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Novel set in Arkansas co-penned by natural State native

by Sean Clancy | May 28, 2023 at 7:35 a.m.
The magic realism-fantasy novel "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves," which is set in Arkansas, will be released Tuesday (May 30) by Sourcebooks Landmark. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Sourcebooks Landmark/Trevillion Images/Magdalena Wasiczek)

It's summer and things are getting weird at Lake Prospect. The fictional Arkansas lake is the setting for "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves," the hard-to-put-down debut novel from Quinn Connor that mixes Southern Gothic, magic realism, ghosts and romance to tell the story of Cassie, Lark and June, three young women with ties to the lake and its gruesome secrets.

Decades ago, as deadly yellow fever gripped the small lakeside town of Prosper, the dam that held back the lake suddenly broke during a storm, flooding the valley and drowning its residents. This was no accident, and now the dead are making themselves known. A mysterious, locked box has been pulled from the water, the lake has turned blood red and the three protagonists are forced to face their own trauma, fear, longing and grief as well as the uncertainty of the area's future as an unstable developer is looking to turn it into a tourist spot. There's also the complicated legacy of family and life on the shores of Lake Prosper, where the past is its own kind of ghost.

And there's a huge twist: Quinn Connor is actually -- dramatic pause -- two women: Little Rock native Robyn Barrow and Alexandra Cronin, who grew up in Plano, Texas.

OK, maybe that's not such a big revelation. There's actually a photo of the 29-year-old friends and co-authors on the back of the book.

"Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves," from Sourcebooks Landmark, is their first novel and they will celebrate with an appearance at WordsWorth Books in Little Rock on Tuesday, which also happens to be the day the book is released.

Cronin, who lives in New York, and Barrow, who was in Cambridge, England researching her doctoral dissertation on medieval art, spoke with us earlier this month during a Zoom interview about the book, their influences and how they write together.

"It's really exciting, but it's also really surreal," Cronin says when asked about how she's feeling as the book nears publication. "It's been a long time coming, and the closer we get the more I realize, oh, my gosh. This is really happening."

She and Barrow met while students at Rhodes College in Memphis. They bonded over writing and their love of the work of Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and others.

"We were both fantasy [fiction] kids," Barrow says. "We still love fantasy, but we got interested in magical realism."

They'd written things together before, but "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves" was the first time they tried to map out a cohesive story.

Talking about each other's strengths as writers, Cronin praises Barrow's ability to evoke a sense of place; Barrow admires how Cronin crafts plot and character. They treat co-writing as "a conversation," Cronin says. "That's how it's always been for us."

"We each have characters that are our characters," Barrow adds. "It truly is like a conversation and it's like us hanging out in our world that we've made together."

The world they have built in this novel is dark and idyllic. It's also based in part on what was once a small town in Garland County that is now under water.

Growing up, Barrow would go with her family on weekends to Lake Ouachita. While floating in the lake, often after being tossed from a tube pulled behind a boat, she would wonder about what was below the murky water.

That's because at the bottom of Lake Ouachita is what was once the community of Buckville, which was evacuated and covered by the lake after the construction of Blakely Mountain Dam in the 1950s.

"I would think about the fact that there were railroad tracks underneath the lake, and buildings and old ruins," she says. "That was always so haunting to me as a child."

Cronin's family has a house on Cedar Creek Lake in Texas and she has seen how development has changed the area.

"It used to be green on the other side, and now there's a resort," she says. "You see that these natural spaces are constantly changing as people are moving."

Before they started writing the book, Barrow took Cronin to Lake Ouachita to give her a sense of the place.

"Maybe I was just being homesick, but I really wanted to write about my home state," Barrow says.


The three women at the heart of the book are in different ways affected by Lake Prosper. Cassie has lived in the area her whole life, and even though she once loved the water she's now terrified of what she knows is underneath. She runs an antique shop once owned by her beloved grandfather and mostly keeps to herself, trapped in a way by her private trauma.

Lark is a Memphis record store clerk who has come back to the lake to clean up her family's houseboat, which is loaded down with telescopes and spyglasses -- items hoarded by her father, who has had a debilitating breakdown after seeing the lake's horror.

June is a perpetual wanderer and is visiting her aunt at Lake Prosper when she meets Lark and pulls that mystery box from the lake that helps break the story open.

Barrow and Cronin pace the action expertly as the tension builds toward the novel's breathless, climactic final third. They are also quite good at patiently setting tone and mood and bringing these characters and this place to life.


The two friends are working on another novel that, while not a sequel to "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves," is "kind of adjacent" to it, Barrow says.

As for the event on Tuesday, Cronin and Barrow are planning a Q&A and book signing.

"We should also do a reading, because Alex is an amazing reader," Barrow adds.

  photo  Robyn Barrow (standing) and Alexandra Cronin write under the pen name Quinn Connor. Their debut novel, "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves," is a Southern Gothic tale of magic realism set around a fictional Arkansas lake. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

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Author Event

Quinn Connor, "Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves"

6:30 p.m. Tuesday, WordsWorth Books, 5920 R St., Little Rock

Admission: Free

(501) 663-9198


Print Headline: Arkansas-set ‘Cicadas’ filled with magic, realism and ghosts


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