and her story and characters are unforgettable. An absolute artistic triumph." Steve Yarbrough
"Seek the Living is the dramatic story of a remarkable young woman's efforts to hold together her disintegrating family in a land of back-road fish camps, played-out farms, encroaching strip malls, and ancient cemeteries concealing horrifying secrets. Ashley Warlick's new novel has all the searing honesty and lyrical intensity of a Lucinda Williams ballad about lives gone haywire in a dark and troubled world made bearable only by love." Howard Frank Mosher