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The Double-Edged Sword of Revenge and Justice in the South Carolina Lowcountry

The Big Thrill Interviews Debut Author Caroline Cleveland


By Mindy Carlson

Book Cover: WHEN CICADAS CRYCaroline Cleveland’s debut novel, WHEN CICADAS CRY, brings us to the South Carolina Lowcountry and the church where Sam Jenkins, a Black man, has been discovered over the body of Jessie Gadsden, the white daughter of the powerful Buford Gadsden. Not only that, she’s been bludgeoned to death in the church with the brass altar cross.

People are screaming for revenge and justice—and those aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Sam’s grandfather, Elijah, calls Zach Stander a disgraced lawyer clawing his way back to respectability through free legal advice clinics and taking any case that comes his way. A high-profile case like this is a double-edged sword. He could help an innocent man stay out of prison, or it could sink his reputation permanently.

But Zach can’t stand by and let the justice system railroad an innocent man. He and his investigator-girlfriend, Addie Stone, pour themselves into the case. The further they dig, the more secrets they uncover and the more snakes they discover.

Author Photo: Caroline Cleveland

Caroline Cleveland

The Big Thrill was happy to sit down with Caroline Cleveland and discuss racial and political differences in the Lowcountry, how Southern classics influence modern novels, and why so many lawyers become mystery authors.

WHEN CICADAS CRY follows two different investigators’ journeys and blends a cold case with a fresh murder. Tell us about your heroes, Zach Stander and Addie Stone.

Zach Stander is a lawyer in Charleston, SC. Addie Stone, his perpetual fiancée, is a former law enforcement officer who now works as Zach’s case investigator. Zach was flying high with a successful criminal defense practice when they met, but his practice is now on the skids ever since The Trouble.

That nightmare cost Zach his house, his car, his fancy office space, and most of his sense of self-worth. The only bright spot left in his wretched life is his relationship with Addie, and that is starting to feel the strain since he put the wedding on hold while he tries to rebuild his practice. Addie believes in Zach, but she is getting tired of waiting for him to believe in himself again. Then comes the 4:00 am call from Elijah Jenkins that changes everything.

You intersperse WHEN CICADAS CRY with chapters from your murderer’s point of view. Why did you decide to share your villain’s perspective with the reader?

I had two reasons for using that technique. The first was simply a matter of craft—I needed a tool to show readers a vivid picture of something that happened 34 years before the story begins.

Author Photo: Caroline Cleveland

In her law office.

As I was working on the manuscript and listening to the killer whisper clues about the murders in my mind, an idea unfurled. Why not let the killer have those same conversations with the reader—tantalizing little sidebars that the other characters cannot hear? Not only did it do the work of providing the details, but I felt it would add to the tension for the reader to know our heroes were in danger before they realized it themselves.

The second reason had more to do with the overarching theme of prejudice. I can’t really discuss that more without risking a spoiler.

In interviews, you’ve called WHEN CICADAS CRY a “modern-day cousin to John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. What pieces or flavors of these novels influenced your work?

Those two Southern classics spotlight the tragic impact of racism on the judicial system. In both stories, the locals have resorted to mob rule fueled by racism (and fear arising out of ignorance) aimed at a Black criminal defendant while a single white lawyer tries to stand and be the voice of reason. To put himself in harm’s way if necessary to do what he believes is right. Atticus Finch and Jake Brigance want justice. Theirs is a story as old as time—the epic battle of good versus evil.

Grisham’s story is set in 1984, and Lee’s was set in the 1930s. These two powerful and emotional stories have long been among my favorites. But, like perhaps other readers, I saw (or wanted to see) them as painting a picture of yesteryear. I wanted to believe that kind of mob rule wouldn’t be tolerated now. Then, I watched as riots shook our nation in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and other racially charged incidents. Similarly shocking events brought the issue home to the Lowcountry, and I began to wonder. Would those two stories really be as different as I wanted to believe if they took place in the present?

Author Photo: Caroline Cleveland

At Edisto Island, SC.

WHEN CICADAS CRY’s mystery is centered around racial and political differences in the Lowcountry. How did you tackle providing an authentic POC viewpoint of this struggle as a white author?

As a little girl growing up many decades ago in the rural South, I witnessed the unjust treatment that Blacks often received. That does not mean I know how they felt, nor do I pretend otherwise, but it does give me some insight into the realities and prevalence of racism.

As an employment lawyer in my adult years, I have spent the last three decades working with employers to create anti-discrimination policies, train employees on those policies, and investigate internal complaints. I have worked extensively with the EEOC and State Human Affairs as they investigate formal complaints of discrimination, including race discrimination. I think these life experiences have given me a better awareness, not just of the surface issues but of the different perspectives of the various parties involved. Again, that doesn’t mean I know how any of them feel—I cannot—but my experiences did help me form a better understanding of where those who reported discrimination were coming from and what they are facing.

The Lowcountry quaked in the aftershocks of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre of nine Black parishioners during a Bible study and the police shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black suspect. Again, I listened to the different viewpoints being expressed by different voices in our community. Some were whispered, some screamed through bullhorns, some written in editorials or scrawled on protest signs and T-shirts, and some shared over cocktails. All of them passionate. I listened.

Whether I was successful in accurately reflecting those other voices in WHEN CICADAS CRY is yet to be determined. I am sure readers will have their own opinions on that, and some will share those opinions—favorable or not.

And when they do, I will listen.

You’re not the first lawyer to change careers and take up writing as a second profession. Why do so many lawyers become authors?

I’m not changing careers. I still practice law full-time in Charleston, South Carolina, and I plan to do so for the foreseeable future (unless I can figure out how to convince the bank to accept Advanced Reading Copies as a mortgage payment). Writing is my way of finding balance in my life. It is something I love and enjoy.

As for why so many lawyers feel drawn to writing, the most obvious reason is that both careers require the same basic skill set: reading, writing, research, and paying attention to details. Those skills often develop from a lifelong love of reading. When a lawyer makes an argument to a judge, a jury, or a governmental agency, she simply tells a story with facts from her client’s perspective.

Also, our jobs require that lawyers become involved in intimate details of our clients’ lives—their problems, their businesses, their relationships, and their finances, to name a few. Over time, that insider’s understanding of our world and the people in it sometimes leads us to realize that we, too, have interesting stories to tell. And we can draw on that experience to create complex, believable characters.

What’s next?

I’m working on a couple of different things right now. One is a psychological thriller, and the other is a possible sequel to WHEN CICADAS CRY. I’m learning to be patient as stories “become” and wait to see what catches fire—for me and for the publisher!


The Big Thrill Interviews Debut Author Caroline Cleveland

Mindy Carlson
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