Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Quantrill's Birthday

William Clarke Quantrill was born 170 years ago today at Canal Dover, Ohio.

He was only 27 when he died, after being shot in the back by Edwin Terrell's band of guerrilla hunters, but he was already notorious for burning the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, and killing a couple of hundred men and boys in 1863.

At about 4:20 yesterday morning, I completed revisions to I, Quantrill. The novel will be published in 2008 by Penguin. It is with relief that I bid Captain Quantrill farewell -- frankly, I'm sick of living in his head. He's a fascinating character, but disturbing, and I'm glad to be free of him, at least until I have to proof the galleys.

So, for all of you Leos who share Quantrill's birthday -- remain calm and think happy thoughts.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hiroshima 1986 - Frame 34A

The anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is coming up -- Friday, Aug. 6 -- and this got me to thinking about the hundreds of photographs I took there on assignment in 1986. For nearly six weeks, I interviewed through interpeters scores of atomic bomb survivors, such as the old man at left -- who described how he had sent his 14-year-old son, Kenji, to work in the munitions factory that morning and never saw him again.

The survivors are called hibakusha, literally "those who received the bomb," and for decades were discriminated against by fellow Japanese as somehow unclean, unfit to employ or to marry. This topic stirs up a number of issues -- the Cold War (remember that?), rolling my own film from bulk rolls, developing it in aluminum tanks on stainless steel reels, dodging and burning the photographs in the enlarger -- and the disconcerting fact that 21 years have passed since this photograph was taken.

That's a generation.

That is a bit profound, so you're likely to get more musings -- and perhaps more images -- on then and now as the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach.

Technical Note:

For the purists, and I know you're out there, I will cop to some sloppy Photoshopping of the above image (Well, I didn't have all night, did I?) to make the original negative strip and frame appear as a positive, as in a contact sheet. The original negative would resemble the one at left, or something close to it, as seen on a light table. The photo was taken on Kodak TRI-X with a Canon F1-n and, if I remember correctly, a 135mm 2.8 lens. Available light, of course. One of the things that bothers me about the current state of photojournalism is that nearly every photograph, even in bright sunlight, is taken with a strobe to fill shadows, especially in faces. That's because digital has a much narrower exposure latitude than film. But strobe still seems like cheating to me. Even though I shoot striclty digital now -- most photos on this blog are taken with a Canon EOS 10D -- I still rely on available light. I know, I'm a dinosaur.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Another Reason to Love Michael Chabon

I don't have a problem with many uses of the word genre, just certain ones. I have the most trouble when these labels are used to prevent discussion, to prevent a work from being taken seriously as literature. When we say "genre," we generally mean "something crappy," something that would be sold in an airport. I hate to see great works of literature ghettoized, whereas others that conform to the rules, conventions, and procedures of the genre we call literary fiction get accorded greater esteem and privilege. I also have a problem with how books are marketed, with certain cover designs and typefaces. They're often stamped with an identity that has nothing to do with their effect on the reader. I subscribe to Sturgeon's Law, which is that "90 percent of everything is crud." I'm trying to say that they're all inherently equal—it's not what you do, it's the way you do it. The percentage of excellence isn't any higher in what's called literary fiction. -- Michael Chabon, interviewed by Elizabeth Benefiel at AV Club.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Warehouse, Nelson County

A rickhouse (or warehouse) where row upon row of charred oak barrels filled with Bourbon whiskey are aged in Nelson County, Kentucky. The black stuff growing on the building, the fences, the trees, and just about everything else is a fungus that thrives on alcohol fumes. One of the research questions I've tried to answer for I,Quantrill is how common this strange stuff was around the distilleries and still houses in Nelson County during the Civil War, and I haven't found a definitive answer. If you know for sure, contact me at max@maxmccoy.com. This particular rackhouse is at the Jim Beam American Outpost at Clermont, about 25 miles south of Louisville.


Just one of the things which fascinated me during my research trip to Nelson County was the black stuff which clung to warehouses and fences and trees around the distilleries. It's called torula, and it is a yeast-like fungi that thrives on the fumes produced by the fermentation process. A lot of barns and fences far from any distilleries in the county are also painted black (where, in my neck of the woods in Kansas and Missouri, they would normally be white). It must be a cultural thing, a kind of nod to the county's heritage. This is just the kind of thing you find during a research trip but which might escape you during book research -- in fact, I found no reference to torula or this passion for black barns and fences in the WPA Guide to Kentucky or any of the other reference books I consulted.

St. John's Cemetery, Louisville

Another research photo taken in March 2007, this one from inside the cemetery, on the opposite side of the gate shown below. Quantrill was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere near the lower right corner of the photograph. As the blog develops, I'll be using photographs, such as this one, that I took months or sometimes years before, but which connect to what I'm working on now. The blog is also a great way of avoiding working on the promised revisions to I, Quantrill -- or perhaps I am at work because the photos keep the material fresh in my mind.

Wakefield, Kentucky

Here's a shot looking south on Highway 55 at the unincorporated community of Wakefield, named for Wakefield Farm, where William Clarke Quantrill was shot and paralyzed May 10, 1865. Yes, I know, this shot is out of order -- it should go down below, right? But I still have Quantrill on my mind. A couple or three weeks ago, I asked my editor at Penguin for time to make revisions on I, Quantrill. Well, I'm still working on the revisions, and my editor (who is a prince -- did I say that, he's a prince?) needs the revisions. A few more days...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Prairie Spirit Trail - July '07

Here's a self-portrait of me on the section of the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail between Princeton and Richmond, Kansas. As you can see, I'm hot -- the heat index was over one hundred and I had just finished biking 13 miles. So, what's the writing connection? Well, the trail is built on the roadbed of the old Leavenworth, Lawrence & Fort Gibson Railroad Company -- and the president of the company was Sen. Jim Lane, Quantrill's old enemy from the Lawrence raid. Lane committed suicide in 1866, the year after Quantrill's death.

Catholic Cemetery, Louisville

Here's me at the gate to St. John's Catholic Cemetery in the Portland neighborhood, where Quantrill was buried after he died June 6, 1865, in a Louisville hospital. At the time, the cemetery was known as St. Mary's. After being shot in the back, the guerrilla lingered for nearly a month, paralyzed from the chest down, before succumbing to his wounds. Quantrill had converted to Catholicism shortly before his death. According to the burial register provided by the Archdiocese of Louisville, Quantrill was buried here on June 7 -- along with four children whose first names are unrecorded. The grave is just inside the gate, to the left, in an unmarked grave in lot 624. This gate faces Duncan Street, but at the time of Quantrill's death, this was the location of the caretaker's house and the main entrance was off 26th Street, to the north. A newspaper editor and former childhood friend of Quantrill's from Canal Dover, Ohio, by the name of William Walter Scott had his bones (illegally) dug up in 1887. Scott sold some of the bones to the Kansas State Historical Society. The skull was later used in fraternity initiation rituals -- nicknamed "Jake" and with red Christmas lights glowing in the eyesockets. The skull was finally reburied on Oct. 30 (my birthday) in 1992 in the Fourth Street Cemetery at Dover. The bones from the Kansas historical society were buried a few days earlier at the Confederate Cemetery at Higginsville, Missouri, with military honors. That devil Quantrill is finally at rest. Expect I, Quantrill sometime in 2008, as I've just delivered the manuscript and the production process takes six months to a year. I haven't seen the cover art yet, but I'll post it when I get it.

Wakefield Farm Map

Here's the map of Wakefield Farm reproduced in William E. Connelley's Quantrill and the Border Wars (1910). I have added in red type the spot where Quantrill was shot and the position, based on my reckoning, of where the present highway sign is.

Wakefield Farm Map

Here's the map of Wakefield Farm reproduced in William E. Connelley's Quantrill and the Border Wars (1910). I have added in red the spot where Quantrill was shot and the position, based on my reckoning, of the location of the historical marker, which appears in the photograph below. The GPS coordinates of the marker, for the geeks among us, are 37.97241 / - 85.31041.

Wakefield Farm

I recently completed a novel for Penguin entitled I, Quantrill about the last days of the famous Civil War guerrilla. That's one reason the blog entries have been infrequent -- I've been busy finishing the book. Well, here's a photograph I took during a research trip to Kentucky, where Quantrill spent the last few months before being shot in the back and paralyzed at Wakefield Farm. Here's a photo I took during a March 2007 research trip to Kentucky that shows the historical marker along Highway 55 just north of Wakefield in Spencer County. The spot where Quantrill was shot is just over the hill to the left -- he was sleeping in the loft of a barn owned by James Wakefield on the rainy morning of May 10, 1865, when Federal guerrillas led by Edwin Terrell surprised Quantrill and his men. Quantrill was shot in the back and paralyzed, and was later taken to the Wakefield farmhouse, where he said farewell to some of his men, including Frank James. According to contemporary accounts, only the top of the barn could be seen from the Taylorsville - Bloomfield Road, now Highway 55. It was, appropriately, raining during my visit.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Haviland Festival - 7 July '07

Here's my camp, on the lawn of Barclay College at Haviland. Barclay is a Quaker Bible college. Haviland was founded by Quakers in the 1880s (although they prefer to be called "Friends") and 75 percent of the town's 600 residents are church members. I was in the line of fire of the disc golf tournament on Saturday morning, but the particpants suffered the "tent hazard" in good spirits. The mountain bike in the foreground is from High Gear, a shop in Emporia -- highly recommended.

Haviland Festival - 7 July '07

In the foreground are three meteorites on display during the Haviland Meteorite Festival. All are pallasites and were found in the Brenham strewnfield. Each of the rocks weigh several hundred pounds.

Haviland Festival - 7 July '07

This weekend was the Haviland Meteorite Festival, and I was there -- doing research. Here's a photo from Saturday morning's parade. This float probably won't make it into the book, but I liked the whimsical theme and the Chevy pickup.