Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Ghost on Black Mountain includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Ann Hite. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
On Black Mountain, ghosts roam almost as freely as the living, carrying dark pasts and warnings of what’s to come. In her haunting debut, Ann Hite weaves together the stories of five Southern women whose lives are irrevocably changed by one man and the act that kills him. These women navigate through tragedy and darkness, battling their own demons and confronting others’ as they struggle toward new beginnings and a chance at happiness. Each perspective offers a shocking revelation that reshapes the truth, leaving readers to wonder if anyone is really the person she seems to be.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Ghost on Black Mountainis told by multiple narrators and out of chronological order. How does this affect your understanding of the events that take place in the novel and your opinions of the main characters? How do you think the story would be different if it were told chronologically and/or from one perspective?
2. Which narrator do you sympathize with or connect to the most? Why?
3. If you could have read more from one character’s perspective in this novel, whose would it be?
4. In many ways the ghosts are their own characters and help dictate the course of action in the story. Compare the different reactions the witnesses have to seeing ghosts. Consider how the ghosts directly influence a character’s actions.
5. What do you think attracts Nellie to Hobbs in the first place? Did she ever love him? When does she see him for who he really is?
6. Examine Shelly’s role in the story. How does her role as a narrator differ from the others’? What makes her essential to the story?
7. On page 195, Aunt Ida says, “I let Nellie down. I didn’t help her when Hobbs near beat her to death.” Would Nellie have found another way out if someone had simply answered her cries for help? Do you think she was justified in her actions?
8. Nellie’s decision brings consequences that reach far into the future and alter the lives of several people. How important is the time period in which this story is set? How would this story work in the present?
9. Aunt Ida and Rose seem to be the only characters who were able to see any good in Hobbs. Whose version of Hobbs do you think was closest to who he really was? Could he have been a good father to Lonnie if he’d had the chance? Or was he purely mean and violent, as most people thought he was?
10. Mother-and-daughter relationships are prevalent throughout Ghost on Black Mountain. In some cases, readers see a character as both a mother and a daughter. Discuss the influence of these special relationships on each of the narrators.
11. On page 313, Nellie admits that “Mamas can’t protect their daughters. Not really. They’re helpless to watch and wait.” Do you think this is true? How is it proved or disproved in the course of the story?
12. In the first part of Nellie’s story, there are moments of tenderness between her and Jack. Had things been different, do you think Jack and Nellie could have loved each other?
13. Iona and Lonnie both grew up with loving parents, though Iona knew nothing of her real father for most of her life. Do you think Lonnie would have turned out differently had he never known about Hobbs or found his father’s skull?
14. There are many romances in Ghost on Black Mountain—some end happily and others don’t. Discuss the different dynamics in the relationships between Nellie and Hobbs, Rose and Hobbs, Rose and Jack, Nellie and Harold, Iona and Lonnie, and Iona and Anthony. Which of these, if any, do you think were rooted in true love?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have you ever had a paranormal encounter? Share your own ghost stories at your book club meeting!
2. Visit www.realhaunts.com to find a local haunted house in your hometown. Plan a visit with your book club for your next meeting and come up with your own ghost story!
3. Check out the Ghost on Black Mountain podcast download available on iTunes! It’s a recording of the original short story by Ann Hite that inspired the novel.
A Conversation with Ann Hite
Congratulations on your first novel! What has been the most exciting part of the process so far?
When I began writing about Nellie and Hobbs, I never dreamed it would actually become a novel. I was writing for fun, allowing the characters space on the page. Up until that point, I had written only short stories. So, when my fun writing exercises turned into a novel-size manuscript, I was somewhat in awe. I had fallen in love with Nellie, Josie, Shelly, Rose, and Iona. When I signed my book contract, I remember thinking, Is this actually happening? But I must say the day I received the image of the book cover was the most thrilling. I actually had to go for a nice long walk and allow reality to sink into my brain. I was a novelist. That was truly a dream come true.
How did you come to be a writer? What other authors are you inspired by?
Every year my grandmother would visit for two weeks with my family in whatever state or country we were living in. I remember looking forward to this like a child looks forward to a visit from Santa. She was the book lover and storyteller of our clan. Each evening she would gather me on her lap and tell me episodes from her childhood. As I grew older, the tales became more revealing. After years of moving around the country and five years in Europe, I finally returned to the South. I was ten and it was the midsixties. This was enough to make a writer out of most book-loving girls. My mother had brought my brother and me to live with our grandmother in Atlanta. It was then I began to absorb the both wonderful and eerie tales told by my extended family. Every weekend we piled into my grandmother’s Oldsmobile and drove to “the country” to visit with my great-aunts. I would sit among what I considered very exotic women. One aunt was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, wringing her lace hankie in her fingers. Another wore a scarf around brush curlers wound tightly into bleach-blond hair, a cigarette hanging from her fingers. And of course there was the cousin who went and married out of the faith. Her husband was Catholic. If I was quiet, they forgot I was there and began to tell the old mountain tales. These were not for the faint of heart. Believe me. I loved each story and memorized them all. This atmosphere of tall tales, spells, and spirits gave birth to Black Mountain, even though I didn’t have a name for the community back then. I spent many hours writing and forcing my little brother to sit on the back stoop of my grandmother’s home and listen to my stories of ghosts and goblins. I can’t tell you how many times I got in trouble for scaring him silly. Ah, but children do grow up. Or do they? I became a writer.
Books came long before writing. So I have a love for many different authors. But the genres have always remained the same: Southern literature and contemporary fiction. William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily”and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find gave me the desire to show the more complex side of the South. In the late eighties, I fell in love with Ellen Gilchrist’s books. I’ve read them all over and over. Her stories of Rhoda Manning are my favorite. Her work taught me how to write in my own voice. The first time I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I knew somehow I would succeed as a writer. The image of Lily watching the bees flying around her room gave me goose bumps and remains with me today. Julia Glass’s novels, especially I See You Everywhere, taught me that language should sing off the page. I own every book Louise Erdrich has written. I can’t get enough of her work. I also love Anne Lamott. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours taught me that structure could be rearranged and turned into art. And of course I can’t leave out To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s what I aspire to each time I sit down at my desk.
Before it was a novel, you had written many short stories about Black Mountain. How did you manage to weave these stories together into a novel?
Ghost on Black Mountain was the first Black Mountain story I wrote. As new stories came to me, I noticed that Hobbs or Nellie made appearances. Nellie was a chatty character and came to me just as I was falling off to sleep most nights. She would tell me about her life. Then Shelly showed up on the page. But it wasn’t until my agent suggested some of my short stories were actually outlines of novels that the aha moment occurred. When I sat down to tell the “whole extended” story of Nellie and Hobbs, the scenes just poured out of me with little effort. I’m a blank-page, character-driven writer, so truly I had no idea where Nellie would find herself at the end of the book.
Though the novel tells many stories, Nellie seems to be the central figure. How did you make the decision to create multiple narrators? Could you imagine the story being told from only one point of view? How different would that book have been from Ghost on Black Mountain?
I actually began the first draft of this novel in third person from only Nellie’s point of view. About sixty pages into the story I had lost Nellie’s original voice. What I had was a cardboard cutout character at best. I went back and began writing her in first person. This brought the book back to life. While I was on one of my long walks, Rose came to me fully formed. I knew she had to tell her story in her own voice. The original manuscript had only four narrators: Nellie, Rose, Iona, and Annie. My wonderful editor at Gallery Books suggested that if I gave Nellie’s mother, Josie, and Shelly voices in the book, the story would become richer. The suggestion was perfect. Shelly’s narrating provided me with details about Hobbs that tightened the plot. Josie revealed Nellie’s history. This experience was exciting.
Had I kept the first sixty pages and told this story only in Nellie’s voice, the novel would have lost its richness and depth. When I was studying under Emily Ellison [an Atlanta author] many moons ago, she told me something that I use in all my writing today. Every good piece of work, whether it is a story, essay, or novel, has a light that shines throughout the narrative. The way in which Ghost on Black Mountain is narrated provides that satisfying illumination.
Did you always know how the book would end, or did it come together as you were writing?
Because Ghost on Black Mountain began as a short story, I knew some of what would take place, but I did not know how Nellie’s story would end. Had I known, I would never have written the book. All my work begins with at least one question. In this book’s case, I wanted to know what happened to a person after he or she makes the decision to take someone’s life. How does this mark the person’s future, even if he or she had every right to take such a drastic, harsh action? And what if this person gets away with the deed? Those questions drove me until I found the answers.
What was your inspiration for Ghost on Black Mountain? Are any of your characters inspired by real people? Is there one character that you relate to the most?
I never know what will inspire me to write. Sometimes it is a song. Sometimes an old photo. It can be something as simple as a snippet of an old family story. Nellie crept into my head after my husband read an article aloud about a woman who lived in the Smoky Mountains during the twenties. She killed her husband and then attempted to hide his body. She was hanged for her crime.
Both Rose Gardner and Nellie Pritchard are loosely based on my grandmother when she was young. She never killed anyone, but she did lead a double life in many ways, like Nellie. The strengths and weaknesses of both women reflect the grandmother I knew.
Iona Harbor is one of my favorite characters. She was raised by two powerful women. They were so powerful that they overshadowed Iona’s father. While I believe at some level I have to relate to each of my characters, whether they are good or bad, I really understand the frustration Iona experienced while trying to find her own way. She wanted to be herself, a musician, in a family that had other ideas.
Ghost on Black Mountain is set in the South, and you yourself live in Atlanta, Georgia. Could this novel have been set anywhere else? How did your personal ties to the setting influence your writing?
I’m a Southern girl who was raised everywhere but the South for a good part of her childhood. It’s this very contradiction that gives me the ability to appreciate my Southern history, to see all the warts and not become sentimental about the place or people when I write. My passion for the South fuels my writing. I can’t imagine setting any of my work anywhere but my beloved South. My characters are simple/complex mountain people, whose families have lived in the same place for generations. My husband’s family had a tradition of vacationing in the Smoky Mountains each year. The first time I visited this beautiful place, I thought of the area where my grandmother grew up. So when these characters began to show themselves, it only seemed natural to place them in the mountains of North Carolina.
The end of Shelly’s story is left as somewhat of a mystery. Does her story continue beyond the pages of the book for you, or does each character exist solely in what is written?
Shelly is a character I often claim I must have channeled. She came to me with her own set of traits, gifts, and history. I could see the clothes she would wear and her smirk of a smile. She tells me when I have one of her scenes wrong and bugs me in my dreams. I knew the first time she showed up on the page she was someone special. Her story does continue beyond these pages. At this point, I even know what she becomes in her adult life.
Do you believe in ghosts?
My logical mind says no, but I have had experiences that can’t be explained away. In June of 2010, while on a writing retreat, I went to take photos of the church that inspired the First Episcopal Church of Black Mountain. I had to hike a good half mile off the road into the woods. I was alone. When I found the perfect shot, a black shadow scurried across my screen. I searched around the area for the source and never found one. I took the photo without any more events. I couldn’t help but think of Nellie and how she saw Merlin on the way to the pastor’s house near the church. But to answer your question, I mostly enjoy a good ghost story without worrying about the real sprits.
What is your next project? Will there be more Black Mountain books?
The answer to this question goes with the question about Shelly. I’m currently working on a novel about Shelly Parker in which I find out what happens to her after Nellie leaves the mountain. What does she do with the money Nellie gives her? What’s her history? What does Shelly want more than anything else in her life? Yes, there are plenty of ghosts. And I’m coming to know Pastor Dobbins and his family better. Also there are a few new characters, like Maude Tuggle, the granny woman. The rough draft of the third book is finished. This novel tells the story of Hobbs and his sister as children. This book was actually written right after I finished the first draft of Ghost on Black Mountain. I wanted to know what made Hobbs who he became.