By Terry Hong
I’ve been hanging with a few serious Civil War buffs the last couple weeks (one of whom is a licensed historical tour guide and descended from a Civil War lieutenant colonel) and I haven’t yet met an “expert” who’s heard this strange tale about tiny Town Line, New York—the only northern town that seceded from the Union, and didn’t rejoin until 1946! Despite its anti-abolitionist leanings, Town Line—15 miles from Canada—was home to Mary Willis, who was a covert participant of the Underground Railroad.
Daren Wang grew up in Town Line, in a converted barn, complete with an attic basketball court, an indoor swimming pool, and even stray bats. His parents owned and rented out the main farmhouse, part of the property. As much as the barn was an ideal childhood haven, Town Line wasn’t the most welcoming home for a half-Chinese, half-white local son: “[A]s the only minority student in the entire school system, I was called ‘chink’ by my classmates much more often than I was called Daren,” Wang writes in an article for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He left Town Line for Cornell University, and after graduation headed south to Georgia. He worked in public radio, then founded and became director of the Decatur Book Festival. He was known for pulling his Confederate-connection from his wallet: a copy of a 1945 New York Times article, “Town Line May Be Last of the Confederacy.” When he googled his Town Line address “[o]n a lark one day,” he found that his childhood home was built by Mary Willis’ father Nathan; the barn served as Mary Willis’ Underground Railroad station.
Wang tried for a few years to interest some of his many writer friends to take the story. No one bit, so he finally decided to write the story himself. “I fell down the same rabbit hole that has pulled so many Southern writers into their own Wonderland. I had to know the history of the place that made me.”
Eight years later, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires—in which Mary Willis takes center stage—hit shelves in August this year.
Terry Hong: Must ask … do you still carry that NYT article in your wallet?
Daren Wang: Ha. No, I don’t carry the article, but I do often carry the shoulder patch from the Town Line Fire Department. It says, “Last of the Rebels 1865-1946,” and has a crossed U.S. and Confederate flag.
TH: And is it true that you found this story about Mary Willis living in the very house you grew up in, tried to get other writers to tell the tale, and when you couldn’t, you took it upon yourself?
DW: Yes. I grew up hearing about the secession in Town Line, and hearing stories about the Underground Railroad stop as well. But we also heard the tenants in the old farmhouse talk about seeing ghosts, and they seemed about the same. There was evidence of the Underground Railroad, though. There is a tunnel dug in the cellar wall in the old farmhouse.
Eventually, I found an oral history about the family, and started to research the area in earnest, just because I wanted to know. I used to try and convince my author friends to write the story because a novel seemed too damned intimidating to me.
TH: And might I ask who some of those “author friends” were? And after, did you send them the book and say, “SEEEE?!”
DW: Ha. I sent them the book and said, “Blurb, please?”
Charles Frazier comes to mind. Joshilyn Jackson, probably. Maybe Thomas Mullen. Ed Falco, I think. I actually wrote a few hundred words of this on the same desk that Charles Frazier wrote Cold Mountain. So perhaps some of the DNA rubbed off.
TH: You’ve had many lives before you became a blooming debut author at 51, but almost all your previous incarnations seem to have something to do with writing and books and authors. Can you pinpoint some pivotal moments that finally led to writing your first novel (besides not finding someone else to write Mary’s story!)? How did you get over that “damn” intimidation?
DW: As I was working through the writing, sitting in my office, wrestling through some bad sentence, I thought of Larry Brown a lot. I interviewed him in Oxford back in 1997. He told me that he burned seven manuscripts when he finally got a book deal, and that perseverance inspired me beyond anything. Larry never had much education, but he turned himself into a fierce, beautiful writer, and I couldn’t help but keep on with it when I thought of him.
TH: How did you decide what to keep of the “truth” and what to fictionalize? How did you approach your research?
DW: I did everything I could think of to research. Interviewed descendants, went through court records, military records, old house museums, read agricultural newspapers for 1862, went through the old census data. I was obsessed. But my intention wasn’t to write, I just wanted to know about this place.
The real Mary Willis had 17 siblings, and I wrote a draft with all of them in there. That’s a terrible idea. When I cut the others, it was the first big change I made from the established history, and it felt very freeing.
I tell people that all the weird stuff is true. Secession, Underground Railroad, Leander [Mary’s brother] joining the army then quitting, Confederate agents on the Canadian border, the Johnson’s Island conspiracy—I felt like that stuff had to be rooted in history, or people wouldn’t take the book seriously. The everyday stuff—people falling in love, people dying—that I played fast and loose with.
TH: Speaking of love stories … you have at least two mixed-race relationships (that didn’t involve master/slave horrors) in Fires. Mary and the runaway slave, Joe, take front and center. And you have a short, but rather significant, mention that Nathan had a (non-white) first love who was not Mary’s mother. Were you inspired/influenced by your own mixed-race heritage to fictionalize these love stories?
DW: It’s funny, but it never echoed for me that way. I can’t say why. Mary and Joe seemed so natural to me—the local boys think she’s stuck up, but she’s a lover of books and learning. She’s also a farm girl, a woman that works in the field. When Joe comes and she finds him to be a reading companion, she has a true friend. Joe, in that way, replaces [Mary’s neighbor and friend] Verona, Charles’ wife, in her life. The love grows from that.
There’s a long history of the Haudenosaunee [the indigenous tribes also known as the League of Five Nations] on the land where the house is. It goes back several thousand years before Christ—the artifacts that were dug up are in a local museum in Alden. Nathan was a pioneer, and though the place grew up around him, I always thought that was his central identity. I wanted his constant yearning for the Seneca [one of the five nations that makes up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy] to have a deep-seated reason, and that past romance seemed like a good way to show it.
TH: After finishing Fires, I found a genealogy site showing Mary Willis and her husband-in-real-life, John Webster (who appears as Charlie Webster in your book), as having had 10 kids! Did you find any of their descendants still living in Town Line? Have any of them read the book?
DW: I’ve been in fairly regular contact with three descendants—only two are from Mary, another from one of her siblings. They’re excited and receptive to the book, and for that I’m grateful. I did my best to make the fictional Mary real, but also someone they’d be proud of. There’s none in Town Line that I know of, though I did interview one in nearby Lancaster, and another in Alden. Oddly, there’s one not far from me in Atlanta.
TH: With all the experience you’ve had the last dozen years of running the Decatur Book Festival, I’m sure you’ve been privy to the many ways to market a book. One of the more unique ideas you’ve come up with is arranging a post-reading meet-up with a fellow author to share a local bourbon cocktail and then blogging about it here. So … do tell, tell, tell. How’s that going? How’re the drinks? Highlights, please!
DW: The “Bourbon-Soaked Book Tour,” as Publishers Weekly termed it! It’s really been fun. Part of what’s happened is that people have heard about it, and everyone wants to go out drinking afterward. I’ve got 63 events! That much bourbon will kill me. I’m not a young man anymore. I’ve come to say that I only drink when I’m working.
Some of the highlights—get a tour of Cathead distillery in Jackson, MS. They’re known for vodka, but they’re about to launch a bourbon line, so I got to taste early blends as they’re working through the recipes. And getting a drink in Asheville with Charles Frazier is always fun. I had a fantastic Tokyo Old-Fashioned in Chicago last week—Japanese whiskey. And a drink in the City Grocery in Oxford is always a joy—something of a cultural touchstone.
TH: After a dozen years, you’re stepping down from executive directing! What were some of your most memorable festival moments? And the not-so-much-ones? What will you miss most?
DW: Memorable Festival moments? The first session of the first Festival—we didn’t know what we were doing, or how many people would show up. We scheduled a bunch of folks we knew, and one of the New York publishers offered up this romance/time-travel writer we’d never heard of. We put her in a 100-seat venue. She was Diana Gabaldon. Three hundred very angry women sought me out in the lobby because they couldn’t get in the overflowing room.
We once staged a wrestling match, sent someone to the hospital for stitches. Also, had the Cherokee dancers on the square at Agnes Scott College under torchlight in traditional dress. A dozen men in body paint and loincloths on a southern women’s college campus. Those are some of my favorite big moments. There’ve been so many kindnesses—small things—that I’ll keep forever.
There’s nothing I’ll miss, though. I am so ready to move on.
TH: Does “moving on” mean physically, too?
DW: I don’t have any definite plans. Decatur has been a great place to live, but we’ll see what comes. That’s part of the joy—the uncertainty.
Georgia has its challenges, but Atlanta, and Decatur in particular, has always been welcoming. I came South right after college. I didn’t have a gig, and didn’t want to stay in the snow and the cold. NYC was appealing, but I didn’t want to be jobless there, so I picked Atlanta somewhat randomly.
TH: I’ve got to ask—have you read Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng? Another New Yorker writing a “southern” novel … although he never moved below the Mason Dixie Line where you’ve been for decades. He sure got a LOT of flak for writing outside his ethnic box. [How ironic that white authors appropriate all the time, but …] Any thoughts?
DW: I read some of Southern Cross the Dog and liked it a lot. It came out while I was still in writing mode, and I am a terrible reader when I’m writing.
The ethnic box problem is terrifying for many writers. Joe Bell, the runaway slave … was the most intimidating character to take on for just this reason. The pendulum has swung too far—writers should be able to let their imaginations roam free, but many feel like they can’t take on certain subjects because of this kind of stuff. We need to be respectful of who owns a story, but attacking someone for a sincere and respectful effort doesn’t do anyone any good.
TH: Who currently owns the Willis property?
DW: The property is divided now—the front house is owned by one family, the barn/back house by another. I don’t even know who they are. Knocked on the door years ago, but was not invited in.
TH: Clearly you need to drop off a copy of Fires in their mailboxes, ahem! Can’t believe you weren’t invited in!
DW: I’ll be up there next week. Perhaps they’ll let me in this time.
TH: The executive directing ending this year will means more time for writing, yes? What’s next?
DW: I’m expecting my next book to be about Edward Rulloff. His brain is on display at Cornell—one of the largest on record. There was a bar named for him in Ithaca, too. He was something of a genius—spoke 16 languages, practiced medicine and law. Also, he was a serial killer. There’s apocryphal stories that Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes books is based on him. When they were about to hang him, Mark Twain wrote a letter to the New York Herald saying that he was too important a human being, and they should hang someone else in his stead.
TH: I had to look up your Rulloff—found this from his Wiki page: “Some sources claim he gave a speech on the gallows, ending with ‘Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner.”
DW: Isn’t that fantastic? What amazes me is that he’s so completely forgotten. I have a book about him called Rogue Scholar. Well researched, but it is so tied up in the court records that it never comes to life. It’s going to be a lot of fun to take on.
TH: Forgotten no more, thanks to you! And, uh … the Asian mother in me has to add: NO drinking and driving, ahem!
DW: I promise.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Homepage image via exploringupstate.com