Seventeen years after writing it, the Ohio author's book, inspired by her own family, is finally reaching a wider audience.
Betty is a book based on family secrets. Our heroine, and the novel’s namesake, discovers truths about her loved ones as she comes of age in Southern Ohio. Betty is also a book that came to be because of a family secret. Author Tiffany McDaniel wrote the first iteration of the book at age 18, after her mother, the real life Betty, revealed a family secret to her. Now, at age 35, McDaniel is ready to share those secrets with readers.
Betty is as much McDaniel’s story as it is her mother’s. McDaniel wrote the novel long before she wrote her first published book, 2016’s The Summer That Melted Everything. Throughout the years, she came back to Betty, tweaking a bit here and there as she received feedback from agents. When she was told it was too feminine, she took out any mentions of bras and menstruation. When she was told the main character should be in a romantic relationship, she gave Betty a boyfriend. However, she drew the line when it was suggested that the book would sell better with a male narrator.
“After doing the sessions with Mom, and listening to the sexism that she experienced in school and in the community, those are the things the book is about, and those are the things I really wanted to uphold and give a platform to,” McDaniel said. “So to have that reaction that this book is too female, it's speaking about that same sexism that's in the book. It became something that is not only inside [the book] but something that it was up against.”
The final iteration of Betty stays true to McDaniel’s original version. References to bras and menstruations were put back in, and Betty’s romantic relationship was cut down to a short-lived interaction with a local boy. McDaniel did take some of the advice she received, though. She wrote The Summer That Melted Everything, which is told through a male narrator. That book sold in a month.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Betty is not an easy book to read. There are instances of immense trauma, including rape, incest and animal abuse, that are stunning in their brutality and the swiftness with which they are committed. But as difficult as those stories are to read, and as difficult as they were for McDaniel to write, they are part of her family’s history.
“When I approached [my grandmother] and I approached my aunts and uncles, I was surprised how ready they were to tell these things. I think that they had lived with them for decades, and it was a release to really say, ‘This is what I have experienced. This has been my life,’” McDaniel said. “Even though it was tragic parts of their lives and things that hurt them, it was still something that benefited them in telling it because they were relieving themselves of that burden.”
But there are also instances of immense beauty in Betty. (“I remember the fierce love and devotion as much as I remember the violence,” the narrator says on the first page.) The book’s most vivid moments tend to feature Landon, Betty’s father. Although Landon died a decade before McDaniel was born, he is, besides Betty, the most complete character: a beloved father who was proud of his Cherokee ancestry and who crafted beautiful stories for his children in the hopes that they would share his pride and carry on the lessons he taught them.
“When I think of my family now, I think of a big ol’ sorghum field, like the one my father was born in. Dry brown dirt, wet green leaves. A mad sweetness there in the hard canes. That’s my family. Milk and honey and all that old-time bullshit,” Betty says at the close of chapter one.
“She always passed down Landon's stories and his love for the culture, the ancestry. She really instilled that in mine and my sisters' lives,” McDaniel says of her mother. “When I had the sessions with the family members, it really built upon that idea that he was so supportive and he was this driving force in their lives. I noticed that when I spoke to his children [about his death], their reaction to that was like losing the only lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.”
Betty might be McDaniel’s second book, but in many ways, it’s her first. It was the first book she wanted to see published, and its release cements a long-held dream of being a writer. Recently, while going through some old things, McDaniel found a slip of paper inside an envelope.
“I saw that I had written, 'When I grow up, I want to be a writer and write books that people really want to read,'” McDaniel said. “I don't remember why I put it in the envelope, except maybe just to keep the wish safe.”