You’d be hard-pressed to find a family that didn’t have a few skeletons in their closet.
The drunken uncle. The womanizing grandfather. The distant ancestor who owned slaves or served time in prison.
Bethel Park author Ann Howley used a revealing family revelation as the basis for her debut novel.
One day, many years ago, her grandmother received a surprising package in the mail – a relative sent her the Ku Klux Klan robe her father wore when he was a member of the white supremacist organization decades ago.
“I remember how mortified I felt,” Howley said. “I always remembered that feeling of unease. And I thought about the story for a long, long time.”
She added: “There are all kinds of skeletons in every family closet, and we don’t realize how widespread it is.”
This surprising and unwelcome kernel of family history inspired “The Memory of Cotton,” which was published in May by Propertius Press. A work of fiction aimed at young adults, it is the story of Shelby, a 15-year-old girl who travels to North Carolina to try to solve a mystery surrounding the actions in 1956 of her great-grandfather, a member of the Klans. This is Howley’s second book, following her 2014 memoir, “Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad,” in which she recalls the clash between growing up in a buttoned-down conservative Christian home in the middle of the loosening of California’s cultural mores in the 1960s and 1970s.
Howley has had a varied career, working in California in television production — she was assistant to “Matlock” producer Dean Hargrove and worked regularly with Andy Griffith on the show’s script notes — and, more recently, as a director in an accounting firm. She is a regular contributor to Pittsburgh Parent magazine and has also written for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Bicycle Times and other publications. The winner of several writing awards, Howley teaches writing classes for Community College of Allegheny County’s Community Education Program and has hosted weekend writing retreats.
Howley admits that the transition from writing feature films to writing fiction was a bit of an ordeal.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” she explained. “It was definitely not an easy transition for me. … At first it was very difficult. It was very difficult for me to transition into a different style of writing.”
But then she warmed to the process, driven by the fact that she could write “anything I want.”
“The Memory of Cotton” is designed for young adults, and Howley has a soft spot for the genre. She remembers being an avid reader when she was in the target range of young adult fiction, designed for readers between the ages of 12 and 18. In fact, Howley said she still enjoys reading young adult fiction.
“There’s a simplicity to the stories,” she said. “I’d rather read a young adult book than a romance novel.” She has a second young adult novel in the works. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s about a 10-year-old boy in heaven who teams up with his teenage sister’s former pet rat to try to keep her out of trouble on Earth. .
“The Memory of Cotton” tackles historic LGBTQ issues as well as issues of race, which would theoretically make it a target for book banners that have put books on these topics in their sights. According to Howley, “I am absolutely horrified by these efforts. They are misguided and myopic. … I am proud if my voice upholds basic dignities and human rights.”
She added: “That wouldn’t stop me from speaking what I believe to be the truth.”