Clay McLeod Chapman On 'The Remaking'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Some stories are told over and over - new forms, new platforms for new generations - the stories that date back and are brought forward, steeped in history. Clay McLeod Chapman's new novel "The Remaking" takes the story of the murder of a mother and daughter in a small town in Virginia and brings it through genres and generations, from a campfire fable to an urban tale, a movie, then a remake and then a true crime podcast.
Clay McLeod Chapman, who's creator of "The Pumpkin Pie Show" and author of the short story collections and middle-grade novel series "Homeroom Headhunters," "Camp Cannibal" and "Academic Assassins," joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN: Thanks so much for having me.
SIMON: And this begins with an actual story - right? - the witch girl of Pilot's Knob.
CHAPMAN: True story, yeah, out in Kentucky. Basically, early - I think it was 1913, there was a mother and a daughter. And everybody in their small town believed that these two were witches. And these two women were burned at the stake. They were afraid of the little daughter because they assumed that she was a little bit more powerful than her mom. So mother is buried somewhere in the woods. And the little girl is buried in their own cemetery in consecrated ground in a steel-reinforced coffin under three bags' worth of concrete and gravel to keep her in the ground.
SIMON: What do you believe about that story?
CHAPMAN: Well, I believe a lot of people believe it. I - you know, at this point, you can go to the cemetery - Pilot's Knob Cemetery - and visit her grave. And they say if you go at midnight, you'll see the little witch girl of Pilot's Knob wandering about her grave. But don't take her hand if she offers it to you because she might drag you down underground with her. And I think that kind of like a black pearl. You know, this narrative just gets layered and layered until it becomes something completely different than what it actually began as.
SIMON: A man named Lee Ketchum hears the story as he comes of age. And he begins to feel a personal link to it, doesn't he?
CHAPMAN: Yeah. He was there as a boy. And essentially, he heard kind of the old coot from the town kind of tell this story around the campfire back in the '50s. And the story just takes root. And like a seed, it just kind of grows and grows and grows. And, you know, the older he gets, the more obsessed with it he becomes until he's at a point where he decides to make a film about it.
SIMON: Yeah. And so how does 9-year-old Amber Lynn Pendleton come into his life in the story?
CHAPMAN: I mean, it's basically the kind of - I don't want to say "Mommie Dearest," but there is that idea of, you know, a young child actress who has her whole future ahead of her, maybe a bit of a stage mother. But this is her big break into movie stardom. It's a low-budget, you know, B-horror-film for the drive-ins in the '70s. But getting cast in this role has more of a damning effect to her because not only is she now intertwined with these characters, but the characters are intertwined with her.
SIMON: And she begins to believe in this legend, right?
CHAPMAN: She does. She does.
SIMON: Amber has problems as an adult. She agrees to appear in a remake.
CHAPMAN: Yes. I think the remake becomes an opportunity for her to get to the bottom of what happened to her as a little child. She believes she saw something, something that she can't account for. And it has haunted her ever since.
SIMON: I made note of a line you have - what is a movie but a ghost in and of itself? Films are phantoms illuminated.
CHAPMAN: Yeah. I love movies. I just love the film-going experience, particularly going to see horror films. I mean, there's nothing more palpable than that experience of sitting in a movie theater and watching something onscreen and suddenly feeling yourself - you know, your heartbeat start to pick up and sweaty palms. Like, I just - I remember seeing my first horror film as a kid, and it has lingered with me ever since.
SIMON: You like this time of year - you know, Styrofoam gravestones and goblins and witches and stuff?
CHAPMAN: I love it.
SIMON: You have children?
CHAPMAN: Two - two boys. We've got one who just turned 7 and another that's about to turn 4.
SIMON: So they're trick-or-treating.
CHAPMAN: They're trick-or-treating. I'm trying hard to protect them from Daddy's writing at the moment. So they're not allowed to read anything of mine until they turn 16, 17, 18, 23.
SIMON: Well, that makes sense. I had a hard time with it myself, and I'm a lot older. Your novel suggests that witches are tired of having their stories appropriated.
SIMON: They want to tell their own stories.
CHAPMAN: I think, you know, women in general - like, why relegate it to witches? But I think with this specific story, yes, like, it's - I want to focus on this idea of the autre (ph), the male gaze, you know, suddenly kind of boxing these particular women in.
And, you know, time and time again, we take these stories, and we spin them out until they're no longer owned by the people who are kind of the source, the point of origin. And I think that goes into filmmaking, novel writing. I'm - my hands aren't clean here. There's blood on my hands.
SIMON: I was about to point out, I mean, this is clear source appropriation on your part.
CHAPMAN: Yeah, and I want to kind of own that. One of the biggest questions I asked writing this was, like, who owns these stories? Who gets to tell these stories? And that, in effect, you know, makes me ask, am I supposed to tell this story? But I think that is a part of the process of storytelling. Like, you have to take in account who's the person telling the story - so the person reading it, the person listening to it. Like, these are all a part of the storytelling experience.
SIMON: I don't want to give away the ending, but the last line - the very last line of your novel is something we deeply believe in here.
CHAPMAN: (Laughter) I know. I know. I...
SIMON: Could I get you just to give us the last line 'cause I don't think it's going to - I don't think it'll give away the ending.
CHAPMAN: All right. I'm flipping through the book now just to get to it, but, yes. Here we go.
(Reading) This podcast was produced by B-Side Studios with support from the Winners Foundation. Special thanks to Colin Zimmerman (ph), the Getty (ph) family and, most importantly, listeners like you.
SIMON: (Laughter) We believe in that.
SIMON: We believe in that here.
CHAPMAN: Yeah. So do the witches.
SIMON: Clay McLeod Chapman - his book, "The Remaking" - thank you so much for being with us.
CHAPMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.