Tag Archives: Southern writers

Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, dystopian literature, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading

Q&A with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White (Touchstone; 336 pages; $25).

a place at the tableA rich, beautiful novel about three unlikely, complex characters who meet in a chic Manhattan café and realize they must sacrifice everything they ever knew or cared about to find authenticity, fulfillment, and love.

A Place at the Table tells the story of three richly nuanced characters whose paths converge in a chic Manhattan café: Bobby, a gay Southern boy who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret finally comes to light; and Alice, an African-American chef whose heritage is the basis of a famous cookbook but whose past is a mystery to those who know her.

As it sweeps from a freed-slave settlement in 1920s North Carolina to the Manhattan of the deadly AIDs epidemic of the 1980s to today’s wealthy suburbs, A Place at the Table celebrates the healing power of food and the magic of New York as three seekers come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.


If you are a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will absolutely devour Susan Rebecca White’s newest creation, A Place at the Table.  Thanks to the wonderful Alison Law, I was able to ask Susan three questions and here are her answers.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you know when you can run with an idea and

Photo Credit: Dorothy O'Connor

Photo Credit: Dorothy O’Connor

when you need to shelf it for later and when you should just discard it?

I work on several story lines at once. While writing A Place at the Table I would work on Bobby’s section for a little bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Amelia and work on her section for a bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Alice. That’s probably why I keep returning to the multiple narrator form. I can pick up a different piece of the storyline when I exhaust myself with another.

I am not entirely sure how it is that I ultimately decide which storylines stay in the final novel and which are jettisoned. I write a lot more than is ever actually published. I probably wrote 1000 pages of text when putting together A Place at the Table, but only 300 + made it to the final draft. I am a big believer in spilling material and then tidying it up during the editorial process. Often I think of writing as excavation. The story is in there, but I have to dig it out of me. And I dig it out by writing.

In your opinion what is good fiction?               

Good fiction disrupts the tidy narratives that we create about our lives and exposes something deeper, darker, and ultimately more authentic. Good fiction excavates if not The Truth then deeper truths about who we are. Ultimately good fiction connects us to each other. There’s an adage “the more specific, the more universal.” By paying exquisite attention to specific characters on the page, seeing who they really are beneath the well-rehearsed stories they tell of their lives, we begin to question our own tidy narratives, our own delusions. Good fiction makes you acutely aware of being alive when you are reading it, even though you are reading about someone else’s story. And in that regard good fiction does what we ask of religion: It takes us outside of ourselves. It helps us transcend our own limited perspectives. Good fiction also grabs us, makes us want to know what happens next, makes us want to turn the page.

How would you respond to those who claim women writers do not write “serious” fiction?

Hmm. Well, first I would want to give that person the middle finger, but being a nice southern woman I’d probably refrain. I guess I respond by giving a big eye roll, shaking my head at ignorance, rolling up my sleeves, and getting back to work.


Learn More about Susan:

susanrebeccawhiteauthorphotoBorn and raised in Atlanta, Susan Rebecca White earned a BA in English from Brown University, then moved to San Francisco, where she taught and waited tables for several years, before moving to Virginia to earn her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. At Hollins, she was a teaching fellow and the recipient of the James Purdy prize for outstanding fiction.

Susan’s debut novel, Bound South, received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for theTownsend Prize. Bound South was followed by A Soft Place to Land, also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick.” Susan’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is receiving early praise and is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June of 2013. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) selected A Place at the Table as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick.

Susan has been invited to festivals and book events around the country and has been a speaker at numerous academic and cultural institutions, including SCAD Atlanta, the Carter Center, the Margaret Mitchell house, and Birmingham’s Hoover library. Susan appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in a photograph and accompanying essay celebrating women authors living in Atlanta. During the summer of 2011, Susan lived in Manhattan to gain on-the-ground knowledge of the city and research in greater depth the history of Café Nicholson, the real-life restaurant that inspired Café Andres in A Place at the Table.

Susan currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches creative writing at Emory University. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in-residence at SCAD Atlanta. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the pink pig at the Rich’s downtown.

Did you know?

Susan and Lauren Myracle are sisters.  Myracle, a New York Times bestselling author, writes books for tweens and teens.

Susan Rebecca White’s Website


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Follow Susan on Twitter


Filed under author interviews, beach books, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading, women's fiction, women's lit

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading

Interview with Kent Wascom, Author of The Blood of Heaven

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

Kent Wascom

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.  Havethe blood of heaven 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. http://www.old-picture.com/defining-moments/pictures/Edmund-Ruffin.jpg 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?

The author signing copies of his book

The author signing copies of his book


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.


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Spotlight on The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom

I just finished reading a masterful debut by a very promising new novelist.

the blood of heaven


About the Book:

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in any novelist, no matter their age.

The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.

The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

About the Author:


Kent Wascom was born in New Orleans in 1986, attended Louisiana State University and received his MFA from Florida State University. He was awarded the 2012 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for Fiction. The Blood of Heaven is his first novel. 




Filed under books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Blog Tour: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

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The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (Ecco Books; 432 pages; $15.99).


Rhonda Riley

Rhonda Riley

“My husband was not one of us,” Evelyn Hope reluctantly reveals.  “He remains, after decades, a mystery to me.  Inexplicable.  Yet, in many ways, and on most days, he was an ordinary man.”  So begins Rhonda Riley’s unusual, unique, and nuanced debut, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Riley immediately arouses the curiosity of readers and also hooks them.  For a few hours, nothing else matters.

Or that is how it was for me, at least.  I still cannot get Adam and Evelyn Hope out of my head, and that is a testament to Riley’s epic love story.  Riley fuses historical fiction with elements of mystery and the supernatural in The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to create a story that crosses genres and beguiles until the very last page.

The tale is actually one big flashback.  After years and years of keeping the truth close to her chest, an elderly Evelyn finally opens up about her husband.  She can no longer keep silent after seeing a photo of her youngest daughter, Sarah, whose formerly Caucasian features have metamorphosed into Asian characteristics.  Evelyn knows the photo has not been altered; Sarah is Adam’s daughter, after all.

This is Adam’s story (the novel was originally titled Adam Hope: A Geography), but it is also Evelyn’s, for she is “the one left to do the telling.”  In her sage and sure voice, Evelyn attempts to explain the unexplained.

At 17, Evelyn is sent to work on her deceased aunt and uncle’s farm in North Carolina, where the soil consists of deep and hard red clay.  In the days just after World War II, Evelyn labors from sun-up to sundown but senses a change coming, though she has no idea how profound the change will be or in what guise the transformation will take.

One rainy day, Evelyn comes upon a puddle, which she thinks is full of nothing but water and mud.  She is beyond surprised to discover the body of a man there, a man who is very much alive, though strange and slightly misshapen.  Mud and scars cover the man’s body.  He must be a solider, she thinks, but far from the battlefield.  After she takes the man inside and cares for him, miraculously, he heals.  The kicker is that he also changes form.  To Evelyn’s disbelief, the man grows to strongly resemble her; the two could be twins, in fact.

Evelyn does not question.  To her, “Addie” is a gift.  “To have her come up literally from the land I loved seemed natural, a fit to my heart’s logic.  The land’s response to my love.  So when fate gave me Addie, I let her be given.”

We know Addie is special, and she continues to astound us, especially when Evelyn decides she is ready for marriage and children.  Addie changes form once again to become “Adam Hope.”  Riley creates a character, unlike all others, who literally takes on the image of others.  When Riley delves into the unknown, she takes us with her.

Riley also imagines a very tangible sense of fear.  Instinctively, Evelyn knows there are those who would not understand Adam adam-hope1.jpgin the way she does.  No one can know who or what Adam is or where he truly comes from.  The situation has the potential to become volatile, and both Evelyn and Adam know this.  Yet Adam counters:  “Do you know who you are, Evelyn?  Who all of you are?  Where do you come from?  You don’t know any more than I do.”

Clearly, Adam is from the land and of the land: he can be molded like clay.  Riley uses this unconventional character to give us a geography of a body and of love, land, and family.  Adam and Evelyn begin an idyllic life together; everything seems perfect and no one challenges who or what Adam is.  He communes with horses, people, and nature in a way that is reminiscent of how Edgar Sawtelle communicates with dogs.

Adam Hope pulls you in like a magnet and entices you to stay a while.  Before long, you are entranced by his beautiful music, his way with all creatures, and, above all, by Riley’s captivating and clear language.

Uncertainty, fear, and calamity soon mar the landscape of the couple’s happy home and force them to flee.  I could not help but draw comparisons to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden.  Yet, Adam and Evelyn get lucky and find a new kind of Eden and a new home, at least until tragedy strikes their family again.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope explores the notion of the self versus the other; the familiar versus the strange; intimacy versus distance; and the known versus the unknown.  Riley takes us to places we have never been before in her animated and charismatic debut perfect for fans of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

This novel was sold at auction, with several publishers placing bids to nab Riley’s story.  It’s easy to understand why.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is a beautifully and ingeniously told tale.  Adam Hope is an understated yet formidable character, a man who is otherworldly but never alien, astonishing and ethereal but never inconceivable. Riley gently reminds us that unconditional love and acceptance matter more than difference. enchanted

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Rhonda’s Tour Stops

Monday, April 22nd: Bookmagnet’s Blog

Tuesday, April 23rd: Kritters Ramblings

Wednesday, April 24th: A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, April 25th: Sara’s Organized Chaos

Monday, April 29th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 6th: A Night’s Dream of Books

Tuesday, May 7th: Giraffe Days

Thursday, May 9th: Book Snob

Thursday, May 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf

Tuesday, May 14th: Bibliophiliac


I am giving away a brand new copy of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope.  Giveaway ends Friday, April 26, at 5 pm ET.  I will use random.org to choose a winner.  Good luck!   


Filed under blog tour, book giveaway, book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Southern fiction, Southern writers, supernatural, TLC Book Tours