FINDING THE STORY IN HISTORY
I have heard that the best book you can buy to help you create historical fiction rich in detail is a facsimile of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Of course, I rushed right out and got one, from 1897. I’ve pawed through it a couple of times, charmed. But I’m just not sharp enough to see a soul or a plot there.
To get at the whole universe of a character, I need to know not only what she longed to wear or kept in her desk or lugged in her purse but also what her job demanded and what was happening around her. And I like to set the bar pretty high when it comes to the level of a character’s intelligence. After all, I’m asking for eight hours or more of a reader’s attention. Who wants to ride eight hours seated in coach with a dullard? Smart characters notice a lot of stuff, and think about or may desire a lot of stuff. The human mind has had roughly the same processing and storage capacity since, oh, the time of Gilgamesh. And ever since Lucy first reared her children, the heart has shown about the same mix of muscle and soul. I can’t sit still with a stunted, rustic protagonist with narrow or only magical horizons. I tend to want to learn and live a lot when I read. Where to get all that stuff? Here are some notes on sources you may not have considered inspiring.
A will or a trust is a remarkable window into the real life of what people valued. And many times a will or trust will show you the cold ways that families can operate. Like deeds and tax records, wills and trusts are filed in any courthouse or county archives. Scanning the wills of a large, wealthy Irish Catholic family, I found not once, but twice one daughter treated very differently from her many siblings, receiving not a devised share of the real estate, crops, and money, but a stingingly small lump sum payment. The second time this
happened, the check was a little more generous and would have easily bought her a reasonable, new car. Yet in the will some mysterious and delicious conflict unfolds. Several prompting letters appear from the family’s attorney. The check has been received, certified mail, but never cashed. The estate cannot be resolved. Please advise; please act. At last the daughter returns the check by mail to the family attorney, whole, and without comment. Plot, estrangement, heartbreak—something alive awaits here. HINT: Like a deposition or a trial transcript, you do not need to quote a will or a probate letter whole cloth. Find the drama; the rest is dross.
DISCOVER THE OBSCURE
Popular narrative histories from the era you want to write about, histories published by major publishing houses in New York and meant for broad reading audiences may have good bibliographies to consult. But otherwise they may not help much to discover what it was like to live in an era before you were born. No stuff, no details. They can be like a plane ride over a village when you need a hike and a yurt. I lean toward hyper-local histories usually from university presses and small and independent houses. I also don’t shy away from histories from quirky regional publishers. They are immersive, committed, sometimes exhaustive, and they often rely more on anecdote (narrative and scene!) than an academically vetted volume or certainly a commercial, flyover history might. The aggressive scanning project that Google has undertaken, for example, has brought access to previously lost accounts of the past. Wondering about Bulgaria just before World War I and hoping to write about a British soldier later in the Great War, I found an extraordinary travelogue by British bon vivant, John L. C. Booth, Troubles in the Balkans. This book will likely never see anything but facsimile, on demand print again. But the detail—stained and distorted through a free-wheeling, crushing British imperialist vision—it was just what I needed to glean not only the smell, taste, and packing lists from the time, but real, unalloyed British attitude. Very smart characters from the past may have profoundly different ideas about the world and how it works, ideas that seem quite harsh to our own “sophisticated, humane, and informed” worldviews. HINT: Get over your own self. Let your character’s full soul loose on the page, even the “horrible” parts.
READ THE MANUAL
Sometime in your writing life, you may wonder how a road was carved above the Columbia River in Oregon or how a churn drill worked in a quarry. There is no greater source I know of than Halbert Powers Gillette’s Handbook of Rock Excavation: Methods and Costs. And, lucky you, you will not have to pay a major research library $185.00 or face denial of your MFA degree in order to own your copy! Abe books and others will gladly find you a vendor. In 1556, the major sales rival to the Gutenberg Bible was Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica, essentially a book on how to mine gold. From the very beginning, publishing has been the carrier wave for human “how to” knowledge. I feel absolutely adrift reading or writing about characters who do not have jobs, who do not have a tangible means of support. There is, I promise you, a nonfiction account of how to do just about every job, every task humankind has ever undertaken. HINT: Find the manual written at about the same time your fiction is set so that you can then get costs, knowledge, technology, attitude, and equipage just right.
CHECK THE NEWSPAPER
In the past, there were only two occasions in which an individual’s life events were likely to make the newspaper—marriage and death. The notice of engagement and later marriage and especially the obituary contain a abridged version of a life history. Sometimes these can solve parts of a mystery. Let’s recall the estranged daughter above, the one receiving and later refusing checks, the one excluded from the family’s larger
trust and its divisions. Her obituary was shorter than her brothers’ and sisters’, but it mentioned a husband. And I noted that the deaths of her brothers and sisters occasioned some substantive reporting aside from the obituary, especially as the wills passed through probate and became public record. These were very wealthy people I was researching, and in the 1970s, you did not have to be a movie or music star to make the paper in a small town when you died. Mere wealth sufficed. Our possibly estranged sister, alas, did not merit anything but a standard death notice. Finding her husband’s obituary, I discovered his occupation, a sheet metal worker. He was memorialized and buried Catholic, as she was and as were all her wealthy siblings. But, a sheet metal worker . . . that’s a different social class than the rich gentlemen farmers. This could have been a wedding of which the progenitor of all this wealthy clan disapproved, and that disapproval spanned the generations in that $4,000.00 check. Delicious. And the perfect stuff for fiction—drama, conflict, sorrow, backbone, and redemption.
CHECK THE WEATHER
Get used to the whir of microfiche, those twirling reels, and that ghostly blue-gray blizzard of light and, when all that has stilled, the dark smudges of history carved in the old newspapers. If you have blocked and outlined your novel well enough to know that you have a scene coming up set in 1946 and another in 1958, give the microfiche a whirl and see what was on people’s minds around that date. See as well what the weather was. Really. There are still people alive who recall, even in the American Deep South a time before air conditioning. Any family relying on the land watches weather faithfully. Weather matters, and it can add color and atmosphere to the reality you are creating. Examples: I knew my novel “The Legend of the Albino Farm” started in 1946—that’s when the nonsensical, cruel local legend first began circulating. So I scanned the local newspapers of the day. Big headlines appeared about the nuclear bomb the United States detonated against a fleet of surplus Navy warships to observe the grim destruction. And there was something of a flying saucer craze underway. One magazine predicted there would soon be “Flying Saucers for Everybody.” The closing of the Office of Price Administration, interestingly, garnered three top-of-the-page banner headlines above in-depth reporting. I learned a lot about what even wealthy gentleman farmers might have on their minds in 1946. HINT: Your story matters more than any atmosphere. I did exactly what you should never do. I wrote two great big opening chapters choking with details and gagging with awkward insertions of all this stuff I had learned. By the time my editor and I got it right sized, here (underlined for emphasis) was all that remained from my newly gained knowledge of the closing of the Office of Price Administration: “Without Hettienne there at Emerald Park for June and July, and with grain prices roaming high and free, the Sheehys did not invite the Ormond children for the usual extended stay.” Weather may rule the farm, but not the heart of the story.
* * *
A portion of this originally appeared in The Zafris-Kothari Novel Workshop at http://www.novelworkshop.org/new-blog/ywwpsz5dx3eezc4hm6yle7398zn8c9
Steve Yates is the winner of the Juniper Prize for Some Kinds of Love: Stories and the inaugural Knickerbocker Prize (chosen by Lauren Groff) for Sandy and Wayne: A Novella. He is the author of two novels Morkan’s Quarry and its sequel The Teeth of the Souls, about a limestone quarrying family. In April 2017, Unbridled books will publish his novel, The Legend of the Albino Farm. In the daylight he is associate director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson.
Dock Street Press designer Kelly Rae Bahr was kind enough to join me in a round of questions and answers about the creation of Sandy and Wayne: A Novella.
Q: Kelly, I have to tell you, this is my fourth published work of fiction, and I have never had so many book designers, booksellers, and even journalists respond with such positive zeal for a cover design. Well done! What was the spark of inspiration for this cover?
A: I have to give some credit here to the editor, Dane Bahr. Typically he will come to me with a few ideas for how to visually portray the story, and I then figure out how those ideas translate into cover artwork. We wanted invoke a sense of isolation with this cover. The landscape is as much a character in this narrative as Sandy and Wayne themselves. The Ozarks, to a degree, hide the true feelings of these people. But it’s not completely melancholy either. Dane and I loved the blue image, there’s mystery there, yet it’s still inviting and warm. The typeset for the title works wonderfully against it. Just enough contrast between the rural scenery and the articulation of the story being told. We are quite happy with it.
Q: Where did you learn book design?
A: I received my degree in graphic design from Montana State University. There I learned the fundamentals of commercial art, though, I have to attribute my working knowledge of print design and file prep to my former co-worker and mentor Marla Goodman. We shared an office at my first agency job and I learned more from her than any other single person.
Q: And so how many books have you designed?
A: Before Dock Street I focused on marketing collateral work; brochures, brand books, print and web ads, etc. So for books I’m at six, with two more in the works coming out later this year.
Q: A designer here at University Press of Mississippi where I work was REALLY knocked out by the way the letters arose from the hills, the landscape. Where did that type innovation come from?
A: I touched on this before, but there needs to be a feeling of emergence here. On any cover, really, there needs to be something withheld, just like good writing. It needs to mimic the story. If a cover is done well, it will reveal everything it was once trying to hide. So, in this instance, what was the author (you) ultimately wanting to illuminate about Sandy and Wayne? They’re are smart, but for the most part provincial in their beliefs and opinions, and to have any growth as characters they must rise from or descend back into their surroundings. You’ve chosen the former, so we see them emerging.
Q: Do you have some favorite book designs or designers, influences you feel have been pivotal in shaping your vision?
A: That’s a very good question. Book stores are maybe my favorite type of store, whenever I pass by one on a trip I always stop in just to look around. I keep an eye out for covers I like and get inspiration from the ones that stand out amongst the hundreds of others. A couple really neat ones right now are: No One Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel (Designer: Jon Gray), Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah (Designer: Janet Hansen), and Lost for Words by Edward St.Aubyn (Designer: Jennifer Carrow).
Q: May we talk about type and pagination, please? I am blown away by the interior, how fast it reads and how large and friendly the type is. And I will freely admit here, the breaks and blank pages, and the pacing of these—I just let that happen and gave you no guidance. The original novella had just a few white space breaks. What were you goals when you started the type and page design?
A: White space is a designers best friend. It’s like fresh air, you can’t have too much. The breaks and blank pages are just that, room to breath. As for the typesetting and font size, that is a Dock Street standard. What good is a book that is uncomfortable to read?
Q: Since I am a nosy provincial, forgive me, please, but I have to ask a small-town question. What is your relationship to Dane Bahr, the editor of Dock Street Press?
A: Dane is my brother in law. He’s the big brother I never had, equally as protective and kind as he is obnoxious and patronizing. Just ask him about the time he broke my sticks.
Q: If you could change publishing, what would you wish for? What would you add? What would you ditch?
A: Getting published is a hard thing for writers to crack their way into. It’s like those jobs that require experience, but in order to get experience you need a job, so where do you start? I’d like it to somehow be easier for talented writers to be recognized and their works cultivated. That’s what’s great about Dock Street, it’s about the art form, not about big bucks.
Q: If there is one book you could redesign out of all book on the planet, which book would you transform?
A: Hmmmmm . . . at heart I’m an illustrator, so I’d have to pick a children’s book to re-desing and illustrate. Something old, maybe a classic fairy tale or nursery rhyme that isn’t tied to any one iconic illustrator. Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs or something like that.
Q: What project are you most eager to work on next at Dock Street Press?
A: My own actually. Dock Street has a children’s book imprint in the works and will be publishing a picture book of mine. Keep an eye out for Sunshine for Sale late 2016!
Matthew J. Hernando is Instructor of History and Government at Ozark Technical Community College, Hollister, Missouri. He has contributed articles and book reviews to such publications as the North Louisiana Historical Association Journal, the White River Valley Historical Quarterly, and the online journal Civil War Book Review.
Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks was published in the spring of 2015 by University of Missouri Press.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Matthew.
Q: You graduated from Louisiana State University, and you now work in the Ozarks. Were your people from the Ozarks?
A: Alas, no they weren’t. I am totally an adopted Ozarker. My family relocated to the area from New Jersey in 1990. I was ten years old at that time. So far as I know, no member of my family ever lived here before that point. My mother’s family is Scottish, and my father’s family is Russian, Polish, and Filipino.
In a weird way, however, I think that I might actually have a bit of an advantage not being a native Ozarker. A lot of things that a native of the region might take for granted—such as the continuous “insider” versus “outsider” dynamic that plays out time and again in our history—strike me as different and fascinating. Perhaps as a result of that I have always found the history of this area intriguing, which may explain why I chose this topic.
Q: The Bald Knobbers existed in three counties in the Missouri Ozarks—Taney, Christian, and Douglas. Briefly what were the Bald Knobbers and how many men were involved?
A: The Bald Knobbers were a vigilante organization that were founded in Taney County sometime in the winter of 1884 to 1885. Thereafter they spread north into the neighboring counties of Christian and Douglas. Contemporary accounts suggest that up to a thousand men may have belonged to the Bald Knobbers, although I have only been able to document the names of around 140 members in the three counties.
Q: Why would Ozarkers choose to improvise and circumvent existing, elected civil authority?
A: For the same reason that other nineteenth century Americans did so in other places: they became dissatisfied with the operation of the legitimate law enforcement mechanisms in their communities, either because they did not move fast enough or because they yielded results that many people found to be unjust or inequitable. If you look at nineteenth century America, particularly Post-Civil War, you have these sorts of organizations popping up everywhere. Right here in Missouri you have organizations like the Stone County Sons of Honor, the Marmiton League in Vernon County, the Anti-Horse Thief Association up in Clarke County, and of course the Klu Klux Klan, which was heavily active in Southeast Missouri. So what happened in Southwest Missouri in the 1880’s is hardly unique.
Q: You say significantly in the book and in your conclusion that some of the conflict was an extension of, or was perceived by participants as an extension of, the very bloody and often personal Civil War in the Ozarks. What had these men learned in the war?
A: Well, first and foremost they had learned that violence solves problems, and they had learned how to use violence to solve problems. They had also learned to view people from the “other side” of that conflict with suspicion and hostility. It’s no accident that, among the Bald Knobbers who were old enough to have served in the Civil War, union veterans predominated. Moreover, in Taney County – where the Bald Knobbers actually faced organized opposition – confederate veterans flocked to the Anti-Bald Knobber faction.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Civil War loyalties were the sole factor in determining whether a person joined the Bald Knobbers, something that I don’t say in the book. Instead, I see civil war loyalties as one of several factors that could influence that decision, including economic or financial motives, a concern for law and order, a desire for probity in local government, and a person’s willingness to impose his own version of morality upon his neighbors.
Q: Other counties saw the rise of anti-horse thief leagues or law-and-order committees. Why did Taney County in particular see a vigilante group that became so large and dominant so fast?
A: By the mid-1880’s, conditions were ripe for vigilante justice to take hold in Taney County. First, you have the local political situation: the end of ex-confederate disfranchisement in 1872 led to local Democrats recapturing control of local government in Taney County, so for about a decade you have this clique of Democratic, mostly southern sympathizing, office-holders calling the shots in local politics. At the same time, you have substantial immigration from former Union states—including the North and the Mid-West—which brought in a lot of people who were ill-disposed to accept this state of affairs. The newcomers blamed Taney County’s problems on the Democratic “courthouse ring” or “old county ring” controlling local government. They particularly focused their ire on the county’s burgeoning local debt—which reached the once staggering total of $42,600 in 1883—even though as I point out in the book the county’s debt problem actually began before the Democrats took over.
The other issue the critics harped on was crime, particularly violent crime, which they said the local authorities had allowed to get out of control. There was a lot of talk about crime statistics leading up to the Bald Knobber episode. A commonly cited claim was that some thirty to forty murders had occurred in Taney County during the twenty years from the end of the war to the founding of the Bald Knobbers, although that claim has never been substantiated. As often happens, however, perception became more important than reality. The perception that Taney County had become this wild, lawless place was reinforced by a number of high profile violent crimes that did occur in Taney County in the early 1880’s, particularly the murders of Amos Ring and James Everett, and the attempted murders of John T. Dickenson and his wife by the brothers Frank and Tubal Taylor, whom the Bald Knobbers later lynched.
Underlying the complaints about crime and corruption, however, was a very real concern on the part of many of the vigilantes for the progress of their community. To them “progress” meant continued immigration to Taney County, as well as new investment, business development, and so on. Many of them had moved to the area expecting to participate in what they anticipated would be a bright and prosperous future, and they saw that future jeopardized by what they perceived as rampant crime and political corruption. Such a threat justified taking extreme steps to wage what the Bald Knobber chieftain Nat Kinney described in his typically overheated rhetoric as a “war between civilization and barbarism” in which all the county’s “best men”—lawyers, doctors, businessmen, taxpayers, etc.—sided with him, while presumably the county’s “worst” element sided with his opponents.
Q: The Christian and Douglas County Bald Knobbers were very different organizations than what started in Taney County. How so?
A: That’s a great question because it gets to the heart of the distinction I try to draw in the book: I view the two groups of Bald Knobbers as being very different organizations. They differed first in terms of composition: they attracted different sorts of people into their ranks. The Taney County group consisted mainly of middle and upper class men who tended to be older (about forty years old on average), and came from diverse occupational and geographical backgrounds. About half of them practiced something other than agriculture as their primary form of employment, and several were successful lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians. Only about three in ten claimed Missouri as their birth place. By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in Christian and Douglas counties tended to be younger (averaging age of about thirty), and came from poorer, less socially-prominent backgrounds. A majority of them claimed Missouri as their birthplace, while about nine in ten practiced agriculture as their primary livelihood. Needless to say, fewer of them ever became lawyers, businessmen, or politicians.
They also differed in terms of their motives. As we’ve seen, the Taney County group organized primarily in response to issues like crime and violence, and corruption in local government. By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in the two northern counties, particularly Christian county, displayed a much greater interest in what I call “moral regulation,” or the use of vigilante tactics to impose your own version of morality and proper behavior on your community. That’s why they engaged in such actions as busting up the “blind tigers” (i.e., saloons) in Chadwick, or whipping adulterers, sexual deviants, and people who abused or neglected their families.
They also attempted to advance the economic interests of their members, which was perhaps similar to the Taney County vigilantes, except that in Christian and Douglas counties the focus was different: they were primarily concerned with protecting the livelihoods of their members, rather than promoting the economic “progress” of their community, per se. For example, many of the Bald Knobbers in these counties—like a lot of people at that time—supplemented their income through “tie-hacking,” or cutting railroad ties for the old Frisco Railroad that ran through the area. As a result, they sometimes clashed with officials from local timber companies who in their view treated their members unfairly. On at least two occasions, they attempted to coerce company representatives from a Springfield-based timber company into giving them more favorable prices for their ties and not rejecting as many substandard ties.
The concern with timber also helps explain why so many of them became involved in homesteader intimidation cases. From 1887 through 1888 dozens of Bald Knobbers from Christian and Douglas counties stood trial in federal court for intimidating homesteaders and running them off their land. As I argue in the book, they did so because they felt homesteaders were crowding them off of land they had used for years, especially for timber-cutting (i.e., “tie-hacking”) purposes. This is something, by the way, that was entirely absent among the Taney County Bald Knobbers, none of whom were arrested for intimidating homesteaders.
Q: I was fascinated to learn that the Taney County Bald Knobbers wore no masks, but the Christian and Douglas County Bald Knobbers had the very distinctive horned sacks with red thread setting off the eyes. Why would one group operate unmasked and overtly and the other always in disguise?
A: You can pretty much boil the answer to that question down to one word: power. After about 1884, the old Democratic courthouse ring had been vanquished in Taney County, and the Bald Knobbers and their Republican allies clearly held control over the local government, as they would continue to do long after the organization itself had phased out of existence. For example, from 1886 to 1892 four known Bald Knobbers or former Bald Knobbers—James K. Polk McHaffie, Galba Branson, Reuben Isaacs, and John L. Cook—held the office of sheriff. Other Bald Knobbers would frequently hold such offices as county clerk, assessor, treasurer, and prosecutor well into the 1890’s. So if you’re in charge, why disguise your identity? You can count on your friends in local government to protect you.
By contrast, the Bald Knobbers in Christian and Douglas counties never had anywhere near that level of influence. They were poorer, less socially prominent, and few if any of them held political office. They needed to disguise their identities because they were more vulnerable to prosecution for their vigilante activities. Ironically enough, those fearsome Bald Knobber masks were a mark of that comparative vulnerability.
Q: A colleague of mine often trots out the phrase, “It’s all about money and power.” How would that apply to the Bald Knobbers?
A: Were the Bald Knobbers interested in money and power? Absolutely. But I think it would be a mistake to reduce it to that. I see the Bald Knobber episode as being primarily a struggle over the future. The men who joined the vigilantes had a particular vision of the future that they wanted to create for themselves and their communities, and they were willing to use force to make it a reality.
Q: What drove you to write this?
A: As a child growing up in the Ozarks, I could hardly have avoided some contact with the Bald Knobbers, or at least the Bald Knobber mythology presented in popular culture. I rode the “Fire in the Hole” ride at Silver Dollar City, and I read Shepherd of the Hills for the first time in middle school. But it wasn’t until I did a research paper on Christian County as part of a class I took at LSU that I first began to think about tackling this project seriously. A small section of that paper concerned the Bald Knobbers, and my professor made the comment that he would have liked to find out more about this group. I thought, “Well, so would I.”
Q: There is a LOT of sensational information and misinformation from newspapers and all the other books about the Bald Knobbers. How did you fend off the “story” to salvage the history?
A: First, I set out to dig as deeply as possible into the available primary sources: newspapers, numerous court records, contemporary accounts, census records, tax records, and so on. I also tried to ask questions a lot of questions that hadn’t really been tackled systematically before. For example, I wanted to know not just what the Bald Knobbers did—who they whipped, lynched, drove out, etc.—but who they were. What type of men joined this group? Where did they come from? What were their social and/or professional backgrounds? What was their family status? Had they been veterans? If so, which side did they fight for?
Lastly, I tried to let the sources guide my research by raising new questions that I hadn’t considered before. For example, one of the things I investigated a little more closely than previous writers is the lawsuit between Nat Kinney and the City of Springfield, which stemmed from an injury he sustained when he fell into a pot hole on a city street. I became fascinated by the fact that, in the midst of all these tumultuous events going on in Taney County, he was simultaneously involved in protracted litigation against a municipal government that actually lasted beyond his death. Without giving away too much of what is in the book, the way that case played out sheds some light on the Bald Knobber episode down in Taney County and the role that Nat Kinney played in it.
Q: Assuming that there is an Ozarks Literature and then there are trends within that Ozarks Literature, I see now a raft of novels that involve crime, lawlessness, murder: Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood, many of Daniel Woodrell’s novels. What in the narrative of the Bald Knobbers has contributed to the persistence of our rough justice narratives?
A: As I suspect you probably know, the Bald Knobbers owe much of their enduring notoriety to one man: the minister-turned-author Harold Bell Wright, whose wildly popular 1907 novel, Shepherd of the Hills, included a highly sensationalized depiction of the group as a gang of cut-throats and outlaws who defied the law and terrorized their neighbors. Since then, this distorted image of the Bald Knobbers has been linked to the Ozarks in the popular imagination, even as the actual history of the group has been largely forgotten. It is no surprise that when the Mabe family decided to open their hillbilly-themed music show in Branson in 1959, they chose the name “Baldknobbers” for their enterprise. It is also no surprise that much of the popular literature concerning the region should focus on themes like crime and violence, not only because that stuff sells books, but also because that is how the region has been portrayed for more than a century.
Q: Are there ways in which this vigilante instinct later contributed to the horrific years of racially motivated lynchings in Joplin, Pierce City, and Springfield? Why were Ozarkers seemingly hardwired to answer anything they feared with a rope?
A: Well, once again, it is only fair to point out that a lot of nineteenth century Americans shared that same predisposition. Ozarkers were not unique in that respect. I would say that the Bald Knobbers, and their numerous late nineteenth century counterparts both in Missouri and the rest of the country, set a precedent that tended to normalize vigilante justice in the eyes of many Americans and Ozarkers. The rash of racially-motivated violence that struck the Ozarks around the turn of the century—which Kimberly Harper chronicles so well in White Man’s Heaven—naturally drew upon that precedent. As always, it becomes easier for people to contemplate doing something when it has been done before.
Q: Any word on when and if Faces Like Devils will appear in paperback?
A: Alas, no word on that yet. That decision will be made by the University of Missouri Press.
Q: Are you done with this subject? What will you work on for your second book?
A: I am done with it for now, except that I am often asked to give talks to various local groups about the Bald Knobbers, which I am usually very happy to do. Next month, for example, I am giving an address to the Vernon County Historical Society. As for my second project, I will be honest and say I have not got very far yet. I am exploring a couple of possible topics, but my teaching load keeps me rather busy during the Fall and Spring semesters.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this, Matthew. I hope you find the time and space to write about the Ozarks again, and soon!
Interviewer Steve Yates is the author of two novels set in the Ozarks, Morkan’s Quarry and The Teeth of the Souls. His collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, won the Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press. Sandy and Wayne: A Novella, chosen for Big Fiction’s Knickerbocker Prize by New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Groff, is forthcoming this February from Dock Street Press in Seattle.
Posted in From the historians, From the novelists and fiction writers | Tagged Bald Knobbers, Christian County, Douglas County, Faces Like Devils, Historians, Matthew J. Hernando, Missouri, Missouri Ozarks, Ozarks history, Taney County | Leave a Comment »
There are very few days when I think of myself as a writer, as an artist, or a creator. As I said in this really pleasurable discussion about creativity on Marshall Ramsey’s radio show, “Now You’re Talking,” fifty hours a week I am, joyfully and willingly, the Bob Barker of Scholarly Publishing. I am Guy Smiley. I am the marketing director at University Press of Mississippi, and I gladly do all I can to insure that the work of our authors makes it into the hands of readers worldwide.
David McCarty is a Jackson lawyer in most of the daylight hours. When he can be, he is an art photographer, and his specialty is the use of old instant technology, specifically the Polaroid camera. His photographs have been exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and many other places.
When he discovered Some Kinds of Love: Stories, he began to pester me with a persistence that would make him a fine university press publicist. David wanted to take a photograph of me, a set piece at famed Choctaw Books in Jackson. After much scheduling difficulty for almost nine months of trying, we found a day in July when we both could be away from work. That day, David took what may be the greatest photo that will ever be taken of Choctaw Books owner Fred Smith. Look how the owner of the most famous used book store in Jackson, Mississippi, appears like a shaman in this Polaroid!
And, unlike any photographer I had previously been around, David did not mind at all that I wished to snap photographs of him working. I was taking leave time to do this (one year ago, according to David’s records). Somehow, when we arrived at Choctaw Books, we exited the real workaday world and entered a solar system entirely of David’s making. In the looming stacks, I followed David’s lead and gave myself to his sway—it was crazy, ridiculous to think that I was a writer worthy of an art photographer’s time. But I could tell as I watched him and photographed him, David McCarty was very serious about this. He thought I was a subject of which art could be made.
The result, since we are talking the semi-instant Polaroid, was astonishing. With no guidance from me—I hardly knew David, and we were both so busy we had no time to talk about what he wanted to do—I think he did capture, as only art can, the essence of another’s spirit and truth. He wanted me swallowed in books; he didn’t know I would be smiling like an imp. And he didn’t know how charmed Fred and I would be by the whole fiasco of an art photography shoot happening in the explosive clutter of Choctaw Books on a broiling summer day.
I was so swept away by the zaniness of the day, I had to share with David a song from “Riba Dimpel” an album one of our authors, Jan Brokken, The Music of the Netherlands Antilles, had shared with UPM for our inspiration and understanding. The song was “Cara Bunita” by Estrellas de Caribe. David brainily explained the song’s refrain, “arte foto, foto arte,” may have referred to the 1920s euphemism for photography of naked women, an “art photo.” So the drunken joy of the band may have had as its theme an “angel in the centerfold,” very roughly translated.
We had lunch at Rainbow Coop in Jackson, a place I hardly ever go to because I am a boring, cheap Biedermeier who eats leftovers at his standing desk. And so, with the lunch crowd mostly departed, the corona of strangeness, of artiness ignited at Choctaw continued.
Somehow over the long meal, we moved to a broader subject, The Golden Age. We had talked of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, The Great Recession (which at the time we were not sure was quite over). These so far were the marks of our twenty-first century. But we also talked of Mississippi changing, of the American Civil Liberties Union being tolerated with an actual office space, the state flag almost changing, Ed King’s new book about to be published. There were sunbursts of intense hope. I believe that is what got us onto The Golden Age.
When would it be? What would be its markers? What could we then achieve if we recognized them? And what could we do to keep a Golden Age from sliding quickly into a Gilded Age? Heady stuff we covered, and mostly without irony or farce, which is saying a lot for me about how earnest, how penetrating our talk was. Normally I cannot tolerate such talk with a straight face, any more than I might feel comfortable talking about creativity for an hour (which despite what it may sound like in the interview linked to above, I wasn’t all that comfortable talking about).
Today, a year separated from that starburst of a morning and afternoon with David, I was reading the great Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. At lunch with David, I had come to the conclusion, and I do not remember if David agreed, that we would not, that we could not at our pace recognize the Golden Age as we were living it. I was firm in that I believed such an age would roar past the two of us, and as old men, we would look at each other and say, “Gee, that old La Salle ran great! Those were the days.”
Zweig’s memoir is more documentary in its beauty than literary. It is certainly not Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. There are many moment’s in which Zweig is an irreplaceable witness to late Habsburg Austria-Hungary and pre-World War I Europe. During the First World War, Zweig’s own humanity and urbanity in some ways interfere with his capacity to witness, but who can blame him a sorrowful disdain, a necessary great distance?
Then this morning, the passage that vaulted me back to my encounter with David, with art, with someone who could remind me of that parcel of myself that only occurs now, in the dark, wee hours, from 3:30 a.m. until 6 a.m. or so when I write, when I attempt to create. Zweig’s memoir is devastating in its revelation of Austrian life right after World War I, when a 700-year dynasty was deposed and dismantled, inflation went wild, even the lights could not be adequately powered.
Art is worth our all. Art will be the harbinger of that Golden Age and its lasting aftershock. I need to have lunch with David McCarty more than once a year. Behold, Stefan Zweig:
“I shall never forget what an opera performance meant in those days of direst need. For lack of coal the streets were only dimly lit and people had to grope their way through; gallery seats were paid for with a bundle of notes in such denominations as would once have been sufficient for a season’s subscription to the best box. The theater was not heated, thus the audience kept their overcoats on and huddled together, and how melancholy and gray this house was that used to
glitter with uniforms and costly gowns! There never was any certainty that the opera would last into the next week, what with the sinking value of money and the doubts about coal deliveries; the desperation seemed doubly great in this abode of luxury and imperial abundance. The Philharmonic players were like gray shadows in their shabby dress suits, undernourished and exhausted by many privations, and the audience, too, seemed to be ghosts in a theater which had become ghostly. Then, however, the conductor lifted his baton, the curtain parted and it was as glorious as ever. Every singer, every musician did his best, his utmost, for each had in mind that perhaps it might be his last time in this beloved house. And we strained and listened, receptive as never before, because perhaps it was really the last time. That was the spirit in which we lived, thousands of us, multitudes, giving forth to the limit of our capacity in those weeks and months and years, on the brink of destruction. Never have I experienced in a people and in myself so powerful a surge of life as at that period when our very existence and survival were at stake.”
2 – 4 p.m.
Join two authors with Missouri roots for readings from their latest projects, followed by a discussion on writing with topics ranging from choosing historical fiction to literary license and historical accuracy.
Steve Wiegenstein will read highlights from This Old World, which was recently announced as a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Set in the utopian town of Daybreak, the novel depicts a troubled community deeply changed by the American Civil War. As the characters write the next chapter of their story, the men and women struggle with leadership, lust, and their own flawed humanity. Steve Yates also explores the aftermath of the Civil War in The Teeth of the Souls, which tells the double life and love story of Leighton Shea Morkan. Leighton’s affection for his childhood confidante and former slave, Judith, endures despite his marriage to another woman. A sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, the novel follows Springfield through a triple lynching on Easter 1906.
THERE IS MUCH ABOUT THE ABOVE that I still find hard to believe. Around our house in Flowood, Mississippi, it takes very little searching on any book shelf to find a read and marked, dog-eared copy of The Missouri Historical Review.
In graduate school at the University of Arkansas MFA program, I read the magazine as faithfully as any literary journal. And, when I became publicist at University of Arkansas Press and had the privilege to work on books by Milton Rafferty, James Keefe, and Lynn Morrow, I read The Missouri Historical Review even more eagerly.
Fellow writers in the MFA program found this habit odd. I’m sure almost as odd, off-putting, and disconcerting as some historians found it that the publicist working on their books was a fiction writer publishing pretty regularly in The Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and elsewhere.
Before a conference at Jerry’s Diner, formerly on the corner of Dixon Street and 71B, I spent a really extraordinary hour-and-a-half waiting on writer and fellow MFA candidate Jay Prefontaine for breakfast and a story session. I was to comment on one of his fictions in draft, and he would do the same, critiquing one of mine. I sat there with coffee and grapefruit and read The Missouri Historical Review and watched all the farmers and locals come and jaw and go.
Ozarkers! My people! It was wonderful, that much normalcy right there in Fayetteville. In the narrow bandwidth that was the MFA program, all was cartoon land. Priorities that existed nowhere else in the known universe were, in the program, outsized urgencies: “Today I must craft a sestina! The Chariton Review has rejected me yet again!” But here in Jerry’s, the Ozarks resumed like a calm back bay’s water spreading against a rollicking beach of irrepressible hedonism. A big, sunny spring morning outside boomed through the windows, so that the diner became a kind of corona of formica and vinyl, ball caps and bacon grease.Finally Jay walks in, that tight, on the toes, poised walk he had. Dare you. Dare you. He had been a scholarship hockey player at Colby College, probably a devastating enforcer. And I had seen him, more than once, ruin someone else’s week with whipcord violence unleashed at a bar or restaurant when too much had been imbibed, and some poor Ozarker decided, drunkenly and quite mistakenly, that Jay would be an easy Yankee to take.
Jay pulls The Missouri Historical Review from my hands, reads the cover, flips it around, hands it back, sits down. “We’re really different, aren’t we, Stevie.”
“Yes,” I say. “You, for example, are ninety minutes late. Coffee?”
“Why read that?” he asks squinting at it again.
I think a minute. “Inspiration. There is a story waiting untold in every paragraph.”
Pause. Some squinting around at the calm glory that was Jerry’s. “We’re really different, Stevie.”
On July 18, I will be permitted the chance to walk through the doors where The Missouri Historical Review is edited and published, permitted to stand on my hind legs alongside a writer I tremendously admire—Tall Steve Wiegenstein—and then permitted to dare a crowd in Columbia, Missouri, to take my fiction, based on and inspired by history, seriously.
No one is more surprised than I am.