McCrumb sees stories behind haunting ghost
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO: Sharyn McCrumb and her dog Arthur, 2017. Photo by Laura Palmer, courtesy, Sharyn McCrumb
The legend of the “Greenbrier Ghost” haunts McCrumb’s home region. The highway sign commemorating the ghost, Zona Heaster Shue—victim of murder by her husband in 1897—stands just 80 miles north of McCrumb, on the road to Charleston, West Virginia.
“What I have learned over the years,” McCrumb said in a recent interview (see more below), “is that the only stories that you have to turn into books are the ones that won’t go away. If it haunts you (as the Greenbrier tale did McCrumb), the only way to get rid of it is to write.”
The haunting does not have to do with the spookiness or horror, but with the sense that there is much more to be said, and enough clues to get at it.
“I write about people who slipped through the cracks in the historical record,” McCrumb says: Frankie Silver of Kona; Enoch Gilmer of King’s Mountain; Malinda Blalock, who dressed as a boy and fought with Zeb Vance, all of whom are characters in previous novels.
“I try to figure out what they would have wanted you to know if they had been given a chance to tell their stories.”
With her 13th “Ballad Novel,” McCrumb has not only upended the Greenbrier legend through much research, she has also turned it into a portrait of a people by following the lives of characters she discovered while reviewing the murder trial.
McCrumb’s historical fiction is a deeply imagined, authentic representation of people rescued from obscurity and distortion.
McCrumb presents “The Unquiet Grave” at Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, 2:30 p.m., Wed., Sept. 13 (828-295-9099); and 6 p.m., Thurs., Sept. 14 at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville (828-254-6734).
McCrumb, two of whose novels feature Zebulon Vance, will give the talk, “Vance in Fiction,” at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center, Mountain View Room, 2 p.m., Fri., Sept. 15. It is part of a day of programs, which include the panel discussion, “Zebulon B. Vance Reconsidered,” at 10 a.m. (828-251-6415).
Interview with Sharyn McCrumb
Q: Much of your novel is told through characters telling stories. There’s Mary Jane Heaster, the ghost girl’s mom, speaking in the first person; and James Gardner, an African-American lawyer, talking to a doctor. You love that storytelling voice, don’t you?
A: Yes. Because I think when you do first person, it gives you more insight into character. (Here’s) third person, for example: “The old captain lived to a great age, but finally, inevitably he died. He died commanding the battalions of his youth, ordering the supplies to be put here or there. He even commanded the sheets to roll back in the beds.” Ready for first person? “Died on me finally. He had to. Died doing his bad bugle imitation … He’d command the sheets to roll back. They didn’t.”
That’s Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. In the first one, you only get one character, but when you put it in first person, you get two characters, you get the guy dying, but you also get the person observing it.
Q: I love the Mary Jane character (Zona’s mom) and her complexity. Writing about James Gardner—is that new territory for you?
A: Actually, it isn’t. Years ago, Ed McBain did an anthology, Transgressions … and he asked me to write a novella. What I wrote about was the fact that, in the 1850s, the Medical College of Georgia bought a slave from the slave market in Charleston, S.C., brought him back to Augusta, and trained him to rob graves … He was a real guy. His name was Grandison Harris.
Q: When you follow something and discover a whole other story, that’s a great opportunity, isn’t it?
A: That is exactly what happened with Mr. Gardner. The folktales don’t talk about the lawyers. The folktales focus on the mother and the dream and all that stuff.
But I started looking at the lawyers, and I thought, you could put those three guys in a booth at a Waffle House, and you would have a great story. You know, the Civil War cavalry soldier from the South; the crazy (Union-sympathizing) bridge-burner, who owned slaves; (and) this 29-year-old, young black lawyer watching these two old bulls go at it in court. And then you get to see him as an old man in the insane asylum, talking to a 29-year-old (African-American) doctor.
Q: What was it like developing Gardner’s character?
A: I didn’t make up anything I could verify.
Q: Sometimes you found things out that no one else has ever found.
A: Part of it is doing really exhaustive research. If it were just a ghost story, I don’t think it would have been good enough for the book. … I do enough research before I commit to a book to know whether it has potential or not. There are books that I have abandoned because I couldn’t find that substantial substrata.
Q: Could you give an example?
A: I have been toying with the idea of writing a novel about the 1916 flood in Asheville. I’ve been researching it for a year-a-half … The way I’m seeing the flood is the way Thornton Wilder wrote “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” You follow all these people, and some of them are not going to make it through the flood, and some of them are, but you don’t know which.
There are heart-rending stories about some of those people down in Biltmore Village—the little girl who had a brace on her leg, she was lame, and her father put her up in a tree, and she lived through the flood and watched it; and her father drowned … and the two teachers who got swept away and managed to hold onto a gate for I don’t know how long, but finally, the water’s so cold, their hands freeze, and they let go, and they’re gone.
Q: Sounds like it has potential.
A: Remember what I said about one part of a story is not enough. You need that substance. Nothing has clicked yet. I can’t find the person or the incident, or whatever it is that’s going to make that into a book … I haven’t got the emotional center that I need to run with that book, so I don’t know what I’m going to do next.
Q: Well, back to Mr. Gardner. What was one of the moments with him when you said, “Aha! There’s an opening to something greater”?
A: Sandra (Menders, research partner) and I were doing this back-and-forth documenting … First of all, we found Mr. Gardner. We didn’t have the trial transcript, but we had the list of who was who, so we knew that the first African-American attorney to practice in West Virginia was second chair for the defense.
Then we started tracking him, and we get to the 1930 census, and there he is in the Lakin, West Virginia Asylum for the Colored Insane; and I’m thinking, “Why is he there?”
That asylum has been closed for 30 years, and the records are gone. That’s when you have to start using some common sense. Here’s a guy, he’s in an insane asylum, he’s 63 years old. You might think early senile dementia; you might think some kind of organic problem, like alcoholism. You follow the business directories, and you find that he’s back practicing law two years later. Well, if you’ve got Alzheimer’s, you don’t go back to any kind of law practice; the same thing with any kind of organic dementia that curdles your brain.
Q: I’m following you.
A: Remember he’s a lawyer. It can’t be easy to put lawyers in insane asylums. And, let’s also remember his race, and the fact that it’s 1930, so if he had done anything to harm another person, he would not have been in an asylum; he would have been in a prison. The only thing that he could have done to get himself landed in an asylum and then get out two years later, would be to try to harm himself—attempted suicide.
Q: Is there one of your characters, in all of your fiction, whom you would put forward as the first character issued in a set of Sharyn McCrumb universe cards?
A: Zeb Vance. He made it into two works. Or Malinda Blalock or Frankie Silver.
A lot of my books have strong women either caught in a tragic circumstance or rising above what the expectations for a woman of that era were.
Look at “King’s Mountain.” They’ve got to go fight the British. They need a wagonload of gunpowder. The person who has made the gunpowder for them is Mary Patton—29 years old, she just had a baby the month before, and Sevier shows up and says, “I need a wagonload of gunpowder,” and she makes it for him in six weeks.
Q: I know you’ll be talking at the Vance Symposium. Do you want to say anything more about Vance, and how he could own slaves?
A: Here’s my philosophy. Our great-grandchildren are going to be so ashamed of us, mortified about us, you and me, and I don’t know what we’re doing wrong. I have some theories … But there’s no telling what in our society is going to be condemned a hundred years from now … We don’t know what (of what) we’d been taught is going to be contradicted somewhere down the line.
Q: I notice that on the page that lists your previous works in the new book we don’t see all your novels, we just see your ballad novels, without a heading.
A: I think that Tom Hanks and I had parallel lives in a way. Back when I first started writing, when I was in grad school and the children were in diapers, and I was doing the Elizabeth books [featuring Elizabeth MacPherson, forensic anthropologist], Tom Hanks was doing a sitcom on ABC called “Bosom Buddies.” Then he went on to win back-to-back Oscars—he did “Philadelphia”—and “Bosom Buddies” was like somebody working at McDonald’s while they went to college. I feel the same way. “Elizabeth” paid for two Masters degrees. When the children went to school and I could actually write serious books, then I wrote the Ballad Novels.
Rob Neufeld is the author of six books and a book review and regional history columnist for the Citizen-Times. Visit his website, “The Read On WNC” at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.” Contact him at RNeufeld@charter.net or 828-505-1973.