Q&A: Ann Hite

Our books columnist interviews the author

Ann Hite, fifty-three, has lived in the Smyrna/Vinings area most of her life. A former technical specialist for a division of BP Oil, Hite has gone from writing case histories of petroleum products to writing novels. Ghost on Black Mountain marks her debut, but she already is well under way on two sequels that feature some of the same richly drawn characters.

Photograph courtesy of the author

When did you first know you were a writer? I’ve always been a writer in some shape or form. When I was young and couldn’t write, I forced people like my grandmother and brother to listen to me tell the stories running through my head.

What possessed you to write a novel? Ghost on Black Mountain began as a collection of short stories that came to me one after another without a lot of effort. I was carried away by these plain mountain people who showed up in each of the stories, but I honestly didn’t believe anyone else would care for them. They weren’t flashy or intelligent in a “book-learned” way. My sentences were simple and to the point. But, oh, how I loved their stories. My agent suggested we try to sell it, even though we both knew the chances were slim to none. Short story collections were a tough sell in the best of circumstances. Several of the larger publishers sent back letters praising the work and suggesting I write a novel. So, by golly, I did.

Why a ghost story? I’ve always loved a good ghost story. I’m talking about an old-fashioned, creepy, Southern Gothic story like the ones my family sat around telling on a Sunday afternoon after church. But I didn’t set out to write a ghost story. Like a lot of my characters, the ghosts just appeared on the page with a lot to say.

How did the story take shape? Did you start with a character, a plot, a place? In May of 2004, my husband took me on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. We went often, but on this trip we visited a valley called Cades Cove, where mountain life had been preserved, with original cabins and barns built in the 1800s.  They were having a reunion of the old families who had lived in the valley up until the 1940s. I was swept away by the clothes, the music and the food. When I came home, the character of Nellie made an appearance in my mind and spoke the first two sentences of Ghost on Black Mountain.

>> REVIEW: Read Weaver’s criticism of Hite’s book

Do you believe in ghosts? My logical mind says no, but I have had experiences that can’t be explained away. In June of 2010, while on a writing retreat, I went to take photos of the church that inspired the First Episcopalian Church of Black Mountain. I had to hike a good half-mile off the road into the woods. I was alone. As I played with the camera for a perfect shot, a black shadow—about the size of a child—scurried across my screen. I searched around the area for the source and never found one. I took the photo without any more events. Also, not far from the church on another trip, my husband and I encountered a woman one night while we sat outside near our campfire. She wore a long, old-fashioned slip with lace around the edges. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a knot. She walked out of the woods and right up to our fire, staring at us. Then she walked off into the darkness without saying a word. The peculiar thing was, she had on no shoes. The ground was littered with sticks, rocks and holes. My husband guessed she came from the campsites across the road. The next morning I went out to inspect the path the woman took in her bare feet. If she came from the location my husband suggested, she would have had to cross a fast-moving creek in the dark. I don’t think so. But to answer your question, I mostly enjoy a good ghost story without worrying about the real sprits.

What scares you? I can just see my kids’ eyes rolling back in their heads as I say this, but I fear that somehow if we’re not careful, we’ll lose what made the South the South—the storytelling, the wives’ tales and the superstitions. Don’t get me wrong. I love my computer, my iTouch, and my phone that takes photos, not to mention audio books. But there is something about a good old-fashioned story being told to a hushed group that soothes my soul.

Do you come from a family of storytellers? Yes, ma’am. My grandmother told me stories from the time I could remember. Every Sunday until I moved away, my grandmother packed my brother and me into the car and drove us to the “country,” where my great aunts lived. I would sit in a large, high-ceilinged room and remain as quiet as possible. Most of the time, this was on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sweet tea and pleasantries were passed around, along with a slice of Aunt Stella’s orange cake, if we were lucky. Soon the roomful of women would forget I was there and begin to tell the real stories—the ones our dead family members wouldn’t have liked a bit, about supposed murder and spells. I think being present in that room with those women helped me become a writer.

What have you read lately that you love? It is well-known in my circle of friends that I’m a hard-core book junkie, so that is a loaded question. I must say the one book that stands alone in the past two years is The Help. I read it in two days. Also, Bloodroot by Amy Greene and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman were fresh and captivating. I’m reading an amazing book right now called The Taker by Alma Katsu. Watch for that one.

Who are your literary heroes? Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Gilchrist, and Anne Tyler. I’ve read their books over and over.

What books did you read as a child? Tom Sawyer was the first book I remember loving and beginning again as soon as I reached the last word. I was in the third grade. I loved A Wrinkle in Time; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Anne of Green Gables; and, of course, there was my Nancy Drew phase. But my all-time favorite novel was and is Tuck Everlasting. What a book. It has everything a person could want.

What have you learned from your first novel that you’ll take with you? I’ve learned to trust my first instincts, listen to my characters and just tell the story. I also learned that I love to write better than anything else in the world.