Kent Wascom is the author of the new novel Secessia, which focuses on Civil War-era New Orleans. He also has written the novel The Blood of Heaven. He lives in Louisiana.
Q: Your novels combine the real and the fictional. What do you see as the right balance between the two?
A: I will always sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of the story. Regardless of their basis in fact, my novels are fictions, imagined histories, a means of reconciling through art the oftentimes dark and troubling history of my region.
Q: Why did you decide to include General Benjamin Butler as a main character in Secessia, and how would you assess him?
A: There’s no writing a novel about the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War without Benjamin Butler. And, for a writer, you love to have for a protagonist such a hugely controversial figure.
As a novelist I have the freedom to explore the shadowed, hypothetical corners of his character. And he was a man of many shadows, many contradictions. He called himself a democrat of politics and an aristocrat of lifestyle; he was a blatant anti-Semite and yet an opponent of Nativist politicians; he enriched himself from his political offices, yet was deeply concerned for the poor. He was snappish, snide, petty, but had a hell of a sense of humor.
For my money he was the best administrator New Orleans had for 25 years on either side of his reign, but he also oversaw some of the darker moments in the city’s history. At the least, I believe that Butler likely did not deserve the sobriquet “The Beast.”
Q: You've said that you're writing a sextet of novels, of which this would be the second. Did you plan the whole set of books out before you wrote The Blood of Heaven, or have you made many changes as you're writing?
A: When I was writing Blood, I knew that I wanted to do a big project about my stretch of the Gulf Coast, but at the time as an unpublished writer I couldn’t imagine that I’d actually get to pursue it.
The literary impetus for the sextet, called "The Golden Circle," was Yukio Mishima’s "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy, which deals with the changing character of Japan from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries.
Change-wise, the historical record, the basic arc, remains the same, but the way I approach that history or my characters contend with it changes constantly, with each volume informing the next.
Q: New Orleans is almost like another character in the book. How important is setting to you, and what are some other books set in New Orleans that you particularly like?
A: Setting is always important, and because Secessia takes place almost entirely within the confines of the city, I wanted to achieve a sense of New Orleans as antagonist for characters both native and not.
New Orleans has a deep literary history, so I’ll scoot past the enshrined classics and say: The sections of Faulkner’s The Wild Palms which take place in the city are splendid, as are those of Valerie Martin’s Property (A huge influence. I was floored when she blurbed Secessia.). Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors.
The Mysteries of New Orleans by Ludwig von Reizenstein, a German immigrant, is a vast, crazed 19th-century masterpiece that captures the bizarreness of the city. Honestly there’s more than I can say.
Q: What can you tell us about the third book in the sextet?
A: Book three, as yet untitled, is more expansive in both the temporal and geographical sense than either of the previous two. It covers the years from the bloody early days of Reconstruction to the Great Depression, and takes place from New Orleans to Nicaragua, with sojourns in Cuba, Florida, and throughout the Gulf and Caribbean as I follow, among other things, one family’s part in the rise of the American imperial enterprise.
Like Blood and Secessia, the third book is designed to exist as both a stand-alone novel and one built upon the foundation of the previous two, certainly rewarding for someone who’s read the others but not prohibitive.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Not that I can think of. Thanks so much for the great questions!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb