Sixteen years ago, author Molly Dektar showcased a children’s book she had illustrated at the Regulator Bookshop.
Dektar, 29, now lives in New York, but she will return to where it all began to read her debut novel, “The Ash Family,” at the Regulator. The book will be published April 9, and the reading, with a Q&A and signing, is April 16.
“I’m just so excited for this, and I get to read at the Regulator, which is an independent bookstore, and it’s just such a huge part of my childhood,” she told The News & Observer in a phone interview. “I was talking to my mother about it, because she used to take us there every weekend when we were younger.”
The material she’ll be reading is a departure from the children’s book she read in 2003. She describes “The Ash Family” as a “cult book” that’s a result of her interest in nature.
Dektar has had many experiences exploring nature through different parts of the world and in North Carolina. Her experiences and research led her to write about the close bond a person can have with nature and how that may lead to a better life.
In her novel, the story is set near Asheville with some characters from Durham. The main character, who is from Durham, finds her search for essential life within nature to bring her to a very persuasive and distinct community.
Dektar talked The N&O about her North Carolina roots, and what it’s like to come home.
Q: How did you get started writing in general?
A: I’ve always loved documenting and recording things. I’ve kept a daily journal since I was 11. But, even before then, my clearest first memory of writing was when I was nine. My family took a train trip across the country and I remember trying to record every single thing that we saw out of the window. Writing has really improved my life, it’s sort of the air I breathe in a way because it gets me outside and doing things, because I want to write about those things. It’s a good positive feedback loop where the more I write the more I experience.
Q: When did you start writing “The Ash Family?” Where were you living at the time?
A: It was the fall of 2013, in New York. I moved to New York to attend the MFA program at Brooklyn College and my first story that I submitted for workshop has now become the second and third chapter of “The Ash Family.”
Q: How did this idea come to you?
A: I got a grant after college to go interview farmers about their experiences with climate change in Italy and Norway. I wanted to try living off the grid and living more closely with nature. So, for a time I was herding goats, I had a herd of 60 goats I had to watch out for. At a different farm, I was working with sheep, and I did all the lambing, which was extremely incredible. In the book, the main character, she’s a shepherd. So, I had those experiences in 2012 and 2013 and I wanted to share those experiences, and I wanted to write about them and write about nature in general. In the book, the main character moves off the grid to this farm that turns out to be a cult. She commits more and more of herself while she is living there and the cult leader, whose name is Dice, is nature personified, in a certain way.
Q: What was the process like for getting your first book published?
A: I was writing the book throughout my time at Brooklyn College, and my professor there, Dinaw Mengestu, he recommended the manuscript to his agent. And this was in 2015 after I was done with the program. I had a very rough version of “The Ash Family,” but I just felt like there was nothing more I could do with it by myself. I needed to see how I could work with an editor.
Q: Describe the feeling when you realized your book was going to be published.
A: I went on a family road trip right around the time that he was sending it out to editors. I was expecting to hear from him while on this road trip about whether a publishing house might be interested. When I knew he was going to call, my mother, my father, my brother my sister and I, we pulled into this strip mall and I ran away from them because I was so panicked. He told me Simon & Schuster was interested in buying the book.
And that moment wasn’t even that happy, because I had just been so upset and nervous for a month or so, that I couldn’t shake that feeling. I had built it up so much in my mind. And, even after, I got the book deal and I got to work with my amazing editor, Emily Graff. This entire process, I’ve been thinking the world is going to end before this book comes out, the publishing industry is going to be destroyed by some horrible freak accident. It’s been pretty nerve-wracking, irrationally so.
Q: What has been your favorite part about writing and publishing “The Ash Family?”
A: I think both combined, working with my editor and refining the text was the best part. I was worried, beforehand, that there would be no way to objectively tell if my book could be better. I can tell you that the book definitely got better. It was so amazing working so closely with my editor. I did a lot of streamlining and I combined characters and I sort of unbunched the plot and redistributed them. I just feel I’ve grown so much as a writer through the revision process, so that was just incredibly rewarding and satisfying.
Q: How do you think your North Carolina roots affect how you wrote “The Ash Family?”
A: I think, it really comes down to how vivid and beautiful nature is in North Carolina. All of these things, you know — hurricanes, azaleas, thunderstorms, deer, the farmers market — I got to write about all of those things as well. The main character in the book is 19, so she is thought to have this Durham youth.
My mother is a folklorist and the family moved to North Carolina for her to go through the folkloric program at UNC-Chapel Hill. So, she knows all of these artists and would take us to see Clyde Jones, who makes wooden animals and to visit Vollis Simpson’s Whirligig Park. There are just so many interesting people and communities in North Carolina that directly influence the book as well.
Q: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? If so, how has living in New York influenced or changed your writing?
A: Oh, gosh, I really hope living in New York hasn’t changed how I write. I love southern fiction and southern writing. I love Thomas Wolfe, Jill McCorkle. I would be really pleased to be part of that heritage. “The Ash Family,” the real events and experiences that went into it, a lot of them are drawn from my own life. So, it’s not directly in dialogue with other works of Southern fiction. It builds a lot from personal experiences and nonfiction accounts of communes and cults. I don’t consider myself a New Yorker or a Northern writer at all.
Q: Going along with one of the themes of your book, do you feel with every utopia there is a negative side?
A: I believe that there are ways to live better. I do truly believe that you can live a relatively more ethical life, or a life more in-tune with the environment. It’s possible to improve things. On the other hand, I read a lot about off-the-grid communities and communes and cooperatives. And, I think that when people try to build a new utopian existence, it is at times difficult to balance the need for people to be their own individual and for people to have their own self-determination with the needs to stick to a larger ideological vision.
Q: In the book, the main character stresses the idea of essential life. What does this mean to you?
A: Essential life is a more sublime and vivid existence. And, to me, again, that has to do a lot with nature and wanting to get away from cell phones, air conditioning, the mainstream world and experience things beyond our control. There’s a quote I love from “West of Eden” by Janferie Stone, writing about the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, called the desire to move to the land “a utopian pulse that was embodied rather than thought.”
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
A: This doesn’t come through in my writing at all because “The Ash Family” is more of a thriller, but my favorite writer ever is (Marcel) Proust. His notes on nature and memory just make my heart beat faster. For “The Ash Family,” (Murray) Bookchin is an ecologist and he wrote how to live in union with nature. And I also loved reading “Little House in the Big Woods,” the sensory descriptions were very influential.
Q: What are your plans for after the book is released?
A: My friend, Mark Chiusano, who published a book a few years ago, gave me some advice to definitely have another project going on. I am working on a second book. So, I am going to try to be focusing on my second novel and finishing it up. I think it will be pretty different, it’s more of a romance.
Q: What’s one thing you want readers to know about you?
A: I suppose I want people to know that Berie, the main character, her reasons for staying are very sincere and deeply felt. She really believed she was doing good by being there. And one of the issues with me as a writer is that it can be over-the-top sincere. I care so much about these topics and I think I do want to communicate that to readers.
Q: What’s one thing you want readers to gain or experience from reading your book?
A: There’s a lot of climate science in the book, because the cult leader likes to gather everyone around and tell them cult stories, and they’re all true. So, I loved writing about snowball earth and passenger pigeons and the way North Carolina used to be before settlers arrived from Europe. And, I always thought that even if people don’t like the cult plot, they don’t like the characters, they can get something out of the aspects of climate and ecology and North Carolina history.
Molly Dektar will talk about “The Ash Family” at 7 p.m. April 16 at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham. For more, go to mollydektar.com.