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Railroad history in Western North Carolina: a close-up and bottom-line look

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Sharyn McCrumb has new novel and talks in Montreat

by Rob Neufeld

 

            After three NASCAR-related novels, Sharyn McCrumb, author of twenty-four books, returned to the mountains in 2010 with “Devil Amongst the Lawyers.” Now, she walks these hills again with her new novel, “The Ballad of Tom Dooley.”

            “Occasionally, I get the idea that people treat me like Robert Downey Jr.,” McCrumb quipped about the glad reception she’s been getting from the publishing world.  “Instead of going to rehab for drugs, I went off into NASCAR.”

            McCrumb is the speaker at Montreat College Friends of the Library’s luncheon, Sat., June 18.  She’ll be talking about her Dooley novel, due out in September.

            I spoke with her about her book; and about her father, Frank Arwood, who had fed her with stories in her childhood.

 

R:  You’ve returned to Zeb Vance in your new novel.  He was in your 2003 novel, “Ghost Riders.”  Did you discover there was more research to be done?

 

S:  Ghost Writers really ended when the war ended.  The last thing we see is Zeb on the train. 

Actually, we did have a little bit of him afterward because he’s in Charlotte talking to Burgess Gaither, telling him that he’s got this law case in Wilkes County…He’s about to take the Tom Dooley case.

 

R:  Did you have the new novel in mind then?

 

S:  I didn’t think I was ever going to do the Tom Dooley case.  People have been asking me to do it for twenty years.  Two things.  One, everybody knows about the case.  And it’s so sordid… It’s like, “If you write this book, you’re going to have to call it, ‘Jerry Springer, Call Your Office.’  Who could you get to play these people, Courtney Love? 

 

R:  What hooked you, finally?

 

S:  “Blue Ridge Country Magazine” asked me to do an article of about 2,000 words on the case.  A friend of mine and I…went to Wilkes County, and drove around, knowing nothing but what John Foster West had said (in his book, “Lift up Your Head, Tom Dooley”).  And the thing is…no scenario that anyone had ever proposed made sense.

 

R:  What was one of your surprising discoveries for the novel?

 

S:  I went back and read the (court) transcript over and over…(Ann Melton and Tom Dooley) are sleeping together three feet away from James’ bed (Ann’s husband).

West’s opinion was that Melton was one of two things.  Either he’s like eighty-six or he is so intimidated by this returning Confederate soldier that he’s afraid to object.

Let me tell you what I found…James Melton, at the time Laura Foster was killed, which is 1866, was twenty-eight years old, younger than Brad Pitt. 

Tom, in the war, was a drummer boy.  When he wasn’t being a drummer, he was on sick call. 

James Melton carried the colors for the 26th North Carolina—Zeb’s regiment—at Gettysburg… He’s wounded in the arm and the leg in that battle…He gets wounded at Hatcher’s Run.  They put him in a military hospital.

Once you know all that, you can’t say, “The guy who carried the colors at Gettysburg is terrified of the invalid drummer boy. 

 

R:  How does it come together?

 

S:  I’ve got all these characters in my head… and all of a sudden I realize that it corresponds perfectly to Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff and Catherine are Ann and Tom.  Catherine Earnshaw married Edgar Linton to better herself, and that would be James Melton.  He’s a wagon maker with a farm.   Ann got married at fourteen to get away from her drunken mother, which leaves the person everybody thinks is so important (Laura Foster) as Isabella Linton, the girl that Heathcliff marries just to annoy Catherine.

 

R:  Who has had an influence on your storytelling ability in your life?

 

S:  My father was a good storyteller.  He gave a lot of speeches.  He never wrote anything…I think he was cast in the Zeb Vance mold.

 

R:  Do you recall one of your father’s stories?

 

S:  “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”  It’s about twelve-year-old kids.  During the Depression, they made their own bicycles from scrap parts, and (raced) the train…You grab onto the handle of a box car, and kick your bike away from the train, and ride down the hill on the train and jump off. 

 

R:  And your father did that?

 

S:  He did that.  Yes. 

One of the kids in their gang was the son of one of the foreman at the railroad shops.  So this was a rich kid whose daddy outranks the other boys’ dads.  And he’s a bully. 

Instead of using his expensive store-bought bike to play Pony Express with the train, he takes one of the poor boy’s bikes.  And he does this every time, and sometimes he destroys their bikes. 

One day, one kid who’s really tired of being bullied files the bike chain.  It doesn’t break all the way, but it weakens it.  And the bully goes under the train.

 

R:  How old were you when you heard this story?

 

S:  Ten or twelve. 

He talked about the barnstormers that used to come after World War I, the pilots who would come to the fairgrounds and take you up for five dollars.  And the same bully was out in the field, horsing around in front of the plane. 

One of the pilots was afraid that the kid was going to get in the way of the propeller, and he went out to try to save the kid, and the bully got away, and the pilot was decapitated.

 

R:  It was the same bully?

 

S:  Yes, yes.  My father wanted to write a novel called “Missing Junior.”  This foreman’s son who was a bully—he said he wanted to follow him all the way through life and show how everything he touched, he destroyed, and got away with it.

 

R:  Where did your father teach?

 

S:  He was the chairman of the Elementary Education Department at East Carolina University. 

 

R:  When you were growing up, was he teaching at ECU?

 

S:  He went to East Carolina when I was starting the tenth grade.  For most of my childhood, from the second grade through the ninth, he was principal of an elementary school in Burlington.  That’s what he did while he was working on his PhD. 

We used to spend the summers in Chapel Hill because he had to take courses.  He had to take French and Spanish. 

He would read things out loud to me, and I got stories from French and Spanish—“The Brave Little Tailor,” I remember. 

The other thing about him was that he had that Andy Griffith way of making stories folksy.  When I was four, he started this long bedtime story—and it was The Iliad!  Can you picture The Iliad with Andy Griffith telling it? 

“Once there was a shepherd boy named Paris, and his daddy was Priam, King of Troy.  And his parents were sitting out there in the pasture, and these three beautiful women showed up.  And they were goddesses!  And they had an apple, and they had a contest going.”

 

CAPTION FOR TOP PHOTO

Sharyn McCrumb at the Whippoorwill Museum in Wilkes County, North Carolina, with the fiddle of Tom Dula.  Photograph by: Randy Joyner.

 

EVENT 

Sharyn McCrumb speaks in Gaither Fellowship Hall at the Montreat College Friends of the Library luncheon, Sat., June 18, 12 noon.  She will discuss her upcoming novel, which is based on the true story behind the legend of Tom Dooley.  Friends membership is $15; and the program is $10 per ticket; $15 with the luncheon.   Call 669-8012, end_of_the_skype_highlightingExt. 3504.

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