Finding Depth in the Past

For years I often struggled with modern settings, but when I turned to historical fiction an interesting thing happened. Only when I began writing about the past could I treat my characters with real respect, could I get rid of a certain ironic curl of the lip, an actual physical tic that sometimes accompanied my putting words on the page. I was freed from the pressing need for cynicism and mockery. It’s hard to make fun of the dead. There’s plenty of humor to be found in times past, but characters called up as it were from the grave don’t invite mockery the way contemporary ones do.
In The Reservoir (my first novel) I spent months on the trail of a true story, thinking I might turn it into a nonfiction book. Failing to find enough detailed material, I turned to fiction, and the world of the story began to open up in the most liberating of ways. By that point, I had enough experience in both research and writing to give it a try, though I’ll admit that at first it seemed overwhelming. I’d never pictured myself writing historical fiction, but I was intrigued. My job, as I saw it, was to re-light a fire that had gone cold more than a century ago and make it burn brighter than ever. With Love and Lament, the challenge was altogether different—to make a fire from nothing but a handful of kindling, a few family anecdotes.
What became illuminated for me was a character named Mary Bet, a young woman who is always trying to find her better self, stumbling sometimes, but striving to do right, and the drama comes in seeing her struggle and seeing how she handles the blows that a hard life inflicts. I think we measure ourselves against our predecessors. When we know something of their lives, we wonder how we might’ve done, and almost always what they did seems bigger, harder, on a grander stage: “What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.”
I recently saw a production of La Bohéme at Charlottesville’s Ashlawn Festival, and realized something I hadn’t before. That odd juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous in much of opera—gorgeous music soaring over some trivial business—is often intentional. I’d always considered it a weakness of opera, and probably sometimes it is. But, for example, when Mimi observes how Musette lives a lie—a profound observation—while, at the same time, Musette makes flippant remarks about her sex appeal, the ensemble (some of the greatest music ever written) underscores that tragicomic nexus where our feet of clay always trip us up, even while we reach for the highest heaven of invention or nature.
We can find that nexus of the mundane and the profound in any good fiction; I’ve just been looking for it lately in the past.

The Setting

I forget what author said that writers have less insight than anybody about their own books. At the risk of not knowing what I’m talking about when I’m talking about my own writing, I’ll share a few thoughts about the milieu of Love and Lament.
The heroine, Mary Bet, was of a gentry that had gone to war and come home defeated, heads hung low in shame and bitterness and exhaustion. The land was empty; fortunes were gone up in smoke. Despite generous surrender terms offered by the North, it was still an occupied territory. But by the 1890s things were beginning to change. Mary Bet’s story takes place between this time and the first world war.
We tend to believe that there’s something simple and romantic in the pre-world-war era, and it’s true that people’s lives then were very different from ours. The pace of life was not as jittery, nor as instantaneous. Life expectancy was lower, resulting in outlooks and expectations that were not so unbounded. The story of your life, particularly in the South, was contained within the few square miles of a county. Most people lived rural lives—only about 15 percent of Southerners lived in a town in 1900 (the situation has now reversed, with an urban population of 85 percent). The expectation was that you’d be born, get married, grow old, die, and be buried in the churchyard beside other family members. To want more was to be considered proud, arrogant, “uppity.” Everybody had his place, and to act out of it was to upset a very carefully established social order and thus invite chaos.
Communities were smaller, quieter, and more obvious, mostly revolving around church and civic functions, and there was a clearer line between classes, especially between blacks and whites. Race relations were, by the 1890s, back on an even keel, owing to sporadic terrorism and the black codes of the Jim Crow South, and blacks took up their former subservient position and waited for a better day. Meanwhile, a war was coming in Europe, a war with no clear cause, enemy, or purpose.
But people also had the same pressing concerns of family and love and work and fulfillment as we do. And, for the Hartsoe family, those concerns came down to a matter of survival. In the 1890s, modern medicine was in its infancy; germ theory was taking its first steps. It was an era of fluxes, fevers, and midnight miasmas. The idea that there were microorganisms that could enter the body and do damage was just beginning to be accepted. In the meantime, if you contracted an infectious disease and your body’s immune system was not able to beat it, you had no choice but to suffer and die. People didn’t expect public health miracles on a regular basis, and they didn’t get them. The vaccine for typhoid—a deadly, contagious killer—did not appear until 1917. It took ten more years for tetanus. And not until the 1940s would the first sulfa drugs become available, and the war on infectious diseases could begin in earnest.
The modernization of America got seriously underway after World War I, and by then everything had changed. For Mary Bet and her family, those changes would come too late.

Origins of Love and Lament

Love and Lament is a family saga, a young woman’s coming-of-age story set in piedmont North Carolina around the turn of the century. It’s the result of my trying to tell one story and ending up with another. In attempting to create characters and a setting based on my father’s early life, I had to ditch some 400 pages and start back earlier in time, focusing on the previous generation. With my first novel, The Reservoir, I had immersed myself in the culture and texture of the 1880s, and so it felt almost instinctive to pick up with the 1890s, moving the setting from tidewater Virginia to piedmont North Carolina, origin of my clan.
I come from a family of humble folk, farmers mostly, with a miller in there, and later a country doctor, a teacher, a dentist, a lawyer. Though the women were generally the ones who kept the family histories and played the piano and painted, my paternal grandmother was not an artist of any sort, nor was she much on any literature except scripture. The only family history she knew was the names in the family Bible, and she didn’t seem to know much about them.
Yet working with a few family anecdotes, I found myself deep inside a story arising from my grandmother’s life. I had known her only as a kindly, bent old woman, given to choking spells and unintentionally funny remarks, who would come to our house for several weeks at a time and play endless games with me and my siblings. Later, when she was ancient and living in a retirement home, I would visit her and listen to her talk, in idioms inherited from a long-gone era, about the news from people back home. She was much more interested in talking about the present than the past, and I suppose that’s part of the reason I was later intrigued. A writer is naturally drawn to what is left unsaid. The past was not something to talk about or dwell on, and I had to wonder what secrets were kept hidden and why.
I knew two key facts about her life. One, she had had, as my father said, “a sad life.” She came from a big family and, mostly because of incurable disease, was practically alone in the world by the time she was a young woman. Fact two: She was the first woman sheriff of North Carolina. She missed being the first in the country by a few months. Sixteen years would go by before there was another woman sheriff in North Carolina; there have been a few over the years; today there’s only one. She was smart and capable, and yet I doubt she would ever have thought of herself as a woman’s rights advocate; she was somebody who stepped up to do what her community needed her to.
Once I got started with the writing, it came fairly quickly. That transitional period between Reconstruction and the first world war, that generation just beyond our memory’s reach, when rural America had one foot in the pre-electric, pre-automobile age and one foot in the modern, I found completely compelling, especially from a young woman’s point of view. The story I ended up with is not my grandmother’s; I don’t presume to know how she spent even a single day of her young life. How absolutely true is the disclaimer, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” She opened a door for me, and I went through it. Yet it was also true that I came to know her better, and to understand what a remarkable woman she was. I can only apologize for anything about my story that does not honor her, and repeat Styron’s observation: “Oh, what ghoulish opportunism are writers prone to!”

28th Sheriff of Chatham County

People’s Choice Awards

The Reservoir is a finalist for the People's Choice Awards sponsored by the Library of Virginia. To vote for it:

New Novel Sold

My new novel, LOVE AND LAMENT, will be published by Other Press in 2013. More details to come.

Review on Blogging for a Good Book

Review on This Common Reader