My debut novel is coming out late in life and for me, that's right on time. I could not be happier.
I grew up in Galax, Virginia. Most of my stories are set in my beloved Blue Ridge Mountains, but South of Heaven takes place in the North Carolina Sandhills, in Carthage where my family’s roots run deep. Please know that the Carthage in South of Heaven was born from long ago visits to see my grandmothers, a Carthage formed from hazy childhood memories that have become more imaginary than real. If you know the real Carthage, I apologize for misplaced landmarks and fictitious churches.
After living all over over the South—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana—my husband, Lee, and I have settled back in Chapel Hill with our Springer Spaniel, Maggie. Nothing could be finer.
“Both deeply Southern and completely universal, South of Heaven is a spellbinding read concocted from the perfect combination of family secrets and generational shame as well as the healing light of reconciliation and acceptance. A beautiful debut from a voice that is as fun to read as she is gifted.”
Denton Loving, author of Crimes Against Birds
“An astute and stunning novel, I am fascinated by the mix of comedy and sorrow, delivered by a keenly observant writer. Fern's sweeping emotions will linger in your mind. Vivid with the cadences of a particular time and place--North Carolina in the 1990's—South of Heaven presents a dazzling comparison of fiery, idealized, long-ago love, versus the more complex experiences of love in middle age.”
Cary Holladay, author of Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella
“Wise and funny, Patti Meredith's story of love and possibility and emus is about coming to terms with life's twists and turns and finding bits of Heaven wherever you are. An enchanting debut from a natural-born storyteller, you'll laugh and cry and find your heart just a little bigger by the last page.”
Sonja Livingston, author of Ghostbread
“With an impeccable ear for dialogue, an artist's eye for detail, and deep understanding of the push and pull of family, Meredith gives us South of Heaven—a celebration of growth and survival when confronted by mistakes and denial and, ultimately, how people can be transformed by acceptance and the astonishing surprises we should all be looking for. A beautiful read!”
Darnell Arnoult, author of Sufficient Grace and Galaxie Wagon
"I had to reach to remember those first days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when that’s all anyone was talking about. And what it might have been like to work in a small town for the weekly newspaper, back when there was such a thing. The late 1990s. Before September 11. Before gay marriage. Before so much crazy that has happened since. But that’s where we meet the unforgettable Fern McQueen in Patti Meredith’s new novel, South of Heaven. It takes about 90 seconds to adjust to the times and then fall in love with Fern, her family and the world of Carthage, North Carolina. What a splendid, satisfying read! The story of the McQueen family gives us lessons in forgiveness, redemption, and transformation, for sure, even a few tips for getting rich quick. There are moments I laughed out loud, times that I worried and cried. But, mostly, when I finished, I wanted to get in the car and drive to Carthage and see if I could find anyone who ever knew these wonderful people. I wanted to eat a biscuit, write a letter to my uncle, and even go to church. And I found myself wondering just whatever happened to Zig Ziglar."
Donna Campbell, Producer/ Writer/Editor--
Readings & Book Clubs
In 1991, I found my dream job at the University of North Carolina Public Television. I had the honor of being a part of North Carolina People with William Friday. Mr. Friday loved writers and I got to walk his guests down the long hallway to the studio. Lee Smith. Doris Betts. Reynolds Price. I listened to them tell Mr. Friday about their latest books, and he’d always ask, “Where do these stories of yours come from?” Sitting in the studio behind the cameras, I’d take notes. I believed if I paid attention, one of them would divulge the secret that would help me find my own stories in the scribbled stops and starts I kept in ratty notebooks. When I walked Fred Chappell back to the lobby after his interview, I somehow found the courage to ask, “What does it take to be a writer?”
“It’s like plowing,” he said. “Behind a mule. One row at a time.”
I kept chasing after an answer. I wanted to believe somewhere, someone would say what I needed to hear. “Writing is an act of faith,” Darnell Arnoult said. “No part of the process is a waste of time. Just write.”
Cary Holladay taught me to ask, “Whose heart is breaking?”
Judy Goldman said, “Patti, writing is a war of attrition. Don’t attrish.”
What I didn't realize for a long, long time, was, I'd been given the answer in the very first workshop I ever took, a Duke Continuing Education class taught by Georgann Eubanks. One night Georgann wrote these words on a big white board: Discipline is remembering what you want.
I’ve kept that quote on my desk for years. I believe it’s the secret. This book is proof.
Time lingered more than passed in the Sandhills of North Carolina, where no ancient mountains or ocean tides marked the days. The Sandhills lay low, midway between. Flat land where, in summer, acres of lank-leafed tobacco flourished in spite of its fall from grace.
A venetian blind sagged over the front window of the Citizen-Times. Fern McQueen was careful with the tattered pull. Every morning she expected the string to unravel in her hand.
Across the way on the courthouse lawn, her son sat on a granite bench tucked beneath a white oak, a memorial to her husband, Mac, missing in action since the Vietnam War. Dean visited the bench most mornings before clocking in at Frank’s Garage. “We talk, Mama,” he said. “In my head.” Fern had tried to dissuade her son from telling people about these “talks,” knowing it only brought about more pity from the town of Carthage. But Dean was Dean. Her boy had no secrets.
Fern had never held out hope Mac would be found alive. She’d known he was gone, maybe even before the earnest men in stiff uniforms said missing in action. That was twenty-six years ago.
A woman whose husband had been lost on the same mission as Mac recently sent Fern a letter claiming to know about an excavation site in Laos. She said news would be coming soon. Fern had gotten other letters through the years from groups asking her to sign petitions, join their efforts. She never had. Fern believed Mac going missing was a misery dealt by the hand of God. A misery she’d brought upon herself. She’d thrown all the letters away.
With the dogwoods declaring spring, tired Christmas lights still dangled from worn cords along the flat roofline of Moore County’s sandstone courthouse. The lights remained year-round, being too much trouble to take down and put back up. Surely the strands had been replaced, but in Fern’s mind, they were the same ones that glowed red and green years ago on that snowy December night that changed everything.
It was as if every way she turned, a monument stood to all she could not undo.
Fern stepped back from the window so as not to be seen by other early risers making their way to work. She knew plenty in town thought her standoffish, but she was mostly only wary of attention.
She fiddled with the tortoiseshell clip slipping from her hair. Forty-six was too old for a ponytail. Too old for hair that fell halfway down her back. But Fern had never gotten around to cutting it. Premature gray sneaked through the black like an omen. Soon she would wind her hair in a bun, declare herself a crone, and be done with it.
She settled into her unsteady chair that was more apt to tilt than swivel. She felt a strain in her wrist when she typed at her shiny new IBM computer, reminding her that despite the idle nature of time, change could come. She’d refused the sleek metal furniture sent over from the home office in Southern Pines. “Come on, lady, get with it. It’s 1998,” the delivery man had said.
“I’m not trading solid wood for that,” she’d told him.
Her new boss, a boy nearly half her age and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, had instigated the upgrade. The Carthage bureau for the Citizen-Times was a two-person operation, and his side of the room reminded Fern of a spaceship cockpit with that chrome-legged desk and black mesh chair she wouldn’t trust. Her great-grandfather had built this building across from the courthouse for a dry goods store, and to her relief, the pine floors, tin-tile ceiling, and what she couldn’t help but believe was the scent of her grandmother’s rosewater perfume overcame Robert Clayton Yarborough II’s vision for the future.
Fern lit a Salem Light. Robert was an occasional smoker, and without discussion they had struck a bargain to break company rules. Another of his positive qualities was he rarely showed up before ten o’clock, giving Fern plenty of uninterrupted thinking time. She’d been worried when her old boss retired, but Robert had turned out to be fairly entertaining. She’d never seen anyone get so excited over a school board meeting, even though he had yet to remember exactly when and where the meetings were held. “Job security,” she told her best friend, Carol Ann. “He may have a high-priced diploma, but I’ve got sense enough to use a calendar.”
She found her daily e-mail from Thompson Funeral Home to get a start on the obituaries. Eileen Robinson. Good riddance. Eileen had been one of her daddy’s high school girlfriends and hadn’t liked it one bit when he eloped with Matilda Moore from Red Springs. Fern suspected Eileen had made it her mission to spread the worst gossip about her parents, not that either of them ever missed a chance to cause a scene.
Now gossip sold newspapers. Even the front page of the Citizen-Times featured a picture of President Clinton and that pretty intern. Stories about the President’s alleged affairs printed in black and white on the front page rattled Fern. That kind of mess had been going on since the beginning of time. How come reporters wanted to talk about it all of a sudden? Robert maintained revealing the scandal “broke new ground for freedom of speech and ushered in a new era of accountability.”
She’d asked him if he was familiar with the National Enquirer.
“We’re talking about the truth, Fern,” he’d said. “Everybody knows he’s a hound dog. I can’t believe you’re defending him.”
It wasn’t the hound dog she was defending. She pitied the girl, her dalliance in twenty-four-point font for all to see. Fern recognized innocence in her young starstruck brown eyes. Innocence and need. A cruel combination. Fern knew how a young mistake could mark a life.
The bell over the front door jangled and a broad-shouldered man in a light gray suit stepped inside. His smile made it seem like they already shared a joke. “Too early?”
Fern covered her ashtray with yesterday’s paper. No need to flaunt a bad habit. “A little, but come on in.” She believed in dressing for comfort, and it wasn’t like her to judge, but she thought the man’s suit would benefit from a steam iron.
He reached out a hand when she came from behind her desk. “Roy Puckett, pastor at New Hope Methodist.”
She’d seen him at his mailbox. “Fern McQueen. I live across the road from you.” To her way of thinking, preachers were all a bunch of hypocrites, but Roy Puckett’s round innocent face and curly brown hair hindered her cynical side.
“Barrett House. I read the historical marker.” His accent confirmed the church’s claim he came from Charleston. A widower with a young daughter, the press release said. Fern lived with her eighty-year-old aunt, and there was a time Belle would have insisted on carrying her new neighbors a cake, but with her aunt’s mind slipping, those days were gone.
As tall as he was, Fern stood eye-to-eye with the preacher. “My sister Leona says if we don’t paint soon the preservation people are going to take back their sign.”
“Looks fine to me. I don’t care to see the old places all shined up. It’s unnatural.” He held out an envelope. “My Faith Corner column. You probably prefer what I believe they call a floppy disc, but I’m having trouble with my computer.” He looked up at the ceiling, then back to her. “It’s not entirely the computer’s fault. Truth is, I’m still in the dark ages.”
“You’ll be right at home around here,” Fern said. “I feel lucky not to get these things on stone slabs.”
He didn’t hesitate to laugh, and she was grateful. “We rotate through all the denominations. The Presbyterians are coming up. I’ll slip yours in next Friday’s paper.”
“Thanks,” Roy said. “The deacons weren’t too happy I missed the deadline.”
“You’re new. Folks need to cut you some slack,” Fern said. “Of course, that’s not what church people are known for.”
Roy’s eyebrows shot up and a hot flash crept across Fern’s chest. “Sorry,” she said, flapping the neck of her blouse. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. All my people are buried at New Hope. My family used to be members until my aunt riled them up with her politics. Come to think of it, I guess the riling went both ways.” Fern let out a nervous laugh, pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and dabbed sweat from her upper lip. “It was a mutual riling.”
“Oh, that’s the best kind,” the preacher said, nodding.
“Nothing like a good old mutual riling among church folks.” It took Fern a second to realize he was joking. She laughed.
“Sorry,” he said. “But here’s the thing. You’ve got to give the church another chance because if I can’t even talk my neighbor into a pew, the congregation’s going to think they got a dud.”
“I’ll think about it.” Fern gave him a big smile to balance her lie.
“Good,” Roy said. “Maybe we can rile them up together.” “Oh, I guarantee it,” Fern said.
He checked his watch. “I better run. I have a deacons’ meeting, and a conference with my daughter’s teacher before that. You know Mildred Blevins?”
“Oh, yes.” Fern followed him to the door. “Mildred must be a hundred years old. They can’t make her retire.”
“Well, she’s threatened to if Hannah doesn’t shape up.”
Despite his chuckle, Fern sensed worry. “How old is your daughter?”
“Twelve going on twenty,” he said.
“Bring her over for a visit. My Aunt Belle taught for years.
She prefers rowdy children.”
“I will. Thank you.” He reached to open the door.
“Belle has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s,” Fern said, “but she has more good days than bad.”
Roy turned around. “I’m sorry. It’s a mean disease.” He went for the door a second time.
“She quit teaching to homeschool my son, Dean, when he got expelled. In third grade.”
Roy cocked his head. “Expelled?”
“He was a nervous child. He’s doing fine now. Works down at Frank’s Garage. He lives with us.”
“Well, that’s good,” Roy said. He stood stone still.
Fern, embarrassed by her sudden revelations, saw he was waiting to see if she had more to confess. “You’d better get to your meeting.”
This time Roy reached for the door just as it swung open.
Carol Ann gave him the once over. “Well, good morning.”
Best friends since church kindergarten, Fern and Carol Ann gave credence to the platitude opposites attract. Carol Ann didn’t wear a thing that wasn’t fitted to her five-foot-four-inch frame. Tight skirts and blouses dealt with her excess curves the best they could. And while Fern wrapped her long graying hair in a loose twist that never quite stayed put, Carol Ann kept her cropped blonde ’do in a swirl of highlights and lowlights. While Carol Ann fought age tooth and nail with cosmetic dentistry and weekly manicures, Fern claimed pleasure in not giving a damn. “If I had those cheek bones, I’d be queen of a small country,” Carol Ann would say.
“Carol Ann Kelley, meet Roy Puckett, the new minister at New Hope.” Fern emphasized minister.
Carol Ann’s gold bracelets rattled as she held out a hand to Roy. “Don’t run off. I bet she didn’t even offer you a cup of coffee.”
“I better go,” he said. “I’ll be late getting to the deacons meeting, and you know how church people are.” He winked at Fern. “Nice meeting you both.”
They watched him pass by the front window.
“Did that preacher just wink at you?” Carol Ann said.
Fern tossed Roy’s envelope on her desk, yanked the clip from her hot head of hair and let it fall around her shoulders. Carol Ann followed Fern into the kitchenette, heels tapping across the wood floor. Fern knew her friend expected coffee with two Sweet’N Lows, ASAP. Fern thought Carol Ann’s name ought to be ASAP.
“He’s just being friendly. You know how they act when they’re trying to get you to church. He sure did get me talking, though. And laughing. Not sure what that was about. Must be some new preacher trick.”
“Bet he’s fun in the sack,” Carol Ann said. “Big men always are.”
“Is that all you think about?”
“When I’m not thinking about commission checks.” Carol Ann found her favorite mug, the one stamped with her real estate company’s logo.
Fern scooped Folgers into a filter.
“I still think you ought to see a head doctor,” Carol Ann said. “Celibacy has thrown you straight into early menopause.”
“Yeah, but don’t the hot flashes make my cheeks rosy?”
She waited for a laugh, but Carol Ann bit her lower lip, a sign of serious news.
“What have you done now?” Fern folded her arms. Between husbands, her friend was inclined to get into some real fixes with well-off retirees who flocked to the Sandhills for golf. Fern was about to reprise her speech about the pitfalls of married men.
Carol Ann leaned against the counter. “Guess who I saw at the country club?”
“Who?” Fern couldn’t help but be curious about Carol Ann’s latest downfall. “Doyle Blue.” Fern steadied herself.
“He’s left his daddy-in-law’s construction business in Charlotte and moved back here to start his own company. He and Martha are getting a divorce and he’s living in his parent’s old place.” Carol Ann lifted the pot and poured all that was ready into her mug. The still-dripping coffee sizzled and spat on the hot burner. “He ordered tonic with lime, so you know he’s on the wagon. And, yes, he asked about you. I told him you were running the Citizen-Times and hadn’t aged a bit.”
As the owner of Kelley Real Estate, Carol Ann was a master of exaggeration, but Fern believed her embellishment only shone light on the pitiful truth.
“Maybe it wouldn’t hurt if the two of you had a heart-toheart.” Carol Ann took a sip of coffee.
“Doyle Blue’s heart. Now there’s a quandary.” Fern filled her mug.
“I’ve got to get to the courthouse and pick up an escrow check.” Carol Ann looked around for her purse. “Honey, don’t fret. Doyle will be back in Charlotte before the gnats get bad. City people forget about summertime in the Sandhills. The humidity alone has cost me a fortune.” She pulled out her lipstick and reapplied. “I mean it, don’t get all worked up, okay? I just didn’t want you to run into him without warning.”
“How does he look?”
Carol Ann popped her lips to even out the cherry red. “He looks good. Real good.”
“You didn’t …”
“Good Lord, how can you think such a thing? But speaking of, tell Robert I’m sorry I missed him.”
“Don’t start,” Fern said. “You’re old enough to be his mother’s older sister.” Carol Ann’s crush on Fern’s boy-boss was more than she could handle, and she’d handled her fair share of Carol Ann crushes.
Fern went to the door for one last wave and spotted her son’s jeep down at the garage. Did Doyle Blue ever think about Dean?
She tried to get her mind on what she needed to do before Robert came crashing in asking about weekend deadlines, the Sheriff’s race, and everything else he ought to already know, but instead, back at her desk, she reached for Roy Puckett’s envelope and unfolded the yellow legal pad pages. His careful handwriting reminded her of a child’s, one trying very hard to be understood.
Roy’s words weren’t what she’d expected. He admitted feeling like a failure as a single parent to his twelve-year-old daughter. Fern felt a twinge of guilt. Although she held no nostalgia for the false front of southern hospitality, she should have taken them a meal or at the very least, a plate of cookies. It wouldn’t have hurt her to show kindness to a child. She remembered how lost she’d felt when Dean was coming up without a father.
But it was Roy’s confession at the end that surprised her the most. He claimed losing his wife to cancer shook his faith.
Well, what do you know? An honest preacher.
Fern was unaccustomed to truth confessed. She handled Carthage’s social news. Births and graduations, weddings, and anniversaries. The obits. Milestones polished up to shine. She’d often imagined slipping in the tarnished tales, believing the falls from grace truly marked a life. Who could recall a single thing Adam and Eve did before that apple got picked?
Unwilling to deceive you in any way. She’d never heard of a preacher questioning God and doubted his revelation would go over well with the congregation. He was liable to get run out of town. People professed to admire honesty, but she’d witnessed very little mercy, especially among those who prayed the loudest.
She leaned back into the chair cushion worn to fit her frame. A spindly spider dropped down, suspended in mid-air beside her computer screen. Its body not as big as the head of a straight pin. Fern figured it was a girl spider, being so delicate. She walked over to the edge and stepped off. A thread of silk caught the light. Down she went, and then up she crawled, up and down. When she finally found the floor, her brown body disappeared against the wood.
Fern knew all about dropping into the unknown. How it felt to dangle, crawl, and search for something to hold onto when all you had was the fragile thread you’d spun.
Lies, she thought. The thinnest thread of all.
South of Heaven takes place in 1998. What struck you about being back in that time?
Fern watches the town from her window at the newspaper office. What role does the town play in her story?
Should Fern have told Dean the truth from the beginning?
Is there ever a good reason to lie?
If you could have a long lunch with one of the characters, which one would be? Why?
6. What surprised you about the story?
7. What made you mad? Sad? Uncomfortable?
8. What does it mean to be South of Heaven?
9. Were you surprised that Roy questioned his faith?
10. Dean wants to prove he can be a “businessman” by starting an emu farm. What’s Dean looking for?
11. The novel raises social and moral issues. Do you think people’s beliefs can change depending on their own experience?
12. Throughout our lives, we make choices. How often do we consider the consequences?
13. Fern and Leona are estranged at the beginning. What complicates sibling relationships?
14. There’s a saying, “You are not the worst mistake you ever made.” Do you agree?
15. Have you ever let “what people think” determine your actions?
16. Carol Ann and Fern are very different. What makes them such great friends?
17. What’s your favorite moment in the book?
18. Were you surprised that Fern and Doyle made peace?
19. What do you think happens with Fern and Leona in the future? Doyle and Dean?
20. If you could change one thing about the story, what would it be?