Tiffany McDaniel, ON THE SAVAGE SIDE

Tiffany McDaniel, ON THE SAVAGE SIDE

Zibby interviews acclaimed writer and poet Tiffany McDaniel about On The Savage Side, a harrowing novel about twin sisters who fear for their lives as their friends begin to disappear from their rural Ohio town, inspired by the real unsolved murders of the Chillicothe Six. Tiffany describes how her own upbringing in a Southern Ohio town plagued by drug addiction inspired the environment her protagonists live in, and shares what it was like to research the real Chillicothe crimes and find that one of the murdered women was her classmate. She also discusses an essential dichotomy in her book – the savage vs. the beautiful sides of life – and shares how she personally connects with the latter. (Oh, and did you know that she writes all her books by hand?!)


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tiffany. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, On the Savage Side.

Tiffany McDaniel: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Tiffany, tell listeners what your book is about.

Tiffany: It’s inspired by the true crime case known as the Chillicothe Six out of Chillicothe, Ohio. A few years ago in Chillicothe, women had started to disappear and go missing. A few of their bodies were discovered. Some are still missing and a still unsolved crime today.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You have such an interesting, captivating, and really original writing style. You jump back and forth from the point of view of water from the river, from third person with the girls and the mom. You take us under and over and around and everywhere to give us a sense of the story and the environment. Tell me a little about how you decided how to tell this story.

Tiffany: I really wanted to bring the river into the story, and so we have sections in the book in which the river herself is speaking. Since most of these women were discovered in or by the river, I thought it was important to hear the setting itself give those final moments and give that voice of experience. As I was looking at this story and looking at how those women were coming together, I really wanted to especially go back to their childhood. We go back to Arc and Daffy. They’re the twin sisters within the book. I really wanted their younger voice as well to shine through just as much as the mature voices of this collective group of women.

Zibby: That was particularly just so powerful, to read about them, how their mother, who — they didn’t even understand her drug addiction and what was going on. How her really out-of-control behavior affected them in their age and their grandmother trying to help and the confusion and fear when their father passes away — this is all early on, so I feel like I’m not ruining anything. Tell me about this backstory. You painted such a clear picture of what their lives were like and the distress and just all of it, the naked mom in the backyard. Tell me more about this. Where did this come from? How did you write it? Do you freak yourself out when you’re writing this? It’s haunting, all of it.

Tiffany: I will say about Arc and Daffy, I had grown up playing with kids like them. I grew up in South Central and Southern Ohio in communities that had been affected by drugs. Playing with kids, we were very familiar with what it meant to find a used syringe in a road. Going back and reflecting on my own childhood having grown up with kids like Arc and Daffy, I really wanted to infuse the story with those experiences as well. I had known women like the women in the book not only in my community, but in generations of my own family, my aunts and uncles and those whose paths led them to addiction. It was really about pulling on those threads and trying to unite the of the story itself.

Zibby: It’s interesting you say threads because threads also play into even the title of this book. You write about how there is a beautiful side and a savage side and how sometimes you have to flip over, as if it’s a quilt, flip over the savage side and try to thread your way to making it more part of the beautiful side. I’m probably not saying that accurately. Tell me about that and how you came up with the title.

Tiffany: That goes back to the relationship between Arc, Daffy, and Mamaw Milkweed. I wanted the three of their relationship to really be the shining light and joy of the story. Within the story, Mamaw Milkweed is the one who crochets. She’s crocheting the afghan and telling Arc and Daffy that in life, there is a beautiful side and a savage side. Especially for kids who are living in homes of addiction, they understand that quite well. They understand that in life, there are these rough situations and these circumstances. I really wanted the title to reflect what Mamaw Milkweed was saying to these two girls, which is that there are two sides to life, and her trying to teach them how to flip over to that beautiful side. She understood that they would be going through those rough moments in life.

Zibby: When you’re trying to flip a rough moment into a beautiful moment, how do you do that?

Tiffany: I love nature. That’s how I find relaxation and comfort and peace, is going on walks in the woods, being with wildlife. I love animals my cats and the dog. It’s really through nature that I find the beautiful side of life.

Zibby: Interesting. How did you cope as a kid? How did you make sense of the world seeing all of this around you? Did you feel this is what everybody went through? Did you feel sort of unnerved by some of the things that you saw growing up? How did you make sense of it as you got older?

Tiffany: I think because my household wasn’t affected by addiction, and then the kids I was playing with, their household was, so it was kind of seen as two sides of life. When you’re seeing it from a very young age, it’s almost like you’re getting comfortable with it because you’re going with it from such an early age. When I would see kids I was playing with and understanding that they were suffering abuse and understanding that their household was different from mine in that aspect and everything that they went through as a kid, you’re just learning to process everything as you encounter it.

Zibby: In terms of the true crime element and structuring the narrative — obviously, it was based on real life. How did you decide what to include, what not to include, how to fictionalize? How did you approach the whole story?

Tiffany: The characters are fiction. What’s really been inspired by the crime itself is the violence. These victims and their stories, I really felt like those should be told by those who knew them best or family and friends. I did go back and research the case. As I was looking at the photographs of the women who had gone missing, I actually recognized one of the faces. She was someone I had gone to school with, and so not even knowing that when I had known her all those years ago, she would become someone that I would make myself familiar with again through this case.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s crazy. That’s really crazy. How did you toggle back from — what was your life like when you were writing this compared to the intensity of writing it? When you would stop writing, you would pull away from the computer, and then what? How did you go back emotionally to your regular life? What was it like when you were writing the book?

Tiffany: When I write, I write by hand. I only come to a computer when I have to do something as a file or editing. I’m very much someone who prefers to write the book within a notebook, write it by hand. I think doing that allows you a more organic way to go with a story, especially like this, one that deals with issues such as in the book. It’s kind of the same way I approached the other novels I’ve written. I’ve written over twenty to this point. On the Savage Side falls somewhere in the middle of that stack. It’s learning to approach this story but also just find that balance with your everyday life. I find that, like I said, again, in gardening or nature, being with the animals can really pull you out of those darker moments story.

Zibby: Doesn’t it take forever to write it by hand? How do you edit it quickly?

Tiffany: I write a novel in about thirty days. When I do the middle-grade fantasy, I write a book in one to two days. For me, writing it by hand just goes so much quicker. I edit by hand. It’s really the way that I find is the best approach for me. Some might prefer to write it by computer. For me, it’s always been that approach.

Zibby: You can write a book in one to two days?

Tiffany: Yes, especially with — I also write middle-grade fantasy. Those, I tend to do in one to two days. With my novels, I tend to do about thirty days. Then of course, I say that you have your editing layers and everything, so you’re going back through the story. I’ve always been someone who likes to build the foundation of a story relatively quickly. I don’t like a story to fester for too long.

Zibby: Wow, that is really impressive. Tell me about your work as a visual artist.

Tiffany: Since I was a kid, I would write a story, and I would always partner with some sort of illustration. As I developed into novel writing, I continued to do that through painting portraits of the characters or painting certain themes. I find that that adds a really nice layer to a story.

Zibby: Even in this book, there were some visual elements and photographs. It was interesting how you tied that all together.

Tiffany: Through the course of this book, we’ll see a spider image on a page. We’ll see the photograph of the river when the river is speaking. Arc is a character who really loves history. There’s a scene in the book in which her Mamaw Milkweed is setting up her bedroom. It’s this ancient Egyptian tomb. Mamaw Milkweed has put these hieroglyphics through the room. I wanted these images through the book to really represent the hieroglyphics of these women’s lives.

Zibby: Do you have a different view on crime or preventing crime or communities under siege? What did you take away from all of this research?

Tiffany: I really wanted to, especially with this book, try to amplify those voices that are often lost. When this crime first started, there were some in the community who felt like because these women were linked to addiction and a lifestyle associated with it that they were somehow active participants in their death. I really wanted to show that these women were more than the headlines. They were more than those different images that was being sent to the public. I really wanted to show them as mothers, sisters, and daughters and that their lives mattered.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Tiffany: I’m working on three different books. Once they’re written, I tend to edit with several books at a time. I’m currently editing three novels at this time.

Zibby: I don’t know how you keep that all straight. I can barely edit one thing. That’s great. Amazing. What’s going to come out next?

Tiffany: I like to keep that pretty close to the sleeve until I’m a little bit further in. I keep that pretty secret until just the right moment.

Zibby: Awesome. What was it like having all the success of Betty and all of your other work? How does that feel to you?

Tiffany: You just want to continue to make sure that I’m writing something that readers continue to want to take time to journey through the pages of and make something that feels like it’s meaningful and of value to them. I think that that remains the goal, just ensuring that I’m continuing to create books that readers really find value in.

Zibby: You obviously have such a gift. You’re so prolific in so many different areas. Writing and poetry and all of that, when did you realize this was something that you had a gift in and that you wanted to pursue professionally?

Tiffany: Ever since I was a kid. Writing is the first thing I remember doing without being told to do it. As a kid, I would make homemade books. I would use cardboard as the covers. I would bind the books with my mother’s crochet yarn. I had named a publishing imprint after my cat at the time, Sunshine. I would publish these books as a kid under Sunshine Publications. I’ve always known from a kid that I wanted to be a writer. When my first book came out and I had to go through boxes of things to get some materials together for marketing, I had found this envelope in an old box. I had sealed it. I had written on the piece of paper, “I hope to become a writer and to write something that people want to read.” I had sealed the envelope, probably to kind of seal the kiss or the wish. It was something that I definitely always wanted to do.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Tiffany: A lot of perseverance. When I first started, the first book I wanted to get published was Betty. That was what I went out the gate with. It would be close to twenty years before I got a publisher to that, especially before things changed with the Me Too movement and perspective on female-led stories. When I first went out with Betty, I was told several times to change her to a male narrator because they sell better or to take out some of those things about the menstruation or the bras because it would make readers uncomfortable. They didn’t believe that that sexual abuse would happen to more than one woman because they would talk about it. Then the Me Too movement kind of flipped the thing where people were much more open about things that they had experienced. I’d actually heard that so many times, “Change to a boy narrator,” that that was how my first published book came out. I looked through the books I had already written, and that one had a male lead. That was how that one ended up being published. We’re all just looking to get published. You have to stay determined and persevere.

Zibby: I love it. That’s awesome. Who do you love to read? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Tiffany: I primarily read nonfiction. I love history. I love the sciences, particularly the archaeological sciences. Anything to do with paleontology, I’m in it for. I read very little fiction. Nonfiction is really my appetite.

Zibby: Interesting. Tiffany, this has been so fascinating. Thank you so much. I am so impressed with you and the way you write and your whole creative approach to everything. In the category of books that make you feel, this book, it could make you almost sick to your stomach, in a good way. It was super, super powerful. Hats off.

Tiffany: You’re very kind. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks so much.

Tiffany: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Tiffany: Buh-bye.

Tiffany McDaniel, ON THE SAVAGE SIDE

ON THE SAVAGE SIDE by Tiffany McDaniel

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