Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An interview with Taylor Polites, author of The Rebel Wife

Augusta Branson, the heroine of Taylor Polites' debut novel The Rebel Wife, isn't a stereotypically feisty Southern belle far from it. She had lost her friends and social standing when her mother forced her to marry a scalawag 25 years her senior, but now that Eli is dead, she finds herself even more alone and powerless.  Her cousin Judge, who claims to be Eli's sole trustee, tells Augusta that her fortune is gone and that she and her young son must depend on him to look out for her interests.  Completely ignorant of her late husband's business affairs, she knows nothing different... at least at first.

In this starkly realistic vision of 1870s Alabama, the stifling summer air is thick with racist sentiment.  Desperate for someone to trust, Augusta finds a surprising ally in Simon, her black servant, who tells her that some funds belonging to Eli have suspiciously gone missing.  The brooding atmosphere of this character-driven Gothic tale never lifts, from the deadly blood fever in the opening scene to the shocking finale. As Augusta struggles to regain what's hers, her impressions of the world around her shift, and we begin seeing everyone she knows in a new light – including Eli, even though he dies at the end of chapter one.

The Rebel Wife is suspenseful, impeccably detailed, and thought-provoking, with Augusta awakening to her own freedom just as her estate's former slaves are adjusting to theirs.  Taylor Polites was kind enough to answer my questions for this interview.  Visit his entertaining blog for research snippets, his observations on the writing life, and pics of his little chihuahua, Clovis, who's been accompanying him on his book tour.

The Rebel Wife was published by Simon & Schuster on February 7th (hardcover, 294pp, $25.00).  Additional stops on the blog tour can be found at http://therebelwife.blogspot.com.

You mention in your author's note that the diary of a woman named Mary Chesnut was one of your most worthwhile sources on the period. How did she influence your depiction of Augusta?

I looked to many voices from the period through letters, diaries and memoirs, but Mary Chesnut’s diary was definitely one of the most important. Chesnut was the wife of a senator from South Carolina, both before the war in Washington, DC and during the war in Richmond. She was from a wealthy family and married into one. She was educated, smart, witty and ambitious—and frustrated by the constraints a very male-dominated society put on women.

The eminent Southern historian C. Vann Woodward edited and reconstructed her diary, which had been published originally in 1905. Woodward, through the use of her original remaining journals, was able to piece together her unedited, intimate thoughts. Like with letters, a diary offers a portal into the mind of a person. Between the gossip and tumultuous events of the war, there were moments of clarity. One such moment was in the midst of the war when Texas Senator Wigfall came to call. He stayed very late talking with Mary. Her husband pulled her aside and scolded her for entertaining him and talking politics with him so late. She could not respond, but only laughed at him almost to tears. That frustration verging on a sort of wordless hysteria really struck me. It found its way into The Rebel Wife and Augusta’s feeling of imprisonment.

Augusta approaches mourning practically as an art form; the funerals she organizes are major social events complete with all the (morbid) trimmings. How typical is she of Southern women at the time?

For all American women who lived through the Civil War, the rituals of mourning were extremely important. Nearly everyone was touched by death in a war where over 3,000,000 men fought and about 620,000 men died, about 1 in 5. The etiquette of mourning ritualized grief, providing a guide for behavior and expectations. It also created an external form for an internal emotion. The proper dress was a part of that process—to show respect for the deceased and to represent the powerful feelings of loss.

As Drew Gilpin Faust details in her wonderful book (and great resource), This Republic of Suffering, women went to great lengths, even with hardships and shortages, to wear mourning and follow the proper protocols. Godey’s Lady’s Book was a big resource for me, as well, not only for insights into daily life, but also for the prescriptions for proper mourning dress and its changing fashions. Godey’s was an immensely popular fashion magazine in the 19th century. One anecdote tells of a blockade runner sneaking a couple copies of Godey’s into Richmond in 1864 where women lined up around the block to pay a quarter for the opportunity to flip through its pages and see what women were wearing in New York and Paris.

Augusta’s relationship to mourning is probably more demonstrative than the norm, given what she is trying to accomplish, both at her mother’s funeral and her husband’s. But everyone would have been familiar with the restrictions of behavior and dress that proper mourning required.

As you discuss in your author's note, Gone with the Wind has an inescapable presence in Southern literature, and in fiction about the Civil War's aftermath in particular. Could you talk a little about your relationship with that book - how you were first introduced to it, whether your opinion of it changed over time, and so forth?

I first read Gone With the Wind in the seventh grade. We had a choice of books, but Gone With the Wind called to me. I played sick for most of that week so I could stay home and read it. I read it all the way through and then started it again, I was so bowled over. I read it again and again as I went through high school, at least fourteen times. It led me to read other books about the period, whether they were John Jakes’ North and South or Lonnie Coleman’s Beulah Land. I turned to original sources, too, like Mary Chesnut’s diary and the memoirs of Fanny Kemble from her stay on her husband’s Georgia Plantation, the memoirs of Susan Dabney Smedes of Mississippi and Sarah Morgan’s Louisiana diary.

In college, I continued reading, but pursued a more academic research into the South. There, I began to understand the disconnect between the “Old South” in many novels and the “Old South” as it really existed. That disconnect was initially difficult for me to reconcile. I didn’t want to know the truth, but it was undeniable. That is the pull of a romance, isn’t it? There is so much beauty to the daydream that you don’t want to let it go. There is something of that in Augusta, too.

Today, I respect Gone With the Wind as a great piece of storytelling and a very influential book, but I regret its representations of African-Americans and the sentimentalist viewpoint Mitchell takes (and can’t help but take). I will always be attached to Gone With the Wind, but I like the idea of having a counterpoint to read with it, like Alice Randall’s wonderful The Wind Done Gone.

Tight-knit communities and strong family units are often found in historical novels set in the South, and they're there in The Rebel Wife as well, but with an ironic twist. Why were these themes important ones for you to revisit and rework in your novel?

Family and community, particularly in the South, held powerful places in the life of a 19th century individual. Today’s person can get a job, housing and support him or herself without relying on kinship networks, but most people in the agricultural South of the 19th century could not and would not want to. Family and society in the period were subtly drawn by Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence, where a sort of secret police of family slowly tightened the constraints around Newland Archer. If it was difficult for Newland, a woman was even more heavily constrained (viz. poor Regina Beaufort). That was certainly an element I wanted to highlight, the ability of Augusta’s family and friends not only to support her, to welcome her “back”, but to constrain her in material and physical ways. Augusta, too, could speak of that sense of being an insider and an outsider at once. She was a member of the ruling class, so to speak, but unclassed herself by her marriage. When her husband dies, she is welcomed back to her place, but she herself still feels like an outsider—and she is able to bring her outsider’s perspective to the people and events around her. She is torn between her sense of loyalty and must figure out with whom she most identifies.

Simon is an especially intriguing character; Augusta is suspicious of him at first, but he turns out to be one of her greatest allies. How did you come up with his personality?

Simon was a character that developed slowly, the gravely serious and ambitious man who suffered from the constraints of the Reconstruction South much more physically than Augusta. But that kinship develops between them. Simon first served as a bridge between Augusta and her dead husband—he is the secret-keeper, the man who can answer her questions. But he has his own ambitions, like many of the freed people after the war. 

James T. Rapier was an important African-American political figure in Reconstruction Alabama, and I drew on some of his experiences to flesh out Simon’s political ambitions. Rapier was born free (unlike Simon) in Florence, Alabama in 1837, and attended school in Nashville and in a fugitive community in Buxton, Canada. After the war, he returned to Alabama, became a journalist, cotton farmer and entered politics. He was elected a representative to the United States Congress from Alabama in 1872, spoke in favor of the Civil Rights Bill and ran a Republican newspaper in Montgomery. He was also threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and lost his seat in the violent elections of 1874. By the end of the decade, Rapier, like another emigrationist ‘Pap’ Singleton, became a proponent of the Exoduster movement, believing African-Americans had to establish their own communities outside the South to find true opportunity and freedom.

Did you intend from the start for the novel to have a strong mystery/suspense element?

I always intended for there to be a heavy atmosphere, a Gothic quality that is born from that first deathbed scene. The suspense developed as a component of that atmosphere. Augusta does not know whom she can trust. She is not certain if anyone is telling the truth. She is competing against the people who should be her allies, and she is working against herself. That all grew with the writing and rewriting, bit by bit.

Your editor's introduction letter within my ARC mentions that you first got interested in your subject through volunteering at a historic home in Alabama. What was it about the experience there that caught your attention?

I do not know when I first started to love museum-houses, but it is something I am still passionate about. On a recent trip to Charleston for a book conference, I was able to squeeze in four house tours! Nashville, Tennessee is another great house-museum city. Gone With the Wind certainly gave a huge push to my interest in the history of the South, and what better way to feel that history than in the spaces where it occurred? That is what the best of these museums do, make you feel transported to the period, give you a truer sense of how life was lived 150 years ago.

The Weeden House Museum is where I volunteered when I was fifteen, doing general garden work and getting to spend time in an 1819 house in Huntsville’s beautiful antebellum historic district. The house (I just visited it again on my last trip to Huntsville a few weeks ago!) has the most amazing leaded glass fanlight, wide pine floors and high ceilings. But it is not a mansion, three rooms downstairs and three rooms upstairs. Maria Howard Weeden lived there—she was a very talented artist and poet. Much of her artwork focused on sensitive and beautiful portraits of newly freed African-Americans. Her family finances were ruined by the war and her poetry and artwork supported her and her sister. I learned recently that in the late nineteenth century, her work was very popular in Europe and was the subject of solo shows in Berlin, Germany. I am always surprised by the reach of people in Huntsville, Alabama!

Did living in New England and elsewhere up North during the writing process make the book any more challenging to write, or, on the other hand, did the distance give you any new insight into your chosen time and place?

One good thing about writing is that all you need to transport yourself to a time or place is good mental telepathy. I have many memories of Huntsville to help create environment. I had also done so much reading that my physical location became irrelevant. But I will say that living in New England helped contribute a great deal to my ability to time travel. In Provincetown on Cape Cod, I found a group of people who are passionate about history and I was able to share and learn from them. There are not only many museums that specialize in 19th century America in New England, each community has archives stretching back centuries. I was very proud to participate in the digitization of the town archives in Provincetown know as the Provincetown History Preservation Project. Through the project, hundreds of documents and images and collections, otherwise stored in boxes in an attic, were scanned and made available to anyone with an internet connection. A researcher’s dream. Learning about the people of 19th century Provincetown was a huge help in thinking about my characters and the world they inhabited.

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.


  1. Great interview, detailed. Another for my to read list post academic thesis.

  2. Sarah, thank you very much for your beautifully written review and in-depth interview with Taylor. What a well done, comprehensive post!

    "Starkly realistic, suspenseful, impeccably detailed, and thought-provoking" - you nailed it.

    Plus I always love reading Taylor's interview answers/guest posts because I learn something new each time.

    Carol, I hope you get a chance to read "The Rebel Wife" after you finish your thesis (good luck with it, by the way) :)

  3. Sarah, thank tou so much for talking to me on your great blog! And thank you for the great review! I am so glad you enjoyed the book!!

  4. Carol, goodluck with your thesis and I look forward to hearing what you think of the book!!

  5. I agree with the comments on Gone With The Wind. A fabulous story with horrendous patches of self-destroying, art-destroying racism....

  6. Thanks, Carol and Nicole - I really enjoyed the read. Carol, hope your thesis is continuing well.

    Hi Taylor, you're very welcome, and thanks for answering my questions in such detail! It was only about five years ago that I first read GWTW and was engrossed by it. Wonderful story, as you said, with characterizations that are very problematic. I also enjoyed Wind Done Gone - it doesn't have the same storytelling sweep, but I loved how it showed the novel in a different light. Hope you're having a great time on your book tour!

  7. Interesting book, great interview, an altogether awesome blog post. I am looking forward to reading this book.

  8. Mary Chesnut has long been a major primary source for anyone doing research on any aspect of the antebellum and Civil War south. She must be so pleased, considering how much her spouse and father-in-law constrained her while alive!

    Thank you for making a distinction between what true research reveals about those eras and the revisionist dream that is Gone With the Wind. And, as you say in the interview, it is still a compelling novel. But we have to remind ourselves and everyone else that means fiction, not truth -- or at least not the entire truth, or even misleading truths.

    BTW, the maternal side of Theodore Roosevelt's family's plantation in Georgia is thought to be the model for "Peggy" Mitchell's Tara.

    Love, C.

  9. Shelley and Anne, thanks for stopping by! I would love to hear what you think if and when you do check out The Rebel Wife!

    Foxessa, I love your comment about Mary Chesnut. Yes, there is a certain irony there. So much ambition in life only realized many years after her death.

    And as for GWTW, I agree 100% about the difference between history and fiction. Very often we read fiction as history, and equally often our favorite history books are the ones that read like fiction. There is an overlap there and one so often gets confused for the other. I hope The Rebel Wife adds to that conversation, as well as the continuing dialogue about race and society that books like Gone With the Wind and The Wind Done Gone and other books are having.

    Thank you!

  10. Tara from MD9:11 PM

    This is a very insightful interview! Taylor, I finished "The Rebel Wife" this morning and was very impressed by the novel's look at Reconstruction and gender. I liked how the story takes place in a relatively brief span of time; I expected a long, epic story, but this one felt more really and intimate for its finer focus.

    I appreciate the Gone With the Wind discussion as well. My name is from the novel, and I've always been interested in it. I think it offers deep insights into how some Americans continue to view The War and Reconstruction. I'm fascinated by how later generations view the past and construct their truths. Finally, I need to get The Wind Done Gone...somehow I never got to it.

    Oh, and Taylor-saw a pic of your chi on Shelf Awareness-darling!