Most writers never get this lucky.
For months, Susan Rivers has been working on a novel set in Upper South Carolina during the Civil War. Productive months, yes, but she knows she has yet to locate the story’s pulse, or, as she likes to quote Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, its “secret center.” Then one day, researching in a dusty history room in the Cherokee County (S.C.) library, her imagination catches fire.
In Hu Daughtry’s “Confederate Tales of Candler and Connected Counties,” she finds the summary of an inquest conducted in Tattnall County, Ga., into the death of a baby one Alfred Kennedy’s teenaged wife had conceived, delivered and buried while he was away, serving in the Civil War. Suddenly, Rivers knows she has found that “secret center.” She tears off for home and, in a near-trance, sets to work.
It was “an experience similar to falling in love,” Rivers wrote in an essay for The Algonquin Reader. “I was unable to eat, sleep or think productively about anything but the beloved.”
In a matter of several feverish weeks in 2014 she created a taut, gripping tale told in letters and diary entries. It’s the story of 17-year-old Placidia Fincher, a genteel woman who, at her half-sister’s wedding, falls headlong in love with the older, taciturn widower Major Hockaday. They marry hastily, and after only two days, the major returns to war, leaving Placidia to run the plantation and care for his 2-year-old son. Soon Placidia is facing her own battles on the homefront: loneliness, terror, heartbreak and unspeakable humiliation.
Slavery is our original sin.
Two questions propel this spellbinding novel: Who fathered the baby Placidia conceives while her husband is at war? And, why and how does the baby die?
Rivers, originally from California, is a woman who burrows deep into her new surroundings. Fifteen years after arriving in the Carolinas, in 2009, she and her husband bought a 100-year-old house in Blacksburg and immediately began absorbing its history. (Read the captions with the photos above to see how nearby places influenced her envisioning of the story.) She discovered that two sisters had lived in the house, both avid gardeners. Or so neighbors thought – until the older one died and the younger had all the trees and shrubs dug up and the ground razed. Now Rivers understands why she keeps finding daffodil bulbs in the ditch in the front yard.
A graduate of the MFA Program in Fiction at Queens University, Rivers is at work on another novel, this one set in a Carolina mill town at the turn of the century. It wouldn’t surprise me if the gardening sisters turn up in a future Rivers’ novel.
Q. It must have been a thrill to discover the document that gave life to your novel.
A. Writing the novel was personally an intense experience for me after that. No matter what I was doing, I was thinking about the story. If I was teaching or driving or weeding the garden, I kept wanting to be back with it. It was heady. I understand now there must be such a thing as a muse. I wish I could summon that process at will.
Q. You and your family moved from San Francisco to the little town of Wake Forest in North Carolina, then to Charlotte for 12 years before moving down to South Carolina. How have you adjusted to the South?
A. The South can have a very powerful grip on you if you open yourself up to it. I don’t think people inside the South really understand how powerful a pull it has.
We ought to make residence in a Southern state compulsory for six months, like military service in Israel.
Q. You say you’d grown frustrated working on an earlier novel and wanted to approach writing from a more concentrated space. So you enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Queens University at Charlotte. Did that program influence this new novel?
A. It didn’t have a direct influence on this new novel, but I feel like it was a good productive thing for me to do. One of the things you do is trade your work with three or four other people in the program. You begin to find your own voice that way. As I get older, my style is becoming more simplified, much more distilled than it was before.
Q. There’s a scene in the novel in which the Union troops in Winnsboro drag the organ from the Episcopal church and torch the church. While it burns, they play drinking songs on the organ. They even dig up a coffin from the church yard, tear off the lid and set the coffin on end so the corpse would get a better view of the show. Really? This happened?
A. I got that from Burke Davis’s book, “Sherman’s March.” It’s from his account of Winnsboro’s sacking. So, yes, in all likelihood, it really happened.
Q. Holland Crossroads is where most of the action in the novel takes place. It’s where Major Hockaday’s farm is located, and it’s where Placidia comes as a bride. Did you base this area on a real area?
A. It’s a composite of three connecting counties in Upstate South Carolina: Laurens, Spartanburg and Newberry. And Holland Creek, which is the Hockaday farm, is a little bit of Reidsville in Spartanburg County. There is some beautiful rolling farm land around there. I just love history, and I love learning about how people have lived and struggled and survived. There’s so much struggle built into life here, more so than a lot of other places. It interests me how people have survived poverty, racial strife, political disenfranchisement, ice storms and floods. The next book I’m writing focuses on that terrible Pacolet River flood of 1903, which wiped out three mills and damaged a fourth textile mill right on that river.
Q. A black slave, Achilles, a sensitive man with blue eyes, plays a major role in the novel. In fact, he plays a heroic part in saving Placidia from great harm while the major is at war. So fond was she of Achilles, whose past intertwines with her own, that she later named a son for him. Did you have a prototype for this man?
A. It’s not rare but it’s not common for an African American to have blue eyes. It usually means there is a white ancestor on both sides of the family tree. [Rivers acknowledges rare instances can be the result of disease and/or mutation.] I’ve had a couple of African-American students with blue eyes, and it’s just like Placidia says – it’s visually startling. The blending of racial bloodlines is usually not a pretty part of our country’s history, but it’s one we have to acknowledge. And I don’t see it acknowledged often enough.
Q. About Sherman. You describe him as an asthmatic who ate sardines and slept in his saddle. Did these details come from Burke Davis’s book?
A. I think the detailed analysis of his asthma came from Robert O’Connell’s riveting biography, “Fierce Patriot.” I’m pretty sure O’Connell also presents the case for Sherman suffering from bipolar disorder – that this led to his first disastrous military campaign followed by a nervous breakdown. His own staff and soldiers described him as almost never sleeping, or at the least, sufficing on four to five hours per night. This was part of his mystique. I may have invented his taste for sardine sandwiches, but sardines were definitely a staple of Union military stores, as they kept a long time in cans.
Q. You mention a hotel called Yarborough House in the 300 block of Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street where the Hockadays planned to rendezvous during the war. Did such a place exist? Do you enjoy blending fact and fiction?
A. Here’s the link I used for Yarborough House: http://goodnightraleigh.com/2011/09/yarborough-house-raleigh-n-c/. As for blending fact with fiction, I don’t see any other way to write believable historical novels because those small details season the pot and give the story authenticity. For instance, when (the character) Abner is corroborating Achilles’s story about Cash the overseer’s sadistic treatment of the Wilkerson’s slaves, he tells Placidia: “Cash beat one girl so bad he knocked her eyeball out.” That detail came straight out of a horrific narrative in “I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives.” That’s not the kind of detail I could have invented, never having been beaten.
Q. You say everyone should spend six months in the South. Why?
A. I meant this jokingly, of course, but I said that we ought to make residence in a Southern state compulsory for six months, like military service in Israel. If people from the West Coast and the Northeast and the Midwest could come here to live among Southerners, white and black, and experience the South temporarily, they would better understand how Southern history was written. And if they understood Southern history, they would better understand American history, because they are the same thing. In understanding that, they might comprehend how we got from there to here as a country and as a people.
Slavery is our original sin – it came with some of the earliest white settlers and it is part of the DNA of our nation: literally, our racial bloodlines are intertwined, along with our history, some of which is glorious, of course, but some of which is troubling. The late Harvard professor Peter Gomes, (former) minister to Memorial Church at Harvard, said, “Americans don’t like complexity.” I think this is key because we keep trying to get beyond our history without acknowledging the complexity and the contradictions inherent in it.