Bloom: The protagonist of Pickett’s Charge, Threadgill Pickett, is, in your own words, “mean and hard and vengeful.” What is it like writing a character who is difficult and ornery? Did you learn to love him as you wrote him, or did you know from the beginning that you connected/sympathized with him? Are you conscious of how the reader might be experiencing him?
Charles McNair: The urge for vengeance seems to be a universal human trait, doesn’t it? The antidote to the poison – forgiveness – seems always in shorter supply somehow.
I set out to create Threadgill as a real human being, good and not-so-good, like all of us. If the reader doesn’t have sympathy for him as a human, what reason is there to turn the page and follow his story?
Threadgill happens to be no different from any one of us who suffers because of the actions of another. We all have the impulse to even a score. Thank goodness we don’t all act on that impulse.
The eye-for-an-eye urge seems built into all of us as humans. But other qualities – lovable ones, noble ones – live in the genome too. Nothing we know, no one we meet, turns out to be simple black and white. Sometimes the man with the brooding sense of wrong grows roses, mows the lawn of the old lady next door. We’re complex, I’m saying. One can surely love a flawed fellow, love what is good there, and also understand – not endorse, but understand – that person’s desire to right an old wrong.
Bloom: You’ve said that you didn’t want to reveal whether Pickett’s Charge is a story of redemption or one of condemnation. Is that a spiritual/existential framework that you find generally informs your work?
CM: Redemption … or damnation. The ultimate coin-toss, right? What stakes could be higher? It’s a worthy theme for any writer.
The novel spans the time period from the American Civil War into the 1960s and is written via the viewpoint/experiences of a white southern male. Have you ever tried or imagined writing fiction from the viewpoint of an African American? If so, tell us about that. If not, why not?
A young white boy narrated my first novel, Land O’Goshen, In Pickett’s Charge, an old white man’s observances run the show. I have a third novel in the works, and for the first time here I’m writing scenes from a woman’s point of view.
I keep evolving, growing in the craft. I might one day attempt writing from the point of view of an African-American. I’ll have to find the right story, the ripping-good tale that compels me to go there.
A writer should never hesitate to slip inside a new skin when the right story calls … no matter the skin color, or shape.
Bloom: Pickett’s Charge depicts the South as a phantasmagoric place. Tell us about the impulse/interest in this depiction (by you, and also other notable writers of the region).
CM: I’m afraid that whatever place I chose to depict in story, the style would be this way – my influences come streaking on color trails out of the 1960s (Ken Kesey, especially, but Marvel Comics and Ray Bradbury too) and from the 1970s (those magical realists, Marquez, Borges, Cortazar). I read a lot of Holy Bible growing up as a Methodist in rural Alabama – is there anything on earth more phantasmagoric than The Book of Revelations? The Book of Job? Genesis? With all those phantasmagoric lodestars, I would have this style, I’m afraid, whether I wrote books about Dubai or Dubuque.
Among Southerners, an impulse toward the fantastic flows out of a wonderful mixture of superstitions, a stew of Celtic and African American cultures in close proximity. The storytelling tradition always played an important role in both cultures. The lessons and lore of each came down through the generations as stories … some of them wild and wooly.
Bloom: In Threadgill’s character there is this blend of pride and shame. How do you see those two emotions working together in southern culture?
CM: Books can be written on this subject. Books have been. Books should be. There’s a great online magazine, “The Bitter Southerner,” devoted to this difficult subject.
Of course, pride and shame exist … and often under the same skin. These emotions affect the South in a fantastically complex way. When pride gets out of balance, it causes behavior that hurts others. Shame, out of balance, can do exactly the same.
None of us will ever be perfect. So what can we learn from imperfection that will make us better?
Bloom: Those of us not from the South recognize this great tradition of Southern literature. In what ways do you think the history of the South, and its stories, are universal? Are you thinking much about your non-Southern readers when writing a book like Pickett’s Charge?
CM: I didn’t think about readers at all when I wrote Pickett’s Charge. I simply thought about Threadgill Pickett, that character, and how to write him from youth to old age, from cranky codger to bodhisattva, from Mobile to Maine.
I mean this – I set out to doggedly write a story that rose out of my mind like a series of photographic negatives (remember those?) night after night as I worked all those years on this book. The reader, northerner or southerner, never entered the room.
Is the history of the South universal? Its stories?
Let’s see. The brilliant Virginian who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who penned the words that have guided the world toward freedom for centuries now, went home at night and slept with a slave woman … and kept their children enslaved. Is that a story with complexity and contradictions and moral questions enough to be of interest to a reader anywhere?
How about the Southerner who drove the American Indians off their lands and into exile down the Trail of Tears … but who also adopted and raised an orphaned Indian son? Does that story hold universal interest?
And when you talk of Southern literature, what do you mean? There are 10,000 Souths. Cracker South. Cajun South. Cowboy South. Souths in wiregrass, bluegrass, prairie grass, sawgrass. We’re as diverse as Europe here. Writers do their best, I think, to write about their own little postage stamps of experience. Their stories, told right, touch something human in others no matter where they live or how they talk.
Bloom: Since 2005 you’ve reviewed books for WMLB radio in Atlanta. How do you select the books you talk about for your Monday radio reviews?
CM: The station completely trusts me to choose books that will interest listeners. I stick to the classics, or notable books that had a moment in time. That way, the reviews will still be interesting and air-able in 10 years, or 20. Mainly, I pay attention to world events, then try and find a book that seems relevant. I reviewed Lord of the Flies, for example, after reading about a bullying incident on a school bus. That’s the scariest book ever written, by the way.
Bloom: Are there books you’ve reviewed that unexpectedly influenced your own writing directly while working on your novel? How so?
CM: No. I don’t know why, but a firewall stands in my mind between current reading and current writing. I might pilfer a simile here and there – let’s call those homages – but a novel under way had best have its own DNA in place, or else it won’t see the light of day.
The books that influenced Pickett’s Charge have nested in memory for years and years – Don Quixote, for theme; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for style; One Hundred Years of Solitude for showing what’s possible through the impossible.
Bloom: Do you always finish books that you start?
CM: I always read the first page of every book that comes to my desk. I make it to the end of page one and no further in some; to the middle of others; to the very end of a few.
Bloom: You’ve mentioned that your job as a reviewer has led you to re-read a number of books you read years ago. What’s a book that you read completely differently now than you did the first time, and how so?
CM: I read Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus as a college student at the University of Alabama. I wasn’t ready. I grew up in a smallish Alabama city with only half a dozen Jewish families, so that great faith and its rituals and history and cultural influences felt utterly alien to me. The lives of Jews in New England might have been the lives of the Japanese in Kyoto.
Now I know more. I have wonderful Jewish friends. I see what makes them tick. I picked up Goodbye Columbus again two years ago. Eureka! Now I get it.
Bloom: You wear many different hats — editor, reviewer, novelist, speaker, corporate writer. Is this full, busy work schedule the main reason for the 19 years between your first novel, Land O’ Goshen, and Pickett’s Charge? Tell us a little about the writing process (how long, how many versions, etc.). What were some of the greatest challenges in writing the novel?
CM: My daughter Bonnie, my only child, came into the world the same year as my first novel. At age 40, I was scared to death about making a good life for her. (I’m still scared to death.) Any second novel always seemed like a distant priority. The business of making a living took up days and nights, then years and decades.
I wrote part of this book before Land O’ Goshen published in 1994. I followed the good advice of an enduring writer friend, Mark Childress, who suggested it would be better to have something new under way in case of a stillbirth for the debut novel.
I wrote many chapters in 2002 – I took some time off work. A few more years passed. During them, I wrote in fits and starts. (Mostly fits.) The approaching headlights of the Civil War sesquicentennial years galvanized me, and I finished a draft. In 2009, I sent the book to my agent.
A terrible sophomore jinx story follows: Agent has just learned he has stage 4 cancer. He takes a full year to read the book. Book goes out at last, but is immediately shot down at a couple of publishing houses, shaking my confidence.
Then a big NYC house likes Pickett’s Charge… with reservations. An editor says it’s “brilliantly written,” in parts, but that the twin plots, 1860s and 1960s, somehow don’t gee and haw. The famous house adds … THAT A REWRITE WOULD BE WELCOME! (I think cha-ching!)
My fastidious rewrite, with the help of an excellent editor I hire, takes another year.
Now 125 pages lighter, the book goes to agent … agent relays it to editor … I cross fingers, eyes, toes, legs, and I rub my lucky rabbit foot until the rabbit bites me … and then, unexpectedly, my agent, after surviving cancer, dies of complications from a common cold. (God bless you, Fred.)
My manuscript sits on the editor’s desk at the big publishing house … for one year. We’re now into 2011. Again, after the sesquicentennial smoke clears, will anyone really be interested … for years … in yet another book with a Civil War context? I’m not sure … so I’m desperate by now to somehow get the book out. Best case? Concurrent with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, site of the real-world Pickett’s Charge.
Finally, after maybe the longest year of my life, I must make a decision. I withdraw the manuscript from the famous publishing house … and send it to a small house up north. Things must move fast to get the book out by July 2013.
One editor at the new house nearly leaps through the phone to accept the book … but another editor, who must also approve the book, delays one month … then two … then three … then six.
I withdraw the book a second time, from a second potential publisher.
I throw a Hail Mary pass to Alabama, my native state. Maybe my name counts for something back home.
It’s the right decision. Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama, a miniscule one-man operation, asks for the manuscript electronically on a Friday … then calls me to accept it for publication on a Monday. In two days, I’m accepted for publication, 19 years after a promising first novel … and four heavy years of frustration after sending a draft to my late agent.
Despite herculean efforts, we didn’t make the Gettysburg anniversary after all … but we’re in print now.
At long last.
The moral: Take the joystick when you have to.
A book will find its way.
Bloom: You were just 40 when Land O’Goshen was published. Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers who are 40 and over?
CM: My advice: Give up.
Stop writing. Do anything else … unless you’re the kind of writer who can’t sleep at night or keep food on your stomach or see the sun in the sky without telling stories that matter to you – matter to the heart’s deep core.
If you’re that kind of writer?
Never give up.
Click here to read Kevin Hartnett’s feature piece on Charles McNair’s Pickett’s Charge.