Issue 114, Spring 1990
Mary Lee Settle is best known for her five volume series of novels called the Beulah Quintet. It is a monumental work that took twenty-eight years to research and write, and it traces the evolution of the people we have become, from seventeenth-century England to contemporary West Virgina. The five books are Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat, and The Killing Ground.
Settle won the National Book Award in 1978 for Blood Tie, a novel set in Turkey, and the Kafka Prize for Fiction for The Killing Ground. All the Brave Promises, a memoir of her service in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the RAF during World War II, has been called “one of the most moving accounts of war experience ever encountered.” Her other novels are The Love Eaters, The Kiss of Kin, The Clam Shell, Celebration, and her latest, Charley Bland, was published last fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
She was born in Charleston, West Virginia, spent her early childhood in Pineville, Kentucky, her adolescence in West Virginia, her short education in two years at Sweet Briar College, and her adulthood everywhere—London, Paris, Rome, and Turkey. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In 1978 she married William Tazewell. He is a retired newspaper editor who writes a weekly book column and teaches writing at the University of Virginia. Her son, Christopher Weathersbee, lives in Texas.
This interview was begun in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was reading at Oklahoma State University. It was carried on by telephone between San Jose, California and Charlottesville, and it was completed in Charlottesville.
Settle lives in a house with a series of pointed roofs that looks like a camp castle. There are two Dalmations. Her workroom, where most of the interview took place, is an aerie that looks out into treetops. The first impression is one of brightness. The colors are primary; the sun pours in. The walls contain objects from a life of wandering that is reflected in her books—fossils called “flowers of darkness” from coal mines, a stone fragment from the Great Rift in Africa, a large photograph of a temple dragon from Kyoto, and, like Merlin’s cell in The Once and Future King, the eleventh edition of The Encyclopedia Brittanica. One wall is covered with a much-marked map of Turkey. She is working on a book called Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place.
After the National Book Award became the American Book Award in 1981, she started the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, to be judged the same way that the National Book Award had been: by a writer’s peers and by leading critics. It will have its tenth anniversary this year at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. It still retains its original imperative that, in her own words, it be, “an honor in an atmosphere of honor and celebration.”
You are best known for the Beulah Quintet, which ends in Charleston, West Virginia. You call it Canona. What was Charleston’s impact on you as a child, and what caused you to write about it so frequently?
MARY LEE SETTLE
I was not a child in Charleston. I was an adolescent there. I have never understood why it, of all the landscapes I have written about, is considered the font of my work. Conrad said that there is not a place of splendor nor a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve if only a passing glance of wonder and pity. Like Conrad, I chose exile for a long time, and so it was normal for me to find my places in four continents. I have written about England, Turkey, Africa, and Hong Kong. It is where, for me, the ordinary becomes luminous that I find myself, always surprised, placing a story there.
Kentucky and Florida, where I lived as a child, appear all the time in their disguises. The Beulah Quintet ends in West Virginia, but the landscape of Canona, and certainly its architecture, comes from several Allegheny cities.
It is typical of towns in the Presbyterian belt of the Alleghenies, where there are pockets of what Mencken called booboisie money and snobbery, mixed with elements of places where coal has been, in the past, the black diamond. That, too, reflects time—the time of the coal barons and their coal baron gothic architecture, the time of the first settlement, the time of modern loss and depression—all in the same mythic place that I hope reflects, beyond itself and its locality, a human condition and a shared past. The world of the coal fields is a feudal world, and I saw Canona as its reflection. And I tell you, it is more real to me than Charleston ever was.
Canona is more than Charleston, and as always in fiction, less. Somerset Maugham said that it took at least six human beings to make one fictional character. That is true of landscape as well, I think. We have to make our landscapes, change streets, create new turnings, rebuild or tear down, change time, and even nature, if need be.
But there has to be a personal impact, and you are talking in fictional terms.
I think in fictional terms—memory transmuted by observation and experience. I lived in Charleston for my most sensitive and memorable years, from the time I was ten until I was eighteen, and very little after that. Someone once described the place to me years later as being surrounded by psychic mountains ten thousand feet high. The instinct for anyone of ambition and intelligence, if they are not held there by love—and I wasn’t—is to run for your life. I did. I ran to what Lily in The Scapegoat dreamed of when she got on the train in 1912—heaven or New York City—whichever the train got to first. I ran to England and war. Then I ran to dedicated poverty for years after the war, in England and, sometimes, to Paris—wherever there were two or three American intellectual refugees gathered together. We all think we escape and then spend the rest of our lives writing about our prisons. I saw those prisons in time always, and the fact that the ending of the Beulah Quintet is in Canona is only a small part of the landscape. It starts in England, goes to the Endless Mountains, then begins to concentrate on that country from Charlottesville in the Piedmont of Virginia, to the fictional valley I call the Valley of Beulah.
Many people assume that the Beulah Quintet was written in chronological order from Prisons to The Killing Ground. I know it wasn’t. Can you talk about the composition of the quintet? I know that at one point it was a trilogy.
I thought at first that I was going to write a modern novel. I never can start a book until I get both a mind’s eye vision and the questions that go with it, like the question Faulkner asked himself about why Caddy’s knickers were dirty. My vision was of two men in a drunk tank on a Saturday night—one of them hit the other, a stranger. That was all I knew, and then I began the dangerous process of a half-conscious questioning. It is not an intellectual process at all. What was behind the first, what anger, what prejudice, why was one man chosen instead of another, what was the residual fury all the way to the genes? I kept on going back until I stopped first at Hannah Bridewell, an eighteenth-century convict lost in the Allegheny Mountains in 1755. Then I came forward to write the pre–Civil War volume, called Know Nothing. I made the mistake after Know Nothing of trying to come up to the modern world too quickly.
That was Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. You don’t even claim it on your list of books any more.
It was my Stephen Hero, my Jean Santeuil. One was the first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the other the first attempt at A La Recherche du temps perdu. Both were fumbles. So was mine. I began what was essentially a modern novel with a section about the mine wars in 1907, which was cut. My editor at Viking said nobody was interested in coal mines. I let them cut the section and bring out a truncated book, and I have deeply regretted it ever since, although I shouldn’t because it forecast years of writing afterwards. I went through the worst reviews I have ever had, and I thought then that years of work were lost, that the Beulah books were a failure. Then I realized that they simply weren’t finished yet. What is the saying about the fortunate fall? “Oh happy sin, oh happy fault.” Well, without the short section that had been lost, it was so obviously incomplete that after I had written All the Brave Promises and The Clam Shell, I went back to it. The mistake made me turn the trilogy into the quintet that exists now, at last. I had seen, years before, a Senate investigation into an incident in the mine wars in West Virginia. It was all verbatim—a gold mine of language and attitudes. I used a true incident from it about a massacre by the Baldwin Felts detective agency, during an early strike called by the United Mine Workers. So The Scapegoat was set, as the seed incident was, in 1912. I added Prisons at the beginning, which was about a true incident in the mid-seventeenth century English Civil War that led to the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. It was in studying that incident, a revolt of Cromwellian cavalry who refused to fight in Ireland, that I found some of the sources of our language of democracy. Prisons gave me language, and The Scapegoat gave me a whole new understanding of the parents and their effect on their children in the new last volume, The Killing Ground. There is a poignancy, for instance, in knowing that the fairly stern father in The Killing Ground is poor Mooney from The Scapegoat, or that Althea, the sexy, alcoholic sister, is the survivor and the Ancient Mariner of the last book. It gives a depth and an echo to the last volume that Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday couldn’t have. After The Killing Ground, I knew it was finished. It had taken, altogether, twenty-eight years.
I have tried to define the genre of the quintet, and I have come up with “psychological/historical novels” as a definition. How would you describe the genre?
Oh lord. Psychological/historical. A label! Why not say an attempt to see the society as a character in its own time? What I tried to do was to become contemporary with the time so that I was empathetic with what people thought was happening, and who they thought they were, rather than using the knowledge that we have as hindsight. This, in a way, is a definition of our time—now we live in a world in which we think we know what is going on, but we can’t see the overall picture until we see where we came from to this moment. So if you read the quintet chronologically, you know, as a reader, more of the past of the people in it than they do. You can see its effect on them when they can’t. You also, by the definition of the time in which you are reading, know more of their future.
In the last volume, The Killing Ground, which is contemporary, how does this work? How would you relate the understanding of your fictional people in, say, 1960, to our understanding now, twenty years later, of the 1960s?
Remember when Hannah goes up Lacey Creek with the Kennedys in the West Virginia primary in 1960? I am, and you, the readers, are aware that she is looking at the back of John Kennedy’s head, but Hannah, at that point, is not really conscious of it. There is a resonance for you and me that she can’t possibly know.