Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel Neverhome throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind during the Civil War.
How important is the first line of a novel? Because your first line in Neverhome is superb, immediately drawing the reader in, and setting the tone: “I was strong and he was not so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.” Was that always the first line, or did that come later in the writing process?
In many ways the entire novel comes out of that first line. It arrived, fully formed, and was never changed. Once I had it, I could see the way forward, indeed see much of the journey Ash was going to undertake. Maybe “hear” the way forward is better. So much about writing Neverhome was about being able to listen to, and to a great extent not interrupt, the voice that had set up residence in my head. This was at the very beginning of the writing process, which is fortunate because I didn’t have to grope around too much to find my (her) way.
The narrator of Neverhome is Ash Thompson: a young woman who passes herself off as a man in order to go to war to defend the Republic. What was the inspiration for Ash, and her journey?
Hundreds of actual women did this during the American Civil War. I first learned about them when my wife gave me a copy of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s war letters. Wakeman disguised herself as a man and went to fight for the Union using the first name Lyons. That gift from my wife came 18 years ago, meaning it took me some 14 or 15 years to find my way to the first line of the novel and the story that poured out of it. There were so many reasons these women went to war and as I wrote (I do a good portion of my research as I am writing) I learned more and more about them. They went for adventure, patriotism, opportunity, love and other reasons. In many cases, we don’t know why they went, only that they were there. The character that came to me has her own very personal and complex reasons for going to war. A large part of the impetus for telling the story has to do with exploring those reasons and perhaps, simultaneously, shedding light on the multi-faceted humanity both of Ash and the women who inspired her.
The book has garnered plaudits for its spare writing style. You’re evidently a true literary stylist – but does this come naturally, or is it something you have to work on and refine throughout the writing process and various drafts?
I had a teacher early on at what was then called The Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who stressed how much of not just the work but also the pleasure of writing was to be had in the revision process. Naturally I didn’t at first believe this and wanted simply to go from initial rush to initial rush with little attention paid to all those drafts that she had evoked. Time plus the circumstance of not being published straight away eroded this notion as I discovered that not only did the work get tighter as I tinkered with it over the months and years, but that I was also coming to relish this process of peering deeper into the language and deeper into the story. In the case ofNeverhome a great portion of Ash’s voice really was there in the first draft, but it got sharper and fiercer as I went through the 6 or 7 drafts that followed. Working with a smart editor helped get it over the finish line. I have been very lucky over the years in my editors. The first several novels with Chris Fischbach at Coffee House Press and now Josh Kendall at Little, Brown.
What sort of research did you undertake for Neverhome?
I read very deeply in the letters, diaries and memoirs of common soldiers who fought in the war. I also read the extant literature about women Civil War soldiers and the few compendiums of their own writings (Wakeman and also the memoirs of Loretta Velasquez and Sarah Emma Edmonds). I of course read some of the canonical overviews of the war but I was very careful, after realizing where the emphasis of the story was going to be, not to spend too much time — on the page and off — ferreting out the exact movements of Grant or Lee or Pickett et al. We have many great novels that provide primers on the great trajectories of the war and I value them and read and reread a number during the writing process, but this was not going to be that kind of book. I wanted to avoid the lure of too many glittering war tidbits (what kind of spurs Nathan Forrest wore and how many men died under his command and so on) and part of refining Ash’s voice was scraping away some of those kinds of observations.
You’ve published multiple novels now – does the excitement preceding each new release ever dim? Does it morph into something else?
My hope over the course of writing the novels has been that with each one the reception/awareness would build, not by leaps and bounds but incrementally. I have always had a sense of being in it for the long haul and have hoped to build in such a way that a long haul would be possible and that books that would not wear themselves out at the first reading and maybe not even after the second could keep being written. Having just switched publishers there was a different sense of possibility around the publication of Neverhome, and it has certainly been exciting, but the goal hasn’t changed: continuing to write and to write books that, hopefully, will last.
Laird was speaking with Simon McDonald