Tori Whitaker was 4 or 5 years old when she overheard snippets of a conversation among her older cousins about a long-buried family secret. She didn’t have the bandwidth to process the bombshell in real time, but the details haunted her into adulthood and raised numerous questions. How do tragedies strike in safe places? What happens when trusted hands inflict harm? Who suffers the consequences when a power imbalance exists between two people? Could what passed as standard operating procedure in maternity wards 60 years ago possibly pass muster today?
Whitaker, a longtime Atlantan, explores these themes in her debut novel, Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish — the story of a 90-year-old matriarch whose memories of a trauma are triggered by the news that she’s about to become a great-grandmother.
In anticipation of her virtual book talk at the Atlanta History Center on Monday (October 19), Whitaker spoke to ArtsATL about her fascination with multigenerational stories, finding her voice as a writer and what she regards as the greatest legacy a person can leave their descendants.
ArtsATL: You’ve worked in the marketing department of a national law firm for 21 years and only made a place for writing after you and your husband became empty-nesters. What planted the seed for writing?
Tori Whitaker: I have enjoyed writing since I was in the seventh grade. I was on the yearbook staff in high school, minored in English in college and knew in my 20s that I wanted to write a book someday. I started writing fiction 20 years ago, when my children went off to college. Millicent Glenn’s Last Wish is my third book, but the first to be published. I’ve been very tenacious.
ArtsATL: Your narrative unfolds over dual timelines and is told from multigenerational perspectives. Why does this structure interest you?
Whitaker: I love stories that shift between the past and present. Maybe that’s because my family had five living generations upon my birth and when my own grandchildren came along, my family had five living generations again. I set out to write about three generations of women, but it was not until the book was completed and sold that I realized five generations were covered: Millicent, her mother, her daughter and her granddaughter — who is pregnant. It’s sort of in my DNA and happened on the page naturally.
ArtsATL: Who is Millicent Glenn, and what is her wish?
Whitaker: Millie is a woman who wanted it all in the 1950s: home, family and career. But in that postwar period of the baby boom, society expected women to be fully homemakers so she struggled to conform to these expectations. She now blames herself when falling short, keeps it a secret and ultimately risks confiding in her 60-something daughter — with whom she has a tenuous relationship — and 30-something granddaughter in the hopes that they can forgive her. On a fundamental level, the book is about three generations of women and the love, loss, sacrifice and secrets that can bind them forever . . . or tear them apart. My greatest hope is that readers will come away more mindful of what we pass down to generations that come after us.
October book picks:
Each month, the BookMarks column features new reading suggestions from those in the literary world, from independent booksellers to authors to librarians.
Nature books are one of our specialties, and The Lost Spells by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris (Anansi International, 240 pages), the highly anticipated follow up to their 2018 masterpiece, The Lost Words, doesn’t disappoint. Perfect for lovers of nature art as well as language and poetry, The Lost Spells continues MacFarlane and Morris’ mission to “re-wild the lives of children and adults” by pairing Morris’ exquisite watercolor illustrations with MacFarlane’s poignant poetry of the natural world. This is going to be our go-to gift book recommendation for the season.
— Josh Niesse, owner, Hills & Hamlets Bookshop
Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press, 192 pages) hums with the energy of real women navigating complex lives. Reading these stories feels like sharing secrets with a dear friend or sitting up late listening to the stories told at the “grown-ups’ table” that aren’t meant for your ears. Mostly these are stories are about what it means to figure out who you are when no one, maybe not even God, is watching, and to decide for yourself whether that is freedom.
— Errol “E.R.” Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit arm of Charis Books and More
A Charis-sponsored author conversation with Deesha Philyaw is available HERE.
Never Turn Back (Crooked Lane Books, 280 pages) by Christopher Swann is one of those rare thrillers that has it all: characters I truly care about, unrelenting suspense, a propulsive plot and a surprise ending that actually surprised me. As I understand it, this is the beginning of a series, but you will find no smug cliffhangers here. Even so, I feel enough invested in Ethan, a well-intentioned teacher who is at the start of a promising romance when he becomes the prime suspect in a brutal murder, and his troubled, fascinating sister, Susannah, to be anxious for another installment.
— Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling novelist
Register here to hear Christopher Swann and Joshilyn Jackson in a virtual conversation on Wednesday (October 14).
I am really looking forward to seeing A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, 204 pages) hit shelves this October. This book explores the South through first-person narratives that will make you laugh, cry and possibly clench your fist in anger. Some of the writers I already knew — like Kiese Laymon, Regina Bradley and Soniah Kamal — while many were new to me, but all left me wanting more. These complex essays expose an American South that is both familiar and ever-shifting; that has evolved and remained stuck in old ways where cultural tensions simmer just below the surface. It is an honest portrait of this place we call home in all its complexities. I look forward to others reading this book and the interesting conversations we will share.
— Kate Whitman, vice president of Author Programs and Community Engagement at the Atlanta History Center
Register here to attend a virtual book talk with Cinelle Barnes, Devi Laskar and Natalia Sylvester on Thursday (October 15).
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