Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Question and Answer Session with Novelist Steve Yates

Steve Yates is assistant director / marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi in Jackson. His short stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Southwest Review, Texas Review, and many other places. In Best American Short Stories 2010 one of his short fictions was included in the “Other Notable Stories of 2009.” Excerpts from his novel, Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010) appeared in The Missouri Review, The Ontario Review, and The South Carolina Review. A novella length excerpt was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley/Faulkner Society William Faulkner-Wisdom Novella Contest. For seventeen years, he has gratefully served the study of history in university press publishing.

Q. What led you to write a novel about the Civil War in the Ozarks region?

A. I spent so much time at Wilson’s Creek National Military Park growing up, back when the park office was just a trailer. The rangers answered every question from what had to have been a spooky, strange kid, answered me with patience and eagerness and encouragement. In the Boy Scouts, we built and restored countless trails out there and even cleared and repaired a family cemetery. In grade school we used portions of the park, including an old quarry, for environmental science field work. By the time I was in the creative writing program at University of Arkansas, I came to believe that there were two lodestones a writer born and reared in Springfield, Missouri, had to mine—the Civil War and the 1906 lynching. Avoid those and you could become just another capable writer of late Imperial suburban madness. Mine them and you have a chance to be a writer people might never forget.

Q. One of the main characters, Michael Morkan, owns a quarry in Springfield . I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book where the main character’s business was a quarry. Why did you select a quarry for Morkan’s business?

A. There is one forgotten old novel called The Quarry, set in a granite quarry in Vermont. Quarries and limestone ridges were my landscapes growing up. I don’t feel the pH balance of being spiritually on home ground until I see some moon-blue lime. The Galloway quarry was a roaring concern when I was a kid, and there was a cemetery just past the quarry. There my sister, Debbie, is buried, and in mourning my mother took me and then took my sisters and me often to the grave. The quarry, for me, became associated with grief, with evermore, with remembrance. Even as a teenager and young reporter, when my life felt haywire, I would park across from the quarry at night, and its foggy fracas calmed me. Later in graduate school, I spent my summers surveying and construction and concrete plant inspecting for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. We even surveyed an abandoned quarry, some of the most mortally dangerous work I likely will ever do. I can’t imagine avoiding writing about quarrymen, and think it passing strange that my people so rarely think of lime and the men who make it. I vouch that you have not passed a single day of your American life that lacked the aid of some product suffused with if not entirely made of limestone and its kilned offspring, lime.

Q. Your book has a flavor of authenticity about it. For example, you work in details about clothing, exchange rates, a medicine story pamphlet, Gratiot Prison, and the fight by invalids during the battle of Springfield . What background sources did you use? What were your favorite background sources?

A. A lifetime of them. My most treasured source is a blue and battered saddle-stitched pamphlet I have had since childhood, Robert Neumann’s An Illustrated History of the Civil War in Springfield, MO 1861-1865. Cherished, spattered, grimy, it went everywhere with me, and for the fiction writer it holds a thousand voices calling out from the ash of time—write me; let me live again! Later, I had the golden fortune of promoting books about the Ozarks as publicist at University of Arkansas Press. There I worked to market The White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo. The voice in Turnbo, to me, is the brainwave cadence of my Ozark ancestors, pure from the spring. I wanted the neighborhood narrator of Morkan’s Quarry to be as earthy, Anglo-Saxon, and humanely curious as Turnbo while being nearly as observant and intelligent as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. I also marketed the superb edition of Schoolcraft’s journal that Milton D. Rafferty edited for Arkansas. I count it one of the tremendous privileges of my life that I was able to make better known the work of Lynn Morrow, James Keefe, and Milt Rafferty, and from them Schoolcraft and Turnbo.

Q. One of the strengths of your novel, in my opinion, is your depiction of how civilians were forced to make choices in regard to their loyalties. For example, Michael Morkan made a “choice” to provide gunpowder to the Confederate army early in the book and then paid for that by being imprisoned by Union authorities in Gratiot Prison. Why did you decide to focus on civilians in your book rather than military personnel?

A. The civilian story in the Ozarks is THE story. Michael Fellman taught us that in his monumental Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the Civil War. And William Garrett Piston helps us focus on it in his indispensable The Battle of Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. The great fiction writers of the Ozarks who have treated the war—Donald Harington, Daniel Woodrell, Paulette Jiles—all obeyed Sir Walter Scott’s rule, follow the middling man or woman rather than the mighty generals and kings. And the fiction writers that I find centering and cleansing, my benchmarks—Isaac Babel, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and above all my godfather, the Austro-Hungarian Joseph Roth—never created stories with powerful generals as protagonists. Bit-part or minor characters, or main characters who briefly, ineptly, or uncomfortably served in the military, sure. But never the main characters.

There is a set of American epic historical fiction which does focus on generals and mighty, heroic warriors. And I find those fictions stirring and engaging in the same way I find David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” stirring and engaging while not being truthfully and emotionally a work of art. For something to become art, I want the human cry and love’s answer. I want Courbet’s “Mère Grégoire” and Goya’s “The Forge.” There’s a reason Velázquez put the dwarves in the foreground, eh? And I’m insanely ambitious. I would prefer writing and selling six hundred copies of something that one day, long after I am dust, comes to be considered a work of art, rather than writing something stirring and engaging that sells tens of thousands but is at day’s end a work that is not especially truthful to the ragged, pilgrim experience of life, that is forgotten upon my death if not well before supper time, and helps no one to empathy.

Um… don’t tell my wife that part about art and six hundred copies stuff, okay? She’ll leave me.

Q. A student comes to you and wants advice on what Civil War trans-Mississippi related research project or creative project they should tackle; what would you suggest?

A. Oh, there are so many. I desperately long for some historian to create a book called Civil War Springfield. And Fellman at a panel at OAH mentioned the carnivalesque quality of the Trans-Mississippi war, and pointed out the scene of Van Dorn’s army leaving the Boston Mountains for Pea Ridge. What a motley, tragic, insanely ambitious, carnival sight! That would make a great short story or novella, considering they walked into doom and carnage and confusion as great as that at the Battle of Inkerman! And someone besides Shelby Foote needs to write the story of a horseman in Sterling Price’s forlorn 1864 raid. Elmo Ingenthron’s Borderland Rebellion has hundreds of entry points for the writer. And S. C. Turnbo… like the Old Testament, so much human truth waits in those pages.

Q. Are you working on another novel now? If so, would you be willing to share some information about it?

A. I am, thank you. Portions of the sequel to Morkan’s Quarry, which I call The Teeth of the Souls, have twice appeared in the Missouri Review, and once in Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review. And one is forthcoming in March 2011 from Elder Mountain Review (follow and you can get a copy if you like). The Teeth of the Souls will take some of the same characters and many new ones up to fateful 1906 in Springfield. It also lets me mine that wealth of history that my mother, a St. Louis German, an Evertz, engendered in me. So in the sequel, the hills of my father’s Irish, Scots-Irish, Brit and Indian meet the cold, rich urbanity, steely intellect, and stormy emotions of my dear mother’s German Catholic side. While all characters are a creation of the author’s imagination, without history, without family as the ore, and without God inspiring, how could one ever attempt making art?

Steve’s excellent novel may be ordered from the following or from a bookseller near you:

Moon City Press


  1. What an interesting interview! Like you, I'm wary of Civil War fiction, by experience, yet drawn to it from a love of fiction, and a love of the subject matter. I'm doubly intrigued here by my family connections to the Ozarks, a particular fascination with the Trans-Mississippi, and a common background with the author in the world of university presses. Guess I'll have to buy that one.

    Coincidentally, and purely by chance, I have been making my way through a Civil War-situated novella in the last issue of the journal, "American Short Fiction" (Winter 2010), out of Austin. I was *especially* leery of it because it involves master/slave dialogue, and if your name is not Faulkner, why bother with such a risky proposition? But it's thoroughly engaging and unique, and I am formulating a blog entry on it. The novella is entitled "Solarium," by Josh Weil.

    Thanks again for the Yates interview.

  2. I appreciate your kind comments and would indeed encourage you to pick up a copy of Morkan's Quarry. The novella that you write of sounds intriguing and risky indeed, but I appreciate knowing about it and will have to read it sometime. Glad you enjoyed the interview!