“I Can Only Hope to Harrow the Reader”: An Interview with Kent Wascom
Article by keaton
As I begin my phone interview with Kent Wascom about his new novel, SECESSIA—the second installment in a planned six-book cycle charting “the darker corners of history” surrounding the Gulf Coast region, and the follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut, THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN (BoH)—I’m struck by the vast incongruity between our physical locations. Me, hunkered down in the back office of Brazos, smack dab in the center of one of the largest cities in the nation; Wascom, a mere four hours away but seemingly in another world, nestled in the midst of a secluded Louisiana wildlife sanctuary where he writes and lives with his wife, Alise, and a menagerie of various animals. Perhaps enhanced by the abysmal reception we’re getting, making Wascom’s usually energetic voice sound ghostly, the distance between us seems undeniable. Yet, I marvel at how close we seem to be.
This is the same effect that a good work of historical fiction has on a reader. It brings a bygone era to life, vibrant and full, despite the chasm of time and space. Great historical novels, though, go a step further, making the past as viewed through the revealing lens of fiction immediately relevant to the present. The continuity of time is laid bare, along with the secret history of how we got from there to here. SECESSIA accomplishes this feat in stunning fashion.
Set against the Union occupation of New Orleans in 1862, SECESSIA follows the intertwining experiences of several characters clawing their way to power and prominence amid the waning days of the Confederacy. There is Elise, the society lady who married Angel Woolsack (the monstrous slaver and narrator of BoH) in an effort to conceal her black ancestry. Her son, Joseph, is completely oblivious to this secret and caught in the middle of a private battle between his mother and father over the boy’s soul. The disturbing Dr. Sabatier—a sadistic scientist, lawyer, and the only person aware of Elise’s heritage—seizes the opportunity afforded by the chaos of the occupation to fulfill a potent desire for sexual dominion over the woman. And finally, there is Benjamin “The Beast” Butler, the principled yet corrupt Union officer whose time in command over the unruly denizens of the Crescent City has made him infamous.
The Civil War was always “the natural next step” in the progression of his cycle, Wascom explains, but the occupation of New Orleans in particular provided a unique and concise frame for his narrative. “I wanted to do something that didn’t involve combat,” he says, and the relatively bloodless taking of New Orleans “formed a bizarre little pocket” that allowed for this possibility. For Wascom, this setting in part helped to avoid using well-trod tropes like “a conflicted Confederate soldier,” but it also let him plumb the fetid depths of Southern history free of any romanticized veneer or sense of legitimacy a more straightforward war novel might imply. This notion is encapsulated early on in SECESSIA, when every officer in New Orleans abandons the city ahead of the impending occupation, vainly trying to convince themselves of their valor as they flee. After their departure, all that is left upon Butler’s arrival is the exposed, seething cauldron of hatred lying at the heart of what Jean Baudrillard might call “the astral” South, and for which Wascom coins “Secessia...That dreamstate encompassing seven hundred and fifty thousand square miles and nine million souls.” In essence, he has materialized the epitome of Southern Pride, the metaphysical notion of “the South,” the diseased psychological realm that justified slavery and other horrors under fabricated notions of superiority and righteousness—and that still exists today long after the death knell of the Confederacy.
I mention that during Angel’s death early in SECESSIA, Wascom explicitly describes him as “emblematic” of all the brutal truths lurking behind all the vile iconography of Southern Pride. Wascom explains to me that Angel will always be something like the white equivalent of one of Faulkner’s characters such as Joe Christmas—not the “tragic mulatto” undercutting the once-great Southern family’s notion of honor, purity, whiteness, etc., but the demon of white Southern hate, the bloody stain of our sins committed while making the world in which we now live and that haunts us still. “What it took to create this [modern world]…When I contemplate all the crazy sons-of-bitches and people forced here by circumstances far beyond their control, it’s astounding. And then to think somewhere back there there’s that guy...the ferocious man. And he fucking crops up constantly.”
And unfortunately he’s closer than we’d like to admit. This same persistent specter of hatred, which Wascom personifies in Angel Woolsack, reared its ugly head once again the night before our interview when a young white supremacist obsessed with the Confederacy attacked a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people. Inevitably, our conversation is drawn toward the tragedy. “Look at the horror last night,” Wascom says, his voice breaking up. “They had some classmate of the guy [Dylann Roof] they were interviewing: ‘He just had that Southern Pride.’ Jesus Christ. Tell me that’s not toxic and vile.”
This is the bloody legacy we must contend with still. Yet, at the very least, it seems every time such hatred is brought into the light, it loses some of its power. For his part, Wascom views his role as drawing this lingering evil out through literature as a means of “coming to grips” with our historical demons. He seeks to confront the horrific realities of our shared past, and ultimately the more disturbed his readers become, the more effectively he has conveyed his message.To this end, Wascom couldn’t care less about any criticism laid at his work for its violent and macabre content. “I can only hope to harrow the reader,” he muses with relish.
And as Confederate flags finally start to come down all across the South, I can only hope that the more uncomfortable we become with our history as we draw nearer to it, the more motivation we will have as a people to detach our present and future from our corrosive past. Then perhaps we can be shed of this ghost and make these words from SECESSIA prophetic: “Here is the wretched South; here lies the avatar of Secessia in ravaged mortem.”
Forever and ever.
SECESSIA is a #BrazosBest pick for July!