Tag Archives: Charles McNair

The Ghost of the Ashley Wilkes Archetype Haunts Me

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

Ashley Wilkes; effete, tortured, loading with fear and self-loathing. And fascinating to me.

My head is a swimming blur of conflicting priorities. On one hand, I have William Ellis Jones, II, the Civil War Diarist and book publisher demanding that I “get back to original programming”. On the other hand I have his grandson, William Ellis Jones, III, and his dead daughter and his two living, but very tormented children, agitating for an expansion of the fiction “assignment” I produced for Mr. McNair.

I shipped McNair the deeply revised story (Is it a short story? Is it a novella? Is it a draft of a book I didn’t know wanted to be written?) yesterday – with tremendous trepidation.

I’ll tell you why I have trepidation. It isn’t about my weak verbs, or too many adjectives, or lulls in the prose, or even the fact that the damn thing is too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. All those things can be resolved if the thing has any legs underneath it at all. My trepidation has to do with something that I have dealt with my whole life, and can’t do a damn thing about.

It’s about who I am, where and who I come from – and what that all means – in this case, to Mr. McNair as a person.

Yeah… yeah… yeah. I know I’m not making any sense.

I’ll spell it out for you.

McNair’s protagonist in Pickett (and I suspect Land O’ Goshen too, tho I have not read it yet), is an Alabama “cracker”; a man from the dirt-farmer class of southern folks who make fantastically tough, very colorful characters in modern literature. They’re just interesting to read and write about because they’re so damn uncivilized and irrational that they’re actually “novel”, in the original sense of the word.

When McNair and I first met, and I told him I was writing a bio of my g-g-g-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, he instantly recommended a book for me to read. He said it was the best piece of autobiographical / historical prose he’d ever read, and it demonstrated near perfectly how to draw out a character and bring him to life.

That book is ‘All Over But The Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. And I agree that it is incredibly well-written. It’s a great book about a whole lot of tragically broken, complicated, very colorful misfits.

But here’s the thing… Bragg’s misfits, like McNair’s protagonist, are of a “class” of Southern stereotypes that, while interesting, are about as remote from my experience and understanding as it gets (I could come up with a lot of nifty comparisons here, but that would just be trying too hard.)

Bragg, in his memoir, writes “White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy.”

Well guess what? My own Mother (born 1936) had a Mammy. And her Daddy had a black wet-nurse. And both sides of my mother’s parentage descended from the “Plantation Class”. And I grew up with an overwhelming sense that we “…owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather…”, because the fact was that we knew every advantage we had (and even by the 21st century, there are still many) came at the expense of someone who our ancestors “owned”. I grew up understanding that my intelligence and ability to converse and move with ease through any social or business setting was literally stolen from the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved.

I find the struggles and torments of the fallen southern aristocracy to be dark, often quite tragic, but more than anything else – complicated. And I’ll never be able to shed my fascination with the concept or the characters – because they are the people I know. They are, in fact, me, as well.

All that said, I wonder if Mr. McNair– given the characters and culture he knows best and who he respects – will be able to stomach reading about a somewhat effete, fallen aristocrat, who is full of self-loathing and guilt on so many levels that he can’t think his way out of his wet paper bag of pathos.

Looking at me and my characters from his (or better perhaps, from Rick Bragg’s point of view), we’re not a very sympathetic lot. We’re the people who built the system that stole every opportunity from everyone “below” us on the social ladder, and now that the ladder has upturned we’re sitting in the dirt feeling sorry for ourselves, trying to figure out what happened and where we went wrong. Pathetic really.

The reality is that we’ll probably never escape the class issues that define and divide us at least as much as the race issue. It makes me sad. I wonder whether this issue is enough to sink any hopes I might have had that McNair might actually help me become a better writer, and then do something with it.

I’m just hoping that all the above is just my own pathetic insecurity – and not what Mr. McNair actually sees in me or my work.

Maybe I just think too much.

Old Ghosts. New Ghosts. Ghost Competition.

Alan Gurganes rather famously confessed that his novel “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”, was not so much written by him, as it was received as dictation in a very proscribed manner in the wee-early morning hours between about four and five in the morning, until….

He told Charlie Rose in an interview not long after the books’ debut, that if he was late arriving in his over-the-garage writing room, the old widow would have given up and gone, and another day of material contribution to the story would be lost.

I find nothing strange or contrived in his story.

I find myself in a not terribly dissimilar predicament.

Charles McNair gave me an assignment. I took a break – a week, I thought – to accomplish it. But now that assignment has taken on a life of its own with his second assignment to edit the original, make it stronger – better – worthier of my effort and the digital trees scarified to its conception and birthing.

When I called up that muse to bring me the story for McNair’s assignment, I got a muse who obviously wanted to be heard. Her name is Dora and her story came swiftly, crudely, like a frightened child trying to tell me something she could not quite organize but had to get out – but there is substance to it – no matter how disorganized it appears right now.  I want to do her the honor she deserves.

But now, my other ghost – the ghost who I’ve been working with for more than five years – is standing behind Dora with his arms crossed and a furrow in his brow, and he’s more than a little annoyed with my “shelving him” in favor of this disorganized, crazed little half-Indian girl. “Will” has been patient with me. He’s put up with my poverty, my geographic wanderings and lack of connection to the wider world of research (because I chose to go off-grid and live in a log cabin for two years, with no iNet, no running water, no electricity.) I think he found humor in seeing a 21st century descendant trying to make it in his world. But now that I’m back – his humor and patience are running thin. He’s not cutting me any slack at all.

Tonight I tried to explain to “Will” that this dalliance with McNair was about making me a better writer. About forging relationships with influential people who can actually get his story out there. I don’t know if he bought it – god I hope so. I hope he has patience. I need him to – because it’s actually his story that I need to tell, more so than any of the others.

The problem is that more ghosts are lining up behind my friend (my great-great-grandfather) Will.

More stories to tell. More almost-forgotten souls to reanimate. The room is filling up, and I can hardly hear myself think for the din they create. Accents and languages and lives lived in times and places and people that I have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding. For God’s sake, there is a man here with what I think must be three thousand head of sheep all swirling around him like dervishes! (Is that William of Brynterion? Is it his father, Richard? Maybe Richards’ grandfather? I need to find out just who he is!?)

Call me crazy. I don’t care. I still manage to show up to work on-time and do what’s needed. Balance my checkbook. Wash my hair. Brush my teeth. Fulfill the basic obligations.

But I’d sure love to have about three more lifetimes in order to figure out who all these people are, and three more after that to properly tell their stories.

I need them all to be patient. I got a late start. I am doing the best I can. They should have shown up sooner, before I spent half my life on worthless, trivial stuff. Man, what I would not give now for all that wasted time to be recovered to me.

Will, hang on. I am coming back to you. But I need to show this guy McNair that I am worthy of encouraging and helping. We both need him.


Or Maybe Not

Sad Rooster

Sad Rooster Crows No More.

People, I told ya’ll I’d let you know “either way” what McNair had to say about “my assignment”. Well… It could be better, it could be worse. I don’t know what I expected (hoping for an atta-boy; guess I should be happy I didn’t get put on “ignore”.)

A few hours after I sent the document, I got the following response:

“Dear C.,

 Assignment two.

 Go back through this draft and change three of every four uses of the passive de facto conversational verbs “was” and “is” and “were” and “had + verb” to energetic active verbs. The passive verbs leak energy and authority from your sentences. Be aggressive – it takes work to write without using conversational verbs … but writing requires a higher standard than conversation to be convincing and to immerse a reader in a fictive world worth accepting and entering. I’ll have a look at the next draft when I get back from travels on Nov 13.”

That’s it.

I had to go look up what passive vs. active meant, just to be sure I actually understood. (Been a long time and I was no great student.) That put me in my place.

Yeesh… okay. So I have a lot to learn and a lot more work to do before I can actually crow about anything.

I Can Write Fiction; on Demand

This is me gloating if all goes well.

This is me gloating if all goes well.

Well… I completed my assignment. Sort of.

Let’s see… the good Mr. McNair asked for “fiction”. Okay… “Check” in that column (let’s say “fictionalized”, just for the sake of specificity.)
– He asked for 14 pages. I gave him 59.
– He asked for the product delivered on Tuesday night. I sent it a day and a half early, in the wee hours of Monday morning.


So much for my ability to follow instructions. Zilch.

I have no idea whether this was a test to see if I could write to length on demand, sit on my hands till the project was due, and then hit all the check boxes with everything at perfect “spec”. Honestly, if that’s what it was, screw it. That isn’t how I write when I write for myself. I’ll never write like that again (I had enough of that shit in the corporate world.)

I think what I wrote was pretty good. Not perfect. Not the whole story by a long shot, but not bad considering I was writing on a very short deadline, and writing considerably different stuff from what has been occupying my brain for a year or more (academic, non-fiction.)

I’ll publish it here after I change some names in the story. Just for the sake of expediency, I left all the characters names in the story I sent to Mr. McNair as the “real names” of actual people. Before I put the thing up anywhere, I need to “protect the guilty” and put a disclaimer in (“Any resemblance to any person, living or dead is purely coincidental…”), because I’m pretty sure there are some cousins out there who might just sue me.

And I guess I need to wait until I hear from Mr. McNair, just in case he thinks the thing is Pulitzer material (ha!) and has a publisher lined up to take it to press as soon as its fleshed out.

I’ll let you know what McNair says, either way. If he hates it I’ll own it right here, publicly. If he likes it, I’ll gloat like nobody’s bidness. I get so few opportunities to feel good about myself these days, you won’t mind if I gloat, will you?

Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair – Review

Pickett's Charge. A novel by Pulitzer Prize nominee Charles McNair.

Pickett’s Charge. A novel by Pulitzer Prize nominee Charles McNair.

Pickett’s Charge
, by Charles McNair

Livingston Press; The University of West Alabama, 2013

Threadgill Picket is the last living Confederate soldier, and he just can’t let go of all the rage and grief the Civil War brought into his life. Haunted by ghosts, pursued by his demons – both real and conjured – Threadgill is a man on a mission determined to destroy his nemesis; the last surviving Union soldier, now living in a Bangor Maine.

Pickett’s Charge is an epic road show that carries you along on Threadgills harrowing (occasionally hilarious, as often quite tragic) journey from Alabama, due north.  It’s a trip through time and imagination that keeps reminding you why America cannot let go of the Civil War, why prejudice still prevails despite 150 years of “peace”, and what price we pay in the end for hanging onto rage and the relentless desire for vengeance.

It’s clear that Charles McNair wanted to write a lighthearted novel about one stubborn man’s personal vendetta. Threadgill Pickett clearly had something very different in mind. Through him, we experience a post-war South as pitifully scarred as the old soldiers’ ravaged body, but paradoxically, as essentially pure as his love for his native soil, his mischievous  twin brother Ben, his saintly old Aunt Annie who raised him, and the beautifully tragic Eva, who was Threadgills’ first and only love.

McNair’s prose begins thin and lapping, then gradually builds like a hurricane crescendo that carries the reader on a whitewater crest toward a conclusion that is as unexpected as it is dreadful. From the top of that mountainous wave of skillfully drawn landscapes, familiarly detailed characters, and painfully wrought human interactions, we get a glimpse, through Threadgill’s last steps on earth, of what might have been, had Threadgill – had all the Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs of the world, both then and now – chosen to throw a bar-b-que instead of a launch a Civil War. We’d all be living in a far better world.

Pickett’s Charge is a last ditch plea for reconciliation in the face of division, misunderstanding and blind ignorance. It’s a last, lonely Rebel Yell that warns us from the torment of Oblivion to choose a path different than the doomed circle we’ve been going around and around in for the last one hundred and fifty years.

Charles McNair’s Pickett’s Charge is highly recommended reading for anyone who thinks the Civil War is alive and still raging in our hearts, and especially for those who think it’s nothing but ancient history.

Highlight of my Decade: Dinner w/ Charles McNair

Charles McNair; author of Picket's Charge and Pulitzer Prize nominated Land O' Goshen,

Charles McNair; author of Picket’s Charge and Land O’ Goshen,

Alright ya’ll, so this one is sooo off-topic. But it’s my blog and I’ll gloat of I want to.

Tonight I had dinner with Charles McNair, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994 for his book Land O’ Goshen, and author of the 2013 release Pickett’s Charge. (See the review in my all-new Book Reviews section.)

How did a solitude seeking, cave-dwelling, lower life-form like yours truly pull-off this feat of incredible fortune? Well, not to be redundant, but fate was with me. (And that’s pretty cool, cause I gotta tell you, I’ve never even won a bingo game before and I’m generally of the opinion that I somehow offended Lady Luck coming out of the womb. She’s never shined on me. That is… until this evening.)

Mr. McNair was in Raleigh for a reading and book signing last night (Monday, 10/28/2013.) I had to work and couldn’t get there until the event was over and the poor man was walking out the door. I did manage to get a book signed, introduce myself, shake his hand, etc., and to my ‘shock&awe’, the guy honestly came across as one of the most charming, genteel, and generous fellows I’ve met in years. (A lot of authors can be real pompous, self-important prigs. Shocking, I know. Sorry to have to break the news.)

So… long story short, I dashed home after work last night and checked Mr. McNair’s website. I saw he had an event planned at a bookshop in Durham this evening (10/29/2013.) I knew it would be tight (I had to work till six.) But determined to go and see what I’d missed last night, I hauled ass up 540 to I-40 as fast as my 1990 Honda Civic would propel me (not particularly fast at all), and I made it through the doors at the bitter stroke of 7:05 P.M. (five minutes late, dammit!)

The crowd was small, but I knew it would be given Durham’s zip code (a suburb of New Jersey.) They don’t read much there. Despite the Gothic Walls dripping with ivy, the University lost its intellectual luster decades ago. Now it’s just a clearing house for over-priced bio-technical degrees and MBAs on their way to Wall Street. You want to find a university town that still feels like a university town, go to Charlottesville – or Chapel Hill.

But I digress.

So Mr. McNair blessed us with a very personalized reading of two chapters from Pickett’s Charge, his new book about the last surviving Confederate Veteran; 114 year-old Alabama native, Threadgill Pickett, who is on a final, vendetta-charged mission to hunt down and destroy the last surviving Union Soldier, who is living it up in Bangor Maine. (A long way from Threadgill’s Mobile, Alabama rest home.) Check out my upcoming review for more on the book.

After the reading, Mr. McNair invited his small audience to join him on 9th Street for a beer. Someone suggested dinner, which sounded great to me since I had not eaten a crumb since my bacon, egg & cheese, Bojangles biscuit this morning at 10:00 in the morning (which is roughly Oh-Dark-Thirty to me.) Except I realized I was in Durham (New Jersey), and I knew that there ain’t no getting no cheap grub in Durham. Especially not on 9th Street. I was secretly wishing I’d brought a bologna sandwich with me. I could do like I did when I was in college and sit outside on the sidewalk and eat it while everybody else went in. Then join up again when they all came out, fat and flushed.

Then I thought again – I may never, EVER, in my whole life get to sit down at table with a man who actually got tapped for the Pulitzer Prize list. I’m worried about $20.00? (That’s four hours’ work, at minimum wage, which is the top dollar I can command these days.) Fuck it. Fuck it! FUCK IT!

We marched down to Blue Corn on 9th Street. I got my money’s worth – and I’m not talking about the food.

We (the folks who accepted Mr. McNair’s invitation) talked about books, authors, the history of Durham, racism, Shelby Foote (guess who brought that topic up?) I learned that Umberto Eco was dead (truly I did not know. I’m outta touch.) I was encouraged to write and follow that goal, taking advantage of whatever means available to me (including self-publishing, the crowd-funding model, or whatever.)

And hopefully Mr. McNair made some contacts at Duke that will help him sell a few books and get them in the library there too. (God knows, they have the money.)

I don’t know when was the last time I went out to dinner with anyone – much less perfect strangers. It’s been years. Many years. (And those days were painful, forced, corporate entertainments that were never my idea; absolutely coerced events that I never would have participated in, had I had a choice.) Tonight was sheer, self-indulgent, enjoyment. I feel guilty I had such a good time. Crossing 9th street back to my car, I was walking on clouds.

But wait, it gets better…

So I sent Mr. McNair a thank you note via email this evening (Yes! That Yellowhammer SOB gave me his email address! Rascal!)

And here’s what he sent back:

“Thank you so for the kindness and attention and companionship. It humbled me that you came all the way from Raleigh to this event. I’m grateful. In return, you have an assignment for the rest of this week – two typed double-spaced pp of fiction per day. No excuses. Let me hear from you a week from tonight. Cheers.”

My one line response:

“I’ll take that bait.”

So… ya’ll will have to pardon my silence the rest of the week, and the Merioneth Historical and Records Society will have to wait. I have work to do.

The night is young.

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