At the end of a few recent interviews about Neverhome, my novel set during the American Civil War, I have been asked if there is anything else I would like to address, any question not asked that I would like to answer. Each time I have been asked this I have said “no” and then of course have thought of something afterward when it was too late. Here then are a couple of questions I haven’t been (or haven’t quite been) asked and would love to take a crack at answering.
At just a little over 200 pages, Neverhome is a relatively brief account of epic events. Why isn’t it longer?
As with so much about Neverhome, it all comes down to the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Ash Thompson. Neverhome is, after all, her story, told in her words. And from the start, from the book’s first sentence (which never changed over the course of writing the novel), it was clear to me that Ash would say only what needed to be said in telling her tale, and that she would always opt to say a little less rather than a little more.
Neverhome certainly explores the historical phenomenon of the actual women who, extraordinarily, went by the hundreds to war in disguise and fought for both the North and the South, but Ash is not telling her tale because she did and survived something remarkable. She is not telling it because she experienced great things or suffered terribly (both of which are true). Ash is telling her story because doing so allows her, in the end, to talk about something awful and irrevocable that occurred after she took off her uniform and returned to her Indiana farm. She is making a confession. And the idea that she — who begins her story with the tight-lipped, dropped-word, matter-of-fact proclamation “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic” — would turn prolix and do so at extravagant length was never a viable option. Even if I, see below, as the architect of her tale was tempted at a certain juncture to make it longer.
You have been asked a number of times since the publication of Neverhome about its parallels with the Odyssey, about how conscious you were of their existence as you were writing and how actively you cultivated the connection. You have almost always responded by acknowledging the relationship while at the same time stressing your desire not to overdo it, not to turn the reading of Neverhome into a “game of spot the parallels”. Could you speak about this in greater detail?
My wife, Eleni Sikelianos, and I collectively and separately read our copy of Ulysses by James Joyce until it broke in half. And like so many others I both read and saw the film version of Cold Mountain, the famous Civil War novel by Charles Frazier. Which is to say that I know a thing or two about books (and those are just some of the best known) that have built their seductive labyrinths on the itinerary of wily Odysseus. While the reserves of mystery and power still to be drawn from Homer’s ancient tale have yet to be depleted, I did not want to dip my bucket too deeply. This was not, at the most important level, because I didn’t want to turn Ash’s story into that game of spot the parallels, but because again Neverhome was so clearly Ash’s story, not mine, and Ash would never have allowed more than the shards of connection to a literary edifice to enter into her telling.
So even if late in the novel a character she spends time with directly evokes the Odyssey with the remark “Penelope gone to war and Odysseus staying home,” that doesn’t mean Ash is going to start recasting the outline of her experience by consulting her Homer. Even if I, looking over her shoulder so to speak, was sometimes tempted to. For example, late in the drafting of the novel, it occurred to me that Ash, like Odysseus in the Aeolus episode, with the wind finally at her back might get almost home only to find herself blown off course and back into danger.
To this end I drafted a substantial section of the novel that sees Ash almost make it back to her farm only to be blown back into trouble and reunited with her former commander and colleagues at the infamous siege of Petersburg. There, engaged as a sharpshooter, she battles demons of her own creating and finds herself barely surviving at the Battle of the Crater in which so many union soldiers were butchered. I liked much about the section and was pleased to finally be able to make her the sharpshooter her uncanny skill with a gun meant she deserved to be. But the truth is it only lived as part of the book for a very short while before I realized that fierce, laconic Ash would never have opened up her throat wide enough to relate such a lengthy supplementary episode and certainly not one so transparently motivated by a desire to lean insistently on the power of a canonical story. Much better to keep the novel compact and not sacrifice the good will of my main character. After all, imaginary she may be, but she lives on in my head and is not slow to anger.