I write this as quickly as I can both to remember it all, and because I think it’s funny. A well-meaning and very talented writer, Steve Wiegenstein, who wrote the new novel Slant of Light, suggested my name to a producer for a company that makes shows at the History Channel. She was scouting for the show How the States Got Their Shapes, in which according to her email we “explore the history of America and how different events changed the geographical and cultural shape of this nation.“
Stuck sleepless in a hotel on business one stormy night, I had seen an episode! I was both eager that the show explore my home state—Like how did Missouri get that boot heel? One suggestion: someone had a boot-load of money!—and a little giddy. A producer at the History Channel knows even just the title of my novel!
I’ll quote the producer’s email because it was all friendly and to the point. Though it was slug-lined with the strange proclamation “History Channel wants to feature James Carlos Blake.” And it opened with the salutation: “Dear Members of the Harper Collins Team.” Oh well, we all get busy and work fast, right?
“In this season,” she wrote, “each episode will center around some sort of ‘rivalry’ that exists in this country. Our host, Brian Unger will travel throughout the nation quizzing experts about these topics. In one of our episodes we will be discussing North vs. South. We are going to be looking at the state of Missouri and how it embodies the North/South divide, especially in relation to the Civil War.
“We are looking for writers in Missouri to represent either side of the divide to be a contestant for one of our quiz segments. Steve Wiegenstein suggested I talk to you, since your novel Morkan’s Quarry has a “northern” voice. Would you be interested in discussing this in greater detail?”
Northern voice. Quiz show. James Carlos Blake. Harper Collins Team. Hmm. My giddiness was subsiding and my show me-ness was on the rise.
I’ve said in lectures and preambles to readings from my novel Morkan’s Quarry that too often we are taught the history of the Civil War as all blue versus gray, all Billy Yank versus Johnny Reb, no in between.
But those who study Missouri history even just a little more deeply, and Ozarks history in particular, find something much more complex and vicious. In the lead up to the war and in its first years, there was vast body of yeomen in the Ozarks especially, citizens who wanted nothing to do with either the blue or the gray. In Greene County alone, look at the election results of 1860 and see how many voted for the old Tennessee Whig John Bell. A big, centrist, steady on bunch, they had seen the horrors of Bleeding Kansas since 1854, had listened to all the caterwauling, and preferred a candidate who held it all together. These citizens of Greene County, from which the Morkans derived, had watched the belligerency of the slavocrats and the abolitionists yield bloody, vengeful, and anarchic results for too long. They wanted no more of it.
And it was the belligerents (North and South, Blue and Gray) who turned viciously, savagely on that center, demanded it choose a side or die, or choose a side, then die. Read any serious history of the war in Missouri, Michael Fellman’s Inside War or the Civil War portion of The White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo, and you will find the story of that lost, devoured, destroyed center, the story I wrote about in Morkan’s Quarry.
So the producer calls yesterday afternoon and gets me at the office. “Marketing, this is Steve,” didn’t rouse her curiosity one bit. And her phone voice was so pleasant and unfamiliar, it took me a shameful number of seconds to recall yesterday’s email. She sounded at first like one of the myriad cold callers who hit up marketing directors at university presses every week for advertising, digital asset management services, freelance publicity services, directory listings, and so on. Shame on me, I really should have been more excited, but I sounded, I’m sure, aloof. (Mistake number one!)
She reminded me of all that was in her email, and so I (Mistake number two) got all practical on her. When will you film and where? “Missouri somewhere. St. Louis. Maybe end of June.” Okay, fine, I was born and reared in Springfield, but I live and work in Mississippi, thus the 601 area code, so this may take some planning (Mistake number three, giving her the clear signal that I might cost travel money.)
And so, quiz show. What do you mean? I don’t know what you mean. (Mistake number four, do not sound like Ricky Gervais berating Karl Pilkington when you talk with a producer.)
“We’ll ask two contestant-experts questions about history and literature, one north and one south.” Literature? (Mistake number five, don’t ask such direct followup questions. Allow everything to be happy-go-lucky and inspecific. Be happy and unquestioning about everything!)
“Of course we’ll have to have a phone conference via Skype to see how you might play on camera.” Right. Fine. “But first let me ask some questions now if you have time. The quiz show will be about North versus South and especially about Missouri and how that rivalry was so intense there. Is that the way you see it?”
(Mistake number six, answer yes or no questions with a Yes or a No, and do not overturn conventional, accepted narratives of history, even if they are gross misrepresentations.) How will you handle this? Missouri was all topsy-turvy. The slavocrats and the pseudo-Southerners were all along the rivers, where there were farms large enough to utilize the thoroughly evil labor structure of slavery. And yet south of this were the Ozarks and hills and farmsteads and small, poor landholders and villagers who wanted nothing to do with those rich slaveholders north of them, and who distrusted the Yankees and abolitionists as noisy, disruptive outsiders. You’re going to need three people on the panel. How are you going to do that? (Mistake number seven, don’t ask the producer questions at all.)
A long quiet ensued. “Is that how you would describe yourself? As neutral?” (Mistake number eight, if you want to be on the History Channel, and you hear a question such as this departing from the original narrative of the casting call, start lying immediately.) My characters, the people I wrote about were status quo yeoman, quarry owners. They did not welcome the war, and sought no part in it, like most business people in my hometown at the time.
Further quiet. “Have you written anything else?” (Mistake number nine, don’t assume this is a good question and that the producer will be happy to hear you have published even more books; assume it is your last lifeline.) Yes, in April 2013 The University of Massachusetts Press will publish my short story collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories. “What’s it about?” It’s a short story collection. “Yes, what’s it about it?”
(Mistake number ten, in the introduction to University Press of Mississippi’s fine collection called Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the wise editor points out one thing Fitzgerald disastrously never learned in dealing with the media. Most journalists, producers, magazine writers, what have you, do not understand and have no use for irony. Mistake number ten: No irony.) It’s called Some Kinds of Love: Stories, I told her. It’s twelve short stories I published, and it won the Juniper Prize.
“And it’s about what?” By now, I was really overwhelmed with a desire to make her laugh; this had all become so boring, and I knew her script by heart, and she had such a lovely voice and was really very kind and patient. I so wanted to make her laugh (Mistake number eleven, you are not here to be funny.) Some Kinds of Love, so it’s about depraved people, I said, hoping, hoping….
A very long quiet. “I think we are going to have to find a writer with a much more Northern outlook on all this. If someone comes to mind, you’ll tell us?” Oh, sure, yes I will, maybe I’ll think of someone, and thanks very much for talking with me.
I wonder if they will make the quiz show contestants dress up in period gear. I have my leather suspenders, dungarees, lime-crusted brogans, and chipper’s goggles at the ready! But, alas, Morkans! Your story is a little too complex for the Quiz Show of the Blue and the Gray.