Alabama native Charles McNair pressed his pin into the literary map in 1994 with his first novel, Land O' Goshen, which Publishers Weekly described as what would happen "if Faulkner had tried his hand at science fiction." That book earned a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and then McNair waited nearly 20 years before publishing a second novel.
It's safe to say he's not one to rush things.
McNair has kept busy in the meantime, serving as books editor for Paste and doing book reviews for the Atlanta AM radio station WMLB. This fall, he released his long-awaited second novel, Pickett's Charge, which tells the story of a 114-year-old Confederate veteran named Threadgill Pickett who decides in 1964 to hunt down and do battle with the last living Union veteran (You can read the first chapter here and order the book here). The Bitter Southerner also recently published McNair's essay "Denise McNair & Me," in which he reflects on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and a frightening childhood encounter with the Ku Klux Klan.
McNair will do a Pickett's Charge book reading and signing this Thursday (Nov. 21) at 7 p.m. at the Royal American, followed by an acoustic performance by local songwriter Lily Slay. Admission is free.
City Paper: So you wrote this novel in '94, you got nominated for a Pulitzer, and then you didn't release another one until this year. Why the long gap?
Charles McNair: The first novel took 12 years, so I guess I'll start by saying I'm not a particularly fast fiction writer. It seems that there are always about 100 things more fun to do than sit there in the dark and open your veins and try and write. In this particular case, the same year that Land O' Goshen came out, my first and only child was born, so every moment of every day, that was first priority for me, and that priority was not writing fiction. It was raising a little girl. She went off to college at Bard up in the Hudson Valley this past August, so it's OK to write again. Actually, in fits and starts over years, I would work and gradually put this book together. I wrote a lot of pages that are not in the book. I wrote a whole backstory of Yankee plot, the old Yankee, and I probably have 200 pages of that written out in chapters. But I realized that if I included that in this book, nobody was gonna buy an 800- or 1,000-page book. I guess the only writer who can pull that off is J.K. Rowling.
CP: In the first chapter of Pickett's Charge, you've introduced us to this character, Threadgill Pickett, who's sort of wiry and angry and seems to embody the idea that "the South will rise again." What do we talk about when we talk about the Civil War? What are you dredging up with this novel?
CM: I'm trying to address the issue of why the South has persistently held on to a bitterness, a sense of vengeance that to this very moment colors national politics, our racial views, and so much of the life around us. We fell in love with defeat and we nursed this great vengeance, and many still do, and the question is, when do you let it go? There's a line in the book that is not mine, and I can't remember who actually came up with it — I have not thieved it. The line is, "Holding onto revenge is like taking poison and hoping that somebody else dies." And that sort of is the affliction of the South. Threadgill Pickett, my man, is disfigured at age 14, and loses his brother in an atrocity, in a terrible way, and Threadgill's disfigurement and this traumatizing memory haunt him so that he does not fit in with society, and he goes off to live on an island by himself for almost 100 years. And that of course symbolizes what we as Southerners decided to do after the war. The history books tell you that Reconstruction lasted into the 1880s, right? But where I grew up, it was still Reconstruction in the 1960s. So 100 years. So Threadgill has gone along these 100 years bitter and with a burning desire to settle up an old score, and then he gets his chance to do that. And then as he goes north through the 1960s, he's sort of like Don Quixote. He runs into all of these things that he never considered and never experienced: The civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, the space age, the commercialization of the world. And he has to examine his old beliefs and find out if they still hold water. So that is what Threadgill is. This is a tall tale that is a story of a man's search for redemption — or not.
CP: In your essay for The Bitter Southerner, you write beautifully about taking up the cause of racial equality and on a certain level feeling like it was a betrayal of your parents and grandparents ("... those were hard years because, in a way, I chose to leave a father and grandfathers and a family behind. It was especially hard to watch my old man, once all I had in the world to trust and depend on, diminish and fade away, some of his beliefs grotesque.") Do you still see people in the South today dealing with that ideological pull?
CM: Unfortunately I do. But also what I'll tell you is that it's more complicated than simply black and white. This same father of mine who pulled the car off the highway to take me and my brothers down to watch this Klan rally is the same father who many years later cried inconsolably in the church where one of his crew — he was a homebuilder — a fellow who had worked with him for all his life had passed away from cancer, a black man. My dad used that laborer and two other crewmen to build three or four hundred houses around Dothan, Ala., where I grew up. In some ways, my dad loved Willie Rogers more than his sons. And that sounds harsh, but what I'm really trying to say is, how could it be that the same man who walked us down through the field that night could have such a profound feeling and profound loss when an African American who worked for him passed away? I'm just here to tell you that it is a mixture of acquaintances, indoctrinations, and custom that all adds up to an extremely complicated mix that really defies description sometimes. I find the attitude still exists, and in a lot of cases it is a general black-and-white thing, but when you come down to specific people, there can be love shared and intimacies and all kinds of relationships, and for some reason, the people that hold these [views] cannot broaden the plain to include the possibility that there might be more people who are that color who might be just as good or just as lovable or just as respectable as the single person you're dealing with. And in a place like Charleston, with the history there, I mean good gracious how complicated race must be. And I think it's such a daunting problem to try to come to terms with that most people simply avoid it, and it never gets fixed.
CP: You write in your essay about the term "post-Obama" and how it's overused. What, if anything, does "post-Obama" mean to you?
CM: I don't believe that there is a post-Obama. I think that it was a landmark and significant moment in the advancement of equality for African-American people. I don't honestly think that it changed a lot of attitudes. The encouraging thing was that Obama would never have been elected without white votes, and that means that a lot of people were willing to let go of their old conceptions. But you didn't see that in the South where the problem really is the deepest, and so I don't think it's all that different here. I mean, there is marked progress. There was an amazing moment to me, a few months back, I went home to Dothan, where I'm from ... I drove a quarter of a mile to the local Applebee's, and it was about 11 o'clock on a Friday night, and I walked in, and I will tell you that 75 percent of the couples in the Applebee's were mixed-race couples — and this in Dothan Ala,. It astonished me. That is one barrier that is dead and gone right there. If it can happen in Dothan, which was the most conservative county in all of Alabama during the George Wallace years ... something is changing, and one hopes that in another 50 years, that maybe we don't have the tremendous polarizing issue of race that we've had for the last 150 years — well, longer than that, but I just mean since the emancipation. Of course there were two or three hundred years of slavery before that, and even that I think has not been addressed really, fully. I was hard-pressed on my last trip to Charleston to find any reference to slavery. It is as underground there and tucked away as any place I've ever been. I was sort of amazed at that ... In a certain circumstance, glossing it over would be just fine, and that would be if all the animosities had been forgiven and forgotten and people had moved on. But somehow I don't think that's how it actually is.