ABOUT THE BOOK
My passion for the Blue Ridge Mountains began in 1981 when I was in America to meet the agent and publishers of my sister’s first book “A Man Cannot Cry”, which I had edited, and which went on to become an international bestseller. Her manuscript was so huge (half-a-million words!), we were told we had to cut it in half and prepare the first 100 pages for the publisher to read, before we met the editor-in-chief on our return to New York. We hired a Rally motor home to wend our way down to Key West in Florida. We decided on a route that would take us through the Shenandoah National Park on the magnificent Skyline Drive. It was spring and the scenery was so very beautiful. Delicate pink and white dogwoods were out everywhere and they and the blue-hazed mountains were an incredible sight. It was then that the mountains of the Blue Ridge captured my soul. Then I learned the history of the mountain people that used to live in the mountains, and they captured my imagination.
People have asked me why I chose to write about America rather than Africa, and the answer lies in what I tell all the writers in my novel-writing workshops – write about what you are interested in and passionate about, and what you don’t know find out! I spent the next 25 years after I visited the area “finding out”. I wrote to a newspaper in the charming little town of Front Royal that lies nine miles outside of the Shenandoah National Park, and they published my letter requesting information on the mountain people, the Indians who used to live there and the formation of the Shenandoah National Park itself. Six knowledgeable people replied, one of them a genuine “hillbilly’, with whom I corresponded for about two years, until he invited me to become a guest in their home while visiting Front Royal to do more research. I was in New York with my sister and her family at the Edison Hotel in Times Square when I got an irate call from his wife accusing me of having an affair with him and telling me not to set foot in her house! I’d never even met the man! So one has to watch out for jealous spouses when doing your research! Nevertheless, from these six wonderful people, I gained a wealth of information that I needed and for years books about the subjects crossed the Atlantic. I also visited the area twice thereafter.
There are about ten chapters in my book about the mountain people that I actually wrote way back in 1982, when I first start writing, and these formed part of the first novel I wrote, and only finished 17 years after I started. When that book grew to the same mammoth proportions as “A Man Cannot Cry”, I cut the manuscript in half and reluctantly cut out all the parts about the mountain people. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I felt the need to dig out my old parts about the mountain people and start writing about them again. It grew into a novel of some 311,000 words long, but has been cut down to its present 285,000-odd words. I soon knew with a great surety from within that this was the book that would be published first. I have spent the last seven years writing “Falling Leaves and Mountain Ashes”. It was a labour of love for me.
”Falling Leaves and Mountain Ashes” is a great epic novel about the mountain people of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, and spans four decades in their lives. The mountain people were very unique in that because they lived in such isolation, their lives had remained unchanged for over two hundred years, and were very different from the rest of mainstream America. They had no cars, no electricity, no radios, no television, no doctors,very few schools beyond the odd one-roomed schoolhouse, and the general stores from which they purchased their supplies were half-a-day’s walk away. They had turned to the Indian crafts of trapping, hunting, gathering and home crafts to survive, and their only contacts with civilization as such, were their visits to the general stores two or three times a year.
They were a people that had to be tough and hardy because of the hardships they had to endure from the hazards of Nature and the sheer isolation of their lives, but they were generally hardworking, very community-minded and shared lots of tasks like barn-raising, apple-butter boilings, corn-shuckings and crop-plantings. They were a simple and fun-loving people. They loved music and would have barn dances and parties whenever there was a special occasion, and often just for the fun of it. But there were “good” hollows and “bad” hollows. Good” mountains and “bad” mountains. The characters in my book live on a “bad” mountain, my fictional Claw Mountain. Moonshining was an integral part of mountain life, and this caused many senseless fights and killings, for which the perpetrators were seldom punished, for their misdeeds were seldom reported to the authorities, as they had their own kind of rough “frontier” justice. It is a story of a dysfunctional and violent clan, whose lives are irrevocably changed when the eldest son brings home a brave young mountain woman for a wife.
The action takes place against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the famous summer mountain resort, Skyland, and Washington DC. It is also the story of the mountain people themselves, whose beloved lifestyles were ultimately doomed.
I first wrote the book under the title “Claw Mountain” but when “Cold Mountain” came out as a best-selling novel and movie, I was forced to change the title as the two titles were so similar, there was the very real danger that a reader could overlook mine thinking it was the same book. I chose instead “The Shadow of Claw Mountain”. However, Annette Handley-Chandler, to whom the manuscript had been sent, said the title ‘did not do the story justice’. I was disappointed because I felt the title was very appropriate for my story, but I decided to take Annette's advice, as her credentials are truly awesome (ex-literary agent/Hollywood screenplay agent/Emmy-award winning producer/writer), and I'm so very glad I did. I wanted something that sounded poetical and lyrical, like "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "Legends of the Fall". I had to think hard and came up with dozens of lofty-sounding titles. I finally settled on "Falling Leaves and Mountain Ashes", which I feel not only has exactly the right ring to it that I wanted, but is entirely appropriate for the book. I just love my new title, so thanks, Annette! By the way, Annette so loved the book, she very kindly wrote a pre-review for it, which is featured in the book, for which I am truly grateful.