Taylor Polites questioned himself often.
While drafting, revising and editing, the balding, bearded man wondered if he had succeeded.
“There were many times I would step back and say ‘What am I thinking.’ I wasn’t just trying to write in a woman’s voice, I was trying to write in a woman’s voice from 1875,” Polites said.
The author of “The Rebel Wife” need not question himself any longer.
According to “The Atlanta-Journal Constitution,” which named the book one of the best new Southern books for 2012, and O Magazine’s February issue, which featured the book in “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now,” Polites succeeded.
The author relied on his roots in Huntsville, passion for history and love of strong literary heroines to create his first novel.
“This is a historical fiction book based in the mythical town of Albion in North Alabama in 1875 during Reconstruction,” said Polites, now a resident of Providence, R.I.
The main character, Augusta Branson, struggles to gain her voice after her scalawag husband, who worked with the Union Army, died.
“She feels a sense of freedom and then her old-guard family shows up and tries to take control of her life,” Polites said. “She turns to the African-Americans in the house. This book is a comparison of their stories and lives and the process of awakening.”
The Decatur Public Library will host a book signing and discussion with Polites at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Books will be available for purchase.
In a phone interview, Polites talked about the book, how growing up in Huntsville impacted him and how “Gone With the Wind” changed his life.
What inspired you to write about North Alabama during Reconstruction?
I grew up in Huntsville, and there are a lot of historical markers from the Civil War there. Where I went to kindergarten was just a couple of minutes from a cotton field. We would take field trips there to pick cotton. At 13, I read “Gone With the Wind.” For the first time, the cotton fields, the markers and the stories from the past came together in this book. “Gone With the Wind” was the first book that really hit me like that. I started drawing maps of towns like Huntsville. I would lay out the streets, the houses, floor plans, gardens and make up stories about the people. I created this rich and detailed fantasy world. That fantasy world was Albion.
When did you know you wanted to write?
I’ve always had the desire to write. In fifth grade I would write plays from my class. I always had the urge to tell stories, but I felt like it was not realistic. I had to get a real job. My plan was to go to graduate school and study history. I ended up moving to New York City and got a job in finance. At some point I just decided I had to take the chance and see if writing would work. I quit my job, moved to Cape Cod and got my MFA (Master’s of Fine Arts). My dream has come true.
Were you nervous?
There was definitely a fear. I was working in finance, earning money, but I wasn’t happy. I figured this is my life, I needed to take the risk and make myself happy. The worse thing that could happen is I would have to get a job I was not happy with. It seemed relatively risk free. If I failed, I knew I was good at steaming milk for coffee.
When did the idea of “The Rebel Wife” come to you?
In college I studied history and saw the myths of the south as defined in “Gone With the Wind.” I started comparing the conflict between the myth of southern history and its reality. In 1998, I started focusing on how Reconstruction affected blacks and whites. I had written about 200 pages by 2002. Around 2006 was when I left my job and started the MFA program. I started digging deeper into the story. I threw away all of the text and started over from the first sentence.
What was your goal with the book?
I wanted to take the archetype of the Southern characters, the Southern belle, the southern gentleman, the good slave, the bad slave and turn those ideas inside out.
Did you know the end of the book when you started writing?
I had an image in mind of the final resolution and wrote to that. But I didn’t use that ending. Norris Church Mailer, Norman Mailer’s wife, suggested an alternate ending. The book started shifting, shifting and shifting and ended in a place that was organic.
Who inspired the character of Augusta?
I love Scarlett O’Hara, and more broadly, I love strong women in fiction, like Lily Bart, Anna Karenina, Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennet. These are great powerful, fascinating female characters. I wanted to use them as a base and create a character that had a sense of realness to the period. We are lucky because the Civil War left behind a number of women’s voices. Mary Chestnut’s diary was a touchstone for me. In her diary, you get the sense of day to day life and also her self-awareness. I also read Kate Steele letters in “Cease Not to Think of Me.”
If you could spend time with one writer, who would it be?
Henry James, no Margaret Mitchell, no Edith Wharton, she was incredibly talented. (Charles) Dickens, maybe. Yes, Dickens. I feel like he wrote for his audience. He wrote exciting, crowd-pleasing stories with detailed characters.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you bring?
Well, I’ve been trying to get through “Moby Dick.” I’ve been having trouble because it is so monumental, so definitely that one. “Gone With the Wind” and “Mary Chestnut’s Civil War.”
What is next for you?
I am working on a book set in 1930s in the Tennessee Valley. We are still in Albion. It will be about sharecroppers and landowners in this world in transition. They are going from mules and hand plows and no electricity to a mechanized, electrified world. It will also look at social change.
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