The Wrath-Bearing Tree (Andria Williams): Taylor Brown is the author of a collection of short stories, In the Season of Blood and Gold, and three novels: Fallen Land, hailed by Booklist as “a masterpiece;” The River of Kings, and Gods of Howl Mountain, out next month (March 2018), of which a starred Booklist review said:
It’s the characters, so wonderfully vibrant and alive in their all-too-human variety―scared, tightly wound, angry, damaged, yet resourceful and resilient, some honorable, some not―that demonstrate Brown’s prodigious talent. Brown has quickly established himself in the top echelon of Southern writers.
An excerpt from Gods of Howl Mountain appears in this month’s issue of The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
Thank you so much for answering our questions, Taylor.
Let’s start with some background on Gods of Howl Mountain. The novel is set in rural North Carolina in the 1950s. Rory Docherty, a young man freshly home from the Korean War, has returned to the mountain where he grew up. He lives with his grandmother, a folk healer; his father is dead and his mother, mute since witnessing a terrible crime, has lived most of her life in a mental hospital nearby. Rory finds work running bootleg whiskey for a powerful local family. But when he falls for the daughter of a preacher, he gets himself into a new brand of trouble that may open up secrets about his mother and his past.
Begging my own Yankee ignorance here: Is there a Howl Mountain, North Carolina? How did you develop a fascination with the Blue Ridge Mountains and its long legacy of family feuds, bootlegging, folk medicine, snake-handling, and more?
Taylor Brown: There is no Howl Mountain, North Carolina — the place and history are products of my own imagination. That said, I was inspired by the history and folklore of Blowing Rock, a town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. The town itself is named after “The Blowing Rock,” a rock formation that stands three thousand feet above the Johns River Gorge and is storied for a powerful wind that blows upward out of the gorge. Legend has it, a heartbroken Native American brave leapt from the cliff, only to be blown back into the arms of his lover. That idea of mysterious winds inspired the cyclonic updrafts at the top of Howl Mountain, which I do envision as being in roughly the same area as Blowing Rock. However, I wanted to be free to create a geography and history of my own.
Though I grew up on the Georgia coast, I’ve long had a fascination with the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as the world of bootlegging, folk medicine, stock car racing, and more. As a child, I remember hearing my father play the song “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, still one of my favorite songs. The narrator is a Vietnam vet whose family has been involved in bootlegging for years, and who returns from Vietnam to begin growing the new cash crop of the region — marijuana. I can remember sitting in front of the stereo in my dad’s study as a kid, playing that song over and over again.
Like most of my novels, Gods of Howl Mountain started with a short story. This time it was “Kingdom Come,” the second story in my collection, The Season of Blood and Gold. With that story, I decided I wanted to write a novel set in this time and place. In fact, it was a large part of my motivation to move to western North Carolina in 2009, where I lived for two years–first in Asheville, then in Black Mountain, NC.
It’s strange how organic these books become over the years. In 2013, I met Jason Frye, a writer who has become a great friend and editor of mine. Jason is from Logan, West Virginia, and his grandfather used to catch rattlesnakes to sell to the serpent-handling churches in the area. Jason has a black-and-white photograph of this one-armed snake-handling preacher on his office wall, and he directed me toward Dennis Covington’s incredible book Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Later, I ended up seeing someone who was in herb school in Asheville, and she was an incredible help for the specifics of Granny May’s folks medicine.
So, as you can see, this story has traveled quite a long road with me.
WBT: I can’t help but notice that many of your novels and stories feature characters whose lives have bumped up against the vast movements of history and, in particular, war. There’s Callum and Ava in Fallen Land, for example, caught up in General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in the final year of the American Civil War; or Lawton in The River of Kings, who’s still grappling with the legacy of his recent service in ways that sometimes baffle or worry his college-student brother. In Gods of Howl Mountain, Rory is a Korean war vet and amputee, and you’ve mentioned that your newest work-in-progress features a female Army vet as well. Where do you think your attentiveness to veterans comes from–and your–what I would call–remarkably mature, long-range, compassionate interest in the ways war shapes whole generations, whole nations?
TB: That’s a very good question, Andria. I’ve begun writing a little about my father, who was killed in a motorcycle accident last fall.
WBT: Yes, I remember that, and I am so sorry.
TB: He was of the Vietnam generation, and I grew up with stories of his time in the Army. For instance, he sent his 21st birthday on guard duty at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, marching through a hailstorm. Later, he graduated from the University of Georgia Law School and Army OCS at Fort Benning in the same year.
Fortunately, he was never sent to Vietnam, but the threat of war hovered over his entire early manhood, as it did over his entire generation’s. He had so many friends who were impacted. One of his good friends, Sully, was a Green Beret in Vietnam, and I know my father was very moved by how the war has impacted his friend–the emotional and physical trauma. I think, as a burgeoning writer, you’re maybe especially attuned to such stories or emotions.
What’s more, 9/11 took place during a very formative time for me: when the towers fell, I was a freshman in college–nineteen years old–and I knew my generation was going to war. The military was never an option for me, as I was born with bilateral club feet, which have necessitated a multitude of reconstructive surgeries. but so many of my friends had to consider their involvement (or lack thereof).
Of course, 9/11 kicked off the GWoT, so our nation has been at war for most of my adult life. I think it’s easy for the average civilian to forget that; after all, so little of the general population has “skin in the game” these days. But, as a writer, I think your job is not to be incognizant or unaware of such things, you know? I think your job, in some part, is to try and empathize with the experiences and traumas of others, to put yourself in their shoes (or boots).
In a “Writer’s Bone” essay interview with Daniel Ford, you mentioned that you’ve written several stories based on old ballads, and that Fallen Land was inspired by an American ballad of Irish descent, “When First Unto This Country, A Stranger I Came” (Library of Congress Archives of American Folk Song #65A2). What is it about these ballads that speaks to you so strongly? Was there any particular music that inspired, or worked its way into, Gods of Howl Mountain?
And, as a fellow writer, I’m curious: Are you careful about the music you listen to when working intensely on a novel, the way some authors are careful about what they read? Do you have “sets” of music that have sort of accompanied each of your novels?
TB: Yes, as I mentioned before, I think Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” certainly influenced this book–it’s just a song that’s been big in my imagination since I was a kid. It’s a modern ballad, really, and I love how it juxtaposes outlaws from two different generations. Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately” does much the same thing, exploring the vastly different homecomings of soldiers returning from WWII versus Vietnam.
WBT: I know that song! We had it on an old Farm Aid CD when I worked in rural political organizing. Steve Earle is a good guy — a big supporter of Farm Aid! And wow, that video really has the same feel as the opening of Gods of Howl Mountain. I can see how the tone of it worked its way into the novel.
TB: As for the old ballads like the one that inspired Fallen Land, I think there’s something so timeless and visceral about them. These were songs of the people, sung again and again and again, the verses evolving over the decades. I think of those ballads as survivors, really. It’s like natural selection–only the strongest songs survive century after century, migrating from old countries to new ones, from mountains to prairies to coasts. There must be a nugget of truth or beauty or power in these old songs that just won’t die, that continue to move our hearts and blood.
I’m fairly careful about what I listen to when I’m actually sitting there writing. Often, it’s music that doesn’t have lyrics, or else I can’t understand the lyrics well–I don’t want to have other words in my head. Rather, it’s the mood or atmosphere of certain songs that seems to help. Also, there’s music that helps with certain projects, but not while I’m actually writing. For instance, I’ve been working on something that relates to motorcycles, and I’ve been playing various renditions of my favorite song of all time–“Vincent Black Lightning 1952”–on repeat.
Not surprisingly, it’s another modern ballad.
WBT: You are thirty-five, and Gods of Howl Mountain is your fourth book. This just might make you the Leonardo DiCaprio of fiction writing! What is it like to have published “early and often?” In Virginia Woolf’s “Letter to a Young Poet,” she famously writes, “For heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.” How would you respond to Ms. Woolf?
TB: Ha, sometimes I feel a lot older on the inside than I look on the outside! To be honest, though, I only had a few short stories published before I was thirty. It may seem like an “overnight success,” but I spent the large part of a decade working in near isolation, writing and throwing away two novels before Fallen Land, as well as tons and tons of short stories. I really didn’t know another serious writer until I was around thirty years old.
I’ve heard that Virginia Woolf quote before, and, I don’t know–I think that sometimes writers use it as an excuse. Looking back at my early stories, there are some cringe-worthy moments, sure–and plenty of things I would do differently now–but I don’t regret them. We only have so much time to express ourselves in this life, and early work shows us where we were then and how we’ve arrived where we are now. It’s all part of the journey, I think.
WBT: I love that–“we only have so much time to express ourselves in this life.”
This seems like a good time to ask if you have any advice for the even-younger poets (or fiction writers) out there, those who hope to make writing their life’s work?
TB: I think Harry Crews said it best: “Get in the chair.” There’s really no secret but that. Desire, discipline, and force of will. And what did Calvin Coolidge say? “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.” I think that’s as true of writing as it is for anything. It isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to get knocked down again and again and again. You’re going to have to write through shitty jobs and shattering heartbreaks and rejections. But that makes you tough–not just with writing, but in life.
I hear young writers whine sometimes because they got rejected from the hippest new lit journal. Fuck that. In my book, rejections are badges of honor. Paper your walls with them. Each is proof that you kept writing despite all the forces trying to keep you from making your art, and every rejection is one step closer to the glorious moment of publication. Every rejection makes that moment sweeter. So keep your chin up and keep swinging, and remember your heroes went through these same battles. If they didn’t, you might want to find new ones.