Coming home

Local author’s debut novel is study in family

Janet Beard’s first novel, “Beneath the Pines,” is the product of a childhood in East Tennessee and Southern Virginia, of family stories and local history, of many years of writing and editing, and even of some much-needed time with the manuscript stashed in the back of a drawer.

Beard, who graduated from Maryville High School in 1997, began the novel while studying in New York, where she attended NYU and later earned her MFA from The New School. The distance from home was a part of the creative impetus for the novel, which is set in Southern Appalachia. “I think (after) going off to New York,” Beard says, “I understood a lot more about growing up here.”

“Beneath the Pines” reflects that understanding, exploring how its characters must mature at various stages of life and how the expectations and values of their communities shape those decisions. Beard’s ties to the community in Blount County run deep. Her mother is Vandy Kemp, the vice president and dean of students at Maryville College and formerly the principal of Heritage High School. Her father, Bill Beard, is also an East Tennessean.

“Beneath the Pines” follows Mary Alice McDonnell as a young girl and as an older woman who must confront the consequences of the events of her youth. After leaving home at 16, Mary Alice never again spoke to her mother, Lavinia. The issues that caused the painful separation are raised once again when Lavinia dies and leaves her home to Claire, a niece who Mary Alice barely knows.

Claire comes to Virginia for the summer to explore the history of a family she has never known, and, in doing so, forces Mary Alice to revisit painful memories of lost love and family tragedy. The two women are radically different both in temperament and background, but they reveal in each other something surprising: the ability to change.

The novel is set in the fictional Harvey County, an approximation of Floyd County, Va., where Beard’s mother’s family is from. The novel draws on family stories, especially those the author heard as a child. Beard said invaluable material for the book came from “hanging out with my grandparents and my mom growing up in Virginia. Just all the stories they would tell - stories you’d hear about people going back generations.”

She began “Beneath the Pines” as a student in New York, and worked on it in various forms over a span of roughly six years in what she calls “a very convoluted process.”

The first 90 pages of the manuscript of the completed novel became Beard’s master’s thesis at The New School. The book was picked up by a small independent publishing house in New York, and before long Beard found herself at readings and book signings, suddenly a novelist.

Beard began writing fiction almost by default. She had originally pursued screenwriting, which was her field of study at NYU, and produced three feature-length screenplays that were never made into films. After graduating from NYU, Beard was sharing an apartment with fellow alumna Emily Ting, a filmmaker. “She came into our apartment one day and said, ‘I think we should really make a movie.’”

The result was the short film “One Night Stand,” which screened at film festivals across the country.

Working on such a small production allowed Beard to experience nearly every stage of filmmaking. After the associate producer dropped out, she took on that role in addition to her responsibilities as the writer, production designer and art director. “For me, it was so much fun,” she says, “I love movies, and I got to see it happening. For me, it was all new, and I was star-struck the whole time.”

Beard remains open to future work in filmmaking, and is tossing around ideas with Ting and other friends in the field. For the moment, though, she is balancing her work on her next novel with her job as an administrator at the Australian National University Gender Relations Center in Canberra, where she is currently living.

Beard’s next novel is set in Oak Ridge during the development of the Manhattan Project. “I’m almost finished,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of fun doing research here and dragging it all with me to Australia. I’m sure I’m on the FBI watch-list for Googling ‘how to build a calutron,’ ‘how to make an atomic bomb.’”

This book, too, includes observations gleaned from the rich garners of local lore, including some that came up at a Floyd County reading of “Beneath the Pines,” when the crowd began tossing around stories about moonshiners. In the upcoming novel, “moonshine does make an appearance. I made sure to work that in” assures Beard, who confirms that there was indeed “illegal hooch” available to the scientists and workers on the Manhattan Project.

Beard writes about Appalachia with a great deal of familiarity and affection, and that is what makes “Beneath the Pines” a solid first novel. Janet Beard’s upcoming book will be a coming-of-age story, both for the young heroine and for the author as she finds her voice as a novelist.

“Beneath the Pines” is available on Amazon.com. Beard’s short film, “One Night Stand,” can be seen at http://www.atom.com/funny_videos/one_night_stand/.

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