Tiffany is the author of more than 20 books. She is an artist, a poet, an animal lover. But today we are here to discuss her motivation for writing her latest book, On the Savage Side.
I have always lived by a river. The mirror of Appalachia, reflecting the hillsides and flowing behind the houses that raised me in Ohio. Those waters I walked in, chasing minnows and frogs, would one day become the same muddy brown waters that would carry the bodies of women in a crime that is now known as the Chillicothe Six. Though the victim count would eventually exceed that number, the name was given for the six women who disappeared first. Tameka Lynch, Tiffany Sayre, Charlotte Trego, Wanda Lemons, Timberly Claytor, and Shasta Himelrick.
Part of my research into this crime was to unearth the photographs of the female victims. One stood out to me. Though she was older than I’d last seen her, and her features had been altered by her drug use, I recognized the face, then the name. She was someone I had known when we were little girls. Having gone to school together, I remember her first day because she cried in class. The teacher had warned us beforehand about the new student. She was coming to our school because her mother had been killed in an automobile accident. The teacher explained that death can happen as suddenly as a car going down the road with a mother and young daughter inside it, and by the end of it, only the daughter survives. But how well?
As the new girl sat crying in the middle of class, I knew losing her mother was something she’d never get over.
After she’d gone missing, I discovered an interview her sister had given in which she spoke about how the loss of their mother had set her sibling on a path of destruction. I understood that, because I have never forgotten how hard and long she had cried in class all those years ago, not knowing then that her face would be among those victims of the still unsolved Chillicothe murders.
I grew up in both central and southern Ohio, in communities affected by drugs. I played with kids who were like Arc and Daff y,
the twin sisters in ON THE SAVAGE SIDE. Kids whose parents were addicts and kids who suffered under not only the strain of that, but the abuses that come with it, including the failures of the system. Kids who, in many cases, went on to have their own addictions like the characters in this book. As I reflected on the real-life victims who were murdered, I wanted to imagine who they might have been as they started out in life. I wanted the readers to age with Arc and Daff y to understand how those early years shaped them and planted the seeds that would eventually root themselves into the savage side.
While the characters in my novel are not based on the real-life victims, the story of violence was inspired by the crime. But more
than these women being victims, I wanted to write a story that captured the spirit of who they might have been.
I have known women like them in not only my community but in generations of my own family. In my previous book, BETTY, I wrote about my aunts Fraya and Flossie, who each struggled with substance abuse throughout their lives following their father Landon’s death. When I was a child, my mother Betty warned me not to drink or smoke because addiction was in my genes. I happened to be wearing a pair of Levis and I stuck my hands in my pockets, trying to find what she was talking about. I was too young to understand the difference between ‘genes’ and ‘jeans’.
In ON THE SAVAGE SIDE, the character of Aunt Clover expresses her desire to one day see the Mona Lisa. That was one of the last conversations I had with my aunt Fraya, when she spoke about wanting to see the painting, and knowing she never would. By that time, she was deep in the throes of an addiction to prescription pills.
I wonder what their lives would have been like had the choices been different?
While I had spent a lot of time in Chillicothe throughout my childhood, part of my research was visiting again the sites like the
paper mill, the motel and the river, where some of the women’s bodies had been recovered.
Chillicothe was the town next door. It was a town my mother did Christmas shopping in and I remember the brown paper bags of
yarn from the craft store, smelling of the cool winter air and road salt. Chillicothe itself smelled of rotten eggs and the fumes from the paper mill. As I was growing up, the notebook paper I wrote my stories on came from that mill. Chillicothe was a thread weaved into our lives. I’d watch the smoke churning up from the mill and imagine the large factory was a dragon, exhaling his smoky breath above all our heads.
The paper mill still sits like an old dragon on the edge of town, still exhaling a smoky breath up into the air. The Chillicothe Inn, a
motel some of the women frequented, is more rundown today than ever before. And then there is the river. When we think of rivers, we think of fish and snapping turtles and the ripples of a dropped rock. But when you know those same waters have carried a body, you can’t help but see the water as something different. As I stood on the overpass where one of the women’s shoes had
been found, neatly placed, before being taken in as evidence, I stared out at the dark brown water and wondered how cold it must have felt to each of them that final time.
It’s important that all victims’ stories are amplified, regardless of race, gender or class. When I first heard about the murders, there was a sense in the community that because the women were linked to addiction and prostitution that they were active participants in their death. In the book, I try to highlight that the women were mothers, sisters and daughters and that they mattered. That’s important to remember.
I think now of the river behind our house in southern Ohio. It flooded several times. Touched the house. Ruined the basement.
Brought the smell of mud and wet rock with it. Eventually, the waters receded and what was left were traces of sand and mud. Maybe a flood is just the ghosts reaching as far as they can toward home. Their voices collecting at the edge of the water. If we’re quiet enough, we will hear their names on the ripples.
Thank you Tiffany for sharing your response.