by Amber Wheeler Bacon (@WheelerBacon)
Editor: Felice Laverne (@bookgurufelice)
Adult Literary Fiction
Agents can request additional materials via our Agent Request Form.
Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child, and sometimes it takes a child to raise a village from its past.
I’m seeking representation for my debut literary novel of 82,000 words, Will They Know Us There, which takes place in a fictional lake town near Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1972, THERESE is seventeen years old. When her mother, LOIS, abandons the family in Lake Valentine, Therese secretly follows her to Atlanta. After Therese confronts and is rejected by her mother, she throws herself into a tumultuous relationship with a medical student, looking for acceptance after the painful rebuff by her mother. She becomes a sex worker to pay his tuition, but when the relationship unravels, Therese returns to Lake Valentine—done with love and forsaking desire. Four years later, Therese begins attending Catholic Mass, drawn to the unusual sermons of the local alcoholic priest, ISAAC. The two grow closer, but when Isaac dies suddenly, and Therese finds herself pregnant, she tells the people of Lake Valentine that Isaac is the father. Meanwhile, Therese’s high school sweetheart has come home from Vietnam a paraplegic, blaming her for his injury. His mother, SYLVIA, believes that Therese’s baby is actually Travis’s and resolves to be in its life. But then why does she seem to hate Therese so?
As Therese’s daughter, LILY, grows up in the small town of Lake Valentine, surrounded by generations of interlocking secrets and clandestine connections, she, like Sylvia, doesn’t believe the story about her father. There are multiple suspects besides Travis, including the local bar owner whose wife has died and a mysterious doctor in Atlanta. When Therese dies, Lily is torn between two men—one who represents her mother's secret past and another who can help her close the door on it.
Told in five points of view, Will They Know Us There is both a family saga and a coming-of-age story about how we become who we are, and how we come to understand those we love, even as we realize we never truly know them. Told with restraint and Southern grit like Pew by Catherine Lacey, and exploring the poignant search to uncover the life of one’s mother in Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers, these storylines converge to explore what it means to be a mother and how one’s choices can reverberate across generations.
My stories and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, Epiphany, Five Points, New Ohio Review, Post Road and Witness and online at Ploughshares, CRAFT, Fiction Writers Review and New South. I received the 2018 Breakout 8 Writers Prize from The Author’s Guild and a 2021 Bread Loaf scholarship. My story collection, We Were Vessels, was one of five finalists for the 2020 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Award from Hub City Press and a finalist for the Moon City Short Fiction Award. I earned my MFA from Bennington College in 2018, and I am a fiction editor for Four Way Review. I teach English at Coastal Carolina University.
Thanks very much for considering my project.
First Five Pages
When people go to the city they get lost, my mother told me. In Atlanta, you lose things. At eighteen, I went to college there to be found, to find the parts of me I’d never known, but I wondered, too, what she had against that city. What all she had lost.
It wasn’t until I’d left Lake Valentine—and she was dead—that I realized you could lose yourself anywhere. A mother, a child, a lover, a father. You could lose anyone anywhere.
At twenty-two, younger than my mother was when she had me, I found myself pregnant. My whole life I’d tried to be different than her, and there I was: same age, same situation.
That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking of the story that summer, the one I heard each night as a child. It seemed like the place it had all begun. Me, where I had begun.
Lying on my bed, head propped by her hand, my mother always said the story was about me, but I was hardly in it. To say it was about Isaac wouldn’t be right either. It was about her. She told it to me like it was a bedtime story, and at the end, she’d kneel by my bed and recite prayers, though she never got them right. A line from Our Father would appear at the end of a Hail Mary or she’d sneak in a phrase from Shakespeare accidentally—“The milk of human kindness,” that kind of thing. I realized she was screwing up the prayers when I was in Catholic school, memorizing them for my First Communion. It was no use correcting her because she never admitted she was wrong.
My mother said Isaac’s funeral was on a sun-filled day in August. In Georgia, that meant it was hot as hell. We had all sorts of Biblical words for the late summer heat. My Great Uncle Cal called August, Satan’s asshole. When the lake water turned piss warm, the Baptist preacher started his fire and brimstone talk. I grew up thinking they called it the Bible Belt because of the hellish heat.
Despite all the Baptists and their talk of Revelations, Catholics had found their way to Georgia, and the new church was proof. Though Holy Family was ten years old, everyone still called it new. It was a simple design with large windows to let in natural light and only a few statues. The necessary Mary and Joseph, the most prominent, stood at each end of the sanctuary. The Stations of the Cross, in a cream-colored stone, almost disappeared into the white walls. The way my mother told the story, she sat in the first row of pews, staring up at the ascending Christ hung from the rafters above the altar. It was the happy Jesus popular after Vatican II, as opposed to the limp, crucified one in older churches.
I could picture her back then—too much cleavage, her skirt too short—and Sylvia behind her, holding balled up tissues in each hand. Sylvia—I grew up calling her Nana—and my mother weren’t friendly at the time, but a dead priest, not yet thirty, was the kind of tragedy that eased past resentments. Sylvia didn’t know my mother’s secret.
Waiting for mass to start, Sylvia walked up and slipped a shaky hand in my mother’s. Her whisper echoed in the church. “The poor man. Everyone says it was an accident. One wonders if Isaac had been drinking.”
Isaac was Father Isaac, not because he was my father, but because he was the parish priest. “People fall at home all the time,” my mother said, though she knew Isaac had been drinking. He’d always been drinking. She lowered herself to the kneeler and said a prayer to a God she wanted to believe in. She never did tell me the prayer, only that God answered it by sending me.
While my mother knelt, the sun fell in two sheets through the windows of the domed ceiling, the walnut casket white under the glare. Stacks of lilies were clustered on the lid of the coffin, the leaves lit a tender green by the light. That’s when my mother smelled the lilies and rifled through her purse for tissues.
“Not for my tears,” she told me. “My sinuses! I was allergic to something about those lilies.”
For the hour-long mass, she stood and sat, mascara and tears spreading bruisy marks around her eyes. When her nose kept running, she ran out of tissues. The Archbishop had come from Atlanta to preside over the Mass. His fancy robes and hat sparkled red and gold behind the altar. He said prayer after prayer in a dull monotone, and the whole time my mother’s only thoughts were that she had to get out of that church, she had to get away from those lilies.
“Why would you name me after a funeral flower?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was morbid. They seemed so stately. They didn’t care that a man had just died.”
Lily Therese Summers. She gave me her name, too, and I always felt it there, lingering in the background, waiting to show itself, the Therese in me. I wondered how it would come out. And when.
From kindergarten through eighth grade, I went to Holy Family Catholic, the small school attached to the new church, and it was impossible to walk in there for Mass, to stand where my mother had at Isaac’s funeral, and not think of where I’d come from—who I’d come from. In the beginning, before I began to question whether Isaac was my father, the church seemed an extension of me, my predecessor. Hadn’t the church brought him to Lake Valentine? Hadn’t it been the place where he and my mother met?
After Isaac died, my mother didn’t attend church. Her brief flirtation with religion had ended in a man’s death. “I suppose it’s not in my makeup to believe in stories,” she said. “I want to. I’ve tried.” She never explained why she sent me to Catholic school, why she expected me to believe in those stories, though I supposed it had something to do with some residual loyalty to Isaac.
She never took me inside the church, but we walked to the square on weekends, and she pointed out the building. “There it is,” she said, using her other hand as a visor as she squinted up at the stained glass in the rose window, then over to the two arched wooden doors. “That’s where we met. And see there? The little house next door?” She pointed to the rectory. “That’s where I saw him last.”
The first week of Kindergarten at Holy Family, my teacher took us to Wednesday morning Mass. She stood at the end of the pew, giving lessons on how to genuflect toward the altar before we slid in and sat down. As I bent down on one knee and did the sign of the cross, I looked up at Christ hanging behind the altar and thought it was my father. This was where he’d been all along.
The next Wednesday, fearful of entering the church, I snuck out of line as we walked across the parking lot—past the big eighth graders and around the corner, to an alley behind the cafeteria. I crouched behind a dumpster, arms around my knees. I picked up an empty can of carrots and peas near my foot and a roach shot out. Closer to the building, a squirrel-sized rat inspected an open trash bag. It was enough to turn me off cafeteria food for years. The lunch lady found me twenty minutes later. She grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me into the church. My mother was called. I sat on a chair outside the principal’s office, waiting, the slick faux leather cool against my bare legs. Sister Mary Alice, the principal, asked if I was trying to run away. I couldn’t really explain why I’d been afraid to go in the church, so I said, “The man on the cross scares me. Jesus. He died.”
The plump nun with short grey hair and a tiny nose reached out and patted my hand. “Yes, my dear,” she said. “For our sins, he certainly did, but that’s nothing to be afraid of.”
I wasn’t so sure.
In the car, my mother said, “Try something like that again and it won’t be Jesus you have to worry about.”
I grew to love the church, though—its quiet majesty, the hushed sanctuary welling up and seeming to burst open when the school children sang. The singing was enough to make me believe the story.
One day when I was seven, we stood in rows—twenty to a pew—singing about a peaceful river, a loving river. We sang of being raised up to our God. I wanted to memorize the words of all of the songs, so they’d become a part of me. At the end of mass, I slipped the hymnal in the front of my jumper and crossed my arms to hold it in place until we made it back to the first-grade classroom. Our backpacks hung behind a partition in the back of the room. The area was private and shadowed, except in the afternoons when our small bodies fought to grab our things and be first in line to leave. Hidden from everyone, I zippered the blood red book shut in the front pocket. During the day, I checked on it, inserting my hand into the pocket and feeling the golden letters etched into the leather cover.
The songs seemed to answer questions I had about my life and family. The pages of “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman” were worn, the corners tattered, while I read the lyrics thinking about what it meant to be a woman—a “shining one” for all—always gentle, of course, like a dove. If you were a woman, that’s what you were supposed to be. My mother wasn’t gentle; she wasn’t a dove, not with me anyway. And what was I? I wanted to be like the beautiful lady in blue who appeared all over the church and school, her face radiant with calm, but one look at my mother told me it wasn’t in my blood.