Kathleen Parrish retired from a career in nuclear engineering to revise and publish a manuscript written by her uncle, Herman Willis Logan, and pursue a second career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Instead, she’s now working on two historical fiction sequels to Second Son. Southern Woman explores the competing demands of family and career on a young woman determined to have it all. Southern Soldier captures the anger, bitterness, and struggle for redemption of a young soldier whose service in the Vietnam War leaves him broken and disabled.
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?
Kathleen Parrish: I began writing at Kansas State University while pursuing a degree in nuclear engineering. Narrative writing was a humanities elective, and I needed one, so I signed up. Professor Russell Laman, the author of Manifest Destiny, taught the course. Russ limited his class to 15 students, and I was the last student to make his final cut. Russ kept the class size small, so he could work with us individually. I took his class four times, twice for college credit and twice for the sheer joy of it. My writing was inspired by books by Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and J.R.R. Tolkien, especially Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
After graduation, I took an engineering position at Black & Veatch Consulting Engineers but continued writing science fiction and fantasy as time permitted. My husband and I eventually moved to a two-acre mini-ranch in Arizona, so I could work at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Over time, my engineering career became more demanding. I moved up to section leader, then to senior consulting engineer. More responsibility meant longer hours and more stress. I loved the work, but the hours and the commute took their toll. We had two young sons, two horses, two dogs, and a small flock of chickens to care for. There were years I had no time for anything that wasn’t job- or family-related, and I put my writing dreams aside.
I never thought of writing historical fiction until 2012, when my mother asked me to look at a manuscript her brother, my Uncle Willis, had written back in the ’60s. Then she asked if I would be willing to revise and get it published someday. The manuscript that eventually became Second Son was 610 pages. My uncle’s editors at Carlton Press wanted it cut to 320 pages, a massive undertaking back when most writing was still done on manual typewriters. Mom was gentle in her request but very persistent. I finally read the manuscript and realized a powerful, captivating story lay buried in the faded, xeroxed pages.
M.A.: What is your latest novel about? How would you describe it to potential readers?
K.P.: Second Son tells the story of Towanna Whitaker, a sharecropper’s son trapped in the cotton fields of 1938 Mississippi. Towanna’s dream of getting an education so he can “be somebody” is threatened by the demands of the harvest, daunting poverty, and a cruel betrayal when his ma abandons the family. When he gives up his education to take care of the house and care for his baby sister, ugly rumors spread through the town that he must be queer. Bullied and ostracized, Towanna finds solace in the friendship of Kathy, a shy, local girl, but their fledgling love is threatened when he’s drafted into the army and deployed to Europe during WW2. Trained as a combat medic, Towanna must face death, loss, and his deepest fears if he’s to survive the war and find his way home.
Second Son captures the lives of beautifully flawed characters struggling to survive in a pivotal time in American history, and embodies a realism and accuracy that historical fiction fans will find compelling. Uncle Willis poured his heart into this depiction of a life much like his own: a sharecropper’s son struggling under the poverty of the Great Depression; dealing with bullying, abandonment, and betrayal; giving up his education to take on adult responsibilities at fifteen, only to be taken from his family by the demands of World War II.
M.A.: What makes this book different?
K.P.: Second Son captures the realism and wonder of a young man’s coming of age in a time and culture that did not protect or prepare children for the demands of adulthood. Intimate and deeply personal, Second Son immerses the reader in the wonder of becoming sexually aware, the heartbreak of being abandoned, the terror of realizing how fragile life can be, and the saving grace of faith that can carry us through the darkest times. When the manuscript was initially written, it would have been classified as contemporary military fiction, Southern fiction, or family saga.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
K.P.: While in college, I submitted one of my SF short stories to Galaxy, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and finally to Analog magazine. In each case, the story made it to the senior editor, who sat on it for several weeks before ultimately rejecting the story. Instead of pink rejection slips, I received personal letters from Ed Ferman at Fantasy and Science Fiction and Ben Bova at Analog. Both said the story didn’t quite fit their needs, but they’d like to see more of my work.
I finally took Hunters of Iquo back to Russ Laman, who invited me to do a private reading for him and his wife. Halfway through the reading, he chuckled and asked me for the word count. That’s when I found out that a 25,000-word novella by a first-time writer simply didn’t fit the fiction magazine business model. I could cut the story to 8,000 words and resubmit it as a short story or expand it to 60,000 and market it as a novel. I set the story aside, but I’d learned a vital lesson about publishing. Know your market.
With Second Son, I considered self-publishing but decided to try traditional publishing once I had the manuscript under 100,000 words. I queried sixty-seven agents before submitting to Touchpoint Press, a regional publisher known for their Southern fiction. They accepted Second Son, and our agreement gives them a first look at the sequel, Southern Woman, which follows Towanna and his wife, Kathy, into the next chapter of their lives.
M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?
K.P.: Writing historical fiction lets me connect the past to the present and better understand the traditions and values that flow from one generation to the next. It also gives me an intimate sense of continuity and a connection with the people who came before me. I never realized I was rooted in second-generation sharecropper stock and that my uncle, mother, and aunt had picked cotton by hand and grown up in a house with no plumbing or electricity until I delved into the manuscript and started asking questions.
The challenges of writing historical fiction are very different from those of speculative fiction. Unlike creating science fiction or fantasy, I can’t simply invent the world in which the story occurs. I have to be true to the past. Historical accuracy is vital, right down to the sniper rifle Towanna uses to shoot down a German fighter plane or when cotton harvesting machinery first became available to small farmers in Mississippi.
M.A.: What is the research process like for you?
K.P.: I tend to go a little overboard. My process is heavily influenced by the accuracy required in my engineering work. People, places, technology, and events have to be woven into a seamless whole. Facts need to be checked and rechecked. A lot of credit goes to my critique partners, some of whom served in Korea or WW2 or whose own writing taught them hard-won lessons on research they’ve shared with others.
M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?
K.P.: Yes, I love to travel. My husband and I made a road trip in 2019 that took us through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This allowed me to research the people and places that make up the framework of Second Son, as well as the planned sequels, Southern Woman and Southern Soldier. I collected reference books, photographs, and personal stories along the way. The librarians at the Indianola Public Library let me browse their copy of Fevers, Floods, and Faith: A History of Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1844-1976. It’s long out of print and wasn’t allowed out of the library, but I was able to locate and purchase a copy through eBay.
Books, websites, blogs, and movies are all excellent sources of historical information. Traveling allows me to experience the settings and the culture I’m trying to portray.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
K.P.: Stephanie Storey, author of Oil and Marble, and Raphael, Painter in Rome, writes historical fiction with passion and accuracy. Stephanie brings the Renaissance alive and sweeps the reader into the lives of the luminaries of the day—Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. I met her at a writer’s conference in 2019, and she gave me an encouraging, one-on-one critique of the first three pages of Second Son.
Rick Adelmann, author of the MG&M Detective Agency Mysteries. Rick takes his readers into the jazz age and Hollywood’s golden age as if he lived it. A retired history major, Rick is an amazing fact-checker and critique partner, and I’m fortunate to know him.
Lois McMasters Bujold, author of The Vorkosigan and Chalion Series. Her protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, became something of a hero for me when I was battling depression. Her writing is clear and concise, her characters real, beautifully flawed, and very human.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
K.P.: Find a compelling subject, historical event, or era that you can connect to and study it for a while. Find a story that needs telling with fictional or historical characters who have wants, needs, and passions that will help drive your story forward. Rough out your plot and map how it intersects the historical events or era you’ve chosen. Then sit back and think: do I really want to do this? If it’s a yes, start writing. Find a critique group you can work with. All the best!
M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?
K.P.: I’d like to connect with them. I’m still building my author’s platform, and right now my website is being overhauled, but readers can find me on:
My website: https://www.kathleen-parrish.com
Facebook: Kathleen Parrish, Writer | Facebook
LinkedIn: Kathleen Parrish | LinkedIn