How I Accidentally Wrote a Civil War Novel
New Stories Born from the Oldest Ballads
I wrote a Civil War novel by accident, and it all started with a song.
I have no musical talent. Zero. I am truly tone deaf. In elementary school, I was actually sent to the principal’s office because the music teacher thought I was mocking “Amazing Grace” during the (mandatory) tryouts for the school musical, so crippled and toneless was my performance. (To this day, I hum “Amazing Grace” at times of hopeless frustration with the institutional organs of the world, like when an unexpected letter appears from the IRS.)
Despite this handicap, I’ve always been moved—hugely, deeply—by the old authorless ballads of Ireland and Appalachia, which have so many voices and verses, and which have migrated, like a people, from highlands to highlands, dying and birthing and evolving, a whole nation of song.
Many of these songs resurfaced during the folk revival of the 1960s, performed by the likes of Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan—too many artists to mention. My college roommate, Cameron, grew up in a family of musicians who keep alive this music, who sing of “Wayfaring Strangers” and “Shady Groves” and “Whiskey in the Jar.” He introduced me to these songs and others, and I still have scribbled writings from those undergraduate days, as I tried to articulate how that music made me feel. It was music that almost hurt, like seeing a pretty girl sometimes does. Music that went soughing and grieving through my insides like a wind.
I could not sing these songs or play them, but I could translate them into stories of my own—or at least try. I started with “I Know You Rider,” a blues traditional favored by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and James Taylor. I was so moved by the narrator, who pines for her absent lover, singing, “Laid down last night, Lord, I could not take my rest / My mind was wandering like the wild geese in the West.” And later: “I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train / I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain.”
I did my best to string a thread of narrative through the collection of images that cycle through the verses, creating a story that would echo the song. There is a lone widow living in a frontier wilderness, her lover a poacher of wild geese. I was lucky enough to have Joy Williams select the story, “Rider,” for the Montana Prize in Fiction in 2009.
I did the same with “In the Pines,” as performed by Lead Belly and Nirvana, and the story became “Black River,” published in the Baltimore Review. In 2009, I did it with the frontier ballad “When First Unto This Country” (Library of Congress Archives of American Folk Song #65A2). The song was first recorded in 1934 by John and Alan Lomax, major field collectors of folk music during the New Deal era, and the performers were the Gant family of Tennessee. However, the first line of the song can be found in Irish ballads nearly two centuries old: “When first unto this country, a stranger I came.”
Here again was a song short on plot—an immigrant boy, probably Irish, steals a colonel’s horse to chase after his love. But it was the feel of the song I wanted to translate into prose. It was so achingly beautiful, and haunting and lonesome and sweet.
I set the story during the Civil War, simply because the song told me to. It felt “of the era.” For the main character, I had this steely little buck, Irish-born, maybe 15, with an overlarge slouch hat and overlarge revolver and everything a size too big. Motley-clad, his clothes all stolen or handed-down, sometimes from dead men. He has come across the ocean, like a ballad would, and he has a tough new face screwed on, adapted for this new land.
As in the song, he steals a colonel’s horse to pursue the girl he loves, and it doesn’t go well for him. The short story has a hanging ending—quite literally—and our boy’s prospects don’t look good. He isn’t long for the world, and he knows it, and so do we.
I called the story “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” and it became the title story of my 2014 short story collection of the same name. I thought that was the end of it, but I couldn’t let the character go. He haunted me. Maybe I’ve always wanted to be an older brother, and here was this younger brother of mine, and I’d left him swinging at the end of a rope—or about to. I felt a little guilty, I think. I couldn’t leave him there.
And here’s what I realized: I didn’t have to. The thing with fiction is, you, as the writer, get to be the god of the story. You can heed or ignore the hopes and prayers of your characters, and as long as you keep the faith of the reader, you can bend the world to your will. Screw it up, and the story-world falls apart. But that’s the risk you always run. So I sat down on the morning of my 27th birthday, and I resolved to write my boy out of the pickle I’d put him in. I decided to add another verse to his song.
I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, at the time, and it was October, and I’d never lived someplace where the leaves fired so brightly in the fall. It was so achingly beautiful, and yet you knew the shadows were growing colder beneath those trees, bluer. The days shorter. You could smell the bite of wood smoke, and you knew people had died in winters past without enough wood ricked alongside the house. You knew doomed hogs were chortling in the hills, awaiting slaughter, and cold winds moaned like ghosts through the trees.
God, I felt it. This season of blood and gold. The harsh beauty of it all, so much like that sweet and lonesome song. I was in a rough place personally, and maybe that made me more attuned. My girlfriend and I had just moved cross-country from San Francisco, where we’d been living for the past four years, and I was worked down to the bone. The old nerves and marrow felt bared to the cold.
We’d rented an old bungalow, which the landlady said was an “ex-whorehouse.” We thought she meant in the days of Thomas Wolfe, when such establishments were more the norm. Not so. It was much more recent than that. I had nightmares about the place before we signed the lease, and I ignored them. All the drug deals in town seemed to go on in front of that house. We were accosted by bloody-faced men with “meth-eyes,” as we came to call them, and people rattled the chainlink fence day and night, wanting in.
We were strangers in this place.
Meanwhile, my friend Blaine Capone was serving as a land steward on a Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy property west of town. He and his girlfriend lived in an ancient single-wide trailer with ledges of fungus growing out of the crawlspace vents, and his landlord, I kid you not, was a Lakota-trained shaman—friendly enough to us, but with an air of otherworldly power hovering about her. Their only heat was from a woodstove; the water was gravity-fed. The pipes were prone to freezing. I watched them melt snow for water on the wood stove, eat coconut oil from a five-gallon bucket with a spoon. There were trespassers seeking ginseng on the land, and there were poachers and coyotes and the kind of people who seek the favors of a lone shaman-lady high on the mountain.
He was on edge, too, but neither of us realized it. I tell you this, because I think our anxiety infused the novel, and it was not an anxiety wholly our own. It was anxiety handed down for generations in those mountains. Here were the old fears of winter, of wild teeth and prowling strangers, un-allayed by central heating or neighborhood watches. When I cut my story-boy down from his tree, this was the world into which I loosed him. His name was Callum now, and he would have to contend with all of these dangers and one still worse: the war.
So would I, if only as a writer. To be honest, I’d never been much interested in the Civil War. Growing up, I knew kids who could rattle off every battle, where it took place and what year and who won. Not me. It seemed so long ago. Ancient. Like many, I really thought of the war only in terms of the big scenes portrayed on film, the vast lines arrayed on the fields of Gettysburg or Antietam or other hallowed death-grounds, each side blasting the other to bloody fragments with artillery fire that far outpaced the archaic tactics of the day.
But this was not the war of the mountains. We tend to think of a fairly stark division along the Mason-Dixon line, but in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia and East Tennessee, loyalties were highly fractured. Things were not always so clearly gray and blue, much like the Kansas-Missouri of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live on, even Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Here was the war of cutthroats and partisan bands, men who were farmers by day and raiders by night. The war of the mountains was a guerrilla war.
In April of 1862, the Confederacy passed the Partisan Ranger Act, commissioning officers to create bands of irregulars to engage in guerrilla warfare. The best known of these bands were Mosby’s Raiders and McNeill’s Rangers, operating mainly in the western counties of Virginia. These small units of irregulars operated much like modern-day commandos or special forces, engaging in ambush, sabotage, and kidnapping. In 1864, under pressure from Lee himself, who feared a spiraling lack of discipline, the Partisan Ranger regiments were disbanded—all but these aforementioned two.
But nameless, ragtag bands haunted the mountains throughout the war, most of them uncommissioned. I read of civilians caught between such groups. A band of secessionist partisans might ride up one week, expecting food and shelter and intelligence, and a band of pro-Union riders could appear the next week, even the next day. And you are maybe a widow raising a gaggle of knee-high children, caught between such parties, and just hoping they don’t find the hog you have hidden in the creek behind the house, because your family will starve this winter without it.
Can you imagine living with that fear? Sleeping and waking with it? How it must eat you down and gnaw your bones?
This was not the war of the newspapers. It was the everyday peril that haunted the edges of the conflict, when the wrong word could get you hanged from a tree in your yard, and it felt both so timeless and so contemporary. I thought of villages in modern Afghanistan, where the Taliban would ride in one week, demanding tribute and committing unthinkable atrocities, and the US Marines would roll in the next, their giant sand-colored trucks growling as they handed out chocolate bars and squatted in the dust, seeking actionable intelligence against men who believed it just and right to cut off a woman’s nose for running away from her husband. Marines who would soon be gone, disappearing behind the ramparts of their bases, while the Taliban watched from the hills. I thought of similar villages in the mountains of Vietnam, in Franco’s Spain and Nazi-occupied Greece and countless other locales throughout history.
Here was a part of the war that felt so contemporary to me. So relevant. Soon I found myself riding (writing) along with my characters, Callum and Ava, as they navigated these lawless outlands, where sides were muddled and the war was one of daily survival. Much like them, I did not always know what would be around the next bend, whether the next face would be friend or enemy or something more complicated. I was breathless at times, like them, and I feared for their safety, their sanity.
In an interview with my friend Steph Post, I told her I felt like I was pouring a stream of water down a cliff face. You know it’s going to get to the bottom, and you know where some of the big ledges and facets and fissures are—the historical and geographic prominences—but you don’t really know where the stream is going to zig and splash and fork along the way.
As chapter after chapter accrued, like new verses to a ballad, I realized I was writing not a Civil War novel so much as a novel set during the Civil War. There were no great battles, no mentions of famous maneuvers, the legendary generals but whispered names. Uniforms were rarely gray or blue. More often, soldiers are seen wearing the “multiform”—a tongue-in-cheek reference to the motley uniforms so common of the day, often patched and tattered and scavenged from the enemy dead. Callum himself wears a “coat of many colors.” The makings of grand headlines are rumored or glimpsed from afar. The geography and history are largely accurate, but left nameless, like a shadow country, razed and ashed in the wake of Sherman’s March. The buffs can pick the specifics from the ruins, but the narrator knows little more than the riders, who know little themselves about the far-off happenings of the war.
They are strangers in the land they ride.
Riding with Blaine in the mountains, on trails that have only known hooves and the odd four-wheeler, it was easy to imagine the world of 150 years before. And it was easy to imagine a time when much of the world would be returned to this, these primitive necessities. We are obsessed with end times and apocalypse these days; we have whole communities of “preppers” and a whole new lexicon full of acronyms like BOV (Bug-out Vehicle) and WTSHTF (When The Shit Hits The Fan) and WROL (Without Rule of Law). We project these times into the future, but as my characters followed in the wake of Sherman’s March, I realized here was a time that must have seemed very much like the end of a certain world to the people of Georgia. Here was an examination of apocalypse, with a wealth of history to inform what such a world might be like. Here again, the distant past became starkly real, relevant.
I think ballads accomplish something of the same thing, their verses handed down from generation to generation, evolving according to time and place and voice. “Box Hill” becomes “Knoxville” as a song crosses the ocean, and the verses remain at once contemporary and timeless. Elemental. It’s very close to the concept of history repeating itself, cycling through new verses in each successive epoch, and the way we tell the same stories to ourselves again and again, from Homer’s Odyssey through a thousand generations to the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?
We are not so distant, perhaps, from they who came before us. We are not so strange.
In the last few months, I’ve been asked to look back at Fallen Land again and again. When I do, I see two people carrying their hope through the dark and lonesome valleys of the world, trying to find warmth and light. I realize now that I carried this book through some dark valleys of my own—a country we all share. I can only hope that, like a song heard floating through the trees, this book might draw you in, so that we may sit a while like weary travelers at fireside, a few fewer strangers in this ever-riven land.