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Background for Bells for Eli

Here I am—after teaching literature and composition to thousands of high school and college students for umpteen years in upstate South Carolina—the author of a debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press, March 2020). What I wanted for my students—to see literature as a mirror of who we are—is what I hope readers will discover in my novel. No matter who you are, when or where you were born, or how you live—I hope the lives of Delia and Eli and those connected to them will speak to you.


My novel is inspired by an incident that actually happened to a first cousin when he was very young, on his second birthday. As is the case in the novel with my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield, my cousin saw a Coca-Cola bottle sitting on the porch steps at his home and drank from it. Instead of Coke, though, the bottle was filled with Red Devil Lye, a chemical with properties like helium. As the story was told to me, my uncle had been placing balloons over the neck of the bottle to inflate them for the birthday party. Like Eli, my cousin survived the accident, but his life was forever changed.


Unlike Eli’s cousin Adeline (Delia) Green, I did not grow up in the same town as my cousin, and most of what I know of his challenging childhood came to me second hand long after my childhood. My novel is an imagining of Eli and Delia growing up across the street from each other in a small Southern town in the 60’s and early 70’s, developing a deep and uncommon love as they come of age.

During my own adolescence I saw more of my cousin than I had as a child. By that time, we lived about an hour’s drive apart between my small town of Lancaster, SC, and the big city of Charlotte, NC, where he lived. No longer outwardly a victim of his accident, my cousin was a handsome and charismatic young man. Like my cousin, my character Eli in adolescence is a confident and handsome young man. And though my character’s development is not that of my real-life cousin, I have given Eli a self-assured and generous nature like my cousin possessed.


I’ll be back soon with more thoughts. In the meantime, I hope this background on Bells for Eli helps whet your reading appetite for the book’s release on March 2, 2020.

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