The New Inheritors: Keaton Interviews Kent Wascom

Article by keaton

Keaton: In your two previous novels, THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN and SECESSIA, you immersed us in the dark, convoluted history of the Gulf Coast. But those works hewed closely to the human story of the region--its wars and unruly frontier, the stain of slavery. In THE NEW INHERITORS, you expand your perspective way beyond and put the natural history of the Gulf front and center to the point that it at times even supersedes the human narrative. How did you come to approach such an expansion of time and scope? How did your thinking about history, story and humanity’s place in it alter during your research and writing?

Kent Wascom: To answer in reverse, my thinking changed as I began to understand the importance of the natural world to this book, and the scale that world takes place on versus the way we, human beings, think of or break up time. All of us who live on the Gulf are made aware of its fragility, or the fragile state human development has put it in. So the expanded time and scope were integral to writing about the natural history of the Gulf. Being able to leap back in time within a character’s life, and even their family’s life gets taken for granted, or is expected, so treating landscape like a character allowed me to move around like that. But the great thing about writing about nature in this way, in fiction, is that rather than diminish the human narrative, the natural world enlarged and informed them in relief, at least I hope!

KP: This is the third installment in your Gulf Coast Quartet. We’ve now reached the early 20th century. Slavery has given way to Jim Crow and the rabid imperial capitalism of the fruit barons in South America, not to mention the approaching maelstrom of WWI. Can you tell me about how you see this red thread of human “evil” unspooling through our history? Do you see these travesties as mere social creations, an innate part of humanity, or both?

KW: I think the evil through-line is the social created appeals to innate human qualities. Humans are tribal, humans killed and enslaved each other for millennia and still do, but the social constructions of whiteness, which allowed the trans-atlantic slave trade to exist and perpetuate, is a creation. So I think the creation or the human ability to use concepts (religion, “race”) to rationalize or motivate their predations is the ultimate horror, and that’s what I’ve tried to explore in each succeeding volume, how we have used these constructions to justify doing evil.

KP: Despite the darkness, there is always a love story somewhere at the heart of your novels--Angel and Red, Joseph and Marina, and now Isaac and Kemper. Why is it important to you for there to be such kernels of warmth and affection at the center of the unrest and violence that so typifies the time periods you write about?

KW: Yeah, love has to be there. I like a few utterly loveless books, but they’re outliers. The love between Kemper and Isaac, and for that matter Angel (the descendant) and Eduard, are really important to me because their loves are shaped or hemmed by their times, so I guess what I’m saying or trying to do is show how violence and history touches the most intimate thing we know.

KP: With the conclusion of the Woolsack saga now only a book away, have you thought at all about how to follow up such an epic feat of storytelling? Where do you go from here?

KW: I’m a big fan of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, which ends with the revelation of a delusion (shared by the main character and the reader throughout the set) that basically destroys the previous three books. There’s a temptation, when you come to the end of something like this, to be destructive, to give the big authorial middle finger, but I don’t think that’s what I’ll do. I’ve got a few competing ideas, directions, that I’m working on… Right now the time-frame looks to be the 1970s to 2018, though I’ve got other threads squirming around loose right now from older periods. Oh, after the whole set? The fact that my mind immediately went to the next book in the set probably says a lot.

But anyway, I’ve got a project I’m starting to research, a novel about John Law, the Early-Modern Scottish economist and banker whose Mississippi scheme sent many of the first “settlers” to Louisiana, including the first of my relatives to reach the state. Law’s company, and the first experiment in central banking, ended in disaster for all involved: financial ruin for Law and starvation for the settlers. The plan is to tell a parallel story of Law, a genius, gambler, and bon-vivant, the man who the word “millionaire” was coined to describe, and one of these settlers, based on the ancestor.

I’ve also been working on short stories for the first time in years, all set in the present day, though I have a bad feeling one or more of them will turn into a book.

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