Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Nick Johnston, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed S. C. Gwynne about his book Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Simon & Schuster), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Nick Johnston: I know it’s been four years since you published Empire of the Southern Moon, but when did you get the idea of writing a biography of Stonewall Jackson, and from then on, how long did it take to research and write? Also, was there a typical pattern to a research day for you?
S. C. Gwynne: Back in 2010–11 I had the wonderful good fortune of having a bestseller on my hands. When that happens your options open up a bit and for at least a brief moment in time you can think about doing something you might not normally think about doing. I just went back to what I thought were the most interesting people in history I had heard of, and started reading. Stonewall won. The book took about four years from proposal to the last copy edits. There is no typical pattern for me. I generally spend about 70 percent of my time researching and 30 percent writing and the writing of course always comes after the research.
NJ: In your acknowledgements, you mention that you worked with a battlefield scout (named Peter Marrata) when you were researching major battles that Jackson and the Stonewall Brigade fought in. What was that experience like?
SCG: Actually that was a bit of a joke. Peter is just a civil war buff who accompanied me on my tours of the battlefields and in fact helped me a great deal to understand how everything worked.
NJ: What attracted you to Jackson as a subject? It struck me while I was researching and reading your work that he seems to occupy a much smaller place in the minds of my fellow Southerners and Americans at large than other figures like Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. Was any of this an attempt at cultural course correction?
SCG: What is most interesting about Jackson was his transformation. In fourteen months he went from being an eccentric physics professor with no apparent leadership skills to the most famous military man in the western world. Before Lee had even begun to make his mark — to become the R. E. Lee we now recognize — Jackson was being compared to Napoleon. My question: How on earth does that happen to a man?
NJ: In my opinion, the most incredible aspect of Rebel Yell is your writing — vivid, clear, and well paced. Did that style come naturally with writing about someone with as colorful and as action-packed as Jackson, or did your experience as a journalist assist with that?
SCG: I have spent a career writing magazine journalism for general audiences, often trying to make difficult subjects into entertaining and informative narratives that people would actually like to read. I learned most of my narrative writing at Texas Monthly magazine, writing long features on a wide range of subjects.
NJ: One of the first ideas you mention in the book is that Jackson was an incredibly contradictory figure — a man who rode his troops almost as hard as his horse, Little Sorrel, and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, but was in his private moments a loving husband and devoted Christian. How hard was it to reconcile the oppositions within his character in your mind and in the book?
SCG: My approach was to just embrace all of those contradictions: the Christian who advocated total war, the dour professor who was really happy, sunny optimist, romantic, and loving family man. They were all part of him and my main purpose is just to show as accurately as I can how brilliantly complex he was. I don’t anyone will ever completely figure him out.
NJ: You mention having to work around missing documents — such as letters written to Jackson by his second wife, Anna — and you did an excellent job explaining what readers could still understand from them despite their absence. Are there any pivotal missing primary documents that stand out in your mind that you wish you had access to?
SCG: There is so much that is missing. We only have bits of his correspondence, for example, much of it to his sister Laura. We have almost nothing that others wrote to him. I could go on!
NJ: If you could alter one bit of knowledge about Jackson or even the entire Civil War at large in the popular consciousness, what would it be?
SCG: That in a war that made rather a specialty out of transforming people (think Grant, Sherman), Jackson’s was the fastest and most dramatic personal transformation of all. Also, Jackson’s death triggered the first great national outpouring of grief for a fallen leader in American history. It is of course overshadowed by the death of Lincoln, two years later. What happened after Lincoln’s death has been called “the national funeral.” In Confederate terms, Jackson’s was, too.
NJ: What do you have planned in the future? I don’t think anybody would hold it against you if you took a long break after writing a book as massive, and as thorough, as Rebel Yell.
SCG: Unfortunately there is no time for leisure! Or not much, anyway. I am embarked on a new book about American football. It’s this odd sport they play with an elongated, pointy ball.
S.C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Katie, and daughter, Maisie.
Nick Johnston is a second-year Fiction student in the New School's MFA program. His work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix and the Hoot Review. He lives in New York with his partner, Liza, and their companions, Clara the Dog and Handles the Cat. You can find him on Twitter @onlysaysficus and at his website, onlysaysficus.tumblr.com.