Wednesday, May 6, 2015

This Side of the River by Jeffrey Stayton Interview & Review

War widows rise up against General Sherman in new Civil War novel
University of Mississippi professor releases This Side of the River in 150th anniversary year of end of war

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Southern Civil War widows’ disdain for General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Yankees is evident through the diaries and letters these women left behind, but a new literary noir looks at what may have been had these wives actually armed themselves and risen up.

University of Mississippi English Professor and award-winning short story writer Jeffrey Stayton releases his first novel, This Side of the River, in February 2015, the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War.

Told from multiple narrators, the gritty tale takes place in Georgia the summer of 1865 after the Confederacy has collapsed. A contingent of young Civil War widows who have survived General Sherman’s March to the Sea rally around a teenage Texas Ranger named Cat Harvey to travel to Ohio to burn down Sherman’s home. The story explores themes of trauma, revenge and redemption, while also touching on the reality of post traumatic stress disorder during the Civil War, known then as “nostalgia” or “soldier’s heart.”

Stayton speculates about the war crimes Shannon’s Scouts committed during Sherman’s March and gives Confederate soldiers’ “body servants” a voice that few Civil War stories do.

Heather Newton, author of Under The Mercy Trees, praised Stayton’s crafting of the “unforgettable  widows, whose accounts of their quest for revenge under the leadership of boy-Captain Cat Harvey evolve from humorous to sinister until the very stones cry out with the women’s rage and indignation.”

Corey Mesler, author of Diddy-Wah-Diddy: A Beale Street Suite, calls This Side of the River “a wild and enthralling mythopoeic-historical novel.

“It is an audacious move, especially for a first time novelist, but Stayton’s ventriloquist act and his lyrical aptitude are up to the task. This Side of the River tells a Civil War story you have not heard before,” Mesler said. “Comparisons to Tom Franklin and Charles Frazier are inevitable but Stayton is his own man, and his assured use of his storytelling gifts portends a grand career.”

Stayton has his Ph.D. in English from University of Mississippi, where he now teaches. He currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee and has written book reviews for the Missouri Review and award-winning fiction for Carve Magazine, StorySouth, Lascaux and Burningword Literary Journal.

Meet Jeffrey Stayton

Jeffrey Stayton grew up throughout Texas and lived in Mississippi before landing in Tennessee where he’s lived with his wife in Memphis for the past four years. The southern author releases his first literary noir novel in February 2015, the 150th anniversary year of the Civil War’s end. This Side of the River was inspired by his question of what would have happened if the war-widows of Georgia took up arms in the aftermath of the Civil War?

He earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Mississippi and specializes in 20th Century American literature.

He writes poetry, has written book reviews for the Missouri Review and has published stories in StorySouth, Lascaux and Burningword Literary Journal. His original story “Pepper” won the Bondurant Award for Fiction, and his story “Chisanbop” appeared in the Best of Carve Magazine.

He is a scholar and teacher of Modernist, Southern and African-American literature, often teaching women’s literature courses as well. His passion for Latin American literature brought Stayton and his wife on a hike across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago where he brushed up on his Spanish.

When not writing and teaching, he’s in his studio working on oil paintings.

Having at one point performed standup comedy, Stayton embarks on a unique book tour in Winter 2015 gearing up to be as entertaining as the pages within his literary fiction.

Q&A with Jeffrey Stayton

Why is the Civil War still so fascinating today, 150 years later?
            Because it defined our country like no other war before or since, especially in the South. For Southerners it would become the South’s origin myth. Walker Percy was once asked why Southerners were so preoccupied with the Civil War. “Because we lost the war,” he replied. And yet, I also like how Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey notes that for the freed Southern slaves, especially those who then became Union soldiers, the war was in fact won. As for me, a Southern writer, I think the Civil War offers more amazing, rich and fragrant characters than anything Shakespeare wrote. They are all there—from the lowest slave to the president of the United States. Just when I think I know everything about that conflict, something new appears that thoroughly mystifies me like a Baroque cathedral.

How did you come to write This Side of the River?
            After reading all the archival material I could find, as well as many published Civil War diaries, letters and memoirs, I became fascinated with the diaries that Georgia women had kept during Sherman’s March to the Sea. The level of hatred toward Gen. Sherman and all Yankees was palpable. I was already reading books on the trauma civilians experience during war, especially when war crimes are committed. I suppose the novel came about when I wondered, “What would have happened if the war-widows of Georgia took up arms in the aftermath of the Civil War?”

How long did it take to research your novel?
            I began research in 1996. I used to spend winter and spring breaks driving to all the spots of Sherman’s March through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina in various state and local archives reading Civil War material. I began writing about the characters in this book as far back as 1999. But it wasn’t until 2006 when the novel itself began to take shape. I completed the novel the year I got married (2011).

Your novel deals with post-traumatic stress disorder during the Civil War, which was called “nostalgia” or “soldier’s heart” back then. Can you tell us more about that and what your research unfolded?
            I became interested in PTSD once soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan began returning home alive but shell-shocked. We have only just recently acknowledged that PTSD is one of the worst injuries anyone can suffer on the battlefield. For most of the history of warfare it was simply written off as cowardice. I soon became interested in how PTSD played out in the Civil War, when the code of honor interpreted men as either heroes or cowards. Part of my research over the past two decades involved decoding the language of honor that many Civil War soldiers used in their diaries, letters and memoirs. Men of honor back then were not supposed to express the horror and grief they often experienced in battle except indirectly. Southern women, however, gave voice to this trauma in their own writings that enabled me to understand how something like Sherman’s March to the Sea impacted everyone involved.

The story being told through multiple narrators is a nice touch, but you say Darkish Llewellyn is especially special to you as a character?
            She remains my favorite character in the novel partly because she is so unexpected when she first appears. She’s not a war-widow. She doesn’t seek revenge. If there is a moral center in this dark tale, then she inhabits that space.

Your novel is patterned after William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love. Why did you choose this style for This Side of the River and can you tell us about the writing process?
            I’m attracted to these novels in the same way I’m fascinated by cubist portraits or theater in the round. Anything that is multifaceted is often truer to me than the authority a single narrator asserts, whether it be a character or the author himself. It’s like life. Everyone thinks their story is most important; and it is, except when it isn’t.

You write poetry and short stories as well. Do you plan to write more novels?

            Since it took me eighteen years to complete this one, I like the idea of moving on to something else for now. Although these days, since I’m also a visual artist, I’m flirting with the idea of turning an old novel manuscript I wrote a decade ago into a graphic novel. We shall see.

My Review:
This is a book that reminds me how strong women can be. Especially when they are faced with huge odds and it seems everything is going against them. After the end of the Civil War there was a lot going on. This band of women stood up to do what was right. Because of women like this from the past women of the present can do and be anything we want. I am giving this book a 4/5. I was given a copy to review, however all opinions are my own.

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