Friday, October 4, 2013

'What I Came to Tell You': A new novel set in Asheville

Some years ago, when Asheville novelist Tommy Hays’s son was a fifth grader with a voracious reading appetite, Hays steered the boy to one of his own books, “In the Family Way,” set in the 1960s in Greenville, S.C., his hometown.

His son, Max, started the book, but wasn’t getting very far. Finally, one night at dinner, Hays noted the lack of progress.

Later, he wrote about Max’s response: “He sighed, put his fork down on his plate, and then, looking up at me, said, ‘Daddy, it’s good historical fiction, but it’s just not my cup of tea.’ ”

Historical fiction. Ouch. “Like the Paleozoic Era or something,” Hays writes.

But Max’s remark got his dad thinking about writing a novel set in present-day Asheville – a time and place that his son and daughter knew. The result, “What I Came to Tell You” (Egmont; $16.99), Hays’ first book for middle-grade readers, is a satisfying story that demonstrates, among other things, how art can inspire and help people heal. The book has earned a starred Publishers Weekly review.

This is Hays’s fourth novel. Previous books include “The Pleasure Was Mine” and “Sam’s Crossing.” He also directs the Great Smokies Writing Program, a community writing program affiliated with UNC Asheville.

“What I Came to Tell You” centers on 12-year-old Grover Johnston, who is grieving over his mother’s death following a car accident. His father is also bereft but distant, spending long hours as director of Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe house, which is struggling to attract visitors.

Grover’s passion is making art – creating giant weavings using bamboo that grows in a stand near his home. But his father, frustrated by his son’s bad grades, believes Grover is simply wasting his time.

The book, written for readers 10 and up, doesn’t shy from thought-provoking themes. In the first paragraph, in fact, we meet Grover, reeling from the loss of his mom and pondering the idea that God is omnipresent, a word his minister liked to use.

“But what Grover believed more and more, if you could call it believing,” Hays writes, “was the omnipresence of absence, the everywhere of gone.”

With its exploration of themes such as loss, grief and spirituality, this book is sophisticated enough to attract many adult fans, I’m sure. But it remains accessible to younger readers.

“It's been my experience,” Hays told me, “that kids are incredibly insightful and understand a lot more than we ever give them credit for.”

Want to see Hays?
Tommy Hays will be among the authors at the Women’s National Book Association’s Bibliofeast dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy at SouthPark on Oct. 14. Tickets are $45 for members, $55 for nonmembers. More information:
Hays will also read at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.