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Author keeps long-held promise by writing Southern Gothic novel ‘Gradle Bird’

  • J.C. Sasser

Author keeps long-held promise by writing Southern Gothic novel ‘Gradle Bird’

03 Jul 2017

Writers are often told to write about what they know.

Jana Sasser, who writes under the name J.C. Sasser, not only writes about what she knows, she also makes it unusual, compelling and memorable. Her debut novel, “Gradle Bird,” was released June 15 by Koehler Books.

“I was born in Savannah and raised in Metter, Ga.,” Sasser says. “When I was 13 years old, my mother was the tax commissioner at the county courthouse. A lot of people would go visit her, just to talk.

“There was a man who went by the name E-5 who would talk to her. She came home and started telling me all kinds of interesting things he’d tell her.

“He said he was an undercover FBI agent, and told her how he wrestled in the Worldwide Wrestling Federation with Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik, all these off-the-wall things,” Sasser says. “He also went to share his music with her.”

The man, whose real name was Evans Miles, sometimes went by the title “the Lone Singer” and believed he was a country music star.

“He was a self-taught musician,” Sasser says. “He made the guitar he played.

“He brought her a cassette tape of him singing original songs, and I asked to listen to the tape. I went out and sat in her car and put the cassette into the tape deck and sat for two hours, listening to his music and his narration.

“He was talking to my mama like she was in the room,” Sasser says. “He was telling her how he hoped she liked the music and if she didn’t like the music, he could do better next time.”

‘Captivated’ by a character

Sasser was intrigued and decided she wanted to write a book about E-5.

“I was captivated by this man, his music and what he had to say,” she says. “I asked where he lived. I said I’m going to go visit him.”

Although she was only 13, Sasser drove her mother’s car to Miles’ house.

“In small towns, you learn to drive really early,” she says. “I found his house. He lived way out in the country in a one-room shack with no running water, no electricity.

“There was so much junk everywhere. I pulled up and knocked on his door.”

The two developed an unlikely, unusual friendship.

“He was probably in his 60s at the time,” Sasser says. “He definitely had a mental handicap. If diagnosed, it might be paranoid schizophrenia.

“He had an especially difficult time separating fact from fiction. In his mind, he had a grandiose idea of who he was.

“He really thought he was an FBI agent, he was a famous country star and he did wrestle with Hulk Hogan,” Sasser says. “He was also really concerned with people ambushing him or challenging him to duels.”

Miles’ paranoia was overwhelming at times.

“He was always on the lookout for someone to get after him,” Sasser says. “He always talked about people having bounties on him.

“He went undiagnosed and unmedicated,” she says. “His brain was constantly on fire.”

A joke gone bad

Despite Miles’ problems, he trusted Sasser.

“I would visit and take my tape recorder,” she says. “I’d interview him and ask all kinds of questions and I told him I was going to write a book about him. He trusted me and I trusted him.”

Sadly, there was some real-life basis to Miles’ fears.

“Because of the way he was, a lot of people would play jokes on him to fire him up,” Sasser says. “Some kids had him believing the high school principal was trying to steal his wife. They threw firecrackers at his house and left notes on his car.

“I was always afraid it would turn out in tragedy because he was armed and he was dangerous. Fortunately, it never happened.

“The novel ‘Gradle Bird’ explores the idea of a joke gone bad,” she says “I wanted to explore the complexity of human cruelty and why it’s in our nature to bully or pick on people who are different than we are.”

When she was 16, Sasser’s family moved to California.

“Evans and I remained in touch,” she says. “We wrote letters back and forth. I have all his letters still.

“He died of throat cancer in 2011. The last letter he wrote, he was telling me how he was thinking about canceling his cancer treatments.

“‘Who cares anyway?’ he said. ‘Jana, I hope you are still writing that book about me.’”

A promise kept

Twenty-nine years later, Sasser kept her promise.

“‘Gradle Bird’ is dedicated to my mother and the Lone Singer,” she says. “I really wanted to honor him in the novel.

“It’s interesting, because he was a musician, an amazing artist. He drew and he painted. He always had these dreams and ideas.”

In the novel, Gradle Bird, who is 16, has lived her whole life with her grandfather, Leonard, at a seedy motel and truck stop off Interstate 16 in Georgia. Things change when Leonard moves Gradle to a crumbling old house rumored to be haunted by the ghost of Ms. Annalee Spivey, where she finds a magical world that is much stranger and more dangerous than her former home.

She meets some unusual people: Sonny Joe Stitch, a Siamese fighting fish connoisseur overdosed on testosterone; a hobo named Ceif “Tadpole” Walker and a schizophrenic genius and musicman named D-5 Delvis Miles.

On July 7, Sasser will present a reading and signing of the book at E. Shaver, Bookseller.

“I’ll talk about the story behind the story,” she says. “The name ‘Gradle’ comes from a song by a band out of Athens called Widespread Panic.

“There’s a lyric in that song, ‘She doesn’t know she’s beautiful.’ I found it to be really poetic.

“I kept that lyric in my mind while writing Gradle Bird’s character,” Sasser says. “… A lot of people, especially those who grew up in small Southern towns, say, ‘I know these people, I grew up with these people.’”

Compared to real life

While the novel is fictional, there are obvious parallels between its story and Sasser’s life.

When she was 12, Sasser began working as a dishwasher, waitress and cook at a truck stop off I-16. She has also worked as an envelope licker, tortoise tagger, lifeguard, Senate page, model, editor, water polo coach, marine biologist, plant grower and software consultant.

Sasser lives in an old barn on Edisto Island, S.C., with her husband Thomas, their two sons, T.C. and Robert Esten, two dogs, Cro and Blue Moon June, a school of fighting fish and a flock of frenzied chickens.

“It is my first published novel, but my second novel written,” Sasser says. “I have the first sitting in a drawer. Maybe one day I’ll go back and rewrite that novel.

“At 13, I knew I wanted to write a book. But I never wanted to be a writer. It was always ‘write a book’ and there’s a big difference.

“In college, I studied biology and wanted go into environmental biology,” she says. “On the first day I spent in the lab, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

After college, one of Sasser’s friends became a pen pal.

“She’s the one who encouraged me to take a writing class,” Sasser says. “She said, ‘Jana, your letters are works of art.’

“I enrolled in a screenwriting class. That was over 20 years ago.

“I became completely addicted to the craft of writing,” she says. “I’ve been writing ever since and seriously writing for 20 years. This is how long it took to have something published.”

Gaining attention

The novel has been selected as a spring Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association and also has been chosen as a book of the month selection of the international Pulpwood Queens Book Club, the largest book club in the world.

Deep South Magazine chose the book for its 2017 summer reading list. “Gradle Bird” was shortlisted in the 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom novel competition and received rave reviews by critics who have compared Sasser to such authors as William Faulker, Harper Lee and Carson McCullers.

“Some exciting things have been happening with the book,” Sasser says. “We’re really excited about where it may go.

“It’s been overwhelming to a certain degree. Everybody who’s read the book loves the book.

“A lot of people have shared the book and left wonderful reviews about it,” she says. “It’s been positive, so positive.”

But also a bit discomfiting.

“I never had this type of individual attention,” Sasser says. “It’s a little bit uncomfortable.

Currently, Sasser is working on another novel.

“I’m working on technically my third book,” she says. “It’s a story about a 12-year-old girl named Hoot Tucker who has a pet coyote and walks with a cane.

“There is something wrong with her eyes. Right now, she’s the chief protagonist.

“The story takes place in Tatnall County along the Ohoopee River,” Sasser says. “I’m relying on her to take me on the path of a really good story.”


What: Book reading and signing for J.C. Sasser’s “Gradle Bird”

When: 5:30-7 p.m. July 7

Where: E. Shaver, Bookseller, 326 Bull St.

Cost: Free admission; books for sale