The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press; 432 pages; $25).
In elegant, lucid prose, fiction newcomer Kent Wascom brings the frontier, in all its violence and disorder, to stunning life in The Blood of Heaven. Wascom follows Angel Woolsack, from his early life as the son of an itinerant preacher to the bordellos of Natchez and the barrooms of New Orleans to the bayous of Louisiana where Angel meets schemers and dreamers. Rich with detail and characterizations, The Blood of Heaven revisits an early America where fortunes and men were made and great risks were taken.
Wascom is not yet 30, but he infuses his story with a wisdom, awareness, and clarity well beyond his years. As Angel and others carve out a rough-hewn existence in early nineteenth century America, we see them seizing their place and even plotting to overthrow a sovereign government. Through it all, Angel’s hold on us never wavers but intensifies. The Blood of Heaven proves Wascom is a trailblazer whose brilliance is not a one-off but a true and rooted fact.
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Kent, for letting me ask you these questions. I was entranced by The Blood of Heaven and particularly loved how you capture the spirit and wildness of the frontier. Did you always want to be a novelist?
Kent Wascom: Well, I really appreciate the kind words, Jaime. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. And, yes, for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer. I started writing stories when I was in elementary school, and finished my first novel—historical fiction, oddly enough, about Prohibition—at age twelve. My parents were incredibly tolerant of this strange kid who sat in his room pecking away at an old IBM Selectric.
JB: You were twelve going on thirty, but it paid off. How would you describe The Blood of Heaven?
KW: Religiosity, love, revolution, and the birth of the American empire.
JB: What was the impetus behind your story?
KW: The voice of Angel Woolsack, the furious cadence of his speech and the viciousness of his perceptions.
JB: How did you decide on the title?
KW: I’m awful with titles. The title of the first draft was “The Kings of the Cannibal Islands”, but by the third draft the thematic element of that song had been mostly dispensed with, and it remained untitled until I wrote the last pages.
JB: When did you begin work on the novel and how long did it take to write?
KW: I began the book, after trying it out as a short story and novella, the summer of 2009, in my first year at Florida State. It took around two and a half years, maybe closer to three, to complete.
JB: While reading your story, two things struck me: 1) that The Blood of Heaven is your debut; and 2) that you aren’t even 30. Have you written any short stories? And how is it that your writing is so wise and astute?
KW: You’re too kind. Any wisdom in the book is the result of osmosis or at best a sort of unconscious ventriloquism. As for short stories, I’ve written quite a few, but only one I felt was worthwhile. (The one that won the Tennessee Williams prize) I love the form, love the masters like [Barry] Hannah, [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Amy] Hempel, [Julio] Cortazar, and [Isaak] Babel, but I don’t think I have the control or quality of perception necessary to be a worthwhile writer of short stories. When ideas come, they’re always for novels, or at the least novellas. I need space to roam, I suppose.
JB: What kind of research did you do for The Blood of Heaven? Did anything you learn surprise you?
KW: The research process, because I was either a full-time student of teacher throughout, was catch-as-catch-can. And, because discovering the story of West Florida and the Kempers was such a surprise, I was continually amazed—even at the simple facts of daily life at that time, the tenuousness of the frontier people’s existence both in terms of safety and livelihood and their national status.
JB: Did you find anything in your investigation that you’d like to revisit someday, perhaps for a future story?
KW: More than I can say. That Samuel Kemper led a force of Americans into Texas and Mexico during the 1811 Gutierrez/Magee expedition, where they fought alongside Mexican nationals against the Spanish colonial army. It fascinates me to no end, this idea that ethnic boundaries were of little consequence at that moment in time, only to become very important several decades later.
In my research of Cincinnati and the Ohio River area I found a travelogue by a British traveler who was making a trip from there and down the Mississippi in order to collect Native American artifacts. His descriptions of how the settlers desecrated the burial and worship mounds which dot the waterways and forests of the region still have a hold to my imagination, and moreover that some of the artifacts were described in such wonderfully [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez-esque terms. There was a green, polished stone about the size of a platter which, if you kissed it, would cause you to levitate. This confluence of Enlightenment ideals and the fantastic seems ripe.
JB: Sounds like such lyrical and beautiful language. Do you have a favorite character in The Blood of Heaven? If so, who and why?
KW: Red Kate. I like the combination of threat and desire, of this woman who loves but could also kill you in a flash. I felt so much for her that she’s the only character unfortunate enough to encounter Angel who manages to escape, spiritually and physically. Not, of course, intact.
JB: Is Angel Woolsack based on a real person? How did his character come about?
KW: Many of his actions in West Florida are based on those of the third Kemper brother, Nathan, who did not die as he does in my book. In my research I found that Nathan, lesser known than his two older brothers, was actually the one doing much of the rabble-rousing. I liked the idea that regardless of what he did, he would be overshadowed.
But he was never to be Nathan. Better, I thought, that he should be an outsider, that his position with the brothers should be precarious. I did have something of a physical model for Angel, at least late in life.
Early in the writing of the book, I stumbled on a picture of the man who ceremonially fired the first shot on Ft. Sumter, inaugurating the Civil War.
I looked at him and thought, there’s Angel. Of course I reduced him by and eye and arm.
JB: What, in your view, can the period in which you set your novel teach us about American history and about ourselves?
KW: I think the turn of the 19th century offers a profound coign of vantage for understanding ourselves as a country that has been in a continual state of flux from the moment of its inception. The very idea of a “national character” is as mutable (or permeable for that matter) as our borders and the capricious regard in which we hold the borders of others. Moreover, the period was the brooding ground for our great national conflict, which continues to this day, between Enlightenment principles and the savage convictions of violence, avarice, and religious fanaticism.
JB: Would this story have worked as well, or at all, if set in a different time and place?
KW: The characters are such products of their time, truly turn of the century people—with one foot in the 18th and the other in the 19th—that they could not be transplanted. However, their circumstances, the intrigues and revolutionary acts of extra-national acquisition (an over-fancy way of saying filibustering) in which they participate have occurred throughout the history of the country, so in a way I do believe the story would work as well if it were set at the time of Philip Nolan, or William Walker, or Sam Zemurray.
JB: How different were earlier versions of the novel compared with the final copy?
KW: Radically. The first draft combined Reuben and Samuel, only featured Red Kate in a minor fashion, continued the story through 1814, and was almost completely thrown out.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Blood of Heaven?
KW: Living with the voice of Angel. Having the crazed, calloused perspective of a 19th century slaver rattling around in my head even after leaving the desk.
JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing your story?
KW: I certainly learned the foibles, the tell-tale tics and tremors, of my technique. Nothing will give you a better idea of your weaknesses as a writer than repeated readings of your work. I hope I’ve absorbed some of that learning and can avoid a few miscues and wrong turns as I work on the next book.
JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
KW: Read, fiddle about in the outdoors (fishing, hiking, etc.), the occasional human contact.
JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
KW: There are so many, and it’s really a jackdaw’s nest-style collection. Of course, the Southern America pantheon, which I (after Carlos Fuentes, who stands high in my regard) consider paired with the Latin American: [William] Faulkner, [Flannery] O’Connor, [Barry] Hannah, [Harry] Crews, [Cormac] McCarthy, [Shelby S.] Foote, [Larry] Brown; [Jorge Luis] Borges, [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Juan] Ruflo, [Julio] Cortazar, [Mario] Vargas Llosa, [Eduardo] Galeano, [Jose] Donoso. My more recent but no less verdant loves: Hilary Mantel, whose backlog I’m rationing, William T. Vollmann, for his historical work and philosophy. For pure linguistic pleasure, learning the beat and pulse of a sentence, I adore William H. Gass and John Hawkes. Above all, perhaps, is Yukio Mishima, whose unflinching eye, salience to horror, and the achievement of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, has been immeasurable influence.
JB: What was your publication process like?
KW: Magical, really. I finished the final draft of the book on the same day my friend and mentor Bob Shacochis finished his. A first sign of cosmic promise. Within a few weeks Bob had passed the manuscript on to interested editors at Scribner and Grove. A week or so later, Bob told me that Grove editor Elisabeth Schmitz was hosting a dinner at the AWP conference in Chicago, and that I should go. “But,” he said, “I don’t think they want the book. They haven’t said a word about it, and these sorts of silences don’t bode well, my boy. But go, make some connections, and maybe they’ll take the next one.” So, for the week leading up to the conference Bob runs me down with talk of Grove’s disinterest, leaving me haggard and depressed by the evening of the dinner.
Unbeknownst to me, the folks at Grove had read the book in three days and had been screaming at Bob to let me know that they wanted it. Meanwhile, all I hear is “They really don’t seem to want the book. Tough luck, kiddo.” So the evening of the dinner arrives, and I’m standing outside this pizza place with Bob when a cab pulls up and out steps Elisabeth Schmitz. As she approaches, Bob takes me aside and says, “Okay, there is something I’ve been keeping from you. I’m sorry to say that, at this time, Grove / Atlantic is NOT prepared to offer you a one book contract.”
I am near collapse when Elisabeth winsomely says, “Because we want to offer you a TWO book contract.” I burst into tears, grab Elizabeth and spin her round, and proceed to collapse into a laughing, bawling wreck out there on the sidewalk. Utterly glorious.
JB: That IS glorious and rather wonderful. Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?
KW: For those embarking on their first: Let no National Novel Writing Months fool you, the act of writing a novel is arduous and long, and the world, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, is pitiless to your goal. Your efforts should be limited to survival (financial, emotional—though neither of these are guaranteed) and not only finishing the book, but making it the best that it can be. (In short, revise until you’ve got the words on the page memorized.) Give primacy to nothing else.
There’s a great quote from Harry Crews that goes something like, “The world doesn’t want you to write a book. The world wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably every day.” Do your best to avoid that world, though you will lose a chance of friends on your way.
JB: Your writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier and even Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. How do such comparisons make you feel?
KW: You can only bow your head at such things and try to shake them off. It’s such a lovely compliment, to be associated in a small way with the pillars of world letters. But these comparisons are like beauties with razor-blades for teeth; they appear gorgeous but can just as easily leave you in shreds. If you look at some of [Cormac] McCarthy’s early reviews, he gets absolutely savaged with the [William] Faulkner comparison.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Blood of Heaven?
KW: Enjoyment. It may seem strange to say that about such a harrowing book, but I enjoy dark and harrowing books, and I hope it finds an audience of such people—while also shaking up the worlds of some cloistered others. Intellectually, once it’s in the reader’s hands my desires are off the table; they take from it what they will.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
KW: I’d better get it out of the way that The Blood of Heaven is the first volume of a planned sextet, dealing with the history of the Gulf coast and later its interchanges with the Caribbean (The Golden Circle, if you will), from the Louisiana Purchase to Katrina and the oil spill. From birth to apocalypse. Secessia, the novel I’m currently working on, is about the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War and features as perspective characters, among others, Angel Woolsack’s son and wife (both mentioned in the prologue), as well as the infamous General Benjamin Butler. I hasten to add that the sextet is a lifetime project—I can only hope that I’ll be lucky enough to have a kindly publisher who will keep printing them as they come—and will be interrupted by unrelated projects.
JB: Wow, I am in awe and will eagerly await Secessia. Thanks, Kent, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!
KW: Thank you so much, Jaime. It was a pleasure.