A Tale that Transcends Time
By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
A story about grief and grace, faith and forgiveness, hope and healing takes readers back to an age of innocence prior to and during World War II.
Most authors write a book and wait years to get a movie deal. For David Armstrong, the process was reversed by his sheer persistence – and luck. “The Rising Place,” a novel set in the somewhat fictional town of Hamilton, Miss., was released as a book in June 2020 although a movie by the same name came out years earlier.
“That’s a funny story how it happened,” says Armstrong whose day job is serving as the Chief Operations Officer for the City of Columbus. “I am a great fan of filmmaker and producer Tom Rice, who was premiering a movie in Jackson. I stood outside the theater doors and insistently handed him a manuscript for ‘The Rising Place.’”
Although Rice initially didn’t want to take it, he told Armstrong that maybe he would read the manuscript on the plane.
“One year later, Rice called me and said he wanted it to be his next feature film,” Armstrong recalls. “We came to a monetary agreement over film rights and he developed a shooting script.”
The movie went on to win 16 film festival awards before opening in New York and Los Angeles. What seems like a fortunate stroke of luck, however, almost killed the idea of publishing the deeply moving tale in book form.
“I thought it would be a piece of cake to sell the manuscript as a book, but publishers want the film rights when they buy a manuscript and I couldn’t give them that,” he explains.
Luckily for Armstrong and readers, Wild Rose Press took a chance on the “The Rising Place” and published it as a trade paperback and e-book. After the book was published, a friend told him there really was a small town named Hamilton in northeast Mississippi. For the book, Armstrong had created a fictional Hamilton near his native hometown of Natchez.
The story takes place during World War II, but many of the issues transcend time – like unwed motherhood, grief, racism, and unrequited love. Armstrong chose to tell the story of Emily Hodge and her friends through letters she wrote to Harry Devening, the father of her unborn child who served as a pilot during the war.
“Several agents rejected the story because they didn’t like the epistolary form,” says Armstrong. “I don’t recall why I chose this style; it was like Emily Hodge was dictating those letters to me.”
An epistolary novel is one told through the medium of letters written by one or more of the characters. The form presents an intimate view of the character’s thoughts and feelings, and it conveys the shape of events to come with dramatic immediacy. Those epistolary traits weren’t lost on Armstrong.
“One day, Emily Hodge appeared in my brain, and it was like she was telling me her story so I merely transcribed what she was saying,” he explains. “When I write, it’s like I’m watching a movie on a big screen, and I’m just writing what I’m seeing and hearing.”
Armstrong got the idea for the story after reading a daily devotional in The Upper Room magazine about an elderly schoolmarm who supposedly lived an “unknown” life. He mulled over the idea for a while – something he often does for his books – but a mystical “nudge” to write the story came from his favorite author William Faulkner.
“One Sunday night, I had this vivid dream where I saw Faulkner riding a white horse around the courthouse square in Oxford. I woke up from that dream about 4 a.m. on Monday and immediately started writing Miss Emily’s story,” says the 1978 Ole Miss law school graduate.
The supernatural is not so strange to Armstrong who grew up in a haunted house in Natchez and served as mayor of the riverfront city for one term. After a career as a lawyer and prosecutor in Natchez as well as being an administrator for DeSoto County, Miss., he now resides in the circa 1833 Lincoln House, one of Columbus’s most haunted antebellum homes.
“I grew up around it [paranormal activity] so it doesn’t bother me,” he says with a laugh. “I sense they like my presence.”
He uses his experience in his latest book, “The Third Gift,” which was released in October. The coming-of-age novel set in Natchez focuses on a teenager who tries to appease ghosts with gifts.
“It’s really funny, but it’s also heavy. I wrote it as a screenplay first,” says Armstrong, who taught screenwriting at the DeSoto Center of Northwest Mississippi Community College when he lived in Southaven in the early 2000s.
Both books, he says, explore many of the same universally human qualities, struggles, and conflicts. It’s the indefatigable human spirit that Armstrong wants readers to remember from his stories.
“Life is about surviving, but it’s also about loving and being loved by others, being hurt and learning how to forgive, and growing spiritually,” he says. “I hope, too, that readers will come away with a sense that, to know true friendship, you have to be willing to reveal who and what you really are to others.”