Denver author Tiffany Quay Tyson

(Courtesy Cat Hope Photography)

Natural disasters -- like tornadoes, floods and hurricanes -- can push people to act in unexpected ways to stay alive. This heightened tension fascinates Denver-based author Tiffany Quay Tyson, which is why she set her debut novel in the middle of a dangerous storm in the Mississippi Delta. "Three Rivers" follows three narratives that collide when flood waters threaten the fictional rural town of White Forest.

In the book, Tyson also explores themes of religion, strained family ties and an individual's ability -- or inability -- to make choices.

She spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner in anticipation of her book's Tuesday release.

Read an excerpt

Bobby was eleven when he answered the call of the Lord. It was summertime and hot then, as it was now. They worshipped in a small, old church while a new sanctuary was built. The congregation looked to that new sanctuary with as much reverence as they looked toward God. When Pastor Tuttle announced they would worship in the new church the very next week, Bobby sprinted up the aisle to dedicate his soul, determined to be the first body dunked in the new baptismal pool.

For the past year, the church had contracted with a nearby hotel to use its pool once a month for baptisms. It was awkward when guests in town for reunions or weddings came down on Sunday mornings to swim off their Saturday night hangovers. Before that, they’d done all their baptisms in the Tallahatchie River. That’s where Melody was dunked, where she felt the cool squish of mud between her toes, where she ate sour cream cake and fried chicken while the sun and a warm breeze dried her hair. It was perfect until little Johnny McPherson was bit by a water moccasin at his baptism. Plenty of folks said Johnny was an evil child and the devil had come back in that old familiar form to claim his soul. That Johnny survived and went on to brag about his brush with death just reinforced the gossip. Most people, though, knew you could enter snake-infested waters only so many times without getting bit. Those people began raising money for a new sanctuary, snake-free baptismal pool included.

On the morning of the baptism, every seat was filled. People who showed up for church only at Christmas and Easter were there, wearing their finest clothes. The new sanctuary was spectacular with gleaming polished oak pews. The choir wore new rich purple robes with gold embroidery around the neck and arms. Melody, Bobby, and Mama sat in the third row. Melody’s father could not be lured to church for any reason. When the choir rose to sing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” Bobby slipped through a side door behind the choir loft. Pastor Tuttle followed. The choir sang on and on. When they finished, Pastor Tuttle emerged clad in dark robes. He stepped down into the pool. A soft light emanated from the water and shone on his face. A microphone was attached to one side of the pool, and Pastor Tuttle took it in his hands. “Friends and family in the Lord.” His voice boomed, magnified by the microphone and tiles. When Bobby appeared behind the pastor, poised to step down into the water, Melody put a fist to her mouth. She was overcome with the beauty of her little brother, and not for the first time. Pastor Tuttle stepped to one side and offered his hand to Bobby. Bobby smiled, turned his head left and right, drawing out the moment for full effect. He looked heavenward, then reached down to take the pastor’s hand. That was when it all went wrong.

The microphone slipped from the pastor’s hand and splashed into the water. Pastor Tuttle yelped, and disappeared. Bobby’s beautiful face contorted. His neck snapped back like someone having a seizure. Melody’s mother broke the stunned silence, screaming, “Let go. Let go! Let go!” She didn’t need a microphone to be heard. Bobby jerked, spasmed, fell back onto the hard tile steps. Time passed, though Melody would never know how much, and the sound of a bleating ambulance grew louder until it was deafening. Sunshine poured down the aisle of the church as a pair of paramedics rushed in. 

The congregation remained in the pews, some standing, some slumping forward, but Melody’s mother moved. She sprinted through the door Bobby had entered earlier and reappeared in the baptismal pool, where she sank down on the top step and pulled Bobby onto her lap. Her skirt, a beautiful linen the color of butter pecan ice cream, gaped open, revealing a glimpse of her lavender silk panties, a disturbing detail that would remain vivid in Melody’s memory for the rest of her life. Mama stroked Bobby’s hair and seemed to speak to him, though he didn’t respond. One of the paramedics appeared and reached for Bobby. Mama reared her head back and hissed. The paramedic stumbled, nearly fell into the water. He looked confused. “Mama,” Melody said, her voice too soft to be heard. She spoke up. “Mama, you have to let him go. Let them take him.” Mama’s lips kept moving; her hands stroked Bobby’s face. It was too much, too intimate a display for church, no matter how dire the situation. Melody’s face went hot. “Please.” She appealed to the paramedic. “Please help my little brother.” The paramedic locked eyes with her and she saw that he was scared and very young, but he nodded and pried Bobby from Mama’s grasp, checked for a pulse, put his mouth on Bobby’s mouth, until Bobby’s hands fluttered around the man’s face. He lifted Bobby, carried him into the main sanctuary, placed him on a stretcher, and wheeled him down the aisle. A second stretcher carried Pastor Tuttle, who was still and gray and obviously dead. Finally, they came back for Melody’s mother, who twitched and cried out some sort of gibberish. No one came for Melody, who was left to wonder what would happen next.

From THREE RIVERS by Tiffany Quay Tyson, on sale July 21, 2015, from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Tiffany Quay Tyson and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.