- Published: 27 June 2008 27 June 2008
Author/journalist Karen Spears Zacharias is married to a history teacher and Civil War enthusiast.
“My husband, Tim, is a James Madison fellow,” Zacharias said. “He rarely reads novels. He prefers his history the way some do their whiskey – straight-up. But when I mentioned to him that Elisabeth Payne Rosen was an acquaintance of Shelby Foote, Tim picked up her debut novel, Hallam’s War and did not put it down until he finished it. He declared it a good tale, well-researched.”
So how did Elisabeth Payne Rosen go about all that research and what was the advice Shelby Foote gave her? Those are a few of the questions Karen Spears Zacharias asked of Rosen, author of Hallam’s War.
Q: How did the story of Hugh & Serena Hallam first present itself to you?
A. It arose from my growing obsession with the war itself. I was determined to come up with a human story that would interest not only Civil War buffs like myself, but anybody—say an ordinary, intelligent woman--who just loved a good, long narrative with the possibility of actually learning something on the side, a la James Michener. Looking back at my earliest pencil notes (nearly thirty years ago), I see that here was always going to be a three-way tug—not necessarily sexual (though maybe that, too) but in the old issues around moving out into the larger world (or deeper into the inner, hidden one) vs. staying in the same place. I tend to think people are divided into those who are attracted to same and those who are attracted to different. I’m attracted to different.
Q: What intimidated you most -- the research or the writing?
A. Perhaps foolishly, neither! I didn’t know enough to realize how long it would take me. Besides, what might seem like hard work to others (the research part) was sheer indulgence to me—money for jam, as the Brits would say. I was reading Civil War stuff for years before a friend suggested I take all that passion and turn it into fiction.
Q: Tackling a Civil War novel as your debut project takes some gumption, given the scope of excellent books already on the shelves. How'd you screw up the courage?
A. I was too naïve, too submerged in the subject, to think beyond what I was doing each day. I was living in England when I began, without much access to all those excellent books you’re talking about--just the few odd volumes I could find at the University of London or the Chelsea Library (e.g., a biography of Stonewall Jackson by a Sandhurst instructor), so I wasn’t intimidated. I was reading all the original documents I could get my hands on in trips back to New York and the South—letters, plantation journals, slave narratives—just eating them up, so the better they were, the better it was for me.
As far as fiction about the Civil War, there really wasn’t much that I knew of, just The Red Badge of Courage, Faulkner’s references to the war through his characters, and of course Gone With the Wind—which wasn’t a War novel at all, in my sense . of the word, but a great, passionate romance set against the backdrop of the war. Now there are Cold Mountain, The March, etc., but at that time, the field felt vast and available. I wanted to write something like War and Peace—(don’t laugh; a cat can look at a queen, right?) with something like Tolstoy’s sense of those two alternating realities: the intimate, human world—the world of love and sociability and connection--as well as the horror (and the thrill, or at least the anticipated thrill) of war.
After I’d been working on my book for about six months, I picked up a copy of the New York Times Book Review and read a long, positive review of some new book about the war. I will never forget what I felt then, my stomach turning upside down: Someone Else has gotten there first. All my work down the drain. Then I pulled myself together, reread the review and thought: well, they didn’t do “my” battles. I’m safe.” Pretty soon after that, it dawned on me that there were always books about the Civil War out there and always would be; that there was a market for them, just as there is for romances or mystery stories, and that initial pressure to cross the finish line became a release: I had all the time in the world.
Q: This idea -- that the slave (i.e. victim) has power to be an agent of change -- is this a veiled commentary on our current societal ills more so than on that of the Civil War era?
A. I’ve been working on this book for so long—and had put it aside for ten years, until three years ago—that its connection with the electrifying conversation about race that’s going on right now in our country is pure chance—though a chance I welcome. The fact is, the issues that were roiling the country in 1859—the threat of secession, the hardening of attitudes and opinions between the North and the South—the blindness to each other and to ourselves—were uncannily like those of today.
What was it that my characters couldn’t see then? What was it I had struggled so hard in my own life to face and to incorporate into my own understanding?
Q: Serena wrangles with the inequity of having her slaves run off at a time when she needed them most. After all she & Hugh had been so diligent to treat their slaves with dignity, whereas her neighbor Ross McQuirter, had mistreated his horribly, yet, few of them had the courage to leave. This, of course, makes one wonder if it pays to be good people, doesn't it? And yet, begs the question of how we define "good people". Do good people own others?
A. Hmmm, a lot of questions there. It seems to me that if you treat people as actual human beings, then even within the cruelty and lack of freedom of the slave system, they will live into that humanity. Part of that achieved humanity is the time and space to think—and thinking is always dangerous!
There were at least two situations on southern plantations that led to slaves running away. On the one hand, extreme and unremitting brutality, where being killed or mangled by dogs was not worse than what you were already enduring; and on the other, the more humane, more socially complex situations that encouraged slaves to use their intelligence and, as a side effect, allowed the imagination to develop. Which in turn led to figuring out how to escape.
The second part of your question, the moral question (Who is a “good” man or woman, and how could he or she own slaves?) is what I wanted to explore in the book. I wrote it to find out how that was possible, and it’s fair to say that I didn’t have the answer until very close to the end. Or maybe I still don’t.
Q: Do you think your own spiritual/moral wranglings manifested themselves in this story? If so, how?
A: Unquestionably, yes. Not about slavery in particular, at least not at the beginning. I was, growing up in the South, a “good Christian girl”, i.e., I constantly asked God to forgive me all my terrible sins, which mostly consisted of things like looking at myself in the mirror. It was only when my moral consciousness began to grow, sometime in late adolescence, that I began to understand that my failure to see what was going on around me was not the same as innocence. The concepts of sight and seeing are very important in my book.
Q. Talk a little about Hugh and Serena, about why they feel so real.
A. Well, they are just deeply in love with each other and have been since the first moment they met. It is a powerful physical connection, one that serves them well when they disagree on smaller points.
I myself am the child of a long, strong marriage, and my husband and I just celebrated our 41st anniversary, so I know something about that. I tried to be careful not to make Hugh and Serena modern figures; they are not. They are like us, but living in a very different time, when the roles of men and women were somewhat (though not altogether) different from what they are today.
In a sense, Hugh is most vulnerable in his love for Serena; more vulnerable, in a way, than she. We feel her excitement as she is asked to take on more responsibility after Hugh leaves for the war: the dual sense of freedom and a kind of disloyalty, when she’s on her own at Palmyra and then in Richmond. She both misses Hugh deeply and painfully , yet is enjoying herself, too.
Q: Tell us about your relationship with Shelby Foote. How did that come about? Did he know you were at work on this? What advice did he give you?
A. Shelby Foote had gone to high school in Greenville (Miss.) with one of my uncles, and I used that connection to write and tell him I was coming to Memphis. When we finally met, over a cheeseburger at the Holiday Inn, I thought I had died and gone to heaven: for the first time, here was another person as demented as myself on the subject, a person for whom the figures of that constantly re-lived time were realer than those of our own. The only “advice” he gave me—and I got it from his conversation and imagination, not from anything he said—was just to give free rein to that dementia, to let that crazy person loose! To go farther inside my characters and let them live outwards from there.
Q: Writers sometimes dream about the characters they create. Did you have any dreams about Serena, Lewis, or French, or any of the other characters?
A. That’s a very interesting question to me, because I dream a lot and have kept dream journals over the years. I can’t say I ever dreamed about any of the characters you mention, yet I had dreams that came to me as whole scenes—or rather, certain scenes came to me whole, as if from a dream, and I accepted them as they came, unchanged. For example, when Hugh glimpses Ross McQuirter and the slave girl, Mary Ann, at the revival meeting. People have asked me what that meant, as in, “did I miss something?” But I left it at that. It works on a plot level, if you follow it through; it’s legitimate in that sense. But that’s not what I like about it. I like the fact that we know so little about human personality; that every other human being is a mystery to us. A sacred mystery. Even a villain like Ross.
Q: Eudora Welty said place endows a writer. In what way has place equipped you as a writer?
A. Where to start? I grew up in Louisiana, but I have always known myself to have been of and from the Mississippi Delta, where my father and his six brothers were born and raised. When I stand barefoot on the Delta earth, I feel like there are roots growing down from the bottoms of my feet. I set Palmyra in a fictional West Tennessee, somewhere northeast of Memphis, but it’s the Delta that’s in my DNA.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through the writing of Hallam's War?
A. I’ve had to think about that one for a while. I guess the answer is: that I had the discipline and follow-through to actually do it, to finish this long and ambitious project. I had always thought of myself as lazy, indolent, in love with comfort--like Serena. But those are the things we tell ourselves about ourselves, or that others plant the seeds of, very early on. In my case, I just loved to lie on the grass and dream and imagine. I never connected it with a specific, larger ambition. At least not this one.