Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Q&A with Jeffrey Stayton

Why is the Civil War still so fascinating today, 150 years later?
Because it defined our country like no other war before or since, especially in the South. For
Southerners it would become the South’s origin myth. Walker Percy was once asked why Southerners
were so preoccupied with the Civil War. “Because we lost the war,” he replied. And yet, I also like
how Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey notes that for the freed Southern slaves, especially those who
then became Union soldiers, the war was in fact won. As for me, a Southern writer, I think the Civil
War offers more amazing, rich and fragrant characters than anything Shakespeare wrote. They are all
there—from the lowest slave to the president of the United States. Just when I think I know everything
about that conflict, something new appears that thoroughly mystifies me like a Baroque cathedral.

How did you come to write This Side of the River?

After reading all the archival material I could find, as well as many published Civil War diaries,
letters and memoirs, I became fascinated with the diaries that Georgia women had kept during
Sherman’s March to the Sea. The level of hatred toward Gen. Sherman and all Yankees was palpable. I
was already reading books on the trauma civilians experience during war, especially when war crimes
are committed. I suppose the novel came about when I wondered, “What would have happened if the
war-widows of Georgia took up arms in the aftermath of the Civil War?”

How long did it take to research your novel?
I began research in 1996. I used to spend winter and spring breaks driving to all the spots of
Sherman’s March through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina in various state and local
archives reading Civil War material. I began writing about the characters in this book as far back as
1999. But it wasn’t until 2006 when the novel itself began to take shape. I completed the novel the year
I got married (2011).

Your novel deals with post-traumatic stress disorder during the Civil War, which was called
“nostalgia” or “soldier’s heart” back then. Can you tell us more about that and what your
research unfolded?

I became interested in PTSD once soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan began returning home
alive but shell-shocked. We have only just recently acknowledged that PTSD is one of the worst
injuries anyone can suffer on the battlefield. For most of the history of warfare it was simply written off
as cowardice. I soon became interested in how PTSD played out in the Civil War, when the code of
honor interpreted men as either heroes or cowards. Part of my research over the past two decades
involved decoding the language of honor that many Civil War soldiers used in their diaries, letters and
memoirs. Men of honor back then were not supposed to express the horror and grief they often
experienced in battle except indirectly. Southern women, however, gave voice to this trauma in their
own writings that enabled me to understand how something like Sherman’s March to the Sea impacted
everyone involved.

The story being told through multiple narrators is a nice touch, but you say Darkish Llewellyn is
especially special to you as a character?

She remains my favorite character in the novel partly because she is so unexpected when she
first appears. She’s not a war-widow. She doesn’t seek revenge. If there is a moral center in this dark
tale, then she inhabits that space.

Your novel is patterned after William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Charles Baxter’s The Feast
of Love. Why did you choose this style for This Side of the River and can you tell us about the
writing process?

I’m attracted to these novels in the same way I’m fascinated by cubist portraits or theater in the
round. Anything that is multifaceted is often truer to me than the authority a single narrator asserts,
whether it be a character or the author himself. It’s like life. Everyone thinks their story is most
important; and it is, except when it isn’t.

You write poetry and short stories as well. Do you plan to write more novels?
Since it took me eighteen years to complete this one, I like the idea of moving on to something
else for now. Although these days, since I’m also a visual artist, I’m flirting with the idea of turning an
old novel manuscript I wrote a decade ago into a graphic novel. We shall see.

On April 25th from noon to 3PM From My Shelf Books & Gifts will be hosting a duel author event with William P. Robertson and Jeffrey Stayton. William P. Robertson is the author of the Bucktail series and Jeffrey Stayton is the author of the recently published This Side of the River.

This Side of the River tells the story of a group of young, angry Confederate widows who band together at the end of the Civil War, take up arms, and march north to Ohio to burn down the home of General William Tecumsah Sherman.

It draws from the rich tradition of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love as it interweaves themes of gender, revenge, and redemption. It's a masterfully-written debut from a bold new literary voice.

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