There comes a point in the third act of Durham author Mimi Herman’s debut novel The Kudzu Queen in which Mattie, the story’s narrator, makes a comment as she presents a sprawling field of kudzu that she and her little brother have spent the entire book farming — or watching grow on its own — to another family member for the first time.
“Careful,” she calls out. “The vines like to trip you up.”
And in that passing comment lies a theme that runs through the novel, which tells the tale of a fictional town in pre-WWII North Carolina that has come under the spell of the “Kudzu King,” who is spreading the word — and government funds — to anyone who will listen about this new miracle crop.
Young teenager Mattie is as taken by the Kudzu King as anyone and aspires to win the title of Kudzu Queen, which would not necessarily make her Mrs. Kudzu King, but might as well in her mind. As the story progresses, however, Mattie learns that her first instincts may not be her best ones, all while balancing the monotony and tragedy of life in the sharecropping South.
“Funny, sad, and tender…” reads a cover blurb from none other than David Sedaris. “Mimi Herman has written a novel that possesses a true and hard-won understanding of the South.”
We caught up with Herman while she was in town for a stop on her book tour at Park Road Books in early February to learn more about the process behind The Kudzu Queen, accidental symbolism and more.
Queen City Nerve: The book released on Jan. 10, so in the short time it’s been out, what’s the feedback been like?
Mimi Herman: It’s been fabulous. It’s been really great. It feels like almost every day something big is happening — you know, Best of Early 23, Best of January, lots of great reviews, and you’re the first to hear that it’s going to be an audiobook.
Congrats! Are you going to read it, or are you bringing someone on?
Mimi Herman: I’m tempted, but I think I better leave that in the hands of a professional.
You’ve published poetry collections in the past, but this is your first novel. How long have you been wanting to work in this medium?
Mimi Herman: Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve always been a fiction writer because I started writing poetry in fourth grade, but both my undergraduate degree and my MFA are in fiction. But I’ve always gone back and forth because they sort of fill different gaps for me. And I also published a nonfiction book for the North Carolina Arts Council years ago. This is the third novel I’ve written, but it’s the first one that I felt was ready to go. I have been thinking about revisiting one of the earlier ones now.
And how long has this story specifically been working around in your brain?
Mimi Herman: Well, I’ll give you a big hint: I first heard about kudzu competitions and Kudzu Queen festivals on microfiche (laughs). I was reading an article and came across it, and I thought, alright, that’s really interesting.
It’s such an interesting topic, and not only the competitions, but the plant itself. It offers so much symbolism and it had me going down some internet rabbit holes about whether this was all a scam when people were pushing kudzu as the next big crop. It does offer value but it also grows everywhere and no one farms it. Or do they that you know of?
Mimi Herman: There’s an organization in Asheville called Kudzu Culture, which is trying to promote the benefits of kudzu, and they’re terrific, and there are people who make kudzu jelly and other kudzu products. In Japan it’s called kuzu and it is very highly thought of; it’s very well-respected. But they’ve got natural enemies and we don’t. So it’s kind of baffling that nobody has actually really tried to make it a large-scale industry. When I was doing research I read that it made a lousy biofuel but a good beer.
Have you tried the beer?
Mimi Herman: I have not. I’m still on the lookout for it, but I have tried the kudzu jelly.
I assume you went down rabbit holes as well because you didn’t just start with the microfiche and make it up from there. Tell me a little bit about the research process and things you learned that you might not have ever thought about.
Mimi Herman: A lot of it was about agriculture in North Carolina. So what I’ve realized is that the growing seasons of cotton and corn and tobacco became sort of the clock of the book, so I had to get it right. I had to know how high the cotton was or the corn was or when you should be weeding it or what water might do — what too much rain or drought might do to it. So a lot of it was about that. A lot of it was about clothing and food and that sort of stuff. I mean, I wasn’t around in 1941, so I had to do a lot of research about that.
I’ve heard you speak about wanting to include old-timey sorts of things only to learn that they hadn’t yet been invented in 1941.
Mimi Herman: Yeah. It was kind of amazing. I was really disappointed about lemon bars, but yeah, even after the book was accepted, I did a lot of etymology research and figured that stuff out. The story is all invented. Like, I knew that there were men that went around the South having kudzu festivals and promoting kudzu, but the idea of somebody who would be kind of a con artist about it, that was my idea and the idea of how the festival would work. So I thought about what would happen if a small town had to invent a beauty pageant and a festival. What would that look like and how homegrown would it look and who would run it?
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons already between Mattie and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but something that came to my mind, and it must be subconscious just because it’s been so long since I read the book, but I also see a comparison to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.
Mimi Herman: Oh wow. I’d like to hear more about that. They both do talk a lot.
Right, and I think it also has to do with some of the humor that she uses. Even when she’s not trying to be funny, her little one liners in her head are killers sometimes. They get me laughing out loud.
Mimi Herman: That’s a great comparison. That’s really cool.
So would you say that side of her maybe portrays, whether subconsciously or not, your own sense of humor? Are you maybe saying the things in your head that you wish you could say aloud, as she does sometimes?
Mimi Herman: Yeah, I think so. And occasionally I do say them out loud. I love playing with language, and I’m sure that comes through in the book, but I’m a bit of a smartass. That’s definitely true. And I think the Holden comparison, the other thing that I really like about that idea is they’re both blunt. They both say exactly what they think. I think Holden is more cynical than Mattie, but he’s a little older and he’s from a different generation, a different era. Mattie is definitely more straightforward than I was at her age and maybe even than I am now.
What made you decide to set it in a fictional county and town?
Mimi Herman: So imagine in North Carolina, if I’d set it in a real county, how many emails and letters and people on my doorstep I’d have gotten saying, “Well, the hardware store wasn’t there. It was over here. And so and so didn’t run it.” So I thought if I set it in a fictional county but really tried to get the Down East feel to it — and I spent a lot of time teaching Down East in public schools — then I might be able to avoid that. And I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. I didn’t want to have somebody think, “Well, she made our county look like we weren’t very bright,” or anything like that. I wanted to avoid all that.
What was the process for choosing who the narrator would be? Because Mattie is sort of the more privileged of anyone, at least in the rural side of town, as compared to maybe voicing it through Lynette or someone having a rougher go of it. Was that something you battled with or thought about?
Mimi Herman: Well, the original narrator was a boy and the whole story was completely different. So it’s gone through several transitions. I didn’t think a lot about who should be the narrator. Once I had Mattie in my head, she was the narrator. But when I look back, sort of in retrospect, I would say she’s the only person that’s really capable of being the narrator in some ways because Lynette doesn’t have a voice for a long time. She gets a voice, but she doesn’t really have much of a voice. And I’m not qualified to be Rose’s voice. I don’t want to speak for a young African American woman. And the grown-ups are too oblivious. So it kind of had to be Mattie.
I hate to turn everything into politics and what are often called culture wars, but it’s a thought I had while reading this book. We’re going through a time right now when people are using the word grooming in a misleading way to use as a political weapon on the right, but your book has such a stomach-turning depiction of what grooming actually looks like and almost a timeless one, unfortunately. Is that something that you’ve thought about in the sense that that’s happening in this book at the same time that that word has become such a part of the conversation, even though it’s not really being portrayed in the discourse in the way that it works in real life?
Mimi Herman: That’s a really good point. I don’t know that I’ve ever used that word. People have asked me where did I come up with Mattie? And I don’t know. She’s not like me for the most part. And I don’t write autobiographically. But the one thing that we have in common is this quality that I see in 14- to 15-year-old girls, not all of them, but a lot of them, of testing out their sexuality and trying it on for size and hoping they’ll get taken up on it, but a little afraid when that happens in real life.
So what do you do with that? If somebody comes down on the man that found you attractive, does that mean that you’re not of value anymore? Which is just this really weird feeling. So what Mattie and I share and part of the reason that she is who she is and that I wrote this book is that I had that kind of experience — not with the Kudzu King but with somebody else — and I wanted to write about the complexities of it.
And it’s not just here are these grown men doing this bad thing. It’s that here are these girls trying on something for size and these men responding to it. And in their more intelligent moments, they know it’s not a good idea, but it’s a really complex thing.
Somebody once told me about myself, he said, “You know the score, but you don’t keep it,” and that’s always how I’ve tried to write fiction. I don’t want to write fiction to hit people over the head with a moral. I want to write fiction that doesn’t tell people how to think but makes them think. So the word grooming to me, while accurate, it limits the complexity of what was going on. I mean, Mattie was making a substantial effort to get his attention, right? She just wasn’t sure she wanted the attention to be what it turned out to be.
The Blue Fairy Book makes recurring appearances throughout the book. Was there a symbolism there or what is the significance of that to you and/or the characters?
Mimi Herman: Well, I think we had a copy of The Blue Fairy Book that must have belonged to my mother or my grandfather or somebody when I was growing up, so it’s definitely something I grew up with. You’ve mentioned symbolism a couple of times. I never, ever write for symbolism. It sort of hits me over the head after I’ve written, and I go, “Oh, that’s kind of symbolic! I didn’t mean that.”
I think that’s how a lot of authors are. And that’s what makes it fun for readers and English majors like myself who are digging through for hidden meanings and wondering if the writer did this on purpose.
Mimi Herman: [Laughs] Yeah. And as a former English major, I love that detective work of reading like an English major. But I don’t want to write like an English major. I want to write like a writer. And I think the one minor exception is when Lynette is reading to Aggie and Catherine, that little section about the girls being in the woods and the family is all gathered around, I did choose that particular passage for that. And there’s a Peter Rabbit passage later in the book that I did sort of think, “Okay, what’s the right story for Lynette to be telling here?” But I didn’t think it all through; it was sort of a gut thing.
I know the worst question a journalist can ask an author just after a book release is “What’s next?” but I think you mentioned on the Charlotte Readers Podcast that you’re working on a new novel that takes place in Ireland. Tell me about what inspired that.
Mimi Herman: It does, yeah. It’ll be in the mid-’80s. I lived in Ireland in the mid-’80s, right out of college, and I just found it such an interesting time to be in Dublin. I’m not a Dublin fan. I’m much more of a western Ireland fan. But I lived in Dublin, did a cycle tour around the southern coast and spent some time in Galway. And so it was an interesting time because there’s this huge political stuff that’s going on. It was very dramatic and very painful. And at the same time, Dublin had this really fascinating music scene.
I grew up in Chapel Hill. I was in the Cat’s Cradle four nights a week from the time I was about 16. And so when I went to Dublin, of course I went out to hear music. I always say “I went to live in Ireland because I like Catholic boys and traditional music.” So I listened to a lot of traditional music, but I also always listened to local bands. And then there were nightclubs that were based on Studio 54, which was really big in New York at that time — or there was a nightclub like that. There were other nightclubs that were really the happening places to be and a really interesting LGBTQ scene there.
So it was just this very weird dynamic of completely traditional — their big heroes were James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, it was like going into the ’50s — and then traditional going back several hundred years to traditional music and then this kind of happening scene. And so I just thought it was such an interesting juxtaposition, and I wanted to play with that. So that’s what I’m working on now.
When you look back at those two earlier novels, and you mentioned earlier you want to go back to at least one of them, does the thought of revisiting those old works take it all out of you or is that an exciting prospect for you?
Mimi Herman: It’s both. The second novel, even though it’s much more complex, I’m not as tempted to go back to it. This is the first novel, so part of it is that it’s my first novel, it’s my baby, and it’s so different from this one. That one’s about an older Jewish couple in Brooklyn whose kids want them to retire to Florida. Sometime in the early 1980s. They have one of those musty, dusty men’s clothing stores.
It’s tempting in some ways to go back, and it’s also not because you have to deconstruct to reconstruct. I don’t want to fiddle with it, but there’s a lot of language that I love. And I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote that book. And so I would want it to be with the wiser eyes that I have now, which means a lot, a lot, a lot of rewriting. So in some ways, it’s easier to start a new book than go back to one, but I really love that book.
Cliche question to wrap up: What is it that you hope readers come away from The Kudzu Queen with?
Mimi Herman: I want people to come away with just how much fun it is to live in a story. I write for the same reason I read: to get lost in a book and to find out what’s going to happen next. And so all through writing this book, and I don’t know if this has appeared in an interview before, but when I thought I had a complete draft of this book, it was 680 pages. So I took a book out of that book. I mean, it’s cruel to inflict a 680-page book on anybody unless you’re Dostoyevsky.
What was your editor’s reaction to that?
Mimi Herman: Oh, nobody saw it. There was no way I was going to send out a 680-page book. I did what I call playing pickup sticks. Can I pull out this chapter, this character, this subplot, this line, this sentence, this word, until I had it down to what I thought was the book.
Well, I think it turned out great.
Mimi Herman: Thank you!
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