Kent Wascom discussed his debut book, The Blood of Heaven, an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century, and reflects on the sources which provided the historical context to the story.
The Blood of Heaven, to be perfectly honest, does not read like a debut novel. Can you tell me about your personal reading and writing history?
Reading and writing have been a constant comfort, a security blanket of sorts. The love of both came in the learning. In the months before my father was to serve his sentence in federal prison, knowing that for the next several years he would miss many of the milestones enjoyed by parents, he decided to teach me three things: To tie my shoes, to ride a bike, and to read. All three were accomplished to varying extents before he left, but it was reading that would dominate my life. My love of books soon grew into a compulsion to write. (A sure guarantee of playground ridicule is to say you want to be a writer while others yearn to be firemen and astronauts.) When I was twelve I wrote my first novel (about Prohibition-era bootleggers if you can believe it), and by the end of college I'd written four more. The Blood of Heaven is my sixth, but the first to be published.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a story set in the frontier, your characters skirt the edge of lawfulness even on their best behavior. Can you tell us about your fascination with outlaws?
Honestly, there was no way for me not to focus on those of the extralegal persuasion. My family tree is somewhat laden with, let's say, rogue apples: bank-robbers, smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and the women who endured and assisted them. As a child I would listen avidly to the stories of relations who blew holes in bank walls, paid escaped slaves for alligator hides, ran guns to dictators and revolutionaries, sewed suits for a nephew to use after prison-breaks. These stories were always told in loving, jubilant tones, what I see now was a pleasant lack of hypocrisy, an acknowledgement of fallibility and the conditions which force someone to skirt legality. I hope that I've brought something of that perspective to bear on my characters, who in many ways contain traces of my family history.
Louisiana has a long history of political corruption, a legacy that persists to this day. As a native son of Louisiana, what impact did the landscape, the culture, your family have on crafting The Blood of Heaven?
As you may find in the novel, the American iteration of the state itself was birthed from back-room dealings. With such parentage, what else can be expected? What makes Louisiana so unique, and to outsiders so aberrant, is the vivacity and artfulness with which our leaders skirt the law. I'd add that the more famous examples of the Long brothers and Edwin Edwards accomplished great things for the people of the state, while also reaping certain benefits, and did so without the cloying moral sanctimony currently in fashion. Because my father and grandfather were local politicians, both of whom had their own run-ins with the law, I've benefited from an insider's perspective, from the near-endless tales of deals and escapades. This sort of education engenders a more nuanced view of policy and the people who make it. At the heart of politics lies the struggle between base desires and noble aspirations, and the circumstances of the Louisiana Purchase and Burr's venture proved fertile ground to examine this conflict.
The Blood of Heaven is steeped in religion, which serves as both motivation and justification for immoral acts. The relationship between religion and show business, politics, war, and revenge, is a constant theme throughout the novel. Can you tell me about your inspirations here, personally and historically?
From early on I've had a sort of dueling fascination and disgust with religious fanaticism and its evangelical criers, coming to fruition in the characters of Angel, Preacher-father, and the Reverend Morrelmen who can justify any act, no matter how vile, by assigning its inspiration to God.
When, as a child, I came to live in Pensacola, Florida, the town was suffering a series of terrorist attacks on local women's clinics. Hearing that the men who committed these acts did so in the name of God scared, first in the figurative sense and much later in the literal, the hell out of me. Not only that people were capable such deeds, but perhaps the Lord smiled down upon them as they pulled the trigger. Though I was brought up in a very tolerant home, I did my time in various churches and a short stint at a parochial school. Nothing traumatic, but having to write "I will not take the Lord's name in vain" 250 times a day for a week, or scrub urinals for some blasphemous offense, tends to instill a suspicion of religion's man-made origins. What began as questions puzzling a young boy's mind developed into both a distaste and a discerning eye for religious hucksterism and bigotry, neither of which are in short supply in both the modern world and the world of my book.
Of course, The Blood of Heaven isn't a polemic. I truly wished to understand what drives those who, as William Blake said, live "with all the fury of a spiritual existence." This divinely mandated rage is something with which our society contends on a daily basis, beset from within and without. To treat such men reductively, to make them one-dimensional, would be a disservice to the reader and a shirking of one of the more pressing questions of our time.
What drew you to set the novel in West Florida and the 19th century?
I've lived for most of my life in the area that was then known as West Florida, between Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Pensacola, Florida. The culture of my region, particularly along the coast, is markedly different from that of its respective states, and the idea (for the most part unacknowledged or forgotten) that we were once a distinct and separate entity battled over and conflicted, seemed to me a memory that needed reclaiming. The traumas of the last decade, the hurricanes and oil spill, were certainly grim inspirations, and moreover the act of writing about the area became a sort of catharsis. The choice of the particular time, the turn of the nineteenth century, came from many different factors, one of the more peculiar being the discovery that I am descended from a man named Aaron Burr Patterson. He was born in Natchez, Mississippi, almost a year to the day after Burr's visit in 1804, and family legend holds that his people gave the embattled Burr some assistance in his later attempt to elude the authorities. The discovery of this ancestor led me to Burr himself, and in part the germinal idea of the novel.
Can you tell us some more about the historical research you did to make the novel historically accurate it certainly feels meticulously crafted in that regard.
While I appreciate the compliment, I must say that The Blood of Heaven is overwhelmingly a work of imagination, at best fiction containing tracery elements of fact. Any historian familiar with the period and events should rightly want my head on a pike if I said otherwise. Not to say that I wrote the book with flippant disregard for historical accuracy, but that I was more beholden to the story I wished to tell, the world as I saw it, than anything else.
My research was a piecemeal affair, a catch-as-catch-can sort of process which grew more comprehensive with each succeeding draft of the book. At the time I was writing The Blood of Heaven, I was both a graduate student and, later, a full-time high school teacher, neither of which provide the resources of time or money conducive to intensive research. What my situation did allow was access to the libraries of LSU and FSU, where I found what information I could in order to construct the skeleton of fact I'd fictively flesh.
The dearth of readily-available sources about the incidents in West Florida, the Kemper Rebellion in particular, was a blessing of sorts, allowing me ample room for invention. In fact, perhaps the most complete examination of the affair, William C. Davis's fabulous The Rogue Republic, was published as I was finishing the final draft of the book. Davis's work was extraordinarily helpful in this regard, as its meticulous detailing the Kempers' endeavors gave me a yardstick by which to better measure my deviations from fact, as well as a wealth of theretofore unknown detail (that they kept house on Bayou Gonorrhea!) and incident.
If I've done my job well, then I've produced the iron pyrite to the historians', like Davis, gold. For all appearances, it shouldn't be confused with the real thing.
Were there works of fiction or nonfiction that provided a spark of inspiration to The Blood of Heaven?
While I was at LSU, just as I was discovering many of the writers whose work would influence my ownthe short stories of Barry Hannah and Isaac Babel, the brutally beautiful novels of Harry Crews, Yukio Mishima, and Cormac McCarthyI also stumbled on a little pamphlet from the 1930s called The Story of the West Florida Rebellion by Stanley Clisby Arthur. This slim volume, originally a series of newspaper articles, introduced me to the turbulent world of West Florida. A trip to the special collections gave me his Story of the Kemper Brothers, and the spark caught.
Similarly, reading Borges' story "The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell" sent me into the stacks, where I found Reverend Devil by Ross Phares. The character of the slave-stealing preacher stuck with me so that when, years later, I began The Blood of Heaven, I couldn't deny my own version of the wicked man a place in the novel. When Angel and Samuel had escaped to Natchez, there he was. In reality, Rev. John Murrell was only a small child in the early 1800s and much more of a crude rake than the polished showman who acts as mentor to the pair.
I'm curious about your sources for dialogue and vocabulary in the book. Are they derived from original sources?
I would be utterly remiss to not begin by thanking my editors, whose careful efforts saved me from several anachronistic pratfalls, not to mention helped weed out some occasionally murky period dialect. Writing about the distant past carries with it the same difficulty as writing about people of distinct speechif you use too much "local color", be it overindulgence in regional dialect or period syntax, you risk the frustration and confusion of the reader. I tried to avoid both. As it stands, the cadences and phrasing as they appear in the book are more the result of osmosis and adaptation than a direct attempt at reproduction. That said, my readings of letters, journals, and court documents provided a rich base from which I wildly strayed.
Of these sources, one you may find interesting is the 1786 edition of Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of British criminal and lower-class cant. As many of my characters, not to mention the country itself, weren't far removed from the Sceptered Isle, I felt justified in using certain turns of phrase. Many of which were so wonderfully nasty that I couldn't resist including them in the book. The definition of 'biter', for example, which brothel-owner Aliza uses to insult her former employee, Red Kate, is extraordinarily dirty and evocative: "A wench whose **** is ready to bite her a*se; a lascivious and rampant wench."