Orphans, Bounty Hunters, Lovers daring an escape, and the last days of the Civil War--that's only part of the incredible story in Taylor Brown's Fallen Land. He is the recipient of a Montana Prize in Fiction, and he’s been a finalist for the Press 53 Open Awards, Machigonne Fiction Contest, Wabash Prize in Fiction, Rick DeMarinis Short Story Contest, and Doris Betts Fiction Prize. He is also he author of In the Season of Blood and Gold, The River of Kings, and Gods of High Mountain, as well as numerous award-winning short stories. I'm thrilled to have him here.
I always believe that there is something haunting the writer that compels him or her to write a specific book. At least it’s that way for me. Is it for you? And if so, what was the question you were hoping the novel might answer for you--and is it different from what you expected?
What a wonderful question. I was absolutely haunted by this book. Fallen Land actually began as a short story, “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” which is the title story of my collection from Press 53. That story has a hanging ending—quite literally! And the unnamed boy, who later became Callum—I simply wanted to know what happened to him. At the end of the short story, it seems likely that he won’t survive—that his final words in the story are the final words in his short, cruel life. And I think, to some extent, I didn’t want his story to end that way. I felt a little like an older brother toward him, this skinny little buck with his overlarge hat and stolen horse, his big little heart and wild audacity.
So that started me writing. What happens to our boy? How does he get out of this fix? And what are the consequences? The cost? And what more will be required of him now?
Later, as the story progressed, the driving question evolved: can Callum and Ava survive this cruel world in which they find themselves? Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Will they be broken, or will there be light for them in the end?
To be honest, I’ve realized only recently just how truly personal that question was. The narrative arc of Fallen Land, I see now, parallels the arc of my own life over the years I wrote it. My ex and I moved to Asheville, NC, shortly before I started the book, and those ended up being very rough years for us. We had little money, few friends, and we ended up living in an “ex-whorehouse” (the landlady’s words) rife with ants and mice and mold. I had nightmares about the place before we signed the lease, and I ignored them. All the drug deals in town seemed to go down in front of that house. Meth-eyed strangers prowled the block. I saw seven people arrested in the first two weeks—one person attacked with a length of PVC pipe. And we were going through some deep personal traumas of our own. It seemed a cold world we were in, with little to rely on but each other. We lived on hope and love like they were food. Would this break us? Or would we make it to the coast, the dream we’d set before ourselves?
Now the parallels seem obvious. Funny how the subconscious works!
I absolutely love the story of your novel, the last violent and terrible years of the Civil War. What was the research like? Did anything surprise or disturb you?
The research was substantial. There were books on the Partisan Rangers of the Civil War and histories of Sherman’s March, plus diaries and first-person accounts. There were 19th century cavalry manuals and books on horses and horsemanship and firearms.
Some of the history was disturbing, for sure. The atrocity, the sheer savagery on both sides. But I find that’s usually the case when studying a war, no matter the setting or era. You find so much that’s hard to wrap your mind around, to reconcile with what you want us, as a species, to be. That’s the very nature of it, I guess.
What surprised me was how relevant, even contemporary, some of the history felt. When we think of the Civil War, we tend to think of these big, bilateral battles with gray and blue skirmish lines arrayed on the fields of Gettysburg or Chancellorsville. But here was the shadowy part of the war, with small units of irregulars operating much like modern-day commandos or special forces, engaging in ambush and sabotage, kidnapping and assassination—far from the big battlefields of the newspapers. Here were the fractured loyalties of the mountain communities, and people living under the oppression of outlaw gangs and night-riders and guerrilla bands—common people stuck fatally between one side and the other.
Another thing that surprised me was the extent to which Sherman’s March still impacts popular culture. For instance, many of us just ate black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. Well, some theorize that’s because Sherman’s army neglected to burn stores of black-eyed peas, regarding them only as stock feed, and the people of Georgia and South Carolina were able to subsist off of the unburned peas. That’s how they became a good-luck tradition!
There was also the non-academic, physical part of my research: learning horses. At the time, my good buddy Blaine Capone (HoofandClaw.org) was living on a land trust west of Asheville, in a very primitive manner: woodstove for heat, gravity-fed water, no cellular signal, and a road that was not always safe and open. He had two horses up there, and I would go up and help him chop wood or do other chores around the property, and he would teach me about horses. Believe it or not, we are planning to ride the path of Sherman’s March on horseback from Atlanta to Savannah, hopefully in the fall of 2016, raising money for a charity that does equine therapy with veterans.
At its heart, Fallen Land is a composite of opposites, loyalty against betrayal, two lovers against brutal bounty hunters, yet it is all woven together so effortlessly, it makes me breathless. What strikes me is the story of these two young lovers fleeing the brutality of the war, and bounty hunters, even as they are desperate to craft a new way of life. It’s like one your beautiful lines, “a pinhole of light in the great dark.” Can you talk about this please?
Absolutely. I think you hit on a central element of the book. I hate to say “theme,” because I don’t really think about it like that. But I had this vision of a gray, cruel landscape, with these two orphans traveling across it, largely innocent, and the little flashes of light they reflect or spark or draw from the ash. I feel like they’re carrying this hope between them, this dream, and it’s fragile as something newborn, and they’re trying to protect it against the myriad dangers, the sharp corners and teeth at every turn. I think that’s something a lot of us can relate to, even today.
Can we talk about process? How do you write? Do you have rituals, do you map things out, or does the story slowly evolve through your writing?
I’m pretty disciplined with it. I write at the same time of day at the same cafe at the same table, if possible, pretty much every day. I love the ritual of it. The baristas know when to expect me and what I’ll order. It’s like being a regular at a neighborhood bar, only more productive! When I’m going strong, I’ll often write both before and after “work-work,” which is what I call my non-writing work. (I’m the founder and editor-in-chief of a custom motorcycle blog, BikeBound.com, and I do a variety of other content development and marketing work.)
I’m totally one of those people who lets the story evolve. I feel too limited if I map it all out. And I think I’m addicted to those moments when the story takes a turn you never expected and never could have planned, but you know it’s just right. Inevitable, even. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing is a lot like driving a night: “you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s exactly how I feel about it.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Right now, I’m pretty obsessed with the exotic animal trade, rhino and elephant poaching, and canned hunting. I’ve been working on a cycle of stories set on a fictional wildlife sanctuary in South Georgia. A couple of months ago, I visited Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina, for research, and the stories I heard there just broke my heart.
Before that, I was obsessed with the Altamaha River, a 137-mile river that empties into the Atlantic just north of where I grew up on the Georgia coast. The Nature Conservancy calls it one of the 75 “Last Great Places in the World,” and it’s the setting for my second novel, The River of Kings, which is forthcoming from St. Martin’s. It’s home to all kinds of rare and endangered species, and it even has its own “river monster.”
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I’m biased, of course, but one thing I think is interesting is the musical influence in the book. There’s a dedication at the beginning to the musicians who keep alive the old ballads of Ireland and Appalachia. That’s because the story was partially inspired by an old frontier ballad, “When First Unto This Country” (Library of Congress Archives of American Folk Song #65A2), which has been covered by everyone from Joan Baez to Jerry Garcia to one of my personal favorites, Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still. The song was first recorded in 1934, but the starting lines appear in Irish ballads nearly 200 years old! We know little of the ballad’s provenance, and nothing of its authorship, but there’s a rending, lonesome sweetness to the song that became a guiding force for me with the novel. Those old ballads migrated from England and Ireland to the mountains of Appalachia, where they were revised and re-versed to fit their new country, and there’s a parallel there with Callum, I think.
I have zero musical talent—in fact, I got in big trouble in elementary school because the music teacher thought I was mocking “Amazing Grace,” so bad was my (mandatory) audition for the school musical. But in some ways, I think of Fallen Land as a kind of ballad itself.