The time that Taylor Brown spent in Asheville wasn’t the easiest of his life, but it spawned the idea for his debut novel. He and his then-wife moved to town in 2009 without knowing anyone and without much money. They lived on the outskirts of downtown in a rented bungalow. Calling it unsafe would be an understatement.
“The landlady told us that it had been an old whorehouse. That was her word,” the author says. “We thought she meant in the days of Thomas Wolfe or something. … Hell no, it was a whorehouse or crackhouse much more recently than that. I saw seven people arrested basically off our front porch in the first two weeks.”
While it was the first time for Brown to see such unlawful activities, it was also the first time he saw leaves change colors. The Georgia coast native is more accustomed to pine needles falling than orange oak leaves fluttering to the ground in October.
The autumn landscape and the mountains moved him, he says, and it pushed him to write Fallen Land, a Civil War-era story published by St. Martin’s Press. Brown presents the novel at Malaprop’s Monday, Jan. 25.
The setting is appropriate as the bookstore was a writing haunt when Brown began his novel in October 2009. Currently based in Wilmington, the author moved to Asheville after spending several years in San Francisco. The reason for the move was to be closer to family, and Asheville shared some attributes with the Bay area: a music and writing community, good food and beer and strong support of the arts. Brown penned the Fallen Land between Malaprop’s, his home, Pack Memorial Library and The Dripolator (now High Five Coffee) on Broadway.
“You write this thing in private and don’t think about people reading it all that much,” says Brown, who previously wrote two novels that weren’t published. “You want to get someone to publish it, and then they decide to publish it, and then it’s, ‘God, I hope people like it.’ … Not even [that] they like it, but you hope they don’t hate it. I did have some anxiety about that.”
He wasn’t into the Civil War as much as his childhood friends were, but did become intrigued when he learned about the fractured loyalties in some mountain communities and the guerrilla fighting that occurred.
The story is about a pair of orphaned lovers who are fleeing, on horseback, a group of bounty-seeking marauders. The first half of the book takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the second half takes place from Atlanta to the Georgia coast, on the same trails that General Sherman took as he burned the countryside.
“I wasn’t trying to write a history book,” Brown says. “The way I tried to do it, a lot of times I say they crossed a river. [The reader] won’t know what river. There’s no omniscient narrator to tell readers. You know about as much as [the characters] know. I know which river it is. If someone knows their history, they can tell.”
He actually hadn’t planned to write the novel at all; the first chapter of the book was the title offering in his acclaimed book of short stories, The Season of Blood and Gold. That version of the story had a hanging ending (literally and figuratively), and Brown kept thinking about the character.
“When I finished the story, I thought I was done with it,” he says. “Usually I get done with a story and I can put it behind me. In this case it just kept on coming back around.”
He adds, “At the end of the short story, [the character is] about to be hanged. Is he hanged? Does he get away? … If you read the short story it seems like the end for the character.” Brown didn’t want that to be the end, so Fallen Land continues the tale.
In November, St. Martin’s Press optioned Brown’s subsequent two novels, which he has already completed. The next book, The River of Kings, is set on the Georgia coast. He’ll then release another book based in the North Carolina mountains. Gods of Howl Mountain (a fictitious place near Blowing Rock) is set in the 1950s against the backdrop of bootlegging and early days of stock-car racing. “Fords and Mason jars,” Brown says.
Brown could easily take a break from his passion, except that isn’t his style.
“I don’t take a break that well,” he says. “I’m about 100 pages into something else already. I like to work. I’ve always worked hard at writing.”
WHO: Taylor Brown presents Fallen Land
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m. Free