Karin Cecile Davidson’s Sybelia Drive traces the turbulent coming of age of Lulu, Rainey, and Saul in a Florida lake town rocked by the Vietnam War. Told through a multitude of voices, the novel weaves stories of absent fathers, detached mothers, rebellious children, and grieving neighbors, all reevaluating the lives they’ve made. Davidson’s debut explores universal themes of childhood, loss, and what it means to be a family through compelling characters and beautiful imagery.
Originally from the Gulf Coast, Davidson’s novel Sybelia Drive was published by Braddock Avenue Books in October 2020. Her awards include a collaborative Ohio Arts Council & Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown Residency, an Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency, a Studios of Key West Artist Residency, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, an Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the Waasmode Short Fiction Prize, and a Peter Taylor Fellowship. Her fiction has been shortlisted in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition, among many others. She has an MFA from Lesley University and is an Interviews Editor for Newfound Journal.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bailey Bujnosek: Quite a few of the chapters in Sybelia Drive were first published as short stories. Was there an exact moment when you realized they could be a novel? Or, that you were working towards a novel more than a short story collection?
Karin Cecile Davidson: The first story, written in 2006, was a Rainey story, which became the novel chapter, “Forever and a Day.” I was curious about what was up with Lulu, why she was so fierce. At that point, I didn’t know there would be a Lulu story or a Saul story, or stories for any of the other characters. Originally meant as character sketches, I started writing stories from other points of view to dig a little deeper, and these became fully developed stories, which in turn created more suspension and depth in the original story.
I realized that I was writing linked stories, so I went forward with that in mind—not at all intending for it to become novelistic. In grad school in 2008 at Lesley University, my advisor, Laurie Foos, asked me, ‘Karin, do you understand that you’re writing a novel?’ I really dug my heels in. I admitted that I didn’t want to write a novel. I wanted to write linked stories. And then I realized it was too late. I was actually at work on two novels. Laurie said, ‘Choose one.’ So I went ahead with what was originally Rainey’s story and ended up with this sea of voices, which eventually met with resistance from a lot of editors who wanted the book in one, two, or three voices. I felt I had to maintain this vision, that wartime is not a time for just a few voices, rather a time for an explosion of voices, because there are so many people with different opinions. So—long story short—it was meant to be a short story collection, and it ended up a novel.
BB: The novel starts out with the perspectives of children. Did you feel early on that there was a particular insight, or unspoken story, from that younger age group, and from the people who were left behind?
KCD: That was very intentional, in a lot of different ways. One of them being a safe decision. In handling the viewpoints of the three children all the way through early adulthood—since we spend ten years with the main characters, Lulu, Rainey, and Saul—I tried to focus in on how as a child, one accepts whatever comes, not necessarily understanding the accompanying emotions. When Lulu, for example, unpacks her father’s bag. Royal has been deployed and is taking off the next day, and LuLu’s thinking, mm-mm, you’re not going, and hides a pair of his socks, which becomes her talisman, her security that he’s going to come back. For her brother Saul, it’s different. This is very much the way it was back then. If you were a young man, you were going to have your number called eventually. He knew that was coming. And he’d already lost his own father, their mother’s first husband, a soldier who was very damaged. There was a lot of weight to living in that era, the nightly news a complete cinema into body counts. I wanted to speak to that through the lenses of these three characters.
Also, in thinking of all the other viewpoints the novel addresses, there is the fact that I’ve never been a soldier. I don’t know that world. I had to do a lot of research to get there. I spoke to a lot of veterans, and I grew up surrounded by young men who were returning from Vietnam. I was around fifteen or sixteen, when I met all these fellows who were not that much older than me, who were coming back. From a retrospective viewpoint, I remained curious about what was going on in the minds of these soldiers. And then I started thinking about it in terms of, what is it like for the people who are welcoming them home? Or not welcoming them home? Because there were a lot of different things going on—from peace protests against the war to the escalation of troops. The way that the nation dealt with returning soldiers from Vietnam was very different from the response to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
BB: I liked how you were so specific about the songs the characters were listening to, what was playing in the background of their coming of age. What was your process in selecting the songs and artists you mention, from Elton John to Eric Clapton to Cream, and even Elvis?
KCD: In the writing process, with each character, this music just came to me. I mean, I was around then. Different generations are attracted to different music. A lot of it has to do with what’s going on in your formative years.
It surprised me that Saul was so taken with Elton John. I thought, what? I just kind of went with it. It helped me address ideas of masculinity. Not just with Saul, but with other characters like Royal. Percy Sledge is somebody that Royal would listen to. There’s an allusion to that before he leaves for Vietnam in an intimate scene with Minnie.
To be honest, in thinking of the musicians you’ve listed, Elvis only comes up to reveal how much Rainey’s mother Eva dislikes him. Like Elvis, she’s performed in nightclubs, but more in the style of Sinatra, so there’s a generational nod there.
So yes, I did listen to a lot of music while I was writing this novel, which is not always the case when I’m drafting. I’m working on a new project that has to do with Gulf Coast music, and I find that I listen to the music and then put it away. Then I compose. But with Sybelia Drive I actually listened while writing. I had Elton John on repeat for Saul. Rainey also surprised me, because I didn’t realize she would be kind of a rocker. She’s got a crush on members of Cream who are pretty strung out. I mean, Ginger Baker, he was pretty wild. Lulu of course has The Beatles from the very beginning, as revealed by the title of the very first chapter, “Girl.”
BB: I saw from your bio that you’re from the Gulf Coast, and while looking up the book I learned that there’s a real Lake Sybelia Drive area of Florida. Have you ever been there?
KCD: I was born in central Florida. [The book’s setting of] Anna Clara is a fictional, more working-class version of a lake town in that area with waterfront homes and lakes connected by canals. My early years were there until a move to New Orleans. It was amazing to grow up in the sixties and the seventies in those two places. And maybe that’s why music is so important to me, too, because in New Orleans music was everywhere.
Sybelia Drive is an actual winding road that surrounds Lake Sybelia. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about Lake Sybelia in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and in many of her stories. I hadn’t read her work in a long, long time. Decades had gone by. One of my friends asked me, ‘You know that Zora Neale Hurston wrote about Lake Sybelia, right?’ There certainly are things that remain in the subconscious, as this place and name did with me. As far as place goes, I’m very familiar with that area of Florida. Place in this novel is grounded in reality. But the world that came out of the composing, the drafting, and the end result is totally different. It’s very, very fictional.
BB: What was your mindset when you were switching between perspectives? How did you balance giving each character a first-person voice and at the same time differentiating them?
KCD: I’d say a lot of it came in revision. I really focused on voice, each character’s diction and vocabulary, and the words on the page. I can’t even tell you how many times I revised the novel. Because at first I wrote it as stories, and then I rewrote it as a novel, and then, ten, twenty revisions later, I thought, ‘Okay, is it done now?’ But in one of the last three revisions, I concentrated on the language of each character: ‘Oh, Saul would not say that, that’s something that Lulu would say,’ or, ‘that’s something that Royal might say.’
With Minnie, she steals words from Royal, all military language, a glossary that he’s written in his letters from Vietnam. One of my readers said, ‘She can’t do that. That’s not her world.’ And I thought, ‘Well, yeah she can.’ Because, that’s who she is. She turns everything into acronyms and abbreviations. She’s fascinated with this otherworldly language. And she’s angry that Royal has enlisted. She never says it out loud, but she knows he’s beyond conscription age, and still, he enlists anyway. So stealing his words is part of her reaction.
Since there are so many perspectives and an expanse of ten years goes by, I stepped back, examined the language, and made sure that everything moved in the right direction. Lulu, Rainey, and Saul start out as children in the beginning of the novel, and by the end, they are young adults with different voices.
BB: Speaking of Royal in particular, with his chapter, “Rock Salt and Rabbit,” I found that the description of his adjusting to life back home felt very honest. I know you mentioned some of your research was talking to veterans. Were there any particular conversations that informed your writing of his experience?
KCD: I reached out to an online group of CAP [Combined Action Patrol] Marines about military rankings and maps, and the head of the group cc’d the entire group in his response. Dozens of veterans responded. It was so confusing and enlightening at the same time. A lot of them asked, ‘Why are you doing this? Who do you think you are?’—and everybody ‘replied all’, so you could see the whole conversation. One said, ‘Royal would never, ever, be a Lieutenant, because he’s an enlisted man. He would be a Sergeant.’ Another suggested writing the characters who served their country with respect to the kind of emotion they might have gone through.’ I felt I’d been given permission in the way he said, ‘Go ahead and tell the story, because it is an important story, and you’re approaching it from the home front, so just think about the emotion when you write about these guys.’ With all of that in mind, that’s how I went forward with Royal and Alan and James and even Titus.
Reading was also part of the research. An enormous number of nonfiction books, along with Tim O’Brien’s collection, The Things They Carried, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry, especially Dien Cai Dau. Writing from those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan was published while I was starting this project: Phil Klay, Brian Turner, and on the home front, Siobhan Fallon. Her story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, is phenomenal. There was a lot I could turn to as far as, what does it feel like to go through this shit?
BB: While I was reading, I found that a lot of present moments were stitched together with memories, the story overlapping on itself to tell these scenes. When you were writing, did you find yourself slipping from past to present as you wrote, or were these flashbacks added later?
KCD: For the most part, I allow time to flow in my writing. And with this novel, time depended on the character. Like with Minnie, when she’s in the kitchen and remembers a scene from her childhood. It seemed important to know more about her. And this seemed like the right place to do it. I have to watch myself because I can get in trouble with too much thinking and not enough action. But at that point, that’s where we were, so I just went with it.
There are a lot of introductory things happening in the first chapter with Lulu. She presents her world like, ‘Okay, get ready, this is what’s happening.’ Rather than just going straight into the scene at the lake, I felt we needed to know the bigger picture of what’s going on, and then we could have that moment with the kids at the lake, with their introductions. In this chapter we have the only moments with Alan, who in most of the novel appears in letters or in memory, another way of playing with time.
BB: In the Acknowledgments section, you list many war-related books that aided your writing, but I’m curious if there were any books that influenced the multi-perspective structure as well?
KCD: There are so many books that were influences. In the 80s I read a lot of Louise Erdrich, and Love Medicine definitely struck me. I didn’t understand it then—maybe because I was a very young writer—but what struck me about it deep down and stayed with me were the structural elements. The way she created the architecture of what seemed to me to be stories, but which I’d heard editors and publishers and people in the literary world refer to as a novel. With this in mind, I started looking at other novels: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the World.
Silber’s books have this multi-viewpoint structure and are simultaneously very novelistic, despite all of the very different linked narratives. Once you’ve finished a book by Joan Silber, you feel like it doesn’t really matter if you’ve read a novel or linked stories or whatever it is. Hopefully, this will be true for readers of Sybelia Drive—that this amazing multitude of viewpoints has come together as one single literary experience.
Sybelia Drive is available for purchase at Braddock Avenue Books.
Bailey Bujnosek is a writer from Southern California. Her essays, articles, and interviews can be found in Teen Vogue, Girls’ Life, The Adroit Journal, Uniquely Aligned, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a BA in English Literature at the University of California, San Diego.