1. Why did you choose to write a novel about the Civil War?
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I was getting out of a red London Transport bus in front of the Duke of York’s Barracks in London, minding my business and trying to keep my groceries from spilling on the sidewalk, when out of the clear blue sky I was overcome by a single, overwhelming desire: I want to know everything there is to know about the American Civil War. It was as clear as that. Which was strange, because growing up, I’d always been puzzled by those historical markers along the sides of southern highways: who would be interested in standing at the edge of an empty meadow or an overgrown woodlot, trying to imagine some skirmish that happened so long ago?
Looking back, I think my epiphany (I joke that I was “called” to the Civil War) was a form of homesickness for America, for the South. I had been part of a big, close family and felt their absence sharply; I missed the heat, the food, the intimacy of relations between the races, troubled though they continued to be. Why this should have taken the form it did—obsession not only with the period surrounding the war, but with the actual battles, the maps and strategy—I did not and do not know. I was anti-war in general and had never even been interested in board or card games that required strategy of any kind. Anyway, intrigued by my obsession, a friend suggested that I put all that energy into a book.
2. How did you ensure your tale was authentic to time and place?
To say that I read extensively in the period is an understatement; I lived and breathed the War and everything that surrounded it. The library at the American Embassy had outgrown its quarters and been donated to the University of London, so in those pre-Google days, I would hire a babysitter for my two small children and take the tube to Russell Square with a list of all the things I wanted to know. I’d sit on the floor in the stacks and just inhale it all, copying down the few factual things I needed to remember. Then on trips back to New York or Louisiana, I’d pore over or buy secondhand copies of whatever I could get my hands on—books, letters, plantation journals, slave narratives, agricultural quarterlies. (Although I already knew a lot about growing cotton, from my summers on the farm/ plantation where my father and his six brothers grew up—the model for the “Palmyra” of the story).
The whole process was completely absorbing—at least to me. At one point, my husband had to warn that if I didn’t stop talking about it, we would never be invited anywhere; the eyes of even our most faithful friends were beginning to glaze over. So I continued on my own. I discovered that there’s no library on earth that doesn’t have a pretty decent section on the Civil War, with its own little oddities--from the Chelsea Library in London, where I found a biography of Stonewall Jackson written by a Sandhurst instructor, to Eastern Montana College in Billings, where I holed up for six weeks once while my husband was making a film there.
3. Please tell us about your encounter with the renowned Shelby Foote.
Shelby Foote had gone to high school with one of my uncles in Greenville, Mississippi. He agreed to meet with me in Memphis, and from the instant we met, over a cheeseburger (mine) at the Holiday Inn, it was as if we’d known each other forever. There was no small talk; we began exchanging personal impressions of Union and Confederate figures as if they’d just left the table, or were about to arrive: Sam Grant and Bobby Lee, Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Shaking his head, he would say things like, “I’ve never cared for Phil Sheridan. I’ve simply never liked the man--and I don’t care who knows it.” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—no more glazed eyes! He was full of original anecdotes, and narrated the entire Battle of Memphis for me from the levee above the Mississippi River.
4. How did you discover the voices of Hugh and Serena Hallam? What was hardest and what was most rewarding about writing from so many points of view?
Hugh has remained more or less the same since he first cropped up in my imagination. He’s a lot like my husband in his character and physical bravery, and like my father, too. He‘s also me, what’s inside my head: my prideful nature, my struggle to do the right thing.
Hugh Hallam is first and foremost a soldier, and being from the Vietnam generation myself, that has always fascinated me: the whole paradox of being trained for war—being good at it --yet aware, through experience, of the pure destructiveness of war, its fatal glamor to the uninitiated and the unexposed. There were many, many like him on both sides of the issue in the 1850’s, but they were ultimately swept up into the whirlwind--and for the most part, once they were in uniform and under fire, they shot and killed each other with the same degree of effectiveness (or ineffectiveness), the same determination to defend those fighting on either side of them, as the ones who’d abjured the idea of war entirely--or had been pressing for it all along.
Oddly enough, Serena took longer to emerge. I had this idea that it was somehow more admirable--more imaginative and difficult--to create a character as unlike myself as possible. Later, I gave in and let her be as flawed as I am, make her own mistakes. After that, she fully “owned” her half of the book, as I’d always intended. I think of the two of them as equal characters in every way.
Writing from many different points of view was easy for me; I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing until somebody pointed it out. I suppose it’s a writer’s cliché to say so, but all my characters without exception are a part of myself. I do not deny any of them.
5. What are your connections to the South? Do those connections remain a part of your life?
I am still deeply connected to the South. A couple of years ago, a group of friends out here in California, men and women, each chose three or four words to describe themselves, such as American, woman, lawyer, etc. My first word was “southern”. It’s not that I think it’s the most important thing about me; it’s just that it’s the ground (literally) on which the rest has been constructed. My mother, three of my four siblings, and many, many of my oldest friends still live in the South, and I remain very connected with all of them.
6. The hero of your novel is a white slaveowner who is depicted sympathetically. Do you expect any controversy from this?
This is simply one exploration—my exploration—of what it felt like to be a certain kind of white southerner in the late 1850’s, and at the same time, what it might have felt like to be a slave—or I should say, what it felt like to be these particular human beings, all of them enmeshed in a horrifying and inhuman system.
My own belief is that if and when deep racial healing ever happens in this country, it will happen first in the South.
7. As a Chaplain and a religious person, did you feel any conflicts in writing about slavery and war?
It’s very odd: after my daughter read the completed manuscript she said, “Why don’t you say anything about religion? It’s the most important thing in your life.” I’ve thought about that a lot, and I still don’t know the answer. It’s true that, aside from a couple of scenes, there’s very little that’s overtly “religious” in HALLAM’S WAR, yet everything I’ve written in it—the way I feel toward my characters, how I view the historical outcome of the war—comes from my own deepest moral convictions—which are absolutely not separate from my religious beliefs.
8. What does your work in the hospital require? Did any of your experience as a Chaplain inform your book?
I have worked for many years in a hospital for physical rehabilitation: severe head injuries, spinal cord injuries, strokes. I walk into a given hospital room and see a patient lying on a bed, usually looking terrible--at least at the beginning. They may be paralyzed, terribly disfigured, mentally confused by trauma, age or the medications swirling through their system. Who they seem to be at that moment is not who they know themselves to be; not their ordinary self, much less their best self. My part in their recovery is to see and apprehend them as they once were (i.e., listening from a place of inner spaciousness, recording images and facts in my mind); accept and love them fully as they are now; and simultaneously see them—actually see them!--as they have the capacity to become. Obviously, this is good training for a novelist--though I suspect it works the other way around, as well.
9. What's next?
There’s a subject that’s been going around in my mind for years--non-fiction. It has to do with growing up in the South just before and during the Civil Rights era, and would require sleuthing around about people and events I was too young to understand at the time. I even have a great title for it, but since I haven’t checked to see whether it’s copyrighted, I’ll keep it to myself. And yes, I do often think about what happened to Serena and Lewis and Varick and Kitty and the others, after the war was over.