Laird Hunt is the author of several works of fiction and a two-time finalists for the Pen Center USA Award in Fiction. He is on the faculty of the University of Denver’s creative writing program and lives in Boulder, Colorado. His latest novel, Neverhome, is about a woman who disguises herself as a male soldier, so she can fight in the Civil War.
I spoke with Laird about his recent novel via phone.
How did the idea of a female soldier in the Civil War come to you for your novel Neverhome?
About 18 years ago, my wife came home from the Strand Bookstore in New York—where we were living at the time—with a copy of An Uncommon Soldier. This book is a collection of Civil War letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who went to war to fight as Private Lyons Wakeman. She sent these letters home with her family fully complicit, knowing she disguised herself as a man; they were in on it. Sometimes she signs the letters Sarah, and sometimes she signs them Lyons. I found that very intriguing. The whole book is quite wonderful and that was the first time I heard of this phenomenon.
Over the years this idea built up in me until we hit this envelope of time of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
There was a remark I came across by the wonderful writer Tony Horowitz, who wrote Confederates in the Attic about the ongoing legacy of the Civil War. He wrote a column in the New York Times in 2010 in which he referred—at the very end of the column—to the fact that so much of the Civil War was either myth-encrusted, or as yet uncovered. This comment made me think of these women who were soldiers, who a lot of people still don’t know about. And it just seemed like, wow, maybe it’s time to write about these women and do something with it in the form of a novel.
I couldn’t put the book down and thought you nailed your novel, Neverhome. From what I have read about the Civil War, you don’t hear about the women soldiers who fought, and had to disguise their identity. You have given voice to something not well known.
Their contribution was tremendously important and there are many hundreds of women who did it. Some scholars say it was 400, but one recently said 1,000. That may not be a huge number in the context of the Civil War, where millions fought, but it’s a real number of women who went to war in the most challenging circumstances. Not only did they have to do everything else their fellow soldiers did, but they had to conceal their identities, and worry about what would happen if they were discovered.
I just want to say that there are some wonderful scholars who are researching this, so I cannot claim any special credit for discovering the phenomenon. I’m paying homage and celebrating the fact that these women fought and were extremely brave.
Do you know some of the names of those other scholars working on finding women Civil War soldiers?
Sure, a book that was very important to me in addition to An Uncommon Soldier, is, They Fought Like Demons, which was edited by De Anne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook. Cook also brought out the collection of letters by Sarah Wakeman. Those are the two of the main ones I’ve consulted, and returned to, but there are other excellent ones as well.
You’re providing information about female soldiers that makes perfect sense. Females going to fight, or wanting to fight, doesn’t strike me as strange, but it isn’t something you hear about with the Civil War, just like the insane asylums. You have your female character, Ash Thompson, going to a prison/insane asylum for disguising herself as a male soldier. Is that also accurate with the times?
Three things, sometimes in combination, happened typically when women were discovered disguising themselves as soldiers.
In the first instance they were drummed out of camp; they were kicked out. Often what went along with that was some form of humiliation. Humiliation punishment was very standard in those days for any kind of infraction.
They were also portrayed as women who had done it because they wanted, for lascivious reasons, to get close to a bunch of men. Also, there was a question of their loyalty. Some were called spies and were imprisoned for that, and their sanity was called into question as well.“I was strong and he was not, so it was me that went to war to defend the Republic.” —Neverhome, opening line
Now the question of the interment in the insane asylum in the novel—the asylum itself is based on a fair amount of research I had done previously on 19th century treatment, if you can even call it that, of mental illness. But that particular institution and that particular Virginia town is a creation, so it’s not based on an actual half-prison, half-asylum. There were all sorts of ad-hoc facilities during the Civil War, so it wasn’t really a big stretch to put her in the one I created.
I would like to say, I didn’t want to write the novel based on any one particular female combatant, I wanted to be inspired by all of them. I didn’t want to link the specifics of the novel to actual trajectories lived by women soldiers, so it’s the space of the imagination we are dealing with in the case of the asylum Ash is interred in, but I feel pretty strongly it’s imagination backed up by circumstances on the ground during the Civil War.
How long did it take you to write your novel Neverhome?
The first draft was written in about 5 weeks. It came as a flood. That’s been the case for a couple of my recent books. When I have the voice of the character, the story comes quickly. Now, I should say that the first draft took me five weeks, but it was just 110 pages long, so I had the beginning, middle and end, but there was all the texture left to find. I spent the next couple of years filling out the scaffolding of the work. But once I had that voice in that first line:
I was strong and he was not, so it was me that went to war to defend the Republic.
I was off to the races. It just came out from there and I couldn’t stop it.
How did you get that voice?
I had the great gift of being raised in large part by my paternal grandmother on a farm in rural Indiana. My Grandmother was born on that farm, was very educated and was a teacher, and she was linked to the land very deeply. It’s not her voice that I have adapted for Neverhome, it was the voice that was hiding in her voice, especially when she would get emotional or excited, or if she would holler for me, or at me. Some other deeper, ancestral voices would come out. …I do my research as I’m writing and revising. I read intensively about the Civil War, especially diaries and journals of common soldiers.
Is that also how you were able to develop that very strong mother-daughter bond between your character, Ash, and her mother, even though the Ash’s mother is deceased?
I don’t think I can overstate how important my Grandmother’s influence was on me. Again, it’s not her or her mother in the book; she’s not one of these characters, but she had a mother figure, my great-grandmother, who was strong and demanding in many ways, who owned the farm, and who was orphaned. So the story about Ash’s mother was adapted from family stories, indeed from my Grandmother’s legacy.
So when you were writing your novel was it a conscious decision on your part to write your family’s legacy into the story, or did you find you were rolling into that kind of narrative?
I’m a pretty intuitive writer, so I don’t consciously decide. I recognize things after I’m done, but I don’t consciously say ahead of time that it would be really great if I grafted this or that particular story onto the narrative.
How long did it take for you to do the revisions?
Spring 2011 was when I did that five week spurt, so then it was two years of revising, which I think I did with quite a bit of energy. It was a pretty intensive process. I obviously had these women in my mind and had thought a lot about them, read some about them, but as with all my work with historical material, I do my research as I’m writing and revising. I read intensively about the Civil War, especially diaries and journals of common soldiers. They aren’t many of these, obviously, from women soldiers, so I looked at common infantry men, artillery men, soldiers of the line; their letters home, their observations, so as I was revising, I was building in details that I had gotten from these journals.
As a matter of fact, the incident where Gallant Ash earns her sobriquet when she climbs the tree, puts her jacket around that woman because her shirt has been torn off comes from a beautiful series of letters I found in a crumbling volume on the shelf of my university library, called Dearest Susie by Frank Ross McGregor. It’s a series of letters home from a soldier to his sweetheart. I’m happy to say he survived the war and married her and became a florist in Ohio. He describes a close version of the incident that I built into the book. That’s the kind of glittering detail that really helped bring the story alive, and in many ways changed the direction of the story. I realized there was this whole strain of Ash’s gallantry, her willingness, despite her flaws, to try to do right by others, and I built this into her character because of that.
How would you detail that revision process, since you are writing and reading, and revising at the same time? How do you break up that work on a day to day and a week to week basis?
It’s something that has developed organically partly because of the circumstance of my daily life. Working as a press officer at the United Nations in New York, which I did for five years, I had very little spare time, so I developed strategies for going in intensively on something I’d written with very little time to do it, and then maintaining a sense that the work remained open and ready for revising at almost any moment. There is always that rush of the first draft that’s very exciting.
After my wife and I left New York and came to Colorado, and started teaching, I had a very different kind of schedule, but I maintained a sense of that openness and acknowledgement that the work would continue to adapt and change depending on new information, approaches or strategies.
Sometimes it is annoying but in general, and certainly in the case of Neverhome, I found that the kind of research I was doing was a glorious addition process. All those wonderful facts uncovered about what people in 1862, say, would have been eating, how frequently coffee was drunk (frequently!) in the Civil War. You can really go down the rabbit hole and into a Wonderland of details and discovery, so I had to be a little bit careful about that because sometimes it became too engrossing.There’s a passage by Walt Whitman about the country being broken like a china plate….it fits perfectly because the country felt broken by so many people.
There’s a marvelous book called The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward. It dovetails with my interest in antebellum slavery. In that book I learned after the Emancipation Proclamation, when slaves began leaving and going north, dogs were found dead around numerous plantations. The former slaves were killing the bloodhounds that had been kept to pursue them. That little detail made its way into the novel.
So the deserter bounty that you state on p. 55 of the galley copy is accurate?
Yes, there were all sorts of rogue and legal operators within the context of the Civil War. There were certainly bounties put on deserters. A whole novel could be written about some of these outlaw characters. You see some of this in the novel and the movie, Cold Mountain. There is a very important role played by a home guard unit that runs roughshod over the civilians. That was true in the north and in the south.
How did you come up with your character names?
That’s a good question, and I should go back and look at the first draft. I think Constance was not initially the main character’s given name, but as far as Ash, the name she fights under, that was there from the beginning. It took on greater meaning when it became possible to link to it thematically, so there is that revelation towards the end of the book about why she’s taken that particular name and what her mother has done and where she does it.
It was one of those things, sometimes it takes forever and name changes can come at the very last minute; but in this case, Ash was there from the beginning and Constance didn’t take long to come to, and that was because I wanted a name many women had from that period, but that could also have a symbolic value as well.
You have your main character, Constance, going into a rage at one point. Was this something you were consciously writing, or did it happen as you were writing, that you felt was more accurate to how humans behave?
I knew I wanted her to return to Neva’s house and certainly I knew something was going to happen there. During the revision process, that whole section with Neva was expanded. That was one of the things Josh [my editor] felt strongly about: Neva should be more of an actual character, rather than a kind of mechanism in the text.
In one version, I had her doing more during her return to Neva’s house, but it diluted her anger in a way. It had to be that one central thing that single fierce gesture. I was really pleased.
I was looking at these wonderful books that the Library of America has recently put out called Civil War Year One Told by those Who Lived It, then, Year Two, etc. that has quotations from people that were living at the time. There’s a passage by Walt Whitman about the country being broken like a china plate. I hadn’t seen that before. It was prefect to have that come from Walt Whitman, this idea that the country is like a china plate being broken. It was like the affirmation afterwards that you take the risk of doing something that’s a little bit too symbolic and you find it fits perfectly because the country felt broken by so many people.
When you do your historical pieces, do you find that you like the Civil War period more than any other time frame?
There is something about 19th century America. In many ways it is close to us, even as it’s also terribly far away, so we can still understand in many ways how the people thought; how they made decisions; how they spoke about things. We can get inside the heads of people whereas—it seems to me anyway—if you go back to the 18th century, it starts to become very distant. The way they speak is very different. I can’t feel my way into that the same way I can with the 19th century.
Also, growing up on a farm in rural Indiana, it felt like at many moments digging in the gardens, it might as well be the 19th century with my Grandmother hollering out to me to do things.“Fear finds you out, I wrote.” —Neverhome, p. 243
If it’s not alive to us as writers and readers, it’s too far back.
I think that’s why I liked your book so much. It felt tangible. It wasn’t archaic.
Ash’s voice isn’t exactly like a voice from the 19th century. That was deliberate. I wanted a 21st century reader to feel the past instead of being distant from it. I didn’t want to create a pastiche of Civil War language. It is easy to go deeply astray when you try to get too close to a literal vernacular.
How accurate do you make your dialogue? Do you run the risk of separating the text from the reader?
I had a mentor during my MFA, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who was very useful to me around this question. She pointed out that when you’re doing dialogue and trying to render the way people speak, it really just takes a touch or two of their actual vocabulary or speech patterns. You can have just one word in a ten word sentence that is in the vernacular that speaks to a kind of idiom or period. Then the reader is equipped to fill in all the rest. So in other words, the whole sentence doesn’t have to be in the language of the 19th century. You can have one or two words every sentence or two. That goes for whether you’re writing about contemporaries who live in rural regions and speak in a heavily accented vernacular, or an earlier period. You run the risk of your words starting to look comical if it’s too accurate.
When you write, do you have difficulty going into and coming back out of the world you created?
Yes, but it depends on if the writing is going well. I do have certain times where I have a stretch of a few hours to work in, and no other obligations, but it just isn’t coming to me. I’ve learned to be careful about forcing it, because I can spend that few hours fighting my way and it becomes dead and wooden. That happens, but not that frequently. Sometimes I’m tired, but usually when I go back I’m refreshed and go right into it.
What is your shortest and largest increment of writing time?
The thinking I do I consider as writing. A lot of the good work I was doing wasn’t happening when I wasn’t actively sitting down to write, so I continue that to some extent. I count 10 minutes of changing three sentences—just altering them slightly—as writing, so when I’m in a particularly busy patch, when I’m editing the Denver Quarterly, say, and find myself on deadline, if I can check in with my work even just briefly, than I feel something important has happened. I can work for several hours if the house isn’t a wreck and my daughter is at school. But I am not one of those people who can sit down for 10 hours and write. I have to be able to get up and go, take a hike or something. I get completely burned out if I sit too long.
As you’re working in your process and making your edits, do you let anyone else read your work, or do you wait until you’re at a certain point, or do you send it off to the editor or agent when you’re done?
Yes, my wife reads my work. She’s a poet, Eleni Sikelianos, who has written many books. She’s a good, fierce reader of my prose. For whatever reason, though, for this particular manuscript, she didn’t read it before I had sent it off. I sent it to my agent first before anyone else saw it. It was only in its bound galley form that Eleni read it. She did give it the thumbs up to my great relief, though she found some things that could be changed if there was time. The final will have a few of her tweaks and touches.
So at what point in your revision process does your wife read your work? Does she read it at the initial stage or do you wait until you have done some editing?
I wait until I have done a little bit of editing as much for my own protection as anything else. I teach creative writing, and I’m always trying to convince my students to give it a few edits before they inflict it on other people.
Do you belong to a writer’s group?
I don’t, but I teach and have wonderful colleagues at the University of Denver and I have met many writer friends over the years, so I have a number of people who informally read my work, or are in conversation with me about it.For my first three novels I was working on them, at one point, simultaneously….that’s part of how I dodged writer’s block, because I would reach an impasse with one project and shift over to another one.
Since you do teach, when do you write?
For years I was a nighttime writer, and it’s going to sound cliché, but I wrote with a glass of wine and, when I was still smoking, a cigarette—though I haven’t smoked in 12 years. Then I would go happily into the wee hours, but something has shifted. My writing, that first drafting at least, is now in the morning hours.
It sounds like you didn’t have any writing blocks with this book. Would you say that is typically true for you?
No, I didn’t [have a writer’s block] for this book, or for the one that preceded it, which isn’t necessarily typical for me. Both of those books have a first person female narrator. I speculate that maybe it’s because I’m looking in from the outside that I didn’t get blocked. They’re both historical novels and it frees me up just a little bit to have that outside perspective. I can just run with it. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t argued with myself about some of the passages that aren’t working and labored long over them. But in terms of drafting there was no real block.
What did you do when you did have a block when you were writing your other books?
My way out has always been reading. The trick with that is to not pick up the novel you’ve been reading, but to leap outside of it, go elsewhere. I take up a book of philosophy or poetry; reading outside of the genre that I work in. If I read poetry by, say, a contemporary Chinese poet, it jars my system, so I think of things differently. Then I’m able to move forward.
I thought your ending was brilliant. Did you know that ending going into it, or did you come to it while you were writing? How did you construct it so that it ends on “fear finds you out?” It was one of those books when I got to the end, I wasn’t disappointed, but was deeply moved; it made me think with its multiple meanings.
I’m so glad to hear that because that was one of the places where the editorial process was very helpful. That passage and that series of small confessions Ash makes before that final line, where she’s finally able to say what she has done, leading to the larger confession she’s been trying to say was initially drafted differently.
The way the book was originally drafted and sent to my editor, there were two or three more very short pages that followed it, so it trails out. My editor felt strongly that the book ended where it now does, so I have to give him credit for that. For him it was about time and tempo; it was a couple of beats too many if I continued passed that line.
I’m particularly happy with it because, as you say, you can read it differently, but it’s not vague.
Do you work on more than one book at any one time?
Yes. It’s a side effect of not getting things published initially. You work on a manuscript for a couple of years, and then you set it aside, and start working on another one. For my first three novels I was working on them, at one point, simultaneously. Now that I think of it, that’s part of how I dodged writer’s block, because I would reach an impasse with one project and shift over to another one. Then when I returned to the first one, I had learned a thing or two. I had a new strategy, whatever had been blocking me had been cleared out, so to this day, I continue to work on more than one book at a time.
When I was first drafting Neverhome, I wasn’t, but certainly when I was working on the two year revision process, I was working on another project.
I have paid the price for thinking I would remember something, so I have learned to write it down as soon as it comes to me.
Are you going to continue in that first person female narration in your other work?
I’m working on a project now that takes place in the decades after the Civil War, during Reconstruction. I’m taking up some of these themes that continue to trouble and inform the country. The protagonist in this case is a teenage boy.
There is another book that I’m working on that is set in the 1930s that deals with the infamous lynching at Marion, Indiana. That project has a first person female narrator who is inspired by an actual person who went to the lynching that day.
When the voices come to me, when the stories come to me, I try to honor them. I really enjoy the challenge of writing from a woman’s perspective. I’ve tried to do it without presumption, or appropriation, those types of things, but I definitely don’t want to force it.