Local author Sharyn McCrumb, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, is proving that sometimes the best tales, and the most unsettling, are based in reality.
McCrumb, an award winning, New York Times bestselling author, will debut her latest novel, “Prayers the Devil Answers,” at the Salem Museum, the first stop on a book tour that will take her all the way to Alaska, on Tuesday, May 10, at 7 p.m.
The title, based on an age-old saying, translates to the idea that everything good comes at a price. The novel, set in a nameless town in Kentucky in 1936 during the Great Depression, follows a sheriff’s widow, who, in desperate need of money to take care of her small children, is offered the sheriff’s job by coworkers who believe they can shield her from the job’s difficulties.
“The title refers to when you wish for something and you get it, but it is in a way that is unexpected, and not good,” McCrumb said. “I think it happens to everybody. People go on game shows just to discover that the taxes are more than the prize.”
The novel is inspired by a true story out of Tennessee, when female law enforcement officers were unheard of, and McCrumb said women were expected to take care of things at home. The main character’s world is flipped on in its head when she is confronted with the one sheriff’s duty her coworkers can’t protect her from: enacting the punishment of a condemned man.
“This is inspired by a true story, and set during an era when the man was supposed to be the bread winner,” McCrumb said. “Based on means that you follow the case as closely as you can to real life, and you don’t change the names. With this one, it is inspired by, because I took the bones of the story and I didn’t bother to make the people exactly who they were in life. I just took their situation.”
McCrumb said the idea for the novel first came to her about 10 years ago, but because of other projects, was postponed. She found that she couldn’t get it out of her head, and began research for the project.
“I just liked the idea. In the 1930s, no one expected a woman to do anything but wear an apron,” McCrumb said. “They gave her the job and thought they were just giving her charity, and suddenly, she has a task to do that they cannot prevent her from doing.”
McCrumb’s style of authorship is heavily based on research, something she learned from her early days working at her college newspaper, and which she said is often the most rewarding part of the process. Her research isn’t just confined to digging through documents, though. She makes a point to visit set locations, as well as consult with experts in the field. Research for her novels has taken her everywhere from death row to a NASCAR passenger seat.
She lives in Catawba, less than 100 miles from where her family settled in 1790, and where she is constantly inspired by the Blue Ridge Mountains. McCrumb said she incorporated bits and pieces of Virginia into the story as well. McAfee’s Knob makes an appearance in the book, though it is called by another name. McCrumb said that now that her family is grown and out of the house, she prefers to write during the mornings, challenging herself to write at least 500 words a day and editing her work piece by piece.
McCrumb is best known for her her novels “The Rosewood Casket,” and “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” which are New York Times bestsellers, as well as several others. She won the “Patricia Winn Award for Southern Fiction” from the Montgomery County Arts & Heritage Council of Clarksville, Tenn., in 2015.
“Even if you are doing just a complete departure from the actual facts, you have to research things like what people wore, current events, and what people would be talking about at the time,” she said of her process.
Soon, a play based on McCrumb’s novel, “The Ballad of Frankie Silver,” will debut in a North Carolina theatre. The novel, also based on a true story, follows the story of the first woman to ever be hanged for murder in North Carolina. She said that she was fascinated by the story, but never believed that the 19-year-old woman was guilty. She met with several officials to prove the woman’s innocence, walking each through the crime scene.
“Once you learn how to tell stories and how to be a writer, you probably get three or four ideas a week,” McCrumb said. “The books that you write are the ideas that won’t go away. They stay in your head, so you write them to get rid of them, so you can go on.”
McCrumb will speak at the event, as well as self-described “Appalachian woman” Peggy Shifflett, interim director of the museum. Books will be available for sale and a signing, with portions of the proceeds benefitting the Salem Museum and Historical Society. Admission is free, and no reservations are needed.