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With its varied landscapes, unique attractions and interesting people, the southern United States has long been a popular setting for many classic works of literature. Opelika native Anessa Sewell Kent is hoping to continue that tradition in her debut novel, "The Bitter and the Sweet," which is set to release next May.

A former real estate agent and Dothan elementary Spanish teacher, Kent described her book as a character-driven, historical fiction drama set in 20th-century Alabama.

"The Bitter and the Sweet" radiates Southern charm and offers lessons of faith and forgiveness. It is a story about Veradine Dawn Turnipseed, a small-town high school basketball legend who disappears before graduation after she gets pregnant. Years later, she returns to the town no longer the tomboy she once was but also not quite a woman of distinction. 

The story follows Varadine, her daughter and other characters in the town, including Louanna Parsons, a prominent teenage girl who is mysteriously murdered.

Southern influence

Kent said it was her own experiences growing up in the South that inspired her to write the book. Her love of Southern food, Southern traditions and Southern music, such as blues, jazz and Southern rock, also helped. She said her "Southernisms" permeate nearly every layer of the book.

The small town where the story takes place is a mix between Opelika and Eufaula, and there's even mention of a university called "Plains University," which is a stand-in for Auburn University, her alma mater.

"There's something about being raised in the South that gets into your DNA," Kent said. "It's just absorbed to the core of you … I think it is something that is so precious to us as a people that we love to continue to read stories about Southern people and Southern life … The voices and the pain and the realism and just the fact that we are transparent. We're typically very transparent as a people."

Though the Southern atmosphere is strong, Kent feels confident the book will appeal to audiences around the country.

Much like the South, "The Bitter and the Sweet" is rich with messages told from a Christian perspective. Kent said her characters are always praying, and the novel is rife with hymns.

"Faith is huge in my book," Kent said. "There's a lot of prayer and Jesus, and we are Southerners, and that's our culture … To me, I just couldn't write characters that [religion] wasn't big to them too."

Kent said she loves to read other Southern novelists, from older authors like William Faulkner to more contemporary writers like John Grisham and Fannie Flagg. She also mentioned Harper Lee, Pat Conroy and Cassandra King. 

Of course, a book wouldn't be truly Southern without a little bit of humor here and there. Kent said she did her best to add a little lightheartedness to the mix of the drama.

"It's quite funny, too," Kent said.

A character-driven tale

"The Bitter and the Sweet" is about its characters more than anything else. In fact, Kent said she started with the characters and went from there.

She began writing while she was working her last real estate job when she received a call about a piece of property in Dothan that used to be a barbecue restaurant and a strip club at the same time. This inspired a character, Veradine, who was connected to that two-in-one establishment in the story, but her character was a minor one. However, over time, Veradine evolved into the lead of the story.

In the final draft, Kent said, the barbecue strip joint isn't mentioned. She's saving that gem for her second book, which she's working on now. 

Many of Kent's other characters also started out as completely different people.

"It's amazing how characters will tell you their story," Kent said. "They will tell you what to say. They become real to you. It's almost like they're a friend. As I was writing a book, I never knew what I was going to write."

Book deal and going forward

Kent graduated from Auburn with an English degree after transferring in following her freshman year at Judson College, a recently closed all-girls school in Marion.

She said she always wanted to write a book but struggled to get an idea she considered good enough until now.

"The Bitter and the Sweet" is scheduled to publish in May 2023 with the independent Texas publishing house Black Rose Writing. She signed a contract with them in August.

Eager readers will be able to find it on Amazon after release. You can also keep up with Kent by following her Facebook page.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email will.blakely@1819news.com or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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