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Moon Women

Author Interview

“In the tradition of Fannie Flagg and Rebecca Wells comes a Southern-fried debut.... Duncan shows promise as a from-the-heart, quirky storyteller.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Add newcomer Duncan to your reading list of Southern women writers.... Duncan expertly demonstrates that ordinary lives are worth illuminating.”
—Library Journal

With the grace of a natural storyteller, debut novelist Pamela Duncan crafts a mesmerizing tale of family and love, revelation and forgiveness. Beautifully wrought, deeply affecting, Moon Women is a resounding portrait of three generations of remarkable women, separated by a secret only one of them can tell.

In the lush North Carolina foothills, the Moon women have put down roots: matriarch Marvelle Moon, who’s starting to lose her grip on the world after more than eighty years of life; her middle-aged daughters, Ruth Ann and Cassandra; and Ruth Ann’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Ashley, fresh out of rehab, unmarried, and three months pregnant.

Despite Ruth Ann’s best efforts to live a life that’s all her own, her family is coming together around her. Marvelle and Ashley need a place to live and Ruth Ann is unable to turn either of them away; and her womanizing ex-husband has been coming around again, dredging up the past. Now a flurry of outbursts, emotions, and outrages is shattering Ruth Ann’s separate peace. And as this flawed family comes together, so, too, do the stories of the people Ruth Ann thought she knew best.

For here is Ashley, who has spent nineteen years running furiously away from home, now finding herself on a strange journey with her unraveling grandmother. And here is Cassandra, protected by layers of obesity and loneliness, wondering how to put magic back in her life. And Marvelle, slowly losing touch with reality, privately contemplating the story of her life and the secret that would change everything for everyone — if they only knew....

By turns fierce and tender, harrowing and heartbreaking, Moon Women resonates with emotional power, holding us captive under its beguiling spell. It is an astonishing debut from a powerfully original new voice in contemporary fiction.

Author Interview

The voices in this story set in Madison County, NC, are so authentic and the natural world around the Moon Women is described with such loving detail that you must be pretty familiar with this place and these people. What's your connection?

PAMELA DUNCAN: My maternal grandparents came from Madison County and my deepest acquaintance with that place is through their stories. Because of the love and reverence with which my grandmother spoke of growing up in Madison County, it became an almost mythical place in my imagination. As a child I wished I had grown up there, and I wanted so badly to go there with her, to see for myself the places and people she told about. I think that's why I wrote about Madison County in Moon Women, because I never got to go there with my grandmother, and because I wanted to preserve her dream of that place and time. Now I go up to Madison County a couple of times a year with my Uncle JoJo. We stop at the little white Methodist church in Walnut to put flowers on my grandmother's grave and afterward I wander through the graveyard feeling a little lost and a little found at the same time. I'm not a native of Madison County, but because of my grandmother's stories, that graveyard is like a library, so many of the names familiar, so much behind each name, whole volumes waiting there in silence. From the graveyard, JoJo and I usually drive the corkscrew curves down to Barnard, across the French Broad River, and up on Slatey Knob to visit our cousins. We're always welcomed with open arms in spite of long absence, and that's when I feel a little bit like maybe I do belong.

Have you ever written a novel before?

PAMELA DUNCAN: Moon Women is my first novel. I started out writing short stories because that seemed to be what was called for in the writing workshops I took. My stories, however, turned out to be more like novel synopses than short stories. Finally one of my teachers at UNC, Daphne Athas, asked me, "What do you like to read best, novels or short stories?" When I answered, "Novels," she said, "Well, that's what you ought to be writing then." I believe it's true that what you read imprints on your brain somehow, and I had novels on the brain. The very thought of starting a novel terrified me, but behind the terror was excitement and passion and I realized that was what I'd wanted to do all along but was too afraid. Daphne's words felt like permission to go ahead and try. Now I'm working on my second novel, Plant Life, which is about mill women in North Carolina.

What's in a name? Is there more to Marvelle, Ruth Ann, Cassandra and Ashley's family name, Moon, than just a pretty word?

PAMELA DUNCAN: Moon is a fairly common name in the Chatham County and Alamance County farming communities near where I live now. Even before I moved out here, I loved going for long drives in the country and I think I just saw the name Moon on a mailbox in front of a dairy farm one day and knew it would be perfect for the people in my book. Of course, once I got that name in my head, I saw that it was meaningful in other ways. The moon is symbolically associated with women in art and literature, as well as having archetypal significance for things like the unconscious, mystery, the dark side. I was interested in all that, as well as in writing about cycles in women's lives, and cycles within families-patterns repeating, circling from generation to generation. Though I always loved the name Moon for my characters, when my brother first suggested the title Moon Women, I hated it. I was afraid people would get the wrong idea and think it was a sequel to Cat Women from Mars or something. Of course, now I can't imagine it being called anything else.

What keeps the Moon women together as a unit? They've each experienced tragedy, disappointment and differences that might split another family apart.

PAMELA DUNCAN: I think Marvelle is the binding force for the Moon women. It is because of her that they are family in the first place, and she represents their connectedness, as well as the inescapability of family. These women are drawn together as they deal with Marvelle's aging, and during their conflicts with each other, they discover that their struggles, while often painful, are also the source of their greatest strength. They may not always like it, but they belong to each other and they need each other. They share the bonds of family and of womanhood and with Marvelle's help, they discover just how strong those bonds can be, even after death.

Will we ever see Cassandra, Ruth Ann's sister, again? She seems to have quite a future ahead of her.

PAMELA DUNCAN: All the Moon Women characters have updated me about what's going on in their lives now, all except Cassandra. Right now, I think she's still searching, still finding her way, but I feel pretty certain that when she's ready to tell the next part of her story, it'll take a book to do it.


LEE SMITH (The Last Girls):
Reading Pamela Duncan's Moon Women is like falling into a feather bed--you'll want to snuggle in, settle down, and stay right there until you have turned the last wonderful page. I know all these women, and you probably do, too; and Pamela Duncan makes us care passionately about what happens to them all as this eventful novel unfolds. Big, lush, full of passion and compassion, Moon Women is that true rarity--a serious work of literature which is also a great read!

ANGELA DAVIS-GARDNER (Forms of Shelter):
An irresistible story of intertwined generations of women who are tough and wryly observant. Once these Moon women start talking, you can't stop turning the pages of this extraordinary, beautifully crafted novel. With its richly textured voices and indelible sense of place, Moon Women rests firmly in the finest tradition of Southern literature, but there is no one else like Pamela Duncan.

JILL MCCORKLE (Creatures of Habit):
Pamela Duncan has a perfectly tuned ear for the rhythms and ironies of speech and a vast wisdom when it comes to the twists and turns of the human heart. These talents shine in Moon Women, a novel brimming with energy, compassion and humor.

DORIS BETTS (Souls Raised from the Dead):
Here a gifted new writer surprises us with sisterhood in Dolly Parton's accent, and improves feminism by giving it a warm and loving heart.

SILAS HOUSE (A Parchment of Leaves):
Moon Women is so hilarious, so heart-rending, and so honest that I sometimes had to shake my head in satisfaction while reading it. Pamela Duncan does more than tell a wonderful story within the pages of this novel. She introduces us to characters that become real, live, flesh-and-blood people whom we carry with us long after the last page has been read. Moon Women is the kind of book that becomes beloved.

Add newcomer Duncan to your reading list of Southern women writers. Set in western North Carolina, this first novel follows three generations of Moon women during the months of granddaughter Ashley's unplanned pregnancy. While both male and female characters resonate, this novel is definitely about the women as they struggle with relationships, roles, and their place in the world. Dialog is true to the region, and intertwined throughout are 80-year-old matriarch Marvelle's memories of her family and its secrets. Duncan expertly demonstrates that ordinary lives are worth illuminating. Her novel should make her mentor, author Lee Smith, proud and provide strong competition to another new regional novelist, Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler). Strongly recommended for all fiction collections.

A little short on story but impressive nonetheless: a first novel that chronicles the travails and triumphs of a rural North Carolina matriarch and her daughters. Eighty-two-year-old Marvelle Moon gave birth to ten children and buried five during the hardscrabble years of her long and loving marriage to Jesse. She almost envies him for dying first and yearns to join him in the Hereafter, but she's not quite ready to quit this earthly life. Her grown daughters, Ruth Ann and Cassandra, worry over Marvelle's increasing frailty and occasional spells of odd behavior, but they've got problems of their own. Ruth Ann's handsome, cheating ex-husband, A.J., won't stay away; their teenaged daughter Ashley is pregnant out of wedlock, although the young father, Keith, has vowed to take care of her and the baby. Meanwhile, Cassandra has no man in her life and a lot of regrets about chances she's missed, but she gets through her days with quiet determination. The Moon women, old and young, are great ones for musing, and Duncan deftly handles multiple points of view as they present their hardships and joys in richly textured reminiscences. Marvelle's are most evocative of all, and much of the time the past seems more real to her than the present. She wanders away one day, venturing into the alien world of a suburban mall. An encounter with two heavily made-up, scantily dressed girls turns into a screaming match when they don't take kindly to her opinions of their attire and unsolicited advice. Ashley has to rush to her rescue, and not for the last time. The old lady sorely tries everyone's patience, but she is unquestionably the heart and soul of the Moon family, keeper of all its history—andall its secrets. Leisurely pace and authentic southern voice: a pleasure to be savored, by a writer to watch.

In the tradition of Fannie Flagg and Rebecca Wells comes a Southern-fried debut from novelist Duncan. Taking place in rural North Carolina (the author's home ground) in the early 1990s, the story spans nine months just long enough for unwed Ashley to carry and deliver her "young'un." After a stint in rehab, the troubled 19-year-old goes home to her mother, 51-year-old Ruth Ann, whose carefully organized life is about to be turned upside down. Between her ne'er-do-well, philandering ex-husband, A.J., who still comes around, her octogenarian mother, Marvelle, for whom she must care, and Ashley's tense return, Ruth Ann has much to worry about. She wants her family to be happy, but at the same time wishes they would give her some space ("Pure and simple, every damn body got on her damn nerves"). This novel is chock-full of stereotypical Southern speech, which some may find quaint or humorous (brung instead of brought, taters instead of potatoes, foller instead of follow), but more refined grammarians may simply be annoyed or even cringe at nondialogue colloquialisms ("It amazed Ashley that him and Ruth Ann got along as well as they did"). Duncan succeeds in defining her characters' differences, but in her effort to make them all "strong," they sometimes just come across as grumpy complainers. The most sympathetic and well-rounded character is Cassandra, Ruth Ann's obese young sister, who dreams of escaping her family, her body and her life as it is. The plot becomes a bit unfocused at times, but Duncan shows promise as a from-the-heart quirky storyteller.