Saturday, January 21, 2017

Q&A with Susan Rivers

Susan Rivers, photo by Tasha Thomas
Susan Rivers is the author of the new historical novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday. She is a playwright and she teaches English at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Q: You note that your novel was based on a real incident. Why did you decide to write a novel based on this incident, and how did you balance the historical and fictional aspects of the book?

A: This may sound far-fetched, but I don't actually "decide" that I'm going to write about a particular topic or event. I hear or see something or visit some place with intense atmosphere and -- wham -- the creative part of my brain, the part that spins stories, revs up and tells me to start writing or get left in the dust.

That's how it happened with the book I'm working on now, about a textile mill town at the turn of the century. I saw one of Lewis Hines' photos from his child labor series, taken when he went undercover in the early 1900s.

It shows a lint-covered child standing at the window of the spinning room where she was working 11 to 16 hours a day, in a mill only a few miles from my home. 

I had to leave the slide show at UNC Chapel Hill and collect myself, because the slide caused me to spurt tears like a busted boiler. I knew I was going to tell that child's "story."

It was the same with The Second Mrs. Hockaday, my book that came out Jan. 10. Back in 2014 I was teaching summer school at the local college and had some time to revisit notes I'd made a year earlier on a possible story idea about the Civil War.

I went to the tiny library near my home to look through the jumble of historical material they have and I stumbled across the summary of an 1865 inquest. As soon as I read it, I knew this was a story begging to be told in novel-form. 

A Confederate soldier who had been away from his teen-aged wife for four years arrived home at war's end to confront rumors that his bride had become pregnant while he was away. It was alleged that she had given birth to a son who had been killed and buried on their farm. The baby's remains were unearthed and the angry husband pushed to have his wife indicted for murder. 

For her part the young woman refused to speak about the baby, to name the father, or to explain how he was conceived. She maintained this silence for the rest of her life, even though she and her husband eventually reconciled.

I was electrified by the plight of this young woman and by the extraordinary courage she must have possessed to face this ordeal alone in a war-torn world. She wasn't able to tell her story in 1865, but I knew I could tell it in 2014.  

I gathered up my things and ran home from the library with the voice of my fictional soldier's wife, the second Mrs. Hockaday, already telling me her story and an entirely new novel taking shape around her.

Q: Much of the story is told in the form of diary entries and letters. Why did you choose that approach to the novel?

A: I don't remember having any conversation with myself about how the novel would be written. It began writing itself as it wished to be, in the form of linked primary sources: the inquest record, letters to and from the main characters, and the diary that Placidia keeps as she struggles on her own at Holland Creek, entries written on the backs of illustrations in her copy of David Copperfield. 
I suspect I was strongly drawn to the epistolary form by the dormant playwright in me. A decade of my life was spent writing and working in regional theater, and I think I wanted to steal some of the theater's intimacy for this novel by allowing the characters' voices to speak directly into the reader's ear without narrative filters. 

Even first-person viewpoint was too limiting in this context, because the story extends beyond Placidia's death to those members of the next generation who are strongly affected by her revelations and by the legacy of the blue-eyed man who is her "darker kinsman."

In conveying the character's stories so directly, then, it was essential that these voices be pitch-perfect. They needed to be rooted in details of their time and place while sounding as natural as if the individuals were standing ahead of the reader in line at the post office, chatting with neighbors. 

Long ago I took Henry James' advice to "try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” and to that end I carry a small notebook with me wherever I go, writing in it things I overhear that strike me as singularly authentic or revelatory. 

Much of this material proved useful when I was crafting voices in The Second Mrs. Hockaday because these notes so often echoed an earlier time, or spoke to a brand of self-deprecating understatement that is so characteristic of Southern story-telling. 

For instance, Nolan Oglesby's prurient personality coalesced around a comment I borrowed from an assistant district attorney who said of two colleagues: "she gets him harder than Chinese arithmetic," while my next-door neighbor, when offered a glass of homemade muscadine wine, declined by saying: "that'll have me seeing double and feeling single."

The latter remark found its way into the voice of Placidia's father, Quincey Valois Fincher. It helped me to shape the contradictions that characterize this Jeffersonian-type planter, an accomplished man who loves his child and values his life of refinement, but who has been so successful at sublimating his role as slave-owner into an identity of gentility that his daughter is traumatized when she discovers the extent to which he exploited his power.

Q: Can you say more about the kind of research you did to recreate the details of 19th century America, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: Where I've lived in North Carolina and now live in upstate South Carolina, the past has always been as close as my backyard. When I broke ground for my north Charlotte garden years ago I turned up old drill bits, horse tack, pieces of pottery and bottles. 

In addition, with the trees cleared on our lot, old daffodils that had been dormant for decades reemerged and bloomed, along with a gallica rose someone had planted long ago. 

Naturally, I researched the land and found out that 150 years earlier it had been part of a 1,000 acre plantation, and after the Civil War, it was farmed by sharecroppers. I felt a powerful connection to the shadows of those people who must have worked, loved, suffered, rejoiced and endured on that land before me.

When the backyard didn't suffice, there was always some historical site a few miles up the road that fascinated. When my daughter Lily was younger and didn't have a choice, I dragged that poor child all over Dixie, along with my husband if I could persuade him, to learn as much as we could about the history of this region, but more than that, to FEEL how that history might have been experienced by the people who lived it. 

Over the course of the last two decades we've traveled to dozens of manor houses and plantations: Brattonsville, Somerset, Drayton Hall, the Mordecai House, Rose Hill, The Hermitage, Mount Vernon and Monticello; to so many southern cities and battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars: Richmond, Savannah, Charleston, Columbia, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Old Salem, Edenton, Macon, Memphis, Corinth, Oxford, New Orleans and everywhere in between; and our family has toured countless historical societies, museums and galleries.   

In fact, I've been through so many Civil War museums I could be a docent, if novel-writing doesn't work out! I didn't do this because I planned to write a book about the Civil War; in fact, I never intended to write historical fiction at all. I simply like to learn, and I like understanding how we got here from there. 

So, in the course of all those years of touring and researching I acquired a body of knowledge that stood me in good stead when I began to write The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

Of course, over the years I've been surprised by much of what I've learned through research, especially in the early days of living in the Carolinas, when everything was new to me. 

But even more recently, I've been shocked by some discoveries. For instance, I've begun to believe that our country is never going to make measureable progress in the area of race relations until we can all acknowledge that slavery was our Holocaust, our original sin, a building block of our social, economical and political system from the days of our founding fathers, many of whom were slave-owners.

(And some, like the extraordinary but flawed Thomas Jefferson, who started fathering children with Sally Hemings beginning when she was only 17, used their privileged positions to enjoy sexual relations with the African American women they owned.)  

We need some kind of national reckoning on this issue, but I don't know how to accomplish that. I'm just a writer, not a world leader!  I've come to this conclusion after reading too many shocking oral histories and bills of sale for human beings, after seeing too many antebellum buildings that were used as slave markets or buildings that were constructed by slaves (including the White House).

In the back of my novel I acknowledge some of my key sources, and one of them is a book of slave narratives edited by Susanna Ashton. I've visited Charleston and the low country many times, so I'm familiar with most of the sites described by former slaves. 

One of the most horrifying stories in Ashton's collection is told by an enslaved man who was confined in the building adjacent to the Charleston jail for three months, along with dozens of other slaves who slept on the floor in their own sweat, waste, and blood.

The “master” who sent their slaves there usually gave a list of penalties to the jailkeeper which were meted out faithfully. One of the penalties was being “pickled,” a horrific process I brought into my novel. In being “pickled,” a man or woman is strung up by their wrists, flogged, and then pickle brine or salt is applied to their wounds to maximize the pain. This “pickling” could go on for days. 

The name of the detention house for African Americans in Charleston was called the "Sugar House," because that's where you sent your troublesome slaves to have their dispositions "sweetened." Can you imagine?

Q: The novel jumps back and forth in time. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I must preface my response to this question by saying that nothing about the process of writing this book was ordinary for me.  This tale gripped me from the first day and made use of me throughout without ever letting me get any distance from it. 

I usually do write in scenes that gradually come together in some order that's not always determined at the beginning of the writing process. But not with this one. 

As soon as I wrote Placidia's first letter to Mildred, describing her initial meeting with Major Hockaday, her future husband, the voice in my head said, "End the scene with Hockaday here, start a new paragraph, and tell the reader 'Dr. Gordon says I should not be in jail more than another day or two.'  They'll want to read on to find out why she's in jail, to find out what happened. That's what you'll be telling them, but you're going to do it incrementally." I did what the voice said, and I was writing it fast, writing for hours at a time.

As soon as I finished Part 1 -- and I knew that was the end of the first part and I also knew there would three parts in total, don't ask me how I knew that -- I asked my husband to read the draft while I kept plunging forward. 

He's a very good editor -- he gives me excellent notes, has good questions. So he read it quickly and came to find me, saying "Where's Part 2?" That's when I knew this story might work out.  I galloped through Parts 2 and 3 and I never knew how the characters were going to weave the past and the present together until they told me. 

And that's key: I try to have a general plan for a book when I'm starting it, although this one was different. But I am always aware that the plan may change and this nearly always happens because the characters make it so.

This is hard to explain. After you've been working with the characters long enough, getting inside their heads and their bodies and hearing their voices and being knocked about in their relationships with other characters, they start to pull ahead of you a little bit. It's weird, but in a good way. 

So, for instance, take the scene in Part 2 when Achilles comes to Holland Creek after he's beaten nearly to death by Cash, his owner's overseer, and asks Placidia for sanctuary.

What I didn't know until I wrote that scene in the barn and Achilles told me this was that Cash had once worked for Placidia's husband as his overseer. This was before Placidia came to the farm. Hockaday had fired Cash when he tried to pickle Bob, the head man. 

So, clearly this was good strategy on Achilles' part, coming to Placidia's farm, because he knows that her slaves won't turn him in, having themselves been brutalized by Cash when he was once the boss at Holland Creek. But the crazy thing is, Achilles came up with this on his own! I didn't plan that!

I guess a psychoanalyst would say, "Well Susan, you had that information stored in your subconscious -- you simply accessed it through the character."

Maybe that's so, but to me it feels like the characters are revealing things to me that I don't know, but which they need to have told. I have to honor that by being flexible enough to accommodate these truths in the story, even if it changes the story's direction or structure.

Q: Can you say more about what you're working on now?

A: I recently finished a draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Fly From All Sorrowing. At one time there were literally hundreds of textile mills in the upstate region of South Carolina and in North Carolina's piedmont, including at least two mills in the town where I live.

The men who built these mills made enormous profits in the days before income taxes and federal labor laws came along to spoil the party.

Their energy sources -- the rivers that flow down from the Appalachian mountains -- were free to exploit, and their labor pool of desperate white tenant farmers and impoverished mountain folk cost next to nothing, especially since children were employed well into the 20th century. All of these "lintheads" were easily replaced if one of them lost an arm in a carding machine or was scalded to death by exploding plugs on a boiler.

The mills shut down in the 1970s and ‘80s when the owners moved on in search of cheaper work forces in poorer countries, but for better or worse, the culture that rose out of the mill communities and the values and attitudes held by the workers who lived and died in them have persisted in this region with amazing tenacity.

One of my students taught me the local saying that set this novel in motion for me: "Don't worry about the mule, just load the wagon." Naturally, my question in response to that was and continues to be: how's that working for the mule?

I don't want to say too much about the book because it's still in a somewhat fluid state, but I will say that I've worked with two igniting incidences based on historic local events.

The first is a double lynching that took place in an upstate mill town a hundred years ago. Two African American bootleggers were dragged out of jail by a mob and were hanged in retaliation for a sexual assault they allegedly committed against a white man.  The "victim" was a millworker, as were the killers, none of whom were ever prosecuted. 

The second event is a catastrophic flood that swept away three mills on the Pacolet River in 1903 not far from my house and killed over 65 people. My protagonist, Calla Goforth, is a woman who works in the mill and is closely involved in both these events.
Courage, adversity, survival; everything I write seems to come back to these themes. I've always loved that poem of Yeats with the line that goes: "Bred to a harder thing/ Than triumph, turn away..." When triumph isn't on the agenda, you have to find a way not to be broken by circumstances. Southerners have turned not-being-broken into an art form.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To borrow Churchill's phrase: "Never, never, never give up!"
Getting a novel published is not easy; it can take a long time to achieve and it requires every ounce of creative effort you've got in you. 

But if you are a real writer, the publishing isn't what validates you. The work is what validates you. Writing should be what you do because you can't NOT do it, and it should be the thing that tugs at you and speaks to you even when you're working a grueling job day after day or dealing with crises of some kind or pouring yourself into caring for family members. Believe me, I've been there.

If you're lucky enough to have someone in the publishing world recognize that your work has merit, that's wonderful. But even if publication eludes you, that doesn't make you any less of a writer! 

The writer is WHO you are. Don't forget that. You need writing more than writing needs you. So don't turn your back on it just because it's tough to make space for it in your life. Leave a little tiny corner open for it. 

I have a line from Proust's first volume of In Search of Lost Time pinned to the wall above my writing desk to remind me how important it is to do this. 

It says: "I have every unnecessary thing a man could want in my house [in Paris.] “The only thing wanting is the necessary thing, a great patch of open sky, like this. Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life, little boy...”

For me, writing is and always will be that oh-so-necessary patch of blue sky.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. I'm so touched that my collection helped you craft your novel! Their testimony matters and need to live on-- and to have it inform or inspire new works of art that grapple with our history is a beautiful legacy.

    Best Wishes, Susanna Ashton