Author News & Interviews
When I think about war in all its bravado and all its wreckage, I think about the forest floor. I’m a native Californian, now an Oregonian, and we Far West children grow up being vigilant about forest fire. We are always and forever on a first-name basis with Smokey the Bear.
But here’s the deeper story about forest fires — sometimes they’re good, even essential. From the wreckage grows renewal. Terrible as a forest fire can be, new growth emerges — often with spectacular speed and beauty. Consider the aspens or green rabbit brush or squirreltail — from different geographies, but all early symbols of a recovering forest.
Which brings us back to war, specifically, the Civil War. It was America’s cruelest and bloodiest war. More than a million people were wounded or maimed; 620,000 lost their lives. But there is a forest floor aspect to the Civil War as well. Wreckage loosens strictures. It creates opportunities.
The Civil War liberated four million human beings from slavery. And surprisingly, the Civil War also created opportunities for women. They were nurses, hospital matrons, soldiers, and spies— all jobs that offered far more interest and compensation than had been possible before the war. While there have been women in espionage as long as there has been intelligence to gather, during the Civil War, there was an extraordinary explosion of women who found their calling in hunting and foraging for intelligence. Belle Boyd, Harriet Tubman, Rose Greenhow, Pauline Cushman — these were women who brought distinctly different backgrounds and gifts to espionage. All were effective. Boyd and Greenhow worked for the Confederacy, with a passion for the cause that blinded them to everything else. At age 17 Boyd, impetuous and fearless, shot and killed an inebriated Union soldier who was disrespectful to her mother.
Greenhow used her legendary charm and leadership skills to worm information out of her gentlemen callers and build an entire network of spies.
On the Union side, spies were just as fervent. Tubman escaped from slavery, and found her calling in the Underground Railroad. As a conductor, she is credited with spiriting more than 300 people to freedom. When war broke out, she became a spy for the Union. Cushman, already an actress, used her thespian skills to deceive Confederate leaders and gather critical information.
The Spy on the Tennessee Walker came about because I could not tear myself away from the stories in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Who were these 19th-century women? Where did they find the courage and ingenuity to take such risks? How did they learn to cipher and code?
It turns out that loosening strictures on women’s opportunity leads to even more straying off the straight and narrow. For example, despite the fact that miscegenation laws were on the books up until 1967, and in many states, remained “codified” until 2000, people went right ahead and fell in love anyway.
When danger and risk are everyday occurrences, human beings reach out to each other for comfort, and sometimes, for love. The romance in The Spy on the Tennessee Walker was certainly outside the mores of conventional behavior in the 19th century — but stubborn, persistent love finds a way. No matter the circumstances, love appears to be a renewable resource.
I have always been fascinated by unlikely romances. My parents met during World War II; my mother was five years older than my father and as he often observed, since she was already a Captain in the Army Nurse Corps, she outranked him. She was a Baptist farmer’s daughter from Mississippi. He was the son of a Romanian immigrant and Orthodox Jew. They married right after the war and together, created a bullet-proof, storybook marriage.
Apparently the cliché — opposites attract — continues to have traction in real life. Something draws us to those who are different than we are. The real seduction may be developing the courage to take risks for love. In mysteries, we’re typically looking for whodunit. But to paraphrase a line from Edward Kleban’s lyrics for Chorus Line, the true mystery is “What we did — and will do — for love.” The answer is: anything and everything.
In this sesquicentennial year of the end of the Civil War, The Spy on the Tennessee Walker celebrates the unquantifiable alchemy of love and courage, and how much we owe those who went before us. The forest floor stirs with new life.
Linda Lee Peterson, author of The Spy on the Tennessee Walker, Edited to Death, The Devil’s Interval
- Published: 11 November 2015 11 November 2015
On why —and how —she WRITES ABOUT WHERE SHE’S FROM—THE SOUTHERN US. She’s touring to bookstores and festivals throughout the south on the event of the publication of the collection “SOON” by Pat Conroy’s imprint at the University of South Carolina’s Story River Books. Durban, pronounced Dur-ban, is not often thought of as a Southern writer, though she considers herself a Southern writer and has won multiple awards and a southern-set story was included in the national collection Best Short Stories of the Century.
Your fiction writing has been praised for its documentary, literary style. Is that an apt description?
Yes, especially when I’m writing about the Southern past. As a white southerner, I have so many learned and inherited filters available to help me resist or sentimentalize or avoid taking an honest look. In my writing, I want to remove as many of those filters as I can in order to see more of the truth, recognizing of course that there is no such thing as pure and absolute truth. For me, the way into the past is through research into details of everyday life—and into my own attitudes.
What’s the intended effect?
I write about the past the way I do because I believe that the past is remade by every generation and passed on through stories that become part of our collective memory, and if that’s true then I have an obligation to make my writing reflect the complexities I’ve discovered through my research into the past and my own inherited attitudes so that I hand on a fuller and hopefully more truthful story than the one I was told. And I don’t think we need to fear a more truthful story, though we could be more humble in the face of it.
How would you describe sentimental writing?
In his book about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch wrote that “A precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.” A precise memory is a complex thing while sentimental remembering is reductive, it discards difficult or troubling aspects of the past in favor of a simpler and more comforting story. Sentimentalizing the past strikes me as one of the great dangers of southern writing about the past, of any writing, really, because it holds us back from actually confronting our own history. To me, sentimentality is like a perfumed handkerchief held to the nose as we walk the smelly streets of Southern history. I want to make my memory, and the story I tell about the act of remembering, as precise and detailed as I can.
What do you think happens by removing sentimentality from a story?
A more complex reality emerges, a fuller, more inclusive and darker truth. Over time, by researching and writing about the South the way I do, I’m trying not to hand on unchanged or unchallenged stories about the past, to try and come to terms with it, perhaps to acknowledge, in some personal way, what I’ve come to understand about the part white southerners played in creating the story that we—white people and black people—have lived together for so long. And to include myself and my people in that history. It seems necessary to me to acknowledge the part we play in things because by owning up to who you are and what you’ve done, you break down the belief in your own innocence, and that’s a healing act.
Who are your people? Give us some details!
I come from generations of Georgians and South Carolinians, and I was raised on stories about the past and among the people of my grandmother’s generation whose lives had touched the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There was an old uncle who constructed elaborate genealogies and kept the ancestral Confederate uniform in a dry cleaner’s bag in the closet. Another uncle commanded a troop of boy soldiers who wore Confederate uniforms and performed close-order drills with little wooden rifles over their shoulders. One of my mother’s relatives hid under a porch in Columbia, SC and threw rocks at Sherman’s troops. My mother’s mother was born on the family plantation in Georgia and prophesied over by old black woman, a family retainer who remained loyal to the family after Emancipation. And of course, all of my slaveholding relatives were kind masters who never mistreated their people.
I was taught from history books that I’ve since learned were vetted and placed in the schools by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I lived in a segregated world and though I might have had questions, there was nowhere to turn for answers. Ideas about race and history were treated as facts of life. My father was a serious Civil War buff, and one summer we spent our vacation touring battlefields and historic sites, following the war from Harper’s Ferry to Antietam to Gettysburg, and on the return trip we stopped at Appomattox. At Gettysburg, we stood at the base of the Virginia monument on Seminary Ridge while our father unscrolled the story of Pickett’s Charge and how we should feel about it, defiant and proud, the attitudes that the story of the Lost Cause drags with it through time.
Is there any specific plantation history you need to confess?
My ancestors on both sides of the family owned plantations, and for a short time in the early 1970’s I lived at Willtown Bluff, a very old plantation on the Edisto River south of Charleston, S.C. I’ve seen the place marked on a French trading map dated 1698, and over its long history it was an Indian village, a town called New London—wiped out twice by malaria—an indigo and a rice plantation. When I lived there, the outlines of that older world were still visible: the big house on the river bluff, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, the shape of the rice fields still sketched in the marshes, a row of collapsing shacks back in the pines. At the time, the significance of that place as anything more than a world of ease and beauty, was invisible to me and silent. Nothing in my education or upbringing had taught or encouraged me to see or understand it as anything more than another romantic setting of the southern past.
Is there a moment you’d cite as pivotal to your coming to write about the South?
I lived outside the deep South for ten years, in Iowa, New York state, Ohio and Kentucky. One day I was driving with friends through the bluegrass country outside of Paris, Kentucky, where many of the big thoroughbred racing stables and farms are located. The road there is lined on both sides with miles and miles of white fences with gleaming horses grazing in the lush green grass behind them and columned mansions set back in groves of old oaks. Parallel to the fences and closer to the highway on both sides of the road ran these low stone walls. Up close, you could see how intricate they were—double-sided, beautifully fitted, with stones lining the top that fit precisely, like a lid, over the lower wall. One of my friends said there was a man in Lexington who owned a business that specialized in repairing the walls, a descendant of one of the slaves who built the walls, he said.
That hit me like a blow, a flash of light. Maybe I was ready, the way your eyes adjust to changing light. Maybe in the time I’d lived outside the South my eyes had adjusted to history, but I saw something that day in those long, intricate, beautiful stone walls and the way they fit so easily into the landscape of ease and beauty of the thoroughbred farms. What I think I saw was that though the walls were a necessary part of that world, they belonged to another larger world as well. I realized how much of the beauty that defines the south, the houses and the intricate iron gates in Charleston, the stone walls in Kentucky, that great romantic landscape was part of another, larger story that we’d folded into white history but which did not belong to us. My interest in that larger, fuller story began then, and it’s carried me through two novels and a few stories as well.
Your writing is so remarkably, vividly detailed you create a world the reader can live in. How do you start a story or a novel?
A character, an event, an image or an idea sets a story in motion, and of course, not all of my writing is about the past. I start to follow that story and pretty soon, if I’m writing about the past, I need to know more about the world I’m writing about. That’s where research comes in. I do a lot of research, and I guess I’d define my method with a line from Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.” And where I have to go seems to be deep into the details of the daily life of the time and place I’m interested in. I want to get as close as I can to the past as it was lived and the way to do that seems to be to immerse myself in the details of daily life, the actualities of time and place. Each detail carries me deeper into the life of the time, each detail dissolves the abstractions of history and restores a sense of immediacy to the past. Each is also a layer, a fragment of a larger story. In a way, I see research as a kind of archeological dig in which I might uncover a bone fragment that suggests something about the world it was once a part of.
Do you travel to find these details?
The research for So Far Back took me repeatedly to Charleston and Columbia, SC, to the SC Historical Society and the Charleston Library Society and the South Caroliniana Library, where I looked at, touched and read everything I could find. The fine stitching on a baby gown sewed by an enslaved woman in South Carolina. The edge of a wooden yoke worn thin and smooth against a human neck. A financial ledger in a box of family papers. An extraordinary document from the South Caroliniana Library, called “A Blacklist Against the Whore of Babylon,” which was a list of the transgressions of an enslaved woman--two pages of crabbed, angry looking script written in thick black ink by someone bearing down hard on the page. The title, the angry handwriting, the weight and feel of the paper—each one of those details carries its own meaning and suggests a world beyond itself. Each is a piece of a bigger story. So is the feel of the air in Charleston, the smells and sounds.
For your novel The Tree of Forgetfulness, your research uncovered details that made vivid how your ancestors—and so you—are connected to the not innocent history of South Carolina. Can you talk about this?
That novel centers around an episode of racial violence in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina that was a big national story at the time but which had dropped into the silence of history. Wisps of this story had drifted past me all my life. A family of black bootleggers had killed the sheriff and were killed in turn by a mob that took them from the jail. On the night of the murders, so my grandmother said, my grandfather went out late and he came home close to dawn. She waited up for him, and when he came in, he said that those people had paid for what they’d done. The deeper into the story my research took me, the more personal it became as the names of my grandmother’s father and brothers (all doctors) turned up on the Coroner’s Report and on a confession by one of the murder victims, a woman, written on a page from a prescription pad, and the extent to which they (and we) were implicated in this crime became clear. The shape and focus of the book evolved from my growing understanding of how deeply we were involved, which is another level of “research” for me: an exploration of my own thinking about my family and the story of our innocence that seems part of the standard Southern approach to history. I wanted to try and get below that, to speak as a descendant of at least one person who stood in the crowd that night and witnessed three murders and who, by his silence, agreed that it was necessary. I wanted to recover and restore more pieces of that history and break that silence.
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- Published: 24 September 2015 24 September 2015
Her ladyship, the editor talks to Bridgette Lacy about the joys of Sunday Dinner
LB: This is an unusual addition to the UNC Press "Savor the South" series -- most of the books are about single ingredients or dishes: "Buttermilk," "Peaches," "Biscuits,"(I have the "Bourbon" one!). So how did the idea for "Sunday Dinner" come about?
BL: Sunday Dinner was such a big part of my life growing up that I have a natural affinity for the subject. I was well aware of the single ingredient focus of the series but I needed the whole meal. I felt so strongly about the concept that I pitched the idea to Editor Elaine Maisner. She wasn’t initially sold on Sunday Dinner since it was a departure from the initial concept. However, after sharing my stories about my beloved culinary-minded Papa and my connection to shared meals and the value of breaking bread with those you love, she embraced the idea too. So Sunday Dinner was born.
LB: Most of the recipes in the book seem to be from your own family and friends, but some aren't. How did you pick a recipe for the book if it wasn't one from your own memories?
BL:I consider myself an expert taster. As a former features writer and food columnist for The News & Observer I was invited to many meals. Over the years, I’ve made mental note of food combinations and ingredients whether from a friend’s dinner table or a favorite restaurant. When compiling recipes for the book, I knew I wanted to include main dishes, sides and breads that might be somewhat familiar but also wanted to include recipes that could be prepared to elevate the big meal of the week.
LB: It seems to me that this is more than a cookbook, it's a call for a kind of lifestyle -- one where we take the time to connect with the people who matter to us over a shared meal. What picture comes to mind when you hear the words "Sunday dinner"?
BL: I envision friends and family gathered around the table eager to dive into delicious, well-seasoned dishes. The centerpiece would be a big meat such as a perfectly-browned roast or a Sunday staple such as fried chicken. A couple of baskets filled with homemade bread would be in reaching distance for the guests. Of course there would also be plenty of desserts to satisfy that after-dinner sweet tooth. The table might be set with China, crisp linens and large glass tumblers. Sunday dinner would also have lots of big and small conversations with hearty bouts of laughter all around, a sure sign that the fellowship is being enjoyed just as much as the meal.
LB: As you point out in the book, we are a nation of busy people. Many are single. Many settle for subsisting on microwaved meals, take out, and rushed meals in restaurants. How can they have a Sunday Dinner tradition in their lives?
BL: Sunday dinner buoys the spirit especially when it’s shared with the folks you love. You can make it a collaborative effort. When I lived in Indianapolis, I started a Sunday Dinner group. There were four of us and we rotated hosting duties once a month. At the time, we were all single and away from home. I also used the occasion to clear my dining room table and pull out my pretty underused China. If you’re thinking about starting a similar group, here are a few things to consider. Share the hosting responsibilities. Break down the tasks of the meal. Have everyone bring a dish to contribute. I think you feel better sharing a meal with friends and family and a dinner group can fit that bill.
LB: I think of Sunday dinner as a full course meal, but your book doesn't have an appetizer section. Why not?
BL: My grandfather’s Sunday Dinner needed no opening act. It was such a big meal, the largest one of the week with several vegetables, always homemade breads, maybe two meats, and homemade pies and cake. So I just stayed with that tradition.
LB: I love this statement about your grandfather: "He taught me the first bite is with the eye" Can you explain what that means?
BL: Papa’s food was so pretty. It was always laid out in a nice bowl or dish and decorated beautifully. In general, he liked things neat and ordered and his meals were no different. He would take lots of time to score his ham and strategically insert the cloves so the pattern was just right. His potato salad would be adorned with even slices of boiled eggs and sprinkled with paprika for that perfect pop of color. I learned to love the simple beauty of a well-prepared and well-presented meal from my grandfather and it guides my own food offerings today.
LB: I also love your advice for people looking to establish their own Sunday Dinner traditions: "Use real linen and china, what are you saving it for?" -- as someone who just inherited her grandmother's dishes, that resonated with me! But it is really about recognizing what are meaningful traditions in your own life, and allowing them to grow, isn't it?
BL: Yes, it’s about savoring this very minute and enjoying the things that are in front of you today. Several years ago, I had brain surgery. As I healed, that’s when I really began to use everything. Dishes, clothes, even books I had put off reading. I realized “that special day” is right here, right now. Everyday tea cups and dishes are more like pieces of art to me because they make me feel better when I use them, often because they are connected to things that are meaningful. My mother gave me a set of small yellow plates and I remember she used them to serve pancakes on when I was visiting. Now, when I use those dishes whether for pancakes or something else, I think of her. No need to wait for tomorrow to take advantage of all the wonderful things sitting in front of you today. We work so hard for all of these things. I say, use them. Enjoy them. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
LB: In the South, as you point out, Sunday traditions revolve around Church. What are some of the ways in which Sunday Dinner and going to Church are linked to each other?
BL: My grandparents and parents were church-goers. Interesting enough, my grandparents attended separate church. My grandmother went to Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and my grandfather loved the old country church in Madison Heights, Va. We normally attended grandma’s church but on special occasions like a homecoming we would go to the country church. At Papa’s church, those old ladies would often sing a capella and then sometimes the pianist would join in. He would say, “She can really knock a piano.” My shoes would be a clicking, loving the way those ladies sang, so pure. Church and Sunday Dinner were connected because it was all part of the blessing. My family felt all the good things came from God and Sunday Dinner was a part of that.
LB: Reading through the book, and trying out many of the recipes, I felt like one of your goals was to strike a balance between tradition and the demands of our modern era. You make a point of saying, for example, that it's fine to use store-bought pie crust if you don't have the time or talent to make it from scratch. Were there any traditions that you left out of the book?
BL: I mentioned it but I can’t emphasize it enough, clean the kitchen as you go. Wash the pots as you use them.
LB: What would be your ideal Sunday Dinner for this time of year, September?
BL: Hmmm. There are so many choices, so little time. OK, if I have to narrow it down how about some Fragrant Sunday Chicken with Olives and Apricots, Green Beans with Fingerling Potatoes, Cucumber Tomato Salad and Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake. I am full already.
Bridgette A. Lacy is a journalist who writes about food for the Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She also served as a longtime features and food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.
- Published: 13 September 2015 13 September 2015