The Ballad of Taylor Brown

  Taylor Brown (original tintype by Harry Taylor)

Taylor Brown (original tintype by Harry Taylor)

By Daniel Ford

So maybe I was destined to fall in love with Taylor Brown’s debut novel Fallen Land. Multiple authors on Twitter suggested I get my hands on an advanced copy as soon as possible, it featured a pair of star-crossed lovers during the Civil War (one of my favorite areas of study), and a hungry aspiring writer like myself wrote it.

However, even with all those promising signs to guide me, I was unprepared for the brutal way I would fall in love with Fallen Land. In the interview you’re about to read, Brown claims he doesn’t have a musical bone in his body, but his lyrical prose says otherwise. This novel will break your heart in all the right ways and leave you weeping and desperate for more by the time you set it down. Judging by the copious praise the book has garnered before its Jan. 12, 2015 release, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my assessment. I’m also certain that Fallen Land will undoubtedly be the best book you’ll read in 2016.

Like a true Southern gentleman, Brown took time away from promoting his novel to answer my questions about his early influences, his writing process, and the inspiration for his characters Ava and Callum.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?

TB: I think I knew from a pretty early age. Of course, at different times, I wanted to be an architect or an aeronautical engineer or a helicopter pilot, but the writing thread ran through these various ideas. It really started in first grade. I don’t know what anyone else did in their first year of elementary school, but my teacher, Mrs. Pruitt, had us write and illustrate stories nearly every day. She gave us these big newsprint papers that were ruled along the bottom half, for writing, and blank across the top half for illustration. I wrote a story about a spider that steals a remote-control car on Christmas, and it won a countywide award, and I think that was the start.

I was always making up stories before that and since. My mother says she sometimes had to lock herself in the bathroom, just to get away from me tailing her around the house, regaling her with stories of how my G.I. Joes had shrunk so much smaller than normal humans, or why my dinosaurs were wielding rocket launchers. 

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

TB: Throughout most of my childhood, I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. A lot of Hardy Boys, R.L. Stein, and abridged versions of the classics such as The Call of the Wild, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and stuff like that. And I studied the hell out of these fact books I had on airplanes and cars and various machines.

In middle and high school, I was laid up a good bit with surgeries and injuries associated with club feet. I read a lot of historical novels and sociopolitical thrillers during that time, like Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed), Leon Uris (Trinity), and Tom Clancy. And I read all of Pat Conroy’s books: The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, etc. 

Then, in college, it was the Modernists: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf. I read all of Thomas Wolfe’s novels in college, and I delved deep into Walker Percy and Faulkner—still my favorite. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a very important book to me, and some new age-y stuff from Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull). I discovered Cormac McCarthy right after college and tore through his work like wildfire. Later came Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Thomas McGuane, and Barry Hannah—all important to me in various ways.

DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone, so I have to ask about your collection In the Season of Blood and Gold. What is it about the format that appeals to you?

TB: It’s the compression, the rigor required, and the intensity it produces. My friend and fellow writer Jason Frye compares a short story to a small gasoline engine—every last component has its use, its absolute necessity, whereas a novel is closer to a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier.

But as time goes on, I’ve realized there’s another appeal to me: the freedom of the short story. A novel is an investment of years, encapsulating a whole era of your life. A short story is like a single song, and you can really let the subconscious run, riffing and improvising. Padgett Powell once said that Barry Hannah was a full mortal putting his ear to the oracle hole in the ground, with maybe some whiskey softening that earth, and afterwards Barry had to run home and write what he’d heard. I’ve always liked that idea of the story. And it’s a very natural length, isn’t it? 

DF: What inspired your debut novel Fallen Land?

TB: Well, to get back to the music metaphor, it was a song. My friend Cameron Connah introduced me to the old ballads of Appalachia, brought over and evolved from those of Scotland and Ireland, and those old, author-less traditional songs really speak to me. 

Fallen Land began as a short story, “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” which is the title story of my collection from Press 53. I’ve written a number of stories based on old ballads, and this story was inspired by the song “When First Unto This Country, a Stranger I Came” (Library of Congress Archives of American Folk Song #65A2), a haunting frontier ballad of unknown authorship. It was first recorded in 1934, but the first lines appear in Irish ballads nearly two centuries old. It’s been performed by the likes of Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and many others. Here's a recording from one of my favorite bands, Crooked Still:

In the song, a young man steals a colonel's horse to pursue the girl he loves. As with many of the old ballads, there’s something so lonesome and timeless in the construction—it just breaks your heart. That became my guiding spirit for Fallen Land—that feeling. And I was truly feeling it at the time. I was living in Asheville, N.C., and I started the book in October—the morning of my 27th birthday, actually. The leaves were fired to their brightest, and I knew they would not last long that way, and so the season was very important to the book.

My friend Matthew Neill Null, author of Honey from the Lion, has said, “books are made of other books.” Ballads are much the same, built and rebuilt from previous versions, ever-evolving like the blues. I like to think that my stories are my own performances of the music, since I have not a single musical bone in my body.

DF: Did your writing process change at all while writing the novel as compared to your short story work?  

TB: Not a hell of a lot, actually. I think, mainly, that I have to be more of the tortoise than the hare when writing a novel. I can’t sustain the breathless, sleepless, almost desperate intensity that often burns through the second half of a short story—not for a whole novel. Sure, there are certainly periods of that in a novel, but I think novels require that daily, unflagging, sustained focus, and a high level of faith. You can write short stories without discipline—one here and one there—and maybe you can write a single book like that, in chunks over a long period of time. But in my experience, it’s showing up to the same desk or table day after day, undaunted by the daily distractions and doubt that brings novels into the world.

DF: I imagine that you could have easily set Fallen Land in the Wild West, the early 1900s, or even colonial times. Why the Civil War?

TB: Good question. I was never that interested in the Civil War growing up. I knew kids who could rattle off the major battles by rote, where they were fought and what year and who won. I was never that interested. But then I found a side of the war that felt highly relevant, even contemporary.

See, we often think of the Civil War as a big, bilateral war with clear sides. Sure, we speak of “houses divided” and “brother against brother,” but we still picture the big battles of gray skirmish lines versus blue. We know about the guerrilla fighting in the border states of Kansas and Missouri, as depicted in Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” but only later did I realize the extent of partisan fighting in the eastern theaters of the war—especially the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, where loyalties were so fractured. 

There were the Partisan Rangers of the Confederacy, led by men like John S. Mosby (the “Gray Ghost”) and Turner Ashby, who operated much like contemporary special forces, engaging in kidnapping and sabotage and ambush. And there were renegade bands, and pillage and torture and outrages of every kind on both sides.

So that really captured my interest. This idea of a world where sides and loyalties were so muddled they hardly mattered. Everyone was a possible friend, a possible threat. Fear was everywhere.

Besides that, I’m from Georgia, and Sherman’s March to the Sea has always been big in my imagination. Driving between the University of Georgia in Athens, where I went to college, and my hometown on the coast, I was driving the course of Sherman’s March. We are very much obsessed with end times and apocalypse these days—I’m no different—and here was a time in history that must have seemed very much like the end of a certain world to the people of Georgia, no matter their race or creed.

I felt like Ava and Callum were like family members by the time I finished the book. I ached for them, cried for them, held my breath along with them, and didn’t want to let them go when I got to the last page. It’s evident you had a love for not only these two, but also the rest of your characters. How did you go about developing them and how much of yourself ended up in your two leads?

I’ve only realized recently how much of myself and my ex are in those characters. How much of the story is ours. We moved to Asheville in 2009, where I started the book. That first fall, we had no friends, no money, and we were just in bad shape. On the edge. We rented an old bungalow that had once been a “whorehouse”—so said the landlady. We thought she meant in the days of Thomas Wolfe, when such establishments were relatively commonplace.

Not so. It was much more recent than that. It was crawling with mice, ants, and probably ghosts. All of the meth deals in town seemed to go down in front of the place, and the neighbors threatened to poison Waylon, our dog, if he barked too much. We were accosted by bloody-faced men with speedy eyes, and I kept the 16-gauge leaned just inside the front door, loaded.

Later we got out of the house and into a little cottage in Black Mountain, and life was somewhat better, but still we kept the idea of the coast before us. A couple of years later, we moved. That journey from the mountains to the sea must have informed Callum and Ava’s journey, though I had no idea at the time. Funny how the imagination works!

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and how did you go about publishing it?

TB: I started the book on the morning of my 27th birthday in October 2009. I think I finished the first draft in 2011, and I sent it to an agent with whom I’d been in contact. He rejected it. I’d made a rookie mistake by sending something that wasn’t fully polished. The second half was hardly more than a glorified first draft. For the next three years, the manuscript went through round after round of revision and polishing. My short story collection, In the Season of Blood and Gold, was slated to come out in May 2014, and I undertook another revision early that year, in case the collection brought the attention of any agents. In the end, it did. I met my agent, Christopher Rhodes, that spring, and he loved the book. We worked on some more revisions, and he began shopping it.

Originally, the book had an abrupt, hanging ending. St. Martin’s loved the book, but not that ending. It had always been a point of contention among friends and editors who read the manuscript, so I’d anticipated this to some extent. I rewrote the ending in the Bavarian Mechanic Works in Augusta, Ga., where my $900 1985 BMW had broken down on the way to a wedding in Atlanta. That car didn’t survive—a cracked head—but luckily Fallen Land did! St. Martin’s liked the fleshed-out ending and bought the book!

DF: Fallen Land has already generated rave reviews and it doesn’t even come out until January! What has that experience been like for a first-time novelist?

TB: Thrilling, humbling, scary—the whole gamut. You write this book in private, and you hardly ever think of other people actually reading the thing—especially the public. You want a publisher to buy it so bad,  and then they do, and then you’re like:  holy hell, I hope people don’t hate it! Haha. Obviously, there will be many, many people who don’t like it—who aren’t moved by the characters or the writing or the setting, etc—but I’m so grateful and thrilled by the early reviews and blurbs from some of my heroes: Wiley Cash, Pinckney Benedict, and Kent Wascom. Those mean the world.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

TB: Persistence. Persistence and discipline. Nothing replaces those two. Not talent or education or inspiration. If you want it bad enough, and you work long enough and hard enough, and you get up again and again and again after being knocked down, you can do this. I think of Larry Brown, with his hundred-plus rejected stories. Not hundreds of rejections—we all have those—but over a hundred separate stories written and rejected. I think of Tim Gautreaux and others who pasted their rejection slips on the walls like badges of honor. I think you have to see it like that. If you keep at it, you will get better by sheer force of will. Calvin Coolidge said, “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I do believe that. There’s no secret but those two.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

TB: All my favorite dogs have beards.

To learn more about Taylor Brown, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @taybrown.