What is Morkan’s Quarry about?
It’s a father and son story set in Springfield, Missouri, during the Civil War. Michael Morkan and his young son, Leighton, own the limestone quarry downtown, somewhat modeled after the quarry that used to be at National and Trafficway.
So, were the Morkans Rebels?
A great number of people in the Ozarks didn’t want to have anything to do with the war, wanted to be left alone to their work. They dreaded what was coming. While shocked and angered that the federal government would sweep away their elected governor, most were not ready to take up arms. I wanted to portray that middle ground, those real people, business owners, hard working people caught in a maelstrom.
Do the Morkans end up in the war? Or is this passivist, family heroism, like in the movie The Virginian?
If you didn’t choose sides in the Ozarks, a side chose you. Or ruined you. Quarry owners had black powder, and so Michael is forced to give his up to the Missouri State Guard, Missouri’s Confederates. When he is taken by the Federals to St. Louis’s Gratiot prison, Leighton escapes capture and tries to hang on. He joins the Federal Home Guards to survive and in hopes to free his father by serving. Both of them are transformed, and then they have to come back together if they’re going to make it.
Did Springfield see a lot of fighting?
I never understood why there are not four or five novels published about the war in Springfield and surround. And I was always terrified that one would be out before I could get mine published. Wilson’s Creek was really a battle for Springfield, so there were three battles of Springfield, two inside the city limits. The town changed hands five times; five different armies occupied it. That the town survived at all is pretty remarkable. I really wanted to tell stories about Springfield, my town.
So, you’re from Springfield, not Mississippi?
Born in St. John’s Hospital and reared in the same house on Meadowview Drive in Southern Hills until I left for the writing program at University of Arkansas when I was twenty-two years old.
Aren’t Civil War novels super-hot properties? Why is this one being published in Springfield?
Well, parts of it have already been published as excerpts in Ontario Review, South Carolina Review, Missouri Review, and both the States of Arkansas and Mississippi awarded me generous grants in part to complete it. It was agented twice by high profile agents at big agencies in New York, and it ran the Gotham gauntlet. I received many written and verbal responses rather than just brush-offs, and that continued as I marketed the book to Southern presses and publishers outside New York. I learned a lot from kind editors and agents who took the time to call me and tell me why the answer was no. That’s extremely rare for a starting writer, those calls and letters, and I am lucky to have had feedback rather than form rejection letters.
What was the reason? Why “no”?
Most insisted the novel had to be told entirely from a woman’s perspective and that the novel had to be a love story between a woman and a man. Have you read the White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo? A love that results in lasting happiness in the middle of that war? That’s about the farthest thing from anybody’s mind in the war years in the Ozarks.
But there is a love story of a sort in this. There’s Cora and Michael, and in some ways Judith loves Leighton like she might a brother.
Cora Slade was a godsend. A nurse had married into my wife’s family, and I had the chilling privilege of actually seeing her transform from happy sister-in-law into medical professional in an instant while saving a loved one. That was Cora to me. But New York wanted that and love to be the whole story. They just couldn’t imagine the love of a father for his son and a son’s loyalty to his father as a story people would read and enjoy.
And so that was the only barrier to publishing it?
Not in every case. When editors were brutally honest with me and awfully close to publishing the book, many said, roughly, “We fear this book has to start with strong marketing in the Ozarks. And, really, we just don’t know enough about the region.” The more I heard that, the more I began longing for a press such as Moon City to start up. I wanted this book in the hands of a publisher in the Ozarks.
What is Moon City Press?
I think it’s great news for the Ozarks and for Springfield and Missouri State. But then I’m wildly biased. Moon City is an academic small press sponsored by the Missouri State Departments of English and Art and Design—which means that it is a publishing expression of the academic and creative labor and output of Missouri State and authors from other universities and states, a new publishing house serving the Ozarks and the world.
Why great for the Ozarks?
First, academic presses are the ultimate in outreach, a kind of intellectual equivalent to the agricultural extension services. They make books available, books that are the best fruits of academic and creative labor, and very often books that express the uniqueness of the country and people surrounding the press. The creative potential of the Missouri Ozarks is vastly underserved. Some presses have touched on it sometimes, but never as a core vision of their publishing programs.
You’re pretty familiar with academic presses?
I’ve worked at two university presses. University of Arkansas Press for four years and University Press of Mississippi now for eleven years. And in October 2009 I received a fellowship from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation to spend a week in residence at New York University Press.
Back to your novel: Why quarries?
They are a big part of the Ozarks scenery. There’s a cemetery in Galloway, and I have a baby sister, Deborah, buried there. When I was very young, my mother would frequently visit her grave, and that took us past the Ash Grove lime quarry. I think the monuments and the quarry and Galloway all became associated in my mind with stillness, and remembrance, and the past. Once I could drive, I found myself back there. If life was harried or I felt troubled, I would park and stare at the quarry and get focused.
But where did you learn about limestone mining?
Summers at the University of Arkansas, there weren’t teaching assistantships for everyone in the writing program. I worked for the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department. Surveying, construction inspecting, earthmoving and excavating, and inspecting concrete plants—I learned a lot about blasting and how lime products worked. Three long, hot Arkansas summers.
But the business of it?
I did have one class at Missouri State called “Mineral Resources & Public Policy.” I’m not kidding; I loved it. And there are good books. One old one from the University of Arkansas library I just had to buy. Handbook of Rock Excavation: Methods and Cost by Halbert Powers Gillette. It was written back when engineers could write like Thoreau. And I interviewed quarrymen. They were happy to talk in that, like people who survey on highways, they rarely get any attention or thought from the public.
The title is Morkan’s Quarry. But the book isn’t just about the mine?
No. Other meanings of quarry come into play, I hope. Quarry as something hunted: Morkan has to hunt down a Federal officer who threatens to take the quarry. And both Leighton and Michael Morkan have to work quarrying at their own hardening hearts to figure out what to do and who they are going to be after witnessing so much upheaval and trouble.
And the novel also goes to St. Louis?
Michael Morkan is taken to Gratiot Street Prison. And unlike soldiers, who could be paroled in exchange, he’s a civilian traitor with a huge charge against him, giving Sterling Price and the Missouri State Guard black powder. He’s stuck and in a lot of trouble. In reading Louis S. Gerteis’s book Civil War St. Louis, you get the feeling that the prison officials were overwhelmed, that the operation was chaos. While it was no Andersonville, Gratiot had to be a filthy, confusing, dicey, unhealthy mess.
There is a lot of Catholicism in this book. Are you Catholic?
I converted to Catholicism in Fayetteville while writing the book. My mother’s people, the Evertz’s, were lapsed St. Louis German Catholics, very different than Irish Catholics such as the Morkans. I had the help of Father Mark Wood and Brother Christian Guertin, a Franciscan and a historian of the Church. One good thing lead to another, and soon it was as if God said, “I showed you the path. Walk it, Buster.”
So what’s next for you?
I have fifteen or so published short stories that I want to collect and find a publisher for. And the Morkan saga doesn’t end with the war. I’ve finished a sequel to Morkan’s Quarry that takes Leighton and Judith and some of the other characters all the way to 1906. And guess what? There’s a love story!