BRIAN: Rhett, welcome to The Underground. I’d like to give our readers a little background on how I found your book. I was scanning what seemed like hundreds of monthly review requests, when my lovely wife dropped your autographed novel in my lap. It’s not only a book about Alabama history, but about my very hometown, Enterprise. In fact, your fictional Melrose Plantation would only be about three miles from my actual house. I read the first few pages and, what do you know, it was pretty good. So, to quote your protagonist, Janie, “There was no doubt in my mind God had set me up for the whole thing.”
So, why did a father and advertising professional from Clanton, Alabama decide to
become a writer?
RHETT: Well, Brian I would have to say that was definitely a God thing as well. It happened when I was teaching the youth at church. Driving home from work one afternoon it dawned on me that I hadn't prepared anything for their lesson that evening, so I said a little prayer and what God impressed on me was the story about the boll weevil, something I can promise you was the farthermost thing from my mind at the time. Later, while I was putting everything together I knew He wanted me to share with a larger audience, so that's how it happened.
BRIAN: UBR has subscribers from all over the world, many of which may never have heard of a boll weevil. Please give us the quick and dirty about what happened to the
South’s cotton crop in the early 20th century, and why you picked this particular event on which to base your first novel?
RHETT: The boll weevil is an agricultural pest that lays its eggs in the cotton boll and when the eggs hatch, their young eat the cotton forming inside the boll. The insect came over from Mexico into Texas in 1893 and spread continuously across the cotton belt, destroying tens of millions of dollars worth of the South's cash crop. It wasn't brought under control until the 1930's when the agricultural scientist of that day came up with a spray solution that sterilized the males.
As far as why I picked this subject I would have to say it was rather God picking me to write about it and I've asked myself why several times. I think there are really several reasons. One is I love southern history. Another is I spent so much time growing up on our old family plantation in south Alabama. It gave me a sense of background for the book and then also I am one to see symbolism in things. To me the boll weevil monument in Enterprise represents something that is symbolic in all our lives. Everyone of us experience adversities and hardships in this world, but, if we can find the courage to lift up those kind of things to God, He is faithful to turn them into something good. He certainly did with the boll weevil situation.
BRIAN: You classify this as “southern fiction” in the search recommendations in your
book. However, the novel has strong inspirational overtones. Religious-themed books comprise a whopping 11% of all US book sales, with over 60% of those being Christian-based. Two questions: Would you also classify Thank God For Boll Weevils as Christian literature, and is the Christian book market something you will pursue for future writing projects?
RHETT: Yes, most definitely, to both of your questions, but I also am writing another historically-based novel. So much of my passion lies there as well.
BRIAN: You spend a great deal of time and detail on the well-known George Washington Carver and not-so-well-known H.M. Sessions historical characters. How did you conduct your research and where did you draw the line on what was fictional and not fictional regarding these characters?
RHETT: I read everything I could get my hands and eyes on. I also bought several DVD's from the History Channel about cotton and George W. Carver. Even so, there were gaps I had to fill in as far as their characters were concerned. Take for instance Mr. Sessions. I found nothing regarding what his original intentions were when he financed the venture for growing the peanuts. There was no large market for them, so I sensed he had intentions of becoming a distributor for the seeds. Of course, it was Carver and the uses he came up with for the peanut that really made it into a viable market and caused their popularity to spread.
As for the fictional accounts of each of the men I tried to keep the boundaries pretty tight but did use their characters to paint the larger picture of what happened. I guess you can say I may have embellished the spirit of their character a little but I really feel if they had a chance to read what I wrote they would approve.
BRIAN: Famed scientist George W. Carver literally saved the South from economic Armageddon with his research on the peanut. How accurate was your depiction of how his faith influenced his science?
RHETT: Very accurate. Professor Carver would get up well before daybreak each morning and spend time with God. It was on one of those occasions when God instructed him to gather up some peanuts and take them into his laboratory. A week later he had come up with his first six uses for the legume. He went on to come up with over three hundred. All the accounts I have read of him portray a very strong faith and dependence on God.
BRIAN: Your story is told in first person, past tense from the perspective of two women growing up in the early 1900s on a south Alabama cotton plantation. Janie is the plantation owner’s daughter and Sipsy is the Afro-American daughter of one of his sharecroppers. Each leans on their faith and their mutual friendship to overcome the hardships of growing up in the Reconstruction South. As a new writer, did you have any unusual challenges writing from a woman’s perspective?
RHETT: It surprises lots of people that I did that. But, it wasn't hard; it was just how I felt led to write the story and only a few times did I really have any trouble with their characters. Mostly, though, it just flowed.
BRIAN: How did you come to be published by Tiger Iron Press and will they be offering Thank God for Boll Weevils in e-format anytime soon?
RHETT: My brother Robin met the publisher at a trade show in Georgia and told her about what I was writing. She loved the title and was intrigued with the concept of what the story was about. She gave him her contact information and I sent her my manuscript. She loved that too.
And, yes, the novel will eventually be in e-format. We just wanted to wait a little while and give the books a chance in paperback.
BRIAN: What’s next for Rhett Barbaree?
RHETT: A lot of hurry up and wait. No, really, I am hoping this book will do well enough that I can follow it with other novels. One will be an offspring to this one where people tell their own stories of how God in His sovereignty has taken their adversities and turned them into a blessing. There are also two others I have started on.
BRIAN: Rhett, thank you for joining us today in the Underground. For our readers, you can read my review of Rhett Barbaree’s novel Thank God for Boll Weevils here on Underground Book Reviews. You can also check out more on Rhett on the following links.
99 Cents Worth of Rhett Barbaree Links:
Thank God for Boll Weevils on Amazon
Rhett Barbaree on Facebook
Thank God for Boll Weevils on Facebook
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