A QUESTION AND ANSWER
with Steve Yates
author of The Teeth of the Souls: A Novel
from Moon City Press
So is this finally the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry?
Yes, but really is five years wait all that long? I started both novels in 1993, so what’s five more years?
Moon City Press wanted to bring out the novel well before this. But I pleaded. You see I have a fifty-hour-a-week, year-round job that I love and that I will not ever give up. I’m assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. After pushing all through 2013 on Some Kinds of Love: Stories, traveling a lot to make that book go, I really wanted a whole year to focus on only being a publisher.
Is that hard to balance?
It’s not. But when you have a book out, you aren’t just burning the candle at both ends. You’ve chucked the whole candle right into the bonfire. I have been employed nearly fulltime since age sixteen, and I always wrote fiction, too. So I know how to satisfy both demands of work and writing. I have never been fired from any job.
Do your colleagues support your publishing books? I mean, The Teeth of the Souls makes three books now.
It’s my colleagues I thought about most. When you are not there, you are not with them fighting the fight. At University Press of Mississippi, we publish over 200 author creations each year, and we make or exceed our sales goal every year. Except for once in the Great Recession. And, no, we do not get our summers off! I’ve been with most of my colleagues since 1998. Sixteen going on seventeen years. Almost no one leaves our ship! That’s like a Viking crew or some wickedly entertaining, inseparable, acrobatic show troupe. Very second family. With loyalties and admirations that can only be explained in metaphor.
So in The Teeth of the Souls, we are with the Morkans again?
The novel takes place when?
From 1865 to 1906, a really tumultuous, crazy, beautiful changing time in Springfield and in the Ozarks. If you wanted to frame the novel between infamous events—from the time Wild Bill Hickock murdered Dave Tutt in a shootout on our square to the aftermath of the Easter 1906 lynching of three innocent black men. That’s The Teeth of the Souls.
So is this a shoot ’em up Western or a historical romance or what?
I don’t know what it is. I wake up at 3:30 a.m. or a little before that each day to write. There are times early of a morning when I’ve had just the right amount of coffee when I can believe this might be a really important novel for Springfield and the Ozarks, something memorable. But by about nine p.m. or so, when I’m exhausted, I think it’s a monster, and I don’t want anything to do with it. To still be so disturbed by a creation after twenty years of being around it, I think there is something there way beyond me.
I am heartened that the early reviews are so good, and that readers are clearly understanding this is a long story about love-doomed characters. Like the old Leadbelly songs say over and over, “Made me love you, now your girlfriend done come,” the marriage that became a lie, the lie that became a marriage.
It already has four remarkable blurbs from Howard Bahr, Daniel Woodrell, Tommy Franklin, and Matthew Guinn. So there must be something worthwhile here?
Having a blurb from Daniel Woodrell—Moon City Press got that for me, I have only run into Daniel Woodrell once at a very busy book festival, I do not know him—having those kind words from him, that’s like the knight leaning down from his Percheron to the grubby squire and saying, “Hey, Kid, where did you get that sword?”
You wrote an meaty essay about the inspiration for both novels and the research they required. It ended up in Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research.
There’s a lot of German and German American history in the book. What was the inspiration for Patricia Weitzer Morkan?
Well, I don’t speak German, and I have had a lot of help. Especially from Moon City’s editor Jim Baumlin—I’ve learned a lot about the German language at his expense. My mother is German American and lapsed Catholic. My wife is German American and lapsed Lutheran. Yet my father is Scots-Irish and Briton, lapsed Baptist. With Patricia, I wanted to get back to that foreign moment when a really strong and even headstrong, crazy-brave woman enters a family, and, as Leighton points out ruing his choice a little, she does not even reason or dream in my language. The Ozarks had a lot of German in its mix.
But don’t you have a responsibility to history? Many of the German enclaves stayed to themselves, such as Hermann or Freistatt. And in the actual history of Springfield’s lynching, the “victim,” she was a farmwife in town for a fling. She was from, where, Fair Play?
Right. If you want the history of Springfield’s lynching, there is no better book in the galaxy than Kimberly Harper’s White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894–1909. That book shines, and is the form of all forms for what a great history book from a university press should be. From Morkan’s Quarry forward, the Springfield there is invented, it’s a pretend Springfield in a novel, and now two novels, very much inspired and informed by history. But the longer you write in a pretend Springfield, then the more you owe that world you are creating its own beginning, middle, and end. By the time Leighton Morkan marries Patricia Weitzer and they both survive a married night together, I’ve already spent 485 printed pages in two novels inside a made up Springfield and with a pretend family.
But the story was inspired or you started writing because of what you learned at Missouri State in Dr. Katherine Lederer’s class, right?
Yes, I have a blog piece about her at https://fictionandhistory.wordpress.com/the-seed/. The story was inspired by a tale from the shadows, a whisper that many of Dr. Lederer’s black informants told her when she researched her book, Many Thousand Gone: Springfield’s Lost Black History. Her informants insisted that after the 1906 lynching, after a mob of 2,000+ white people had smashed the city jail twice, snatched three innocents and hanged them from a tower with a replica of the Statue of Liberty on top, and then burned the bodies in a bonfire, a second mob began forming. It was feared these armed and still furious whites would do to Springfield’s black neighborhoods what had just been done two years ago in Pierce City—burn their houses and businesses to the ground. The story in the shadows, almost impossible to corroborate, was that a white limestone quarry manager gave his black miners the dynamite to mine wealthy streets, Walnut residences or South Street businesses or to mine the streets around Happy Hollow, the black district–I have heard the story both ways. The violent calculus being brutally simple: stop the second mob, or we blow you and your castles sky high.
Is there any truth to it?
The cries of an unfaithful, runaway farmwife from Fair Play had just turned the whole world upside down, unleashed all Hell, and hanged three innocents at Easter Vigil. I don’t think “truth” has much currency in that cosmos. I know the Marblehead Quarry manager’s name, I even know some of his relations, and I’ll bet, if the governor of Missouri at the time kept a vigilant diary, there’s a pretty remarkable entry around April 14, 1906. But that’s not the truth that the novelist needs to be about. The novelist is after that slant truth in the shadow, the human heart breaking, and what the human heart’s answer might be to the very pit, the Hellish void in that shadow. As Emily Dickinson taught us: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
Often characters talk about the wilderness or the wode. Is that what the front cover is about?
Right after the Civil War in the Ozarks, so much was broken. Michael Fellman in his great book Inside War describes a psychic numbness. When Federal troops withdrew, they took with them what scant semblance of law and order there was. That’s where the wode, or madness comes from. Remember that in Le Morte D’Arthur, driven wild in his untenable predicament, Lancelot leaps through a bay window and “into the wode,” into madness. Trapped between love and loyalty, he goes mad. Jeffrey Sweet, the great Springfield photographer and a former bandmate of mine, took that picture at Lake Springfield just at the moment when first light hit bare winter trees slickened in the transition between water and ice. Perfect. I’m so glad he allowed us use of his extraordinary art.
There is also a lot about the Holy Spirit, revelation, and the terrible consequence of defiance of the Holy Spirit.
To the peasant Catholic, which I am—in the 1990s, researching Morkan’s Quarry, I converted to Catholicism, went through RCIA and baptism at Easter Vigil Mass, the whole reclamation for my German Catholic ancestry—to the peasant Catholic, the concept of recognizing and perceiving clearly a spoken command of the Holy Spirit is rather far out, something for the Great Saints and ecstatic hermits. But it was clear from the book Zion on the Mississippi: The Settlement of Saxon Lutherans in Missouri that contact with the Holy Spirit and revelation from that Spirit was, to Patricia’s people, an accepted and celebrated possibility. Later I learned from the Gospel of Saint Mark, “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.” Along with passages in Hebrews and elsewhere, theologians have expanded and constructed this to mean clearly that one who willfully defies a command known to be from the Holy Spirit has no hope whatsoever, and even the Power of Christ cannot save this fallen one. That’s huge! How could you not write about what that nightmare might mean?
Is that where the title comes from, The Teeth of the Souls?
The title comes from what Judith calls Leighton’s limestone, The Teeth of the Souls. One of the readers for the book, a good, lapsed Methodist I think, complained that souls don’t have teeth. How wonderfully strange to think it! John Milton argued for pages and pages about whether or not there would be sexual pleasure in Heaven—yes, the John Milton of Paradise Lost! How on Earth can we know for certain that souls won’t have teeth? In the Ozarks, I sure have faith they do. And I can show you the stone!