The Scourges of Heaven
by David Dick
bookclub@ket host Bill Goodman interviewed David Dick at his home near Paris, Kentucky on September 7, 1999.
Bill: Very good, David; good afternoon, and thanks a bunch for joining us. And let me ask you, to start off our conversation: As a journalist and former correspondent and a professor and a writer of essays and many other things, how in the world did you get involved in this wonderful novel of such complicated issues and disease and all of that?
David Dick: Well maybe, Bill, I have always wanted to redeem myself as a researcher; maybe I have always wanted to at least try to do a scholarly thing, without footnotesat least to be able to go to places such as the British Museum and the Greenwich, England Maritime Library and not to be an impostor, but to go after some of these books and ideas that would enable me to write something other than a [report].
Bill: How difficult is all of that to younoting your background and what you have done all your life, and the writing you have done in your previous booksto launch into this big, bold project?
David Dick: Well, it was daunting,
but it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to get started. Thats not to say that I did not want to return to writing nonfiction sketches and essays and profiles, especially about Kentucky and Kentuckians, but I wanted to test my wings. I wanted to write about things that had not been written about in that form, to my knowledge, before. There are pretty good scholarly booksmany of them, in factthat are available on the cholera epidemic of the 19th century throughout the world. Statistics are there. But the narrative is not there; the personalization is not there.
And so I think that it was in the Greenwich Maritime Museum Library that I decided, OK, this is as close as I want to come to being a scholar. I want to take this information and use it as a peg on which to hang a hat that would tell a story about what might have happened to my great-grandmother Cynthia, to whom I dedicated the book. I am 99% sure that her first husband, a teenager, and their son did in fact die of cholera; but all of this is lost and the records are not there.
Then I began to understand and began to realize that in this country, and especially in Kentucky, there is little if any bringing together in a narrative the account of what happened so dreadfully to Lexington in 1833and to other towns as well. So I began to weave a story. And then there were subplots that occurred to me along the way, and I tried to respond to them. The gender-inequality issue was not one that I had anticipated when I went into it; but I guess maybe subconsciously the thought was there, and then I began to see it. The development of the character Sylva, the prostitute, was perhaps in the beginning the contrivance ... not for sensationalism, but its to try to show humanity and how it was reacting to the cholera epidemic in Londonthinking that, well, Sylva the prostitute will go away like all good prostitutes should, but in fact she comes along on the voyage and she does something very dramatic in New Orleans that is 180 degrees out of character. But prostitutes are humans and they have hearts, and they have deprivations, and a good many of them, if not most of them, have a reason for doing what it is they do: that is to say, to survive.
Then I got into the agrarianism issue that has always been appealing to me with the love of the landthis not wanting to see it all covered over with concreteand so that, too, became a part of it. And then, of course, the character of Jim ... I never expected there to be a black child by the name of Jim who would become James and would become a doctor who would not solve the problem of cholera but would be an educated person, a thinking person. And so all of this then found its way into the novel.
Bill: For one who has spent most of his career, and certainly continue to, dealing only in who, what, where, when, and why and in the facts of a news storynot only as a reporter but since teachingwhat sort of transformation did it take for you to delve into fiction?
David Dick: Im not sure that I can come to terms with this, but Ill stumble around for a while and try. I think it was a liberating experience. It was being able to see other possibilities; to play What if? and not wait for a year for something to resolve itself and then go cover it in a nonfiction or a journalistic way, but to imagine that the character Cynthia, for example, might want to go back to New Orleans and look for Sylva and knock on the convent door, be admitted, and then engage in dialogue, which maybe was easier for me to invent or create than it should have been.
That is to say, since my days at the University of Kentucky and studying drama, dialogue has always been important to me. When I was a journalist, it came out in the form of listening carefully to try to capture the wordsthe exact verbatim words spokento make them important parts of the story. But now I was in the position of being able to gamble and say, well, this is what she said, and this is what the response was, and this leads to this ... And it was a process not unlike Stegner in Discovery, so that I was not consciously constructing A says to B says to C says to D, but to imagine that A says something and then to let something occur within the subconsciousthe creative act. And here comes B and then that leads to C and D ... And this is mighty heavy stuffsomething that you cant do when you are a journalist. Well, you can do it, but its in a different form.
The wonder, the joy, the fulfillment for me of The Scourges of Heaven is that it allows me to be a camera. It allows me to be the audio. It allows me to be the producer and the reporter. I dont want to be one of the characters. Not at all. All I want is to try to visualize something that has meaning and is not done to trivialize, is not done to sensationalize, but is done in order to try to communicate an idea. And here is an idea that I should have mentioned before at the head of the list. Throughout the book, you have this feeling, I am sure, that the totalitarianism is a menace lurking, and Cynthia reacts to it in part because she is the grandchild of Charlie, Grandpa Charlie, who is a reader, who is a thinker, who intuitively knows, even at this time, that slavery is not right.
And so I have not recovered, Bill, from Jonestown 1978, November the 18thwhere I was a day late and survived. But maybe two or three years after Jonestown, I came back to the United States. I then began to understand: Wait a minute; this is what can happen if people forfeit their individualism. This is what can happen if you mindlessly go along like a robot and you always play the gameyou dont hardly ever dare to step aside and listen to yourself, use your own mind. Therefore, when you dont do that, you get led down the garden path, as in the case at Jonestown: more then 900 people drinking Kool-Aid with cyanide in it because this guy is saying that he is God and they are on their way to heaven. So that, of course, is a healthy part of this novel.
Bill: How do you think you did?
David Dick: Well, I have not had any misgivings how I did as far as the reception of the book. It got awfully good reviews. But one, I am led to believe, should not wait around for good reviews. One should know. I think I did pretty well.
I think that I would like to write a sequel to itnot this year, because I am working on another projectbut I want to let it simmer for a while. I want to go back to New Orleans. I want to get Sylva, at leastI dont know for how long, but out of the convent. I want her character to develop; I want her to be reunited with Cynthia, perhaps during the Civil War. Oh me! I have let myself in for a ton of work, havent I?
And I guess maybe yes, the greatest difficulty for me as a first-time writer of historical fiction is trying to get all of the historical facts, pegs, in place without making a total fool of yourself. And that requires not only a lot of research and writing on my part, but this book has benefited greatly from superb editing. This book when it first emerged from me, from my hands, was pretty awful. It was quickly called to my attention: Now wait a minute; it should not be like this but ... should be ... why dont you take a look at this?
Then you get into restructuring and trying not to be forever overwritingto leave a good bit for people to decide for themselves, not to be heavy-handedand so its just a wonderful tightrope walk. But to answer your question: If I thought that I had failed, I would say so: I failed. [But] I think I have succeeded in writing [my] first (to me) good historical novel, [which] now gives me renewed courage to go on to the next project, which is Home Sweet Kentuckynonfiction, has just been delivered to us yesterday or the day before, in which I have returned to trying to describe Kentuckians as they really are today: as I look at them, ss I sit down with them, as I listen to them. And this will be our work for the next few months: getting the book out there. But in the background I am going to be listening for Sylva, listening for Cynthia.
Bill: So, David, youre comfortable with this notion of historical fiction?
David Dick: Yes, I am. I can understand ... I can understand the opposition to it; I can understand that it might be absolutely abhorrent to scholars. But one thing that many people possibly dont realize is that virtually all we know about King Solomon in Lexington, Kentucky in 1833 and then in the 40s is what James Lane Allen told us in his book Flute and Violin. We know a part from James Lane Allens bookthat there was a King Solomon; that he did bury cholera victimsbut we know very little about him, and we dont really have a factual account of his being auctioned off into indentured servitude on the steps of the Fayette County Courthouse except by way of James Lane Allens fictionalization. So fictionalization has created, has saved for us, has extended a wonderful character in Kentucky history, and that came through fictionalization.
Now there was another kind of King Solomon who, instead of being white, was black, in Nicholasville, and another one south of Nicholasvilleit will come to me in a minute, but its not right now. But there were two black people who were brave enough to stay and bury the dead. But we dont know anything about them, hardly, at all, [and] the reason why is because they didnt have a James Lane Allen.
Bill: You mentioned Wallace Stegner earlier. Who else did you read or study or call on to aid you in this first endeavor into historical fiction?
David Dick: Well, I would like to say Robert Penn Warren; but I think in fact, in all truthfulness, Warren for me is something that I have been studying of late, and I have been rethinking The Scourges of Heaven with that in mind. But I suppose Stegner and also Wendell Berry ... But without seeming to be absolutely arrogant: Its so important for me and all the others as well to listen to themselvesto see maybe similarities, to get ideas from here and there, but to really get into what has been called the flow of writing so that you become immersed in it and live in it and wake up to it and go to work at it and put all of Robert Penn Warren and the Wendell Berry and the Wallace Stegners aside and let David Dick at this particular moment express himself as best he can. And then coming away from that, perhaps next time doing better, making some better choices. So its a complicated process of the reading, the writing, and theLord knowsthinking.
Bill: Talk for a moment, if you will, about writing and what you see as the state of writing in our beloved Kentucky and how we stack up with the rest of the, of the United States and the world. You did some travel on this. Im sure that you introduced yourself to many people. You are in a circle of writing friends and writers. How are we doing in the state of Kentucky?
David Dick: I think that we are doing awfully well. I know that sounds very provincial, but I think that we are doing awfully well. And so what do I mean when I say awfully well? Well, I think that quite possibly we have as good, as impressive, of a state book fair as any other state in the United States. That has been said by others from outside who are in awe of it, there in Frankfort once a year. When you go there and see Kentucky writers row on row, elbow to elbow, you wonder, By goodness, where did all of these people come from?
Well obviously some of what is written is considerably better than others, but at this particular time (Im sure I dont want to make a comparison), I think that we are maybe learning to overcome what has been the traditional stereotyping of Kentucky and KentuckiansTobacco Road, Lil Abner, Daisy Mae, Beverly Hillbillies. In the minds of so many in New York and maybe Iowa and possibly California, thats all we do. Thats all we do is just run around barefooted and say dumb things, and Lord knows we dont write hardly at all. Well, thats simply not true, and Gurney Norman, for example ... The story was in Sundays paper of the new book thats out, collections of essaysIve not yet seen it. Taking that theory, that Kentucky Cycle, to task ... Elements of truth appear almost everywhere, including Kentucky Cycle. I mean, I can look almost anywhere I go in the state of Kentuckybut also Ohio and also Illinois, and I can see an Ohio cycle and I can see an Illinois cyclebut what is missed in this, I guess, comes out of or is responsible for the tabloid side of us. What we miss is the essence of not just good people that are too goodno Kentuckian, no ... Certainly no Kentucky writer is perfect. We all are becoming, I think; and so what does it matter that Hollywood thinks the best way to do us is the Dukes of Hazzard? Is it another Beverly Hillbillies [or] The Kentucky Cycle? As it is pointed out, the person who wrote The Kentucky Cycle had spent maybe an hour in the mountains.
Well, lets just say that thats OK. There is a market for that; fine. Well, the reality for me is that there are roughly 3.8 million Kentuckians. They dont all rob banks, and they are not all illiterate. Quite a few of them write. So to answer your question in a roundabout sort of way: I think we are doing quite well, but I dont think we should stop where we are. We will get better.
Just take one writer, Robert Penn Warren ... I was talking to James Still on the phone this morning, as a matter of fact; we were doing some comparing about our Robert Penn Warren reading. And the reality is that most people havent gotten very far beyond All the Kings Men, and most people saw the movie and didnt read the book. But here is a gianta literary giantwho not only wrote an array of novels, but wrote superb poetry and was an amazing teacher in most of the major universities in the United States, and he came out of Kentucky. Down in your country, as a matter of factnot too far from where you come from.
Bill: David, tease us a little bit with your new work, and tell us a little bit about what you have just completed.
David Dick: Well, thank you very much. Its co-authored with my wife, Lalie. She was with me at the British Museum; she was with me in Charles Dickens country when we were researching Southworth Community Library. She is a good editor. She is a good idea person. With the other bookshow many? Six, I guessthey were written by me; but this one is a collection. I like to call it a gathering of the best of what I have written now for, I guess, 11 years on the back page of Kentucky Living, the rural electric magazine, and what for the past four years or so Lalie has written for All Around Kentucky, the Farm Bureau newspaper. And what the two of us have done is to listen, to go out, and to discover people: little people and little places doing good thingsnot always little but certainly little recognizedand then being true to them. And so there are over 90 essays in Home Sweet Kentucky, and they range from Louise Hatmaker, the fine journalist in the mountains; Sarah Combs, the judge in her own right now; and Bonnie Consolo, the lady who was born without arms in Menifee County and now takes complaints in Louisville; and ... the broom maker from Fulton County. And its just wonderful for us to go out and to see these people who simply, for the most part ... They are not crying out for it, but they simply dont get attention until they die and there is an obituary in the local paper, and if they are lucky they get their name spelled right. No corrections, please! But thats sort of what its about. And Byron Crawford wrote the foreword to the book, which is quite excitingwhat he said, I mean. He said we were doing a pretty good job. And so now here we are, we are beginning to take delivery on these books, which many of them have been pre-sold, simply contact people who have purchased the other books. And as much as three months in advance of the publication, Home Sweet Kentucky, people were buying it. So what we try to remind ourselves [is] not to be greedythat we will possibly order a second printing, or we might not; we might just go on to something else. But were notno offense to golfers, but we are not playing golf; no offense to bridge players, but we are not playing bridge; and we [laughs] dont do much of anything except farm and write and go around for the Kentucky Humanities Council and give talks.
Bill: And finally: The other day when I called you, you were in the tobacco barn. You didnt want me to tell Lalie that you were actually up in the tobacco barn [but] that you were helping a neighbor. Thats part of you, isnt it?
David Dick: Well, yeah, sort of. Its also bravado, because I couldnt possibly get up on the second tier if in fact there wasnt a ladder that went easily over a shed. So in reality (and Lalie didnt hear this part of it), there was a floor beneath me. I was fantasizing being up there on the second tier, but then, look out: Now that Im up here, how do I get down? And as I take hold of one tier rail and place my foot on another, I realized to myself: Buddy, you better hold on, because if you make a mistake, shed or shed floor or no floor, you are going to fall and kill yourself. I dont even pretend to understand how people get up into the top of the barn and spread their legs and reach down without holding and pull up a stick of tobacco and then push it up over their head to somebody else. It is just incredible back-breaking work.
Maybe one of the nice things that I did around tobacco time was, because of that drought, I had a neighbor who apparently was going to have to sell off more of his cattle than he wanted to. And I had a deep well, and he didnt, and so I called him up and I said, Why dont you come over and load up your tank of water whenever you want to? And it wont cost you a thing. And he said, Well, thats nice, but I want to pay you for it. And I said, No, you dont have to pay anything; forget it. So during the worst part of the drought, here he comes with his tank and throws the switch, and the water flows from my little piece of land over to his piece of land. Thats a nice feeling, Bill.
Bill: Thanks so much. We enjoy your writing. Of course, we enjoyed The Scourges of Heaven, and we wish you the best with Home Sweet Kentucky.
David Dick: Thank you very much. And the book I am working on now, after Home Sweet Kentucky, is Rivers of Kentucky. How many rivers are there in Kentucky, Bill?
Bill: Well, if I was the Thomas Clark scholar that I pretend to be, I would be able to just spout that out, but I dont know. I know there are many.
David Dick: There are upwards of 40, depending upon how they are defined. But for me it is a metaphor for writing. It is a metaphor for good ideas and sharing. And its a part of the hydrologic cycle, where the water comes from the springs, comes down past James Still on Troublesome, gets to the Ohio, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, and then the water is taken back up and then brought back again, and it falls again. So its a continuum that goes on, and so Cynthia in Scourges of Heaven and her teenage husband who died and their sonthey are all in there. The are in the cycle.
Bill: You have a nice way of bringing it back home.
David Dick: Thank you.