I can definitely say that as early as fifth grade I was writing. I did a group of short plays that my fifth grade class acted out. I was writer and director. What a trip that was! Since then, I have always harbored the desire to write. In my teens, I used to draw maps of antebellum Southern towns. I drew the houses and their floorplans, then began filling them with people and soon the people were part of a story. Not too many years later, I picked the towns and people back up to develop the town of Albion, Alabama. Getting my MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University was one of the best things I did for myself as a writer. I learned a LOT about writing in the program and had the greatest mentor and guide a person could ask for, Kaylie Jones. There is nothing like learning about writing from a great writer!
The Rebel Wife is set in the Reconstruction South. What led you to set your novel during this time period? Specifically, why Alabama?
Alabama is where I grew up. I was born in Huntsville in North Alabama. The city has a beautiful antebellum historic district called Twickenham and a late 19th century district called Old Town. I don’t think I realized how unique it was to have such a well preserved downtown with residential streets that truly have the feel of the 19th century. Having memories of those historic places and hearing the stories about the people who lived there served as an initial inspiration for the daydream towns I created in my teens and ultimately my much more earnest and researched daydream town of Albion. As I grew up, I continued to read and research in an effort to understand the place and the period. Reconstruction is a fundamental, but neglected, part of the history of the Civil War. The most ambitious civil rights effort in history was undertaken during that time—and the period also witnessed its total abandonment. High hopes and great loss. A drama as great as the Civil War—and ultimately the ending that defines what the war was about. It seemed a perfect setting for a novel about the meaning of the war to people who lived then, as well as the myths we have inherited about the period.
Did you find it difficult to write from a female perspective? What led to the choice of a central female character rather than a male protagonist?
Yes! I did find it difficult. There were moments where I thought, “What am I doing trying to project myself into the body of a 29 year old woman in 1875? What on earth do I know about this?” But as a writer, too, I like a good challenge. It definitely put my imagination to work. I have always had a fascination with strong women characters from my first acquaintance with Scarlett O’Hara, at least (I was about 13). Women in fiction have always been a big draw for me—and real women from the Civil War period also fascinated me. There is a wealth of voices that remain to us in letters, diaries, memoirs and essays. From Louisa McCord, the firebrand conservative political philosopher of mid-19th century South Carolina, to her peer Mary Chesnut, the smart, ambitious and witty diarist who moved in the highest political circles during the war. There are Huntsville voices, too, that served as muse for me. The passionate and frank letters of Kate Fearn Steele to her husband, Matt, collected along with other family letters in Cease Not to Think of Me. And the vain Virginia Clay Clopton, who is changed by tragedy during the war and becomes the most ardent petitioner to the President during the imprisonment of her husband in Fortress Monroe. Her memoir, A Belle of the Fifties, tells her life story in her own words (more or less, she had a co-writer). Whenever I was going to sit down and write, I would open up Mary Chesnut’s diary or Kate Fearn’s letters and read passages to get a sense of the voice and point of view of these women.
Did you encounter any difficulties while researching this novel?
Research for me reveals more answers than it poses problems. I have spent so much time from about the age of fifteen mentally projecting myself into this period, reading the sources, studying the archives, reading monographs, that I have a good feel for its political currents. The day-to-day detail came from newspapers and other periodicals, like Godey’s Lady’s Book (the Providence Athenaeum has a staggeringly complete collection). Godey’s is like a Martha Stewart Living of the 19th century, with a strong dose of Vogue. There is a big focus on fashion, gossip at the court of the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie in France, recipes, housekeeping tips, poetry, serialized novels, and handiwork, like crocheting antimacassars or making slippers or sewing kits or tobacco bags. The major difficulty from the research was probably knowing when enough was enough!
Do you have any future novels in the works that you can share with us?
I am working out the details of another Albion novel, this one set on a lonely plantation along the banks of the Oosanatee River during the Great Depression, when much of life, particularly farming life, in North Alabama remained as it had one hundred years before. But the Depression brought big changes to the Tennessee River valley—government programs of relief, employment and cotton control brought bureaucrats far closer to the people than ever before. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created which created dams at various spots on the Tennessee River and its tributaries, bringing flood control, navigation, electricity and fertilizer along with more scientific farming techniques. The old world of sharecroppers with a team of mules was giving way to the Great Migration, large, mechanized corporate farms, and new technology. A fascinating time in a world that was still very attached to the Civil War and its memories—particulalry at a time when those memories were reaching the height of their mythologization.
Thank you so much for taking the time and blog space to talk to me!
Taylor M. Polites is a novelist living in Providence, Rhode Island with his small Chihuahua, Clovis. Polites’ first novel, The Rebel Wife, is due out in February 2012 from Simon & Schuster. He graduated in June 2010 with his MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. He has lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, New York City, St. Louis and the Deep South. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a BA in History and French and spent a year studying in Caen, France. He has covered arts and news for a variety of local newspapers and magazines, including the Cape Codder, InNewsWeekly, Bird’s Eye View (the in-flight magazine of CapeAir), artscope Magazine and Provincetown Arts Magazine.
You can find Taylor at his website or blog, Facebook and Twitter. You can follow The Rebel Wife blog tour on its own website.
Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court