A regular contributor to this blog, Ross followed a career in academic fundraising, public relations, book publishing, and marketing after receiving his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught writing and literature at Harvard University, Simmons College, the University of Iowa, the University of Virginia, and Elon University. His stories have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, the Gettysburg Review, and other publications. His debut novel, Forsaken, releases next month from NewSouth Books (check back next week for an excerpt). He lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, English cocker spaniel Pinot, and two rescued pit bulls, Ellie and Sam. Find out more on his website.
At the top of the stack of books by my bed is Fallen Land by Taylor Brown, an historical novel set in the Civil War. Taylor’s is a debut novel, like mine, Forsaken, and each has been named an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA), meaning they were nominated by independent bookstores in the South as among the top titles published this winter/spring. I’m proud to be in that company.
Not only is Taylor’s novel receiving exceptional reviews, but he also lives in North Carolina, on the coast, in Wilmington. Our paths will cross at his reading in Greensboro. I’m anxious to meet him. I suppose lawyers feel the same way when they meet other lawyers, or doctors when they meet doctors, but I think the fellowship of writers is unique. It’s one of the things I miss most about the Writers’ Workshop.
History explains the other books by my bed. I’ve started research for a new novel using the same narrator as in Forsaken. Charlie Mears is the right age to be drafted into American service in World War I, so you can guess what I’m boning up on. For Forsaken I learned a great deal about the Progressive Era and Jim Crow Virginia, but man, do I have a lot to learn about what historians call the Great War.
I recently finished Barbara Tuchman’s magnificent The Guns of August. So gracefully written and well-researched, it’s a classic for all the right reasons. Even if you’re not interested in history, I think you’ll want to know how taxicabs helped save the city of Paris in WWI.
My progress in Scott Berg’s big biography, Wilson, also by the bed, has only taken me to his years as president of Princeton University. So I have a long way to go in that book, which is a great read and meticulous in detail.
I just finished a neat little biography by Gene Smith, The Shattered Dream: Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. As it turns out, Hoover performed heroic deeds in his first public position, providing relief to starving Belgium after WWI. I remember workshop classmates talking about the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, but I never visited. Anyway, Smith packs a great deal of information into a short book, and I came to see Hoover as a much more complicated and tragic figure than I had realized.
Shattered Dream led me to two more books by Gene Smith germane to my research, When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson, and Until the Last Trumpet Sounds: The Life of General of the Armies John J. Pershing. It was Gen. “Blackjack” Pershing who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in Europe in WWI, and he didn’t get his nickname for the reason I bet you’re thinking.
There are a couple more history books by the bed. There’s a thick one, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality by Richard Slotkin, which chronicles the treatment of African-Americans in our military during WWI, and a slimmer volume, North American Indians in the Great War by Joseph Dixon. I’m especially excited to delve into that book, because it’s filled with first-person accounts.
Finally, there’s a book of critical theory by Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel. That book’s by the bed so I can come up with a clever answer if some interviewer should ask me why I seem to follow these historical obsessions in my work.
What have you researched lately? Is there a history section on your bookshelf? Any particular era?