Jon Mayes Talks with Mark Barr
(reprinted with permission via Advance Reading Copy)
Jon: Mark, tell me about your book.
Mark: My book is titled Watershed. This is my first book and my debut. It’s set in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the building of a federal hydroelectric dam and the arrival of electricity in rural Tennessee.
Years ago I was working in advertising and one of our clients was an electric cooperative and I didn't know what one was. I was a copywriter and they tasked me with writing a brochure.
As I did a little research, I was stunned to realize that electricity arrives around 1900 in the United States. Edison has DC and all that, and then they're building it out. But my book is set in 1937. In the 30s the countryside still didn't have electricity. Because it was just a market-driven system. Right?
Mark: If you were in the electrical company in the city, you could string a mile of copper and have a hundred customers.
Jon: Just like internet when it first came out.
Mark: Very much so. And that's an issue, right? Our jobs are so dependent on the internet. And similarly, it was like that then, everything started to become dependent on electricity. And it just blew my mind that it's not something we collectively know. I'd never heard of it.
What happened was, as you might expect, young people were drawn off the farms to the bright lights, big city. Go live a more comfortable, electrified life.
Anyway, I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to set a story in that space, sort of dramatize it a bit. So that said, my story is more about these people. And I have a story of Nathan, who's this engineer who's working on the dam and he's running from a scandal in his past and Claire, who's a housewife who's getting her first taste of what a career might be. And it's these two people as they meet in a small town just as electricity arrives. And there's some people who resist and some people who are enthusiastic and young people and old people, and just how it all plays out.
Jon: How some people resist, what would be their reasoning?
Mark: I think there are always people that resist. I was stunned with healthcare stuff when people are like, "Don't tell me that I need good healthcare."
But there were people that were like, "Don't come in and tell me." Well, one example I think of now is a pure manual laborer. Electrification means there might be machines to take his place.
Jon: Yes, of course.
Mark: If you're a guy who has a job shoveling grain all day, someone's going to come up with a machine that'll do that, a conveyor or something. So mechanization's part of it.
And there's people who just don't trust it. They felt like this is the government. Because it wasn't just a free market thing, it was the government, it was part of Roosevelt's rural electrification act. It had a faint socialist sort of tang to it. There were people that resisted and said things like "I'll shoot you if you come on my land trying to string up your electric lines." Or they were told they had to sell the right of way. I'm sure there was some eminent domain issues too, as part of building hydro-electric dams and flooding valleys. There were people who had to be relocated. Some of those people didn't want to go. There was a lot of resistance.
Jon: All these dams were hydroelectric.
Mark: Yeah, they built, I don't know the exact number, but a lot.
Jon: A lot in Tennessee because there was the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Mark: Exactly, which is just in Tennessee. The REA was nationwide, the Rural Electrification Act and TVA came out of that. It was more of a, I guess, a state level. I'm not quite sure. But I think there are at least 17 in Tennessee.
Jon: It's the only one that I've heard of. So it must be because there's a lot of them.
Mark: It's the most extensive system by far, I think. And it made electricity. But because of some laws on the books,the government couldn't get in and compete with independent, private electrical companies. So what they did was sign people up in cooperatives so they were member owners of these things. And then they could purchase wholesale electricity from the government that they've installed themselves. My parents have a place in Northern Arkansas that gets their electricity from them. They are still hundreds of them around the country. And I didn't know about that. I'd never heard of such a thing. I thought this is fascinating.
Jon: How did you first hear about it to think, "Hey, this is really fascinating. I think I'm going to write a book about this."
Mark: Well, I was writing that brochure. I was researching the brochure, and that's when I stumbled across this. I'm fascinated by these things that we collectively don't know. Big things that we somehow missed. I'm sure there's an infinite number of them, big things that created major changes in the flow of our society that we just don't talk about or think about.
Jon: We just accept.
Mark: Yes, it just really held my interest. I wasn't sure if it pulled other people's interest, but I think it's fascinating.
Jon: Well it used to be, on a little aside, that hundreds of years ago, everything was pretty clear on how it worked. You know, either it was gears or other things, and if something broke you could open it up and say, "Oh this ..."
Jon: If all the things that we take for granted, if they just broke there'd be a very small minority of people who would know what to do.
Jon: We'd say "Help!"
Mark: Right. We definitely see that. I've seen some dystopian novels that touch on that.
Mark: I think David Mitchell had one where we're like "If the oil had run out we would lose so much." All these people that have their photos in the Cloud and stuff like that, that all goes away. And not just everyone can engineer a car or build a computer... We'd go back to hoes and hand tools. Right.
Mark: Very quickly.
Jon: Very quickly. Helium. It's going away.
Mark: Right. Yeah.
Jon: What do we have anymore? No more balloons at parties.
Mark: What are children's birthday parties going to be like? "I remember when we had balloons that just floated in the sky."
Jon: We could use hydrogen, I guess. It's just a little more volatile. "Get away."
Mark: That'd make the kids parties exciting. The Hindenburg theme.
Jon: How were you fortunate enough to be published by Hub City?
Mark: We were looking for publishers and my agent suggested them. I'm a southerner, I'm from Arkansas. They have a really good reputation.
Jon: So your agent sent them the manuscript?
Mark: Yeah. And it seemed like just it was a great fit. In fact, I remember when she told me about them that two and a half weeks or so, it was sort of stressful because I was pretty excited about them. I remember Googling them and my wife, I talked to her and said "This seems like such a great fit." I think it says on their Twitter page, they're all about finding new extraordinary voices in the South. It was something that I thought, I want to be part of that. It sounds like just that sort of exciting thing.
Jon: Well, and then, not only do they accept your book and want to publish it, they only publish one hard back a season.
Jon: And it's your book.
Mark: Yes! That was very exciting. What writer hasn't dreamt about seeing their book in a hardback?
Jon: Exactly. And Betsy had already said to you that they wanted to publish you.
Jon: And you're going to be their hardback for the season. And then she says, "Oh, by the way ..."
Mark: Yeah. Which is just like ... I mean it's like having a booster rocket put on your plane or something. Because I, yeah, it was pretty of a real one, two punch of like, I'm pretty excited about this and oh this-
Jon: We have this guy.
Mark: This world-class author's going to throw his name behind this.
Mark: And I think that's incredible. That was very exciting. I mean I'm a big fan of his work and then to have him get behind it just feels like, it felt like winning the lottery or something, you know?
Mark: Because particularly, whereas a debut, no one knows who I am, and being at a small independent press, that's where that money can really make a difference. That's where his name and in this case the Cold Mountain Fund contributed something towards the tour and that's making a real difference. I fully expected that I would have to self-fund my tour as in me driving to book shops around my state. That's what I had in my head.
Jon: Which is a what a lot of authors do.
Mark: Which is what is done. Right? I'm still doing that, but it kind of extends it. I can fly. I've flown here, I can fly to places! (laughing).
Jon: Where are you going to have your launch? Is there a local bookstore?
Mark: A local bookstore is going to host it. Actually, it's a combination of my favorite local bar and local bookshop. And they're going to come sell books at the Whitewater Tavern in Little Rock. I will go to Asheville eventually, but I don't know.
Jon: So maybe you'll be at Malaprop's in Asheville.
Mark: Yeah, but I launch three weeks from today.
Mark: Thanks very much.
Jon: Very impressive.
Mark: This whole experience has been just extraordinary and truly ... It's been so gratifying.
Jon (laughing): Now we just have to sell the book.
Mark: I know. I was telling my wife the other day, I said, "If the book never comes out just this past seven months has been just incredible." You know, right now he's going to actually sell them. People have to actually want to read it.
Jon: And the whole Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund is big, so congratulations.
Mark: Thanks, I feel super lucky to have stumbled into it. And to be in the right place at the right time. And yeah, very grateful.
Mark Barr has been awarded fellowships from Blue Mountain Center, I-Park Artists' Enclave, Jentel Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Millay Colony, and Yaddo. He holds an M.F.A from Texas State University. He lives with his wife and sons in Arkansas, where he develops software and bakes bread.
Jon Mayes writes the Advance Reading Copy Blog. He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife, Linda-Marie Barrett, Assistant Executive Director of SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Mayes has been a Publishers Representative and bookstore owner and manager. He was born in the small village of Kintbury in England, is a vegetarian and a secular humanist.