If you think Kent Wascom‘s Blood of Heaven is a tad too violent, you may want to take a second look at the Bible.
Zola: What made you decide that such a little-known piece of American history—the Kemper brothers’ and Aaron Burr’s failed crusade to take Western Florida from Spain—would make a thrilling read?
Kent Wascom: The Kempers, Mr. Burr, and the machinations following the Louisiana Purchase, were for me (and I hope for the reader) emblematic of the ongoing American enterprise of “nation-building” and border redefinition. In other words, I think their story is quite applicable to our time. Add to this the simple fact that the men themselves were wonderfully fascinating and wild—their brutal vengeances, their (particularly Reuben’s) Zelig-like presence in the background of great events. Men who kept a jar of human ears in their tavern, but also sat down with Thomas Jefferson.
Zola: The day-to-day details of frontier city and rural life in early-19th century America are striking. Can you describe your research process?
KW: Because of my then-circumstances as a student or teacher, my research was a catch-as-catch-can affair. In spare moments I would dig into letters or books, but this was ongoing through three drafts, with each succeeding effort hewing a little closer to the reality of the period—though I will say the novel is more of phantasmagoria than an assiduous rendering of historical fact.
Zola: The novel has drawn many comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. Are you a fan of his work? Are there any other authors you’ve been particularly influenced by?
KW: I certainly am a great admirer of McCarthy’s work, particularly the Tennessee novels, though he is by no means the prime inhabitant of my personal canon. I owe a great debt to the work of Barry Hannah, whose first-person prose greatly influenced Angel’s voice, Yukio Mishima, Isaac Babel, Angela Carter, Carlos Fuentes, Harry Crews, and many more than space will allow.
Zola: One of the most vivid scenes involves a coal-in-mouth punishment. Was this a real punishment of the time or something you invented?
KW: Wholly invented, but heavily influenced by Biblical passages—the recurring imagery of a mouth of fire one finds in the Old Testament and that mad coda Revelation.
Zola: What is your response to those reviewers who’ve said you use violence excessively and even opportunistically?
KW: I question both their observation of and experience with Christianity and American society. The Bible is a cavalcade of horrors and degradation briefly softened by a messianic mooncalf with a penchant for party tricks; Americans not only tolerate a stunning level of violence, but celebrate and propagate our ability to inflict it with the greatest efficiency. Honestly, I think the accusation comes from the privileged position of the cloistered and obtuse. I think of the children in my class when I was teaching high school, kids who’d seen siblings murdered, whose parents punished them with heated irons or boiling water. I think of the violence I have experienced and witnessed in my own life. And so I believe that I am reflecting the reality of our culture as it was then and continues to be. The means have changed but not the ends. As far as opportunism goes, I’d say the term is better applied to those films or books in which violence serves no other purpose than the titillation of the misogynist—the scores of works devoted solely to the torment of women—or the mindless shoot-em-ups where the shot/stabbed simply drop to the ground without a sound and expire. The former is repulsive, the latter is dishonest.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.