It certainly feels like I have been researching for this book my whole life! And in some ways, from a young age, I was absorbing the stories and places of North Alabama that retained that romance of a lost civilization. I cut my literary teeth on that, I guess. But then, as I grew older, I began reading more and pursuing a more formalized study in college. My thesis, not a work of profound scholarship, but still good grounding, investigated the settlement of Huntsville, Alabama and the economic and political culture that led it to remain pro-Union until secession was an accomplished fact in 1861. From there, as I began to realize the focus for my book, I read broadly both the fiction of the period and historical monographs.
But direct contact with the period, about 1875 and before, was also crucial to being able to create the world at the level of detail I wanted. The Alabama State Department of Archives and History offers 19th century newspapers on microfilm for sale. I have my own collection. Diaries, letters and memoirs from women who lived in the period were crucial to finding Augusta’s voice. I also began acquiring ladies magazines, Godey’s Lady’s Books, Harper’s Bazars and Peterson’s Ladies National Magazines. These were the Martha Stewart Living and Vogue Magazines of the period, combined. They were very popular. A smuggler during the war was able to bring some copies of Godey’s through the blockade and set up a salon in Richmond where ladies lined up to pay a quarter so that they might see the latest fashions from New York and Paris.
Godey’s tried to remain neutral during the war, knowing their constituency existed both North and South. In their pages, a woman could find exhaustive engraved plates of the latest fashions, fancy patterns for pillowcases or trimming, recipes, tips on housekeeping and personal hygiene, hand-work like antimacassars (to prevent hair oil from ruining your sofa), tobacco pouches and lampshades, as well as poetry, stories and morally uplifting essays and admonishments. Some of these are still wonderful today: “A Golden Maxim. –It is the duty of every man, who would be true to himself, to cultivate, if possible, a disposition to be pleased.” How true! And how close to us as 21st century humans. If there is anything that continued to surprise me throughout my research, it is how, in spite of all the technological, social, and other advances we believe we have made, we remain fundamentally the same as people.
My guilty pleasure, always, is house-museums, particularly Southern plantation and town homes. Inevitably, the focus is on the splendor of the lives of the South’s grandees before the Civil War. But more and more, these historic sites are focusing on the lives that were led, and how they were led, beyond the Big House. It is heartening to see more of the story told, and told more honestly.
Thank you for letting me talk about my interests on your blog!
Set in Reconstruction Alabama, Augusta “Gus” Branson's is a young widow whose quest for freedom turns into a race for her life when her husband Eli dies of a swift and horrifying fever and a large package of money – her only inheritance and means of survival – goes missing. Gus begins to wake to the realities that surround her: the social stigma her marriage has stained her with, what her husband did to earn his fortune, the shifting and very dangerous political and social landscape that is being destroyed by violence between the Klan and the Freeman's Bureau, and the deadly fever that is spreading like wildfire. Nothing is as she believed, everyone she trusts is hiding something from her.
About Taylor M. Polites:
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.