I’m often asked by American readers why my work is mainly published in France when I am an American writing American historical fiction. I never have a decent answer because the business end of writing is the sort of rarified air I have trouble breathing. In the case of Job’s Coffin—which I am enormously proud of—those American editors who have read the manuscript have lavished praise upon it but cited a perceived disinterest by the reading public for this sort of story, written in this sort of way (as well as a certain discomfort with putting forth the story of such a racially-charged event in a country currently, justifiably, boiling over with racial-unrest). In the case of France, for whatever reason, my work continues to be accepted with a bit of enthusiasm and, for that, I am forever grateful. My hope is that, at some point, whatever the obsessions are that prompt me to write future books, that they align with the inscrutable market forces in the US to let my work catch some American editor’s eye.
At any rate, at one point, my agent asked for a short essay of authorial intention regarding JOB’S COFFIN to submit to editors along with the manuscript and, for those interested, I present that here:
The American Civil War massacre of Black Federal troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on the banks of the Mississippi River occurred on a Tuesday in 1864. Troops in rebellion against the US government, led by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, stormed the garrison and systematically butchered both soldiers and civilians until “the river ran red with blood.” Though, there is no way to know with any precision, careful estimates put casualties somewhere north of 250, the vast majority being Black soldiers and a great number of those killed while trying to surrender.
The week before had seen battles at the Sabine Crossroads and at Pleasant Hill, both in Louisiana and the next month—which would be May and in the midst of as pretty a spring as you could hope for—would see the opening of General US Grant’s Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the horrific Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. Between the whispers and news of past horrors and the rumors and fears of horrors yet to come, the “battle” at Fort Pillow—though Federally investigated—steadily receded from the public’s consciousness. If you go there now, even the river has changed course away from it.
In times of national turmoil, time becomes compressed. News piles on news and all of it seems bad. And, with that compression, things get put aside, held in abeyance for better days in some imagined, better future. Things get lost. Forgotten.
It is against that forgetting that I was first inspired to write JOB’S COFFIN. Reading what are typically dry governmental reports of the events surrounding the massacre, I could not help but feel the pathos underlying the statistics, and first-hand accounts of the survivors—transcribed in their own voices—moved me, more than once, with some admixture of sorrow, rage, and shame.
In many ways JOB’S COFFIN seemed to write itself—the narrative, the characters, the sense of the history—yet I spent no little time worrying over whether this was my story to tell. What right did I—a middle-aged white man, relatively privileged, relatively comfortable—have to a story of Black courage and tragedy during a profound National Moment? After much deliberation I finally decided to move forward because I write historical fiction and one cannot write effective historical fiction by cherry-picking events from whatever history is being examined. In the case of the American Civil War, you have to include the ugliness of slavery; you have to accord that hideous “Peculiar Institution” its due place within the politics behind the war, which is to say: front and center. A writer, any writer, cannot expect the grace of a reader’s attention—let alone credulity—through exclusion. Fiction, whatever the genre, needs to be inclusive. And the trick of it, the magic behind it, lies simply in inclusion that is skillfully, respectfully, carefully, and empathically done.
I took great pains with JOB’S COFFIN—which looks at the events of that fraught period through the eyes of both Black and white characters—to try and get it right. Not to be correct or polite—because “correctness” or politeness would have undermined not just the narrative but the history it’s based upon—but to be honest and understanding and with a depth of fellow-feeling that, I hope, shines through the darkness of the times I’m describing.
For my undergraduate education, I went to a local, progressive college. It was not a good fit for me. But I took a fascinating series of courses on world mythology. The syllabus included everything you’d expect: Joseph Campbell, Mary Barnard, Mircea Eliade. It also included David Lowenthal’s THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY which, for whatever reason, my classmates hated. The professor put it to a vote and, just like that, Lowenthal’s book was struck from the curriculum. I kept my copy, however, because something in it resonated, something I could neither explain to myself or, even, put my finger on, but that I knew would be important to my thinking. If any of us are gifted (or cursed!) with any sort of sixth-sense, then this may be the shape mine takes: the ability to feel the import of an object, concept, or occurrence in relation to my own way of thinking. It has become a tired concept: that the past is a foreign country you can only visit and never stay long. Looking back is the only way to get there and imagination its only passport. Can any of us claim the past as their own territory? Certainly: every one of us, as Americans, share the burdens, triumphs, and tragedies of the American past. All of us are freighted, whether we like it or not, with some form of the American experience. And it was that simple idea—that the story of America is OUR story—which I gave finally gave me permission to write this history of suffering.