I choose tables up front at events, so at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach, VA, Sharyn McCrumb came in and sat at the unreserved table where I was. Bright, witty and entertaining, this prolific writer had me, and later the audience, captivated.
She is best known as a Southern writer of the Appalachian “Ballad” novels, which center on the legends, allure and issues of the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains. Her Elizabeth MacPherson mystery novels and St. Dale, a novel in tribute to NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt and reminiscence of The Canterbury Tales, are also noted books she’s written. Winner of numerous literary awards, Ms. McCrumb has dozen of books and stories to her credit.
I’ve divided her provocative answers into two posts so we can read all that she has to say.
JM: You do an enormous amount of research. What keeps you going when you can’t get the facts you need?
SMC: Because many of my later books are set before the 20th century, there are sometimes facts that cannot be uncovered. The documents were destroyed or the people who knew the answer died without passing them on. One example of this is in The Ballad of Frankie Silver, the story of the first woman hanged for murder in the state of North Carolina. Thomas Wilson, an attorney who defended Frankie Silver, moved to Texas in 1851, 19 years after the trial. His departure was far too early to have any connection to the Civil War and too late to be connected to the Silver trial or to involve him in Texas statehood. In any case, he did not move to Austin but to the small town of Seguin far from the corridors of power. The move to Texas ruined him financially. He couldn’t even practice law in Texas. Why did he do it? I flew to Texas and, with the aid of a San Antonio district attorney, I snooped through 19th century tax and probate records in an attempt to make sense of his disastrous move. We found evidence of his downward spiral but no explanation for it. I suspected that Thomas Wilson had embarrassing reasons for leaving North Carolina, but there is no record of what those reasons were. Rather than invent something, I simply had my main character, Burgess Gaither, ask a fellow attorney in Morganton, N.C. about Wilson’s departure and received evasive answers (chapter 7). So we know that something suspicious caused Wilson to leave a place where he was wealthy, prominent, and respected to settle in an insignificant frontier town where he struggled to support himself, pitied by the local citizens. We don’t know why, but the implication is plain: he was leaving behind something either scandalous or criminal. After his death, his wife and son left Texas, but they never returned to North Carolina. So…if I don’t know an answer, I present all the facts I do know and leave it at that.
Next, December 12 – Sharyn McCrumb, Author, Part II