I’ve done three book club meetings so far with groups who have read one or anther of the Trilogy, and have another two scheduled in the hear future, so I thought I’d get around to answering some of the questions that I have been asked about the setting and the characters – both the real ones, and the ones that I made up.
Question: How could a very intelligent and observant girl like Magda – who grew up on a farm - be so clueless about sex when it comes to her wedding night?
Answer: Firstly – because it wasn’t something that girls in the 19th century were supposed to know anything about; and yes, she might have noticed animals mating on the farm, but still not have had any clue that the same applied to humans. There wasn’t a lot of general information about sex commonly available in most respectable middle-class circles, especially where it concerned unmarried young women. Secondly, if one wasn’t especially interested in the subject in the first place, one wasn’t moved to go out looking for it – because the information just wasn’t there, in the way it is today. Magda was bookish and intellectual, not terribly interested in a subject which wasn’t being thrust at her, 24-7 anyway. My parents had a very dear friend, who had been a young woman in the 1920’s, and in her mid-twenties was dating a young artist. She also did not know anything about what sex involved, and as she told us, her boyfriend drew pictures for her, by way of telling her – and this was in the 1920’s! If a young woman in the 1920’s could have not known about sex, it’s no great leap to project backwards and assume that a woman in the 1840’s – who wasn’t much interested in the prospect - wouldn’t have known much more.
Her sister Liesel, on the other hand – had a healthy sexual appetite and a passionate interest in the man she adored, and so she was able to find sufficient information, and to act on it. One reader commented that Liesel may not have known much – but what she did know, she knew very, very well.
Q: In interviews, actors often claim that they love playing villains – more of an opportunity to pull out all the stops and chew up the scenery; is it as much fun for you to to write a menacing, and hateful villain, like JP Waldrip?
A: Ugh – no, not really. I wrote JP Waldrip as a sadist and sociopath, and not quite sane, a very ugly person, and it was not fun, but more of a grim duty, writing him. That kind of madness frightens me in real life, and spending even a little time in an imaginary space with him was quite unpleasant. I did make up the part about him having odd-colored eyes – but not about wearing a fine-quality hat. Historically, there isn’t really much known about him, for sure – including his reason for he came back to Fredericksburg, two years after the Civil War was over, when he and the other hanging-band members had terrorized Gillespie County during the last years. One local historian says he was brazen, a bully – and he was essentially daring the people in Fredericksburg to make their move. Which they did – although no one knows who shot him dead in the street under an oak tree by the Nimitz Hotel Stables. For dramatic purposes, I came up with my own reason, and version of who shot J.P.
Q: How could Magda have accepted Trap Talmadge’s sword, when it was brought back to her after the war by Robert Hunter – and even had it hanging on the wall of her parlor, given how Trap Talmadge had betrayed her husband? I’d have wanted to throw it at him! Speaking of Trap Talmadge, since he was such a serious alcoholic, however did he mange to serve as a scout for the Confederate Army?
A: Well – it was sent with Trap’s dying confession, and carried by the young man who was courting Magda’s sister Rosalie; I visualized her as being first a little stunned, and then unwilling to say anything hurtful to the man who was about to be part of the family, a man who obviously worshipped Trap as a hero. I think she would have put the sword away for a good long time. She brought it out and had it hung in her parlor, when she was an old woman, and able to remember that Trap was her husband’s good friend, and employee for years, before he made that one horrific mistake – and that he had done his best to atone for it. And I described him as the intermittent sort of alcoholic, who functions for weeks or months, then goes on a horrific bender. As for being able to serve in Benjamin Terry’s regiment - by the time his enlistment was accepted, the Confederacy was getting rather desperate for men: warm, breathing, and possessing three out of four extremities would have been accepted for military service.
Q: Where did you get the character of Mrs. Brown, who came after Magda and the children, brought them food and assistance when they were evicted from the farm by the Confederate authorities? She was fearless, and kind, and didn’t look for any reward – and was the only one of the Becker’s friends who dared come forward and help, when they were in such need.
A: I thought that Mrs. Brown and her family could stand in for the more typical edge-of-the-frontier settler, the roaming Scotch-Irish type, perennially cash-poor but proud, who preferred hunting and herding, never put much effort beyond the minimum in their homestead, lived pretty much in squalor and moved on when the fit took them. They were pretty much looked down upon as shiftless poor whites by the better-off traveler and commentator like Frederick Law Olmstead, sort of the 19th century equivalent of trailer trash – and of course, Magda would have been secretly horrified by the Browns. But it was a kind of a lesson to her – that when the chips are down, the people who will astound everyone by their courage and clear sight are the ones that you don’t really expect heroism from.
Q: I just had to stop and cry, after Chapter 9! That was just so shattering!
A: Umm, yes. Quite a lot of readers have had to stop and have a quiet weep – as they had rather fallen in love with that particular character. But I had always planned it to happen that way, from the very beginning. Some of the elements in Magda’s story are based on reminiscence by Clara Feller, who arrived in Fredericksburg as a teen-aged girl, and lived into the 20th century.
Q: The story reminds me very much of Cold Mountain – that it was about an aspect of the Civil War that I had never heard about; that there were so many Unionists in Confederate states, who were disinclined to fight for the South.
A: Oh, yes – the Civil War was much more complicated than it appears – and the astonishing thing is that there was so much happening out in the West which is generally left out of the standard Civil War narrative. The beginning of the fighting meant a range of difficult and thoughtfully considered choices for all the male characters. And that’s the essential tragedy of the Civil War – every choice made perfect sense to the man making it. I tried to show the whole range of possible reactions: everything from enthusiastically joining the Confederate cause, like the Vining boys, to wanting to serve in the Frontier Battalion to protect against Indian raids like Fredi, and Dolph with the Cavalry of the West. Then there is Charley Nimitz, calculatedly playing it straight down the middle, and Carl, who can’t bring himself to take up arms because he has friends on either side. Hansi wants just to be left the heck alone, and Johann detests slavery and what the Confederates have done to his family – so he joins the Union Army.
Q: When the heck did Charley Nimitz get married? He was such a charming and amusing fellow, I think Magda should have chosen him!
A: He got married towards the end of Book One – The Gathering, having begun courting another girl – the girl which the historical C.H. Nimitz actually married - almost as soon as Magda turned him down. I did take a few liberties with his character, since he had to be at least an appealing a potential husband as Carl Becker, but in the accounts which I read of him, he seems to have been the most notorious teller of tall-tales and perpetrator of practical jokes in all of Gillespie County. And he was a well-respected man in Fredericksburg for all of his life – before, during and well after the Civil War, so painting him as a sort of Scarlett Pimpernel may not have been too far off the mark.
Q: So, what are you working on now, and how soon will it be available?
A: Another trilogy about the frontier, spinning off on some the minor characters in Adelsverein, but only very loosely linked to it. I’m planning all three as ‘stand-alone’ narratives. The first will follow Margaret Becker, in pre-independent Texas, during the War for Independence and in Republic-era Austin, when she keeps a boarding-house and becomes a political hostess. Parts of her story are hinted at, all through Adelsverein; she was one of those peripheral characters who kept threatening to take over. Her life was very interesting – two husbands, experienced the Runaway Scrape, had a career of sorts, and knew all sorts of fascinating people - so she should have her own book. The second one will be the adventures of Fredi, Magda’s younger brother, taking cattle to California during the Gold Rush. I’ve always wanted to write a picaresque Gold Rush adventure, and this is my chance. I had never heard of a cattle drive from Texas to California, in the early 1850s, until I read of it in “The Trail Drivers of Texas” – so there’s another grand unknown frontier adventure for you. The third book – which may very well be the first available because I have four chapters roughed out already – picks up the story of Dolph Becker’s English bride, coming to Texas in the middle of the great cattle boom. I’m hoping to have that one done by Christmas, 2010.