Susan Tekulve interviews Jon Sealy
Two Hub City novelists talk fiction and place. Susan Tekulve, author of In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press, 2013), interviews Job Sealy, author of The Whiskey Baron, forthcoming from Hub City Press in April 2014.
Gunpowder, Lead, and Longing:
An Interview with Jon Sealy,
Author of The Whiskey Baron
Jon Sealy loves writing about people who behave badly. Whether he is writing through the perspective of a man who commits murder, or a boy whose adolescent missteps lead him toward tragic consequences, Sealy enjoys creating characters who act out of agency so that he may examine the complicated results of their bad, or sometimes misguided, behaviors.
Set in a South Carolina mill village, in 1932, his debut novel, The Whiskey Baron, tells the tale of Mary Jane Hopewell, a small town moonshiner accused of murdering two men outside the local whiskey baron's tavern.
A white-knuckle literary thriller, this novel is driven by its characters. Mary Jane Hopewell, a broken-down outlaw on the lam from the police and a treacherous whiskey baron named Larthan Tull, concocts a scheme that he believes will garner him love, a home, and a decent living. There's also Mary Jane's brother, Joe, who falls from his "straight life" as a family man and mill hand into despair and drunkenness at Tull's tavern; and Joe's youngest son, Willie, who takes revenge on a boy who commits an unaccountable crime against him, and follows his older brother, Quinn, toward a tragic event that costs him an irreparable loss of innocence.
Though Sealy's characters commit every class of crime, their motivations remain unclassifiable, complex and nuanced as the truth about the original murder mystery spins on its axis.
Heralded as a "simmering powerhouse of a novel" by Wiley Cash, and as "unbearably suspenseful" by Holly Goddard Jones, this novel delivers a gunpowder and lead story set during the Prohibition era in the Carolina Piedmont. But the whiskey-running and other dark circumstances that govern the lives of the novel's central characters ultimately serve as backdrop to larger questions about the nature of civilization and the human longing for light and goodness in the face of depravity.
The mill village, as Willie Hopewell remarks, is "civilized," a refuge, of sorts, for all manner of people enduring Depression-era hardships--land loss, unemployment, hunger, family strain. Sealy's descriptions of the Carolina landscape are especially lyrical and atmospheric, and he writes about the people of the mill village--particularly the Hopewell family--with sympathy, and native intelligence.
Raised in Six Mile, South Carolina, Sealy now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He earned a bachelor's degree from the College of Charleston and an MFA in fiction from Purdue University. His short stories have been published in The South Carolina Review, The Normal School, The Sun, and PANK, and he's a regular contributor for The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
ST: The setting of your book is a South Carolina mill village during prohibition. Your knowledge of the mill village life during this era is deep and woven effortlessly into the narrative. How did you learn so much about the inner workings of the mill villages, how the mill families lived, how the workers felt about their jobs? What strategies did you use to integrate this knowledge into your narrative so seamlessly?
JS: Thank you for the kind words. This novel started with an image of Mary Jane on the lam, and after writing about 500 words, I knew I needed to do some research. I spent about three years reading up on South Carolina history, economics, moonshine, and the textile industry. In the first few drafts, I had quite a bit of quotidian detail about millwork, which I slowly pared back as the story emerged.
ST: The descriptions of the natural landscape surrounding the mill village play an equal role in this novel. I was impressed by how in every scene you are able to describe a different aspect of the ever-changing Carolina light, heat, birdcall, bugs, and the sky. Can you speak a little about how you gained such intelligence of the Carolina countryside, the woods? What walks did you take, what rivers did you follow?
JS: I grew up in a more rural community, so the natural world was just a part of my life for many years. I've lived in urban and suburban environments as an adult, so in many ways this novel is just me re-imagining the countryside I miss.
ST: This is a literary thriller with a great deal of suspense. How did you maintain the high level of emotional intensity it takes to write any novel, but especially a thriller?
JS: This is the million-dollar question, isn't it? I think you're really asking how one writes with heart, or how one writes with soul, because that's how you give a piece that crucial spark of life. When you have that spark of life, the emotional intensity will be there whether you're writing about a murder investigation or a quiet moment between a husband and a wife. As for how you do it, I wish I knew. I can say I have written and continue to write pages and pages of lifeless, heartless prose, and I feel fortunate every time I land on something that has that magic crackle of life. With a novel, I think you need to be interested in the subject to the point of obsession. You have to entertain yourself, and you have to care about what you're doing, to want to work on it more than anything else in life. Passion begets life begets heart and soul.
ST: Did you know how the book would end when you began, or did you discover the ending as you wrote it? Was there a small "seed" of a true story that you developed into your fictional tale?
JS: I spent three years thinking this was going to be a family drama along the lines of William Gay's Provinces of Night. Much of my family is from Chester County and spent their lives working in the cotton mills, and I wanted to write about this particular culture in this particular era. But as I mentioned above, I started with the image of a man on the run, an image that came out of nowhere. I kept returning to it to learn about the context: What had he done? Why? Where was he going? And what would happen to him? Finally, I sat down to write a full draft, and I wrote it as quickly as I could to discover the ending. Then I revised it to build toward that ending.
ST: *I was especially taken with the youngest member of the mill family featured in your novel, Willie Hopewell. It seems like his actions--good and bad--provide a mirror for the behaviors of the novel's adult central characters. How were you able to weave his coming-of-age story into the book without compromising the main narrative? What were the advantages and/or difficulties of adding this character and his family's plight to the novel? *
JS: I actually started with Willie and the family plight, and gradually the crime story came into the foreground. Most of my revision efforts focused on structure--how to balance the public and private sphere. I like a book with a lot of balls in the air, but the risk is that the central through-line gets diffused. I hope I succeeded in finding the right balance.
ST: The outlaws in your book are strikingly complex and balanced--in a way that makes them more intriguing than standard, one-dimensional villains. Mary Jane, despite his outlaw life and temperament, is strangely sympathetic. Even Larthan Tull, who is spooky and sometimes likened to the devil by the other characters, has moments of doubt and questioning. How do you create such diverse and multi-faceted villains and bad guys?
JS: I love writing about people behaving badly. Villains and outlaws are fun, I think, because even when they do things we disapprove of, they're still acting with agency. John Gardner defined a story as a character who wants something, struggles to achieve it, and arrives at a win, lose, or draw. Desire and action, then, are the key ingredients for a good story, a story with that spark of life I mentioned earlier. It's fun to write about people engaged with that struggle.
As far as writing them with complexity, I think empathy is one of the main projects of good fiction--that ability to go inside someone else's mind. To do that, I try to remember that we're all the heroes of our own show, and we all have complex histories and motivations. There's nothing more frustrating than stories that assign a one-to-one correlation between back story and action: the villain does X because of Y. That's not true to life.
ST: *I've always heard that it's best to give your characters a job, because human beings are shaped by what they do. How did giving your characters the "job" of making and running whiskey help you to shape your characters? *
JS: Another good question I've never really thought through. When I thought about work while writing this novel, I thought about life in the cotton mill. The whiskey "job" was just a byproduct of the story, what the characters were doing and how they spent their days. Now that I'm done, it seems clear that the book is at least partly about business: Larthan Tull as the ruthless big business owner, Mary Jane Hopewell as the scrappy small business struggling to break through, Aunt Lou as the out-of-town investment banker, Sheriff Chambers as the law, and the Federal revenuers as the system of regulation. Maybe it's not quite that neat, but I think their jobs have given rise to a few thematic concerns, which I didn't intend along the way.
ST: The details about whiskey distillation, moonshine runs, the whiskey baron, and the moonshine madam, Aunt Lou, are all fascinating. How, or why, were you drawn to whiskey, and whiskey operations?
JS: Oh, who knows where our interest in certain things comes from. I can say I was interested in the era first, and then needed something illicit going on second, and illegal whiskey seemed to fit. Right now I'm working on a book set in the eighties, and the illicit business is drug running and financial wheeling and dealing, which are more fitting for the era.
ST: Who are some of your favorite writers? Whose work do you tend to study as you hone your own writing?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've long been a fan of southern fiction--Faulkner, O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and William Gay being the heavy hitters. My favorite books might be Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, and Blood Meridian, each of which I think has a grand philosophical vision I find appealing. I'm also interested in the history of the British novel and am always up for a good discussion of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, James, and on down to Ian McEwan or Zadie Smith.
ST: Are you working on any literary endeavors that might be of interest to readers?
JS: I'm finishing up a new novel and scratching away at the beginnings of another.
To read more about Sealy and The Whiskey Baron, visit his website at www.jonsealy.com.