Not far from Western Carolina University lies Judaculla Rock – a soapstone boulder covered in petroglyphs named for, according to Cherokee legend, the giant who lived nearby. Seeing the rock and researching the legend inspired Suzanne Raether, a Hunter Library staff member and recent WCU alumna, to write a work of fiction as her master’s thesis that grew into the soon-to-be-released Southern Gothic novel “Judaculla.”
Described as a scary story about love and faith, “Judaculla” details what happens when 19-year-old WCU track athlete Tim Fletcher realizes he’s an ancient mountain god. Raether will release the electronic version of “Judaculla” during Labor Day weekend at Dragon*Con, a multimedia popular culture convention focused on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music and film. In addition, she will be selling a limited edition comic teaser of the book, with proceeds to benefit Ryan Jones, a familiar face to many at the convention whom she describes as a “fellow sci-fi/fantasy geek in need.” The print version is scheduled for release on the autumnal equinox – Sept. 23. An audio version, read by Raether, also is on the way, and after that, fans can look for a video game to experience the story in another way. In addition, she is collecting stories about people’s experiences at “Judaculla” and plans to write a sequel.
“Judaculla” is the story on which Raether and Mia McCumsey Wightkin chose to launch a company called Sticks and Stones Publishing that is committed to sharing stories in as many ways as possible in digital, audio and video game markets. “Our goal is to create a more engaging experience for readers, and ‘Judaculla’ is our first step,” said Raether. “We also will release short stories that spawned into ‘Judaculla’ that I wrote during grad school on the website, realm-of-judaculla.com (link no longer active). We want our readers to experience the whole story, background and all.”
Pam Duncan, assistant professor of English and author of novels including “Plant Life,” “Moon Women” and “The Big Beautiful,” served as Raether’s thesis adviser as Raether wrote what would become “Judaculla.” “I am so proud of her,” said Duncan. “I could just tell from the first bits of it I read when she asked me to be her thesis director that this was something different – something really fresh and original. It’s a mix of so many things you can’t pigeonhole it into one genre.” In Duncan’s review of the book, she said Raether “weaves story and poetry, myth and reality, the sacred and the profane, to create a spellbiding exploration of the fragile intersections between people and worlds.”
Bethany Ketting, who works with Raether in Interlibrary Loan at Hunter Library, read snippets of the book before receiving the electronic version, which she is reading on her Nook.
“It’s riveting,” said Ketting. “I read the first four or five chapters in one sitting, and the only reason I stopped was because I had to help make supper. Her characters are very believable, and being able to read a book that is set in this area makes it even more believable. For instance, when Tosk heads down Tilley Creek with Tim and takes a right at the light onto 107, it’s pretty neat, as a semi-local, to know she really did turn the correct way to take Tim back to his car at East LaPorte. It’s not just the world of Cullowhee that she has written so well. When she describes ‘the Land,’ I feel like it’s familiar and that, if I just quieted my mind, I could walk into it. I can’t wait to finish it.”
The Reporter: Where are you from?
Raether: I was raised in Galvez, La. – a small town nestled between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Louisiana State University, and then moved to Western North Carolina in 2007, where I started working in interlibrary loan at Hunter Library. In 2009, I enrolled at WCU to get my master’s degree in professional writing and graduated this year.
The Reporter: When did you start the book? When did you finish?
Raether: I started research for Judaculla at the same time I enrolled in graduate school and used my thesis to get a rough draft of the story. Once I had the rough draft, I contacted my insanely talented illustrator, Melanie Conran, and we began building the final draft. I revised and edited while she illustrated and designed the book and comic. I can’t wait to work with her on the sequel. I finished the novel in July 2011.
The Reporter: How did you come up with the idea?
Raether: The idea for Judaculla came from a couple of places. One was my fascination with Judaculla Rock. The more I learned and researched about the rock and mythology, the more I wanted to write about it. I didn’t really start out with the idea of a genre in mind, I just learned about Judaculla and experienced the glorious mountains we call home. As I started writing the story, I realized it was a Southern Gothic piece and am proud of its Appalachian roots. Judaculla’s target audience is anyone who needs a good story about love, faith and believing in yourself.
The Reporter: When did you first learn about Judaculla, and when did you first visit the rock?
Raether: I learned about Judaculla Rock from Serenity Richards, CEO of the Southeastern Browncoats, Cashiers branch librarian for the Fontana Regional Library and former cataloger for Hunter Library. She took me to see Judaculla Rock in the summer of 2009 after I’d already been accepted to graduate school. Immediately, I was fascinated – borderline obsessed. I was so captured by the mythology and feeling around this huge petroglyph boulder that’s thousands of years old that I had to write about it. I was completely enchanted by it. With as much time as I’ve spent there by now, I’m sure the Parker family is sick of seeing my Subaru. The Parkers owned the property that Judaculla Rock is on. In 1929, Silas Parker sold the rock to Jackson County so they could preserve it better. So, the park is the small swath of land around the rock, but the Parkers still live on the farmland and house that’s right next to the rock.
The Reporter: Do you have Cherokee ties?
Raether: I do not have personal ties to the Qualla Nation, but the myth of Judaculla is one that goes beyond race or creed. Like all living mythologies, the story of Tsul Kalu` deserves to be discovered by anyone who can learn from it. In my research, I learned that there was only one children’s book that mentioned Judaculla Rock, and no adult literature. I could hardly believe it, given the rock’s history, legend and pull. People visit Judaculla Rock from around the nation and locals return to the rock regularly to show children or loved ones its beauty. When you’re at the rock, you know you are somewhere special, somewhere mysterious. And that mystery stays with you and draws you back. So, I adopted the myth to share it and can only hope I did Tsul Kalu` justice.
The Reporter: How did you go about getting the book published?
Raether: Judaculla is being released through my publishing company, Sticks and Stones Publishing. I am the co-founder and co-owner with Mia McCumsey Wightkin. She is an old friend, and I am terrifically lucky to create my dream with a talented and innovative business partner. We wanted to create Sticks and Stones in response to the growing digital, audio and video game markets. Our goal is to create a more engaging experience for readers, and Judaculla is our first step. Our vision is to tell stories in as many ways as possible, so that anyone can access them depending on how they want to experience it. The digital, audio and print editions are the first wave that will be followed by a video game that allows you to play and experience the story simultaneously. We also will release short stories that spawned into Judaculla that I wrote during grad school on the website. We want our readers to experience the whole story, background and all. I will be recording the audio version at the Coulter Faculty Commons.
The Reporter: How did the comic portions come about? Will a full comic be developed from the entire novel?
Raether: The comic was Mia’s idea. When we planned to launch the book at Dragon*Con, we wanted to have a teaser for people to get to know Judaculla and Sticks and Stones Publishing, something they could take home with them if they preferred to experience the story in print. However, a full comic was not possible with the tight deadline for Dragon*Con, so we thought a teaser would be something good for readers to hold onto until the print was available. We’re considering a full comic but are really more interested in creating a video game experience for readers first.
The Reporter: How did your experience at WCU help make this possible?
Raether: My experience at WCU was how this story came about. Without WCU, “Judaculla” wouldn’t have happened. A colleague introduced me to the rock, George Frizzell, university archivist, helped me research it, and the amazing Pamela Duncan, assistant professor of English, showed me how to bring my vision to life. She directed my thesis and her constant encouragement, questioning, and enthusiasm were crucial to surviving being in grad school full time, leading full time as ILL coordinator and writing “Judaculla.” I can’t speak highly enough of WCU’s English department. I honed my craft with some of the finest writers today and am humbled by and lucky for the opportunity. Without the wordsmiths at WCU, I would not have the confidence, skill or ability to be a professional writer.
Compiled by Teresa Killian Tate