Open Country is your first novel and yet you have been writing, teaching writing, and publishing your short stories, essays, and cowboy poetry in literary journals for decades. What inspired this novel and why did you wait to tell it?
Richards: I never intended to write a novel. I intended to write a short story about one of the stops on the Underground Railroad, a house on a cliff that overlooked the Ohio River. It’s still there. It was an inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I liked the characters and subject matter in my story and wrote another one until I finally came to a story that defined the other ones in my mind and suddenly I had a novel. I cut the Underground Railroad piece, but it was the initial inspiration. The reason I waited so long to write this novel is that I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t gone through enough hardship. But now I have. I’m a senior citizen and I’m like any soldier staring down the barrel of a gun, only there aren’t any foxholes and they don’t take prisoners.
Open Country is set during the Civil War and tells the story of the lives of people deeply affected by the conflict. Of course, this spring marks the sesquicentennial of our country’s defining conflict. What drew you to this time?
Richards: I think the first thing that drew me to this time is that I am an ancestor worshipper. I have family who fought in the war for both sides, the Kerns from Virginia and the Richards from Ohio. Not long after the shooting was over, a Kerns married a Richards and thank God for that because otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. But still I think it’s weird, how quickly you can change allegiance. What’s even weirder is that many of my relatives at that time were Quakers. I should also mention that since I was a child I had seen artifacts from the War, photographs, family letters, a roster book. I was fascinated by the Civil War and read about it extensively so what I did with this book is put what had been previously useless knowledge to good purpose.
You have said that Open Country is inspired by the true tales of your ancestors Aden Price and Thomas Jermyn Walker Price, father and son veterans. What do you know about their stories and how tied to their real lives are their characters by their same names in the book?
Richards: Most of what I know about these ancestors I put in the book. I changed the professions. Both father and son were actually doctors. But I don’t know much about doctoring nor do I care to learn. I have a weak stomach. I do have one story about an operation in a field hospital, but that’s from the perspective of the patient who spends most of his time passed out. I know very little about the Southern relatives. I moved them from Virginia to Kentucky because I wanted them to be in closer proximity to the Northern counterparts. I wanted to emphasize this was a war where brother killed brother. It was almost a Biblical war like in the story of Cain and Abel only I won’t say who is who. The fact is, in the end, I won’t tell you what’s true and what isn’t. I want you to think it’s all true.
This novel has family and human relationships taking center stage over the blood-soaked trenches and battlefields. What differentiates love in a time of war from love in a time of peace? How does war affect relationships, and how do we see this played out in the lives of your characters?
Richards: I guess I have to go back to what I said before. I’m a senior citizen and I think I am closer to losing all the things I hold dear to me then let’s say a teenager. I am guessing that this is the way those people felt in the Civil War. More than 620,000 soldiers and civilians perished during those four years, 23,000 casualties in one day at Antietam alone. I cannot even fathom what a huge sense of loss these people must’ve felt. I think the whole nation was suffering from PTSD. In one of my stories, a colonel’s wife spends all her time tending a garden while he is off on the battlefront. At nightfall she falls in bed exhausted, unable to think. When the colonel returns home, the garden is neglected.
Blues music plays out beautifully as a core theme – almost a soundtrack – throughout your novel, though the blues was not yet called such. What is the relationship between the blues and the war itself in Open Country? What is your experience with music?
Richards: The “blues” existed in embryo in the 1860s and before that time when the slaves were out in the fields singing in a call and response fashion about their woes as a way to lighten their burdens. The blues to me seems like the perfect music for the Civil War because the woes were widespread without regard to race, color, or creed. Early on you don’t see much of the blues except in a story about the Fort Pillow Massacre where an ex-slave turned soldier sings the blues on a diddley bow. One of his songs is There Are No Pockets in Coffins, something my mother-in-law used to tell her husband when she went on a shopping spree. I think that’s the perfect blues hook line and I want some musician out in the blues world to write that piece. Anyway, I don’t get back to the blues until the last story in the book that takes place in 1898 on the eve of another war. A bunch of Civil War vets gather by the Ohio River to reminisce and play blues on a harmonica and banjo. Songs they learned from black musicians such as “Midnight Special.” They are old men at this time and the music is a way to lighten their spirits, almost a soundtrack as you say that describes their war experiences as well as what happened to them after the war though I don’t get into that except by innuendo. To me the Civil War and all wars are metaphors for the human travail in extremis, the same with blues. It conveys that travail through music or as Leon Blue once told my wife, “the blues is all about sex.”
You write the novel in the vernacular of the time. Was that difficult?
Richards: Actually, it wasn’t too difficult. It’s like being an actor and getting yourself in character. One of the things that helped me along the way was a Civil War slang dictionary. The soldiers in that war as in all wars approach their situation with a sense of humor of the gallows variety. For instance, dead soldiers were referred to as somebody’s darling and ordinance that flew over the front lines as quartermaster hunter, bad cooks as dog robbers, bad whiskey as pop skull, and so on. The great thing about the slang is that it helped me set the tone, the perspective the soldiers must take under duress. They remove themselves from the horror that is happening in front of their eyes through humor. For instance, you take sawbones, the well-earned sobriquet for doctors of that era. All you had to do is go near a field hospital to glimpse a pile of bloody appendages, shoes still on, fists still clinched, and you get the idea. How do you remain sane under these conditions — through humor, in my mind.
What’s next for you?
Richards: My next project is a short novel about a murder in a baby-sitting co-op in Takoma Park, Maryland. It is a novel about living in a responsible way. The sexual shenanigans that happen in this babysitting co-op – the Stork Club I call it, lead directly to the murder in a twisted, convoluted fashion. The murder probably would never have happened if the actors in this drama looked before they leaped on each other or at least that’s my surmise. It’s a Baby Boomer novel. Lots of us boomers were in our formative years in the sixties when “responsibility” was a dirty word invented by the authorities to force us to do what we didn’t want to do. I call the piece Lady Killer. It’s presently away at the cleaners and should be fit for publication momentarily. What I am writing right now is a collection of stories based on blues songs. The aim is an album-sized collection. My website is jeffrichardsauthor.com. There, under “Projects,” you can find links to two of the blues stories that have been published in on-line magazines as well as the first chapter of Lady Killer. That should give you an idea of where I’m headed.