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A Reader's Guide

The Distance From the Heart of Things

“Warlick’s narrative voice is spicy as a Chickasaw plum tree in bloom, full of vivid down-home colloquialisms and images… Warlick herself is a connoisseur of life. This is…a celebration of a place in a blue million.” —Washington Post

This remarkable first novel is told in the radiant voice of Mavis Black, returning to the loamy soil of her South Carolina home, her everyone-knows-your-business home town, and her eccentric family. Blessed with a bewitching way with words and a powerfully loving heart, Mavis has come home to be the accountant for her grandfather Punk’s prosperous vineyard. But her homecoming also sparks an accounting of a different kind, as Mavis charts the emotional distance she has traveled from the people she loves most. Her childlike mother drifts through days dreaming of her husband, who died before Mavis was born. Her practical Aunt Hazel is planning an elaborate wedding that will turn out to be the high point of her marriage. Her prodigal Uncle Owen tempts fate with wild midnight rides. And tugging hardest for her love is the domineering figure of her grandfather, Punk, who plans to make Mavis his sole heir.

Decidedly independent but deeply attached to her family, brimming with confidence, humor, and goodwill, Mavis takes the measure of her relatives’ unique charms and foibles, bringing her uncommon wisdom to bear. Told with warmth, wit, and brio, The Distance from the Heart of Things is a glorious celebration of young womanhood and the strength of loving ties.

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and, for every reader, provide a deeper understanding of The Distance From the Heart of Things.

1. In what way is Mavis Black’s voice distinctive? How does it define her? How does it convey a sense of personality and place?

2. What is “the heart of things”? Which characters embody this notion in Mavis’s eyes—Punk, Owen, Harris, Elsbeth, Evelyn, anyone else—and why?

3. How is the concept of “distance”—both emotional and geographical—employed throughout the book?

4. In what ways is Mavis wise beyond her years? Is hers an earned wisdom, like her grandfather Punk’s, or does it seem more intuitive? What experiences and relationships may explain young Mavis’s uncommon wisdom? Is it explained by the fact that she is a woman or that she has a sense of purpose rare in one so young?

5. What does Mavis learn about the various kinds of love possible in the world? In chapter 1, Mavis says, “How you love is how you love, and you can’t help that.” How does this attitude toward love shape her relationships? Does her attitude change by the end of the novel?

6. Mavis also says in chapter 1, “I like weight placed on me. It feels good.” What “weight” is placed on her and how does she handle it? How is “weight” related to “gravity,” which she associates with the push and pull of a force toward the center? Who embodies this center of gravity in the book—Punk, Owen, Mavis—and does it shift as the story unfolds?

7. Speaking of the farm, Mavis notes that “There is life blood here, enough to spare…and I think it’s my own life blood, this land teemed and coursed with the same that teems and courses in me.” How do the main characters draw their “life blood” from the land? Is this “life blood” in the land synonymous with the notion of home?

8. What rituals and celebrations—individual, familial, and communal—are significant in the novel? What purpose do they serve in the narrative’s progression and in the lives of the characters?

9. Mavis is poised between two generations of women: her grandmother, mother, and aunt, on the one hand; Evelyn and Kat, on the other. What is her relationship with each generation? What does she learn from each generation? How do they view her?

10. Mavis gathers strength and power in the company of women. Do you agree with her that this power exists? If so, how does it manifest itself in the novel? How does Mavis’s distinction between men and women in chapter 9 define her relationships with and attitudes toward the men in the book—Punk, Harris, and Owen—and is she true to her womanly self?

11. In chapter 8, Mavis says, “I do move to Owen’s bidding, but I also summon it upon myself…” Can you reconcile the apparent contradiction in this statement? Does she ever fully summon her life’s tasks upon herself, rather than moving to the bidding of others?

12. Why has Elsbeth not returned to the site of Mavis’s father’s death since Mavis was born? And why does Elsbeth proclaim, “You’re the thing to see, Mavis. You’re the wonder”?

13. Mavis draws a contrast between Harris and Punk when she says, “He doesn’t do what Punk does, and I guess that makes a difference to me, makes me see him as distant from the heart of things.” Is this distance ever closed or does Mavis intentionally keep Harris at a distance to protect her own sense of self?

14. Why does Punk choose Mavis over Owen, and what does Punk mean when he says, “Every time I step into a room, I take up all the air in that room, and most times he’s [Owen] been right behind me, and so when he steps into that room there ain’t much left”? Does this explain why Owen leaves to find his own way? Why has Mavis seemed to find her way at a younger age? Does the fact that she is a woman play any role in Punk’s final decision?

15. Do you find the shifting back and forth in time between the present and the past effective in telling Mavis’s story? How does the past affect the present?

16. How is the “New South” depicted in the novel different from the Old South? How is it the same? What do some of the changes suggest?

About The Author

Ashley Warlick, twenty-five, is the youngest recipient of the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, an award established in 1935 to honor outstanding writers at the beginning of their careers. Raised in North Carolina, Warlick graduated from Dickinson College in 1994. She now lives with her husband in Pennsylvania. The Distance from the Heart of Things is her first novel.

Q) When did you begin this novel?

A) It was the first semester of my junior year. I was twenty.

Q) Is The Distance from the Heart of Things autobiographical?

A) I would say, characteristically, no. Mavis’s life has certain par-allels to mine. We were both about the same age. When I was a small child, my father and grandfather had vineyards in South Carolina, and so a lot of the setting came from those details that I could remember, and things that I could ask my dad about. But Mavis is a wholly different person than I am. A better person, in a lot of ways!

Q) When you wrote this novel, did you have an audience in mind? Your own generation, or women, perhaps?

A) No, I don’t really write that way. And I’ve had people try to pin me down and say, “Well, of course you write for an audience, of course you write with someone in mind.” And I just flat don’t.

Q) So were you surprised when you were a “Southern Writer” or a “Women's Writer”?

A) Well, no, because quite obviously I am. I write from a female sensibility and from a very southern sensibility. I am not living in the South now and miss it. It’s just what I’m interested in. That was one of the nice things about working with this book the way I did. I was really able to play with my strengths.

Q) Were you conscious of writing with a southern dialect? The book comes across as very southern, but you don't have much of a southern accent at all.

A) Yes, the book does have a really southern cadence to it and I suppose I was aware of that. I am very interested in the different ways that southerners put sentences together—the ways that someone from Charleston will put together sentences as opposed to someone from Raleigh. It is something that I’m very conscious of. But it isn’t a permanent part of my style; it was just really intrinsic to this book.

Q) In a way, the character of Mavis is a little unbelievable. She's so together and so wise. She's quite different from the angst filled twenty-something protagonist.

I think that young angst is just a particularly current thing. Mavis is 22 years old, and in a lot of places people of that age are responsible for their own decisions, possibly their family’s decisions. Twenty-two is not that young. If you go back to the early part of this century, you’ll find that 22 is not an irresponsible, undecided age.

Q) What will you do next?

A) I’ve been working on another novel. It is set in the South, again, alternately in Charlotte—the town I grew up in—and Galveston, Texas.

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