Coming down the mountain

Like the protagonist in his best-selling novel, former Asheville resident Jeffrey Lent returned to his native Vermont after encountering, for better or worse, the “Southern experience.”

In a first (published) novel that is already drawing comparisons to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Lent has accomplished what few other first-time novelists (or veteran authors, for that matter) can but dream of: immediate and overwhelming success.

The manuscript for In the Fall was submitted to publisher Grove/Atlantic on a Thursday — the pre-emptive bid came the following Monday, by way of editor Elisabeth Schmitz, who also purchased Cold Mountain (another first novel). Hence the initial comparisons to that now-famous work.

And while similarities do exist between the two stories, Schmitz is quick to point out that, “After a few pages, In the Fall is totally different.”

The epic tale begins with Norman Pelham, a wounded Union soldier, being nursed back to health by Leah, a young runaway slave woman. Over the course of their long walk from the battlefields to Norman’s home in Vermont, the two fall in love and marry. The book then follows the lives of Norman and Leah, and those of their descendants, over the next two generations.

The book’s editor and publisher have dubbed In the Fall “a stunning achievement”; the novel prompted this observation from a fellow writer of my acquaintance: “It sounds like Cold Mountain meets The Journey of August King.

Not an entirely fair comparison, perhaps — but one that will likely be made again. Above all, I believe the story of Norman and Leah is a love story. It is also a story about race, racism, family and secrets. And, maybe most importantly, it’s a story that is well-written, excellently paced, and very richly textured. In other words, it reads like some of the older classical novels. This is not the junk-food read you take to the beach like a sack of Twinkies, but a book you cozy up to on damp, cool evenings and sip like a nice glass of Bordeaux.

Mountain Xpress recently contacted the author by phone, gaining Lent’s views on writing trends, his years in Asheville, and his potential position as the next blockbluster literary novelist. Here’s what he had to say:

Mountain Xpress: Tell me a little bit about yourself, and your writing background.

JL: Well, I’ve been writing all my life. As an undergraduate, I took mostly literature courses, [but] decided not to go to graduate school because I saw what happened to writers who did, how they ended up teaching. Not to knock those who do [teach], but with the supreme confidence of a 22-year-old, I was sure I’d be in print by the time I was 25. In my mid-twenties, I began to really get serious about my poetry. But I wasn’t selling anything … [and I] began to realize that poetry was a pretty tough racket. The other thing was, my poems kept getting longer. I started to write these 35- and 40-page poems. So I decided it was time to turn back to fiction.

MX: Tell me about living here in Asheville.

JL: I lived in Asheville during the years when the downtown came back to life. When I first moved there, Malaprop’s Bookstore was about it. I loved seeing that beautiful downtown coming back to life. But what distressed me was while that was happening, all the hills and mountains around Asheville were climbing higher and higher with condos. You had to drive farther and farther out to get to the country. …

I worked as a caretaker [in Asheville], and my wife worked at Malaprop’s. During the winter I turned 30, I wrote this large, 600-page book and … got an editor interested in it. But then the publishing house was taken over by the parent publisher, and that ended that. I then wrote a couple of shorter novels. In the process, I was really learning my craft, even though I believed that each one would put me over the top. … The first one was set in 1982, at the end of an old man’s life. The other ones were contemporary. I felt I needed to write a fast-paced, snappy little novel. Finally, the second one of those got to my present agent, who liked it. But ultimately, we just couldn’t sell that book, even though we came close. So I began another one, my fourth. My wife had begun urging me to stop writing these tight little novels and go back to the big, sprawling books. [But soon after beginning] the new novel, I decided it wasn’t going to wow anybody.

MX: And so?

JL: I’d heard, years and years ago, a story about a Union soldier from Vermont who fell in love with a black slave, took her back to his home, and lived with her in seclusion. I don’t know if it was a true story or an apocryphal story, but it had always been turning over and over in the back of my mind as a [story] that could be a pretty interesting [novel]. So I just told myself, “I’m going to write this story as big and bold as I need to.” I wrote In the Fall in 18 months, working on it 7 days a week, and the story just seemed to basically write itself. … I knew that within 50 pages of writing this, that I was doing something completely different. And I knew … by the time the book was completely done, that I either had a major piece of work on my hands or I was completely delusional.

MX: What is it that appeals to you about this transgenerational type of novel — this sweeping, epic style of storytelling?

JL: Well, I’ve always had a deep interest in history. I also think that as a sort of broad general statement, Americans tend to look forward and have a pretty simplistic view of the past. I think a good literary novel that has a historic setting can be illuminating for people — just understanding that the complexities of human nature and relationships are neither something brand new or perfectable. Each generation starts out thinking that we can make things better. That’s not a bad thing — but I think we stop looking back.

MX: Have you gotten any flak about the interracial aspect of the novel?

JL: You know, I haven’t. But I will say I am expecting [some criticism] of it. I did get a call from an African-American woman from Brooklyn, who worked for a magazine and had gotten an advanced reader’s copy. She just raved about the book, saying how she really loved it. We had this great conversation, and I finally [told her] I was nervous about how the African-American community would respond to this. She said, “How do you mean?” And I said, “Well, you know, a white man writing about a black woman.” And she said, “You don’t have a thing to worry about — she’s beautiful.” It made me feel good.

MX: In the writing classes I teach, I often discuss the success of Cold Mountain, in that it was a literary novel that crossed a lot of traditional lines for [that type of] novel. It was literary, historical, a love story — and yet very popular. How would you classify In The Fall — historical fiction, or something else?

JL: I would try to avoid having it be classified as historical fiction. Let me add a caveat here: I think the writer is the last person capable of truly judging his book. I would like to think that [my book] is literary fiction that uses an historic setting. For instance … Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom [was written] in the 1930s, [but] it was set 70 years prior, and yet nobody considered it a historical novel as much as just a good novel. It’s the research that makes it a novel, as opposed to [most] historic fiction [that has] fairly conventional plot lines.

MX: What about the research for this book?

JL: I intentionally kept my research to a minimum. I wanted the characters to take charge of the story, and not have it turned into a manual of how to live in 1877.

MX: Were you at all influenced by the success of Cold Mountain?

JL: I have to say that I was 60 pages into this book when Cold Mountain was published. I read the reviews and said to myself, “I’m not going to even read this book.” I only got around to reading it a couple of months ago.

In my mind, besides the influence of Faulkner, some of the works of Jim Harrison and Cormac McCarthy [opened the door for books like Cold Mountain and In the Fall, in that they] really showed … that you can write good literary fiction within an historic setting and still have the story feel fresh and the characters believable within their time frame. … I think that we’ve gone through that sort of postmodern, deconstructionist, M.F.A. period of slender, thinly veiled autobiographical novels that were contemporary in tone and snappy in style, but thin on story.

MX: Sort of the minimalist approach to writing.

JL: Right. I think that, for readers, reading is an interactive experience. I think we [had] sort of forgotten, or had put aside, the concept of telling a good story. I think what makes it challenging for the writer is incorporating writing as an active part of telling the story. How’s that?

MX: You’ve signed for a two-book deal. Have you started your second novel yet?

JL: I’ve just finished the first draft.

MX: Does it also have a historical setting?

JL: Yes, actually, it does. It is set even earlier in the 19th century, in extreme northern New Hampshire. Takes place after the Revolutionary War, in this little renegade outpost — a last-chance frontier for rogues and scoundrels, as well as for honest people trying to make a new start. I researched it — and [then] threw out the research, because it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the story I had in mind. Sort of [like] In The Fall.

[Bill Brooks has written 10 novels and teaches creative writing through A-B Tech’s Blue Ridge Writers Program.]

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