August 13, 2013

Guest Post: Jo-Ann Costa's The Bequest of Big Daddy

Please welcome Jo-Ann Costa as part of the virtual tour for her novel, The Bequest of Big Daddy.


First, I wish to express my appreciation to my hosts for having me as a guest on Historical Fiction Connection. Thank you, ladies, you provide a wonderful service to authors and readers alike.

And now for Big Daddy.

As the name implies, a name such as this should belong to a large man, if not in actual stature, then in reputation. In the South, however, grandfathers of all sizes and personalities are often called Big Daddy. It’s just a Southern thing.

The man I write about is formidable. Some might even say ruthless. Big Daddy begins his life as Horatio Gage Janson, called Ratio for short. His beautiful mother never wanted him, so as a child, he is left to his own devices. The result is catastrophic and Ratio Janson is shaped into something more monstrous than he could ever have imagined.

On his wedding day, as seen in the old photograph, Ratio is already the product of a lifetime of being unloved and unwanted. By now he is feared and on the run from a terrible past. His marriage is simply one of economic expedience.

So what is a bequest and why is it important to the story I tell in The Bequest of Big Daddy?

To set the scene, I’m interested in family history and how certain patterns of behavior and beliefs are handed down from generation to generation – “bequests” of sorts. I was always fascinated with the tales I’d heard about my own family’s “Big Daddy” and I studied my family history looking for similarities. Our family’s Big Daddy was a rascal I once met as a small child, a hard man who scratched from nothing, a legacy to leave his children. Along the way, a man was killed, children were born out of wedlock, women were used up and back alley deals were sealed. And along the way, this man’s great-granddaughter, who is me, was inspired to write a book about a much worse man, with an incredibly sordid past.

History. What we make of history comes from what we read, what has been documented and what we imagine might have happened. Since I am a daughter of the Deep South, my particular interest springs from my heritage. In The Bequest of Big Daddy, I explore the people from Appalachia, people who came down from the mountains into Alabama and Georgia, bringing with them customs and beliefs from their native lands of Scotland, England and Ireland. Some of these people eventually became planter-class, slave-holding families, but most were poor people who worked the land along side of the slaves. My main character, Big Daddy, is from the planter class and his is the story of how the American Civil War wiped out his entire family and the feudal system they controlled. It is, above all else, a commentary in story form that touches upon the social, political and racial issues of the mid-eighteen hundreds as told through the life of one man, who lived until the mid-twentieth century.

You might wonder: Is Jo-Ann telling a story about her own family? Is the little girl character shown in the photo, who is named Jo-Dee Janson, really the author Jo-Ann Costa? Well, I’ll leave that for you to decide. But I will tell you this much. I took a few facts inspired by my great-grandfather’s life and sprinkled them among a whole lot of fiction. But wondering is part of the fun, isn’t it?

Let me share a “pitch” I once used at a Writers’ Conference when I discovered that a popular agent from New York was riding in the same elevator with me.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Jo-Ann Costa. I’ve written a book of historical fiction spanning over one-hundred years. The Bequest of Big Daddy is about a big, nasty secret kept for generations until a descendant of my main character discovers the truth about her legendary kin.”

The agent smiled an insincere smile. “Thank you for that,” she muttered before hurrying out at the next stop.

This was but one of my first rejections. There were many more to come. And so, as I refined my pitch, I also learned to pick my shots.

When my book won a Paul Gillette Award in a national writing contest, agents and editors were suddenly interested in The Bequest of Big Daddy. To shorten this part of the story, my book was released in April of this year to critical acclaim. Now I say critical acclaim as though I expected the praise, but that is not the way I felt. What really happened to me was this: I had a Sally Field moment, when she said in disbelief, “You like me, you really like me,” while accepting her Academy Award. When the long-awaited praise finally arrived for my work, I was just as relieved and grateful as Ms. Field. I still am, for we writers are unsung artists who labor alone, with little or no encouragement until…God smiles.

You see, no matter how good our writing may be, when an author “debuts” it’s a nerve-wracking time. Her/his heart and soul have gone into the work and hundreds of hours have been dedicated to its birth and readiness for the public. Much like a painting, a beautiful quilt, a sculpture or any other work of art, a book is a creation. Books have supporters and detractors. Still, we write, paint, sew and sculpt because we must. To date, I have been honored with kind accolades for my writing, but these are gifts from generous others; not my birthright.

On an author tour in April, I could easily have started another book about my experiences while touring the South. As I drove from venue to venue, promoting The Bequest of Big Daddy, I spent hours on the road with myself and the radio as my only companions. As I often do, I thought about the past more than I did the present.

In the land of my forebears, the land from which that wellspring of inspiration erupts in my head for most of my waking hours and as often comes to me in dreams, I felt as though I’d come home. And although I was a woman on a mission facing a forced-march schedule, powerful feelings materialized along the way…lessons learned, dĂ©nouements, memories, and a longing for what was.

In Memphis, the ghosts of the past were palatable in the old buildings along the river’s waterfront and in Birmingham, Alabama, the emblematic Sloss Furnace Company reminded me of past trips into BHM Airport to visit my people further south.

When I arrived in a driving thunderstorm in Nashville, Tennessee for an interview with the celebrated John Seigenthaler on NPR’s “A Word on Words,” lightning arced across the darkening sky, frightening and seemingly predatory. A confession: I have always been terrified of lightning. As a child, I was lost in such a storm and took shelter in the stairwell of a massive brick church. Since then, for me, lightning has always been the devil in disguise.

Safe inside the television studios on this new day, I was greeted by a receptionist, who soon assured me that I was blessed by God during that long-ago event and because of this, I need not fear anything, least of all, lightning. And yes, there were Scriptural references woven into the woman’s declaration, which made her revelations all the more intriguing. We shared a cup of strong coffee as she went about her work, continuing to talk to me in that soft, entrancing voice of hers, soothing, yet firm in its convictions. I listened and exchanged opinions until the fabled Mr. Seigenthaler arrived. The interview, which aired on Nashville’s Public Television the end of July, is an opportunity to showcase my work that only John Seigenthaler could accomplish on my behalf. But the receptionist? She exorcized the lightning.

Another ghost of the past appeared in Montgomery, Alabama. As I returned from my television appearance, a small group of African-American women were waiting in the lobby. One of them was wearing a plastic gold crown and a banner across her chest. The women gathered around me, congratulating me on my interview, making me feel like a minor celebrity. I turned to the woman wearing the crown and asked if I was in the presence of Royalty. “Yes,” the woman answered. She had been crowned queen of an event to raise money for underprivileged children. As I left for another city, I thought how proud the ladies were of their accomplishments in the name of helping others and how far the city of Montgomery had come since the setting and time of my book.

This close to my people, and to my father’s grave, I could not steal time to drive to Selma for a short visit. This saddened me for other ghosts of good times dwelt there. Drinking Margaritas on Daddy’s back porch while listening to the night sounds from his swamp, watching Daddy’s foxes come up from the swamp for their evening feeding, sitting at Daddy’s dinner table eating biscuits and sausage, hearing his tales about dead folks, listening to his steady snore coming from the other bedroom, getting ready for the Fourth of July family reunion…all lovely ghosts of the past I deeply miss.

Coming full circle back to Memphis, I stopped in Oxford, Mississippi for a stage reading to kick off the Double Decker Festival on Thacker Mountain Radio and sign books at the famous Square Books. Driving along the Natchez Trace in spring time one would not guess that bloody Civil War battles had once been fought in the area. The countryside seemed so peaceful, so Southern—so at home with both history and the present. The land never changes.

It’s America. Still the best land I know. And in America, people can write what they need to write and speak what’s on their minds. Perhaps this is the most precious “bequest” of all. Thank you for reading my post and I hope you will enjoy reading The Bequest of Big Daddy.

About the book
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Koehler Books
Paperback; 280p
ISBN: 978-1-938467-27-1

Ratio Janson is the crusty patriarch with an infamous background and a hair-trigger temper, reverently referred to as Big Daddy by his family clan. His feisty great-granddaughter, Jo-Dee, overhears shocking gossip at Big Daddy's funeral and is determined to plumb his murky past, spanning the Civil War, Reconstruction and forging head-on into the twentieth century.

From a vast turpentine industry to the ruins of a decaying plantation with its feudal order a memory, Jo-Dee explores the complex nature of family and self, only to make a startling discovery. Will she betray her great-grandfather and disgrace the family name, or will she preserve his shameful secret? And on the ancient grounds of the family mansion destroyed in the Civil War, will Big Daddy's spirit claim her even from the grave?

“Costa’s expressive voice effortlessly guides the compelling story… Costa’s debut novel tells the engaging story of a man whose tumultuous life provides an even greater tale than the grand myths that surround him.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Anyone who enjoys Southern fiction or picaresque novels will love this one!” — Lisa Alther, Author of four New York Times bestsellers

“All families have secrets, some darker than others. In her richly imagined debut novel, Jo-Ann Costa explores the impact of one family’s secret down through the decades and generations. The Bequest of Big Daddy marks the arrival of a fresh new voice in Southern literature.” — Will Allison, Author of the New York Times bestseller Long Drive Home.

“Ms. Costa writes like she was born to the craft. Wonderful storytelling and memorable characters you won’t soon forget. Big Daddy is not just any character—he gets into your head and refuses to budge.” — Hillel Black, former Publishing Executive and Editor of twenty New York Times bestsellers

Jo-Ann Costa’s Bequest is part gothic, part adventure, part mystery and wholly satisfying. Move over Tennessee Williams, there is a new Big Daddy in town.” — Claire Matturro, Award-winning author of three bestsellers

“Costa is a skilled storyteller who draws the reader into the Southern world.” — The Durango Herald

“On a scale of one to five I would easily give this one a six, because it’s just that good!” — WV Stitcher, Blogger

About the author
Jo-Ann Costa studied her craft at the knees of her clannish Alabama kin, who are among the most accomplished at fabricating outlandish tales. Thus trained as a storyteller, Ms. Costa honed her compelling voice while serving in executive roles for a mega-corporation founded by the late Howard Hughes.

Along with the wildlife, Ms. Costa now makes her home at the edge of Colorado's Weminuche wilderness, where she writes historical fiction and mysteries. She is a graduate of California State University, the University of Southern California's Managerial Policy Institute, Leadership Southern California and the Public Affairs Institute. She also studied at the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program.

The Bequest of Big Daddy is the first book in her epic saga, Longleaf Legacy.

Visit the other tours for more guest posts, reviews and giveaways - HFVBT TOUR SCHEDULE
Follow the tour on Twitter - #BigDaddyTour

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