Monday, 28 September 2020

I Interviews

Interview: Valerie Fraser Luesse


Award-Winning Magazine Writer Crafts Debut Novel That Blurs

the Lines of Race, Class, and Religion


  1. Can you please tell us about your newest book, Missing Isaac?

It’s part coming-of-age, part love story, part mystery. But really, it’s the story of three very different Southern families whose lives have intertwined for generations. Their long-standing relationships get tested during the social upheaval of the 1960s.


  1. This book is set in Alabama in the 1960s. Why did you decide to focus on this place and time?

It’s the time and place of my childhood. And what often gets overlooked in news stories and documentaries about this era is that some of the social upheaval was of a quiet nature. Yes, there were white Southerners attacking black protestors in the streets, but there were others struggling to figure out what was right and what was wrong as their social fabric was being rewoven minute by minute. What looked like hate at a distance was sometimes fear—fear of change, fear of violence, fear of chaos. And there was also confusion on the part of many white Southerners: If what we’ve believed to be right all this time is actually very wrong, then what does that say about us? And how do we move forward?

  1. With so many race-related issues in the news, how do you feel Missing Isaac will be beneficial to readers?

In my mind, Missing Isaac is not so much about race as it is a call for the basic human dignity of every individual—black or white, rich or poor. My own awakening where issues of race are concerned happened at Auburn University. I had grown up in an all-white rural community and attended an all-white academy. And then I went to Auburn and moved into an integrated dorm. The most surprising part of that experience was that it was a total nonissue. The African American girls in that dorm were just girls dealing with grades and parents and finances and boys and stressing over what to wear to the big game, just like the rest of us. They offered me friendship, for which I was grateful, being a country girl away from home for the first time. There was nothing hard about living in a mixed-race community, and that taught me a valuable lesson. Our fears are often a function of our own lack of experience and understanding.

  1. Are there any other life lessons that you hope readers can learn from your book?

Several years ago, I was leaving my home church at the end of a morning service and noticed a woman I didn’t recognize standing next to the pastor as he shook hands with the congregation. I spoke to her and said something innocuous like, “We’re glad to have you.” She wasn’t wearing “church clothes,” and she looked tired. My mother, of course, shook the woman’s

hand, introduced herself, and struck up a conversation. It turned out that this woman had been our neighbor when I was a child. She and her husband were migrant farm workers and had run

out of money and most of their gas near our church. She had decided to stand at the back of the church and hope someone recognized her. Think of how much courage and humility that took. My mother immediately introduced her old friend—not as a stranger asking for charity but as a neighbor who had fallen on hard times. Daddy filled the couple’s tank with gas, and the rest of us collected money to get them going again.

Whenever you see poor white Southerners portrayed on TV, they’re usually stupid, violent, abusive, etc. But just because a person is materially poor, that doesn’t mean he or she is morally bankrupt. I want readers to see the dignity of these characters—especially the ones who don’t have much.

Also, I think this book is the story of seekers—people who believe they have a purpose beyond a day-to-day existence and can’t rest until they find out how to fulfill it.


  1. What type of research was required for writing Missing Isaac?

Mostly I just talked with my family—particularly my parents and their siblings. I had to do a little historical research to make sure the dates in the book lined up with the historical South in the 1960s, but my research came more from oral history and my own memories than anything else.


  1. How would you describe your writing style?

I hope it’s very Southern and very natural. People who read drafts of Missing Isaac often described it as cinematic because they felt like they were watching it more than reading it. That’s interesting to me because I felt the same way writing it. I’ve never been able to write from outlines, and I don’t really know what’s going to happen in my stories until it happens. A scene will just appear in my mind, and I record it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad! But that’s my no-process process.


  1. What are you working on next?

I’m really excited about it. During World War II, the government took advantage of cheap land and an abundant labor force in the South and turned the region into its wartime factory.

Families from all over the country flooded down here, looking for post-Depression work. Because there were precious few rental properties available, Southern families turned their

homes into boardinghouses, putting total strangers from far and wide under the same roof. Dolly’s House is special. This grand old weathered manse has healing properties for all who

enter: an estranged young Midwestern couple driven apart by hardship; a lonely, wounded veteran and the widowed artist who just might help him find his way home; and the

homeowners, Dolly and Si Chandler, whose open hearts and devotion to each other help their boarders heal.


  1. How can readers connect with you?

Readers can connect with me on my Facebook page,, or they may visit my website at


MissingIsaac cvr“Valerie Luesse has an ear for dialogue, an eye for detail, and most of all, a profound gift for storytelling. She breathes life into these colorful Southern characters and this quirky Alabama town from the first page, and then she has you.” 

Sid Evans, editor in chief of Southern Living

Ada, Mich.—Valerie Fraser Luesse, senior travel editor for Southern Living magazine, brings her love and knowledge of the South to this stunning debut novel, Missing Isaac.

Set in rural Alabama in the 1960s, Missing Isaac tells the captivating story of a black field hand, Isaac Reynolds, who goes missing from the tiny, unassuming town of Glory, Alabama. The townspeople’s reactions range from concern to indifference. But one boy will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his friend.

White, wealthy, and fatherless, young Pete McLean has nothing to gain and everything to lose in his relentless search for Isaac. Before it’s all over, Pete and the people he loves most will discover more than they bargained for—including unexpected love and difficult truths about race and class.

Missing Isaac

by Valerie Fraser Luesse
ISBN: 9780800728786 | 352 pages, paperback |     $14.99 | January 2018





About the Author


vluesseValerie Fraser Luesse is an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently a senior travel editor. Her work has been anthologized in the audio collection Southern Voices and in A Glimpse of Heaven, an essay collection featuring works by C. S. Lewis, Randy Alcorn, John Wesley, and others. As a freelance writer and editor, she was the lead writer for Southern Living 50 Years: A Celebration of People, Places, and Culture. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse has published major pieces on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana’s Acadian Prairie, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her

editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana won the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society.

Luesse earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, and her master’s degree in English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She grew up in Harpersville, Alabama, a rural community in Shelby County, and now lives in Birmingham.

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