I am very pleased to have Taylor M. Polites on the blog today. Taylor’s book, The Rebel Wife, is set in the turbulence of post Civil War Alabama. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his love of the South and his inspiration.
Here’s a little bit about The Rebel Wife:
The Rebel Wife
Author: Taylor M. Polites
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 2-7-12
Set in Reconstruction Alabama, Augusta “Gus” Branson’s is a young widow whose quest for freedom turns into a race for her life when her husband Eli dies of a swift and horrifying fever and a large package of money – her only inheritance and means of survival – goes missing. Gus begins to wake to the realities that surround her: the social stigma her marriage has stained her with, what her husband did to earn his fortune, the shifting and very dangerous political and social landscape that is being destroyed by violence between the Klan and the Freeman’s Bureau, and the deadly fever that is spreading like wildfire. Nothing is as she believed, everyone she trusts is hiding something from her.
How did you come up with the story for The Rebel Wife?
I guess I started with the town of Albion itself. In my teens, I had a little hobby of drawing towns that were very similar to the town where I grew up, Huntsville, Alabama. Then I begin drawing the houses in town, which were often similar to the homes in Huntsville’s beautiful and extensive antebellum district, Twickenham. Then I began filling the homes with people. As I grew older, I continued to be fascinated by Huntsville and the history of the Civil War. I studied it in college and continued to do research and reading all the way up to now. One thing that has always appealed to me in fiction has been a strong heroine. The women of Margaret Mitchell, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Trollope and Flaubert and Balzac, have always fascinated me. So, second, for me, was Augusta—a woman at the center of a story of challenge and change, a story where she could become a real heroine. And the third, was the end of Reconstruction, the last gasp of idealism and national change that had begun in the Civil War, but I can probably answer that in your next question.
What drew you to this time period?
Like many people, the Civil War has always fascinated me. It is a period tailor-made for great, dramatic stories—and so there have been thousands upon thousands of stories about the Civil War. But the more I read and learned, the more I understood how integral Reconstruction is to understanding the Civil War. The great sacrifice of the people and defeat of slavery were to be forever memorialized in a massive and never-before-seen restructuring of the American body politic. The program, however, was ahead of its time. The reaction was violent, particularly in the South. In the North, after so much war and fighting and a major economic depression, there was no further appetite for guaranteeing the rights of black men, regardless of what came before. This period, too, has been much maligned. Some great scholarship over the past thirty years has helped revise our understanding of the time, but the story of rapacious carpetbaggers picking over the devastated corpse of the South continues to live. The history of the period and those lingering myths seemed a perfect backdrop for my heroine’s struggle.
Why do you think that the archetypes of the antebellum South are such a powerful force in literature and film?
Before the war was over, these literary archetypes, which ultimately found their way to stage and film, were being created by writers like Margaret Junkin Preston (Beechenbrook: A Rhyme of the War) and Augusta Jane Evans (Macaria; or Altars of Sacrifice). Later writers who participated in the Regionalist movement of the late 19th century portrayed the now familiar image of a gracious Southland as well as the most demeaning stereotypes of African-Americans—Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris are two examples. This literature found a national audience, North and South. It was also coincident with growing national reconciliation, both culturally and politically. By the opening of the 20th century, all the gains in civil rights for African-Americans had been completely abridged, but white America had reconciled. Look at the national popularity of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915. By the 1920’s, the currents were beginning to shift, but those stereotypes were firmly embedded in our national consciousness. There is a romance to it—a civilization, truly gone with the wind, if it ever existed at all. It reminds me of the sentimentality people have for ancien régime France—but the sentimentally extends almost exclusively to kings and courtiers, rarely to the truth of life as it was lived day to day or the people who made the machine run.
Did you do any traveling to the South for research?
I grew up in the South and still have family there, so I have continued through my adult life to visit and take time to research in Huntsville. As I type this, I am sitting in the Huntsville Public Library’s Heritage Room, which is an incredible wealth of information about the city and region. Yesterday, I visited (yet again) the home of Maria Howard Weeden, local poet and artist. Her home is one of the few museum-houses in Huntsville—and museum-houses are a particular passion of mine. The best of them can give you a real sense of time-travel.
What do you hope people will take away from this book after they’ve read it?
I hope first that people enjoy the book, are absorbed into the world of Albion and its atmosphere. Second, I hope the book challenges people’s conceptions of Reconstruction and history in the South. I hope they see old archetypes turned inside out into something new. I hope it piques people’s interest in the period and leads them to read more about it. But always, I hope people enjoy it.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me on your blog!
Thank you, Taylor!
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.
Find Taylor Polites online:
The Rebel Wife Blog Tour
Taylor M. Polites on Facebook
Taylor M. Polites on Twitter
Taylor M. Polites’ Website