It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered.
We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I’m buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.”
Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of Wyoming; Snow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way.
A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too.
I asked her questions.
The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing?
Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness.
I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize.
TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story?
AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable.
Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel.
The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich.
TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting?
AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures.
TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now?
AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will.
Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy.
TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them?
AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture?
I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture.
TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe.
AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things.
I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them.
TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul?
AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to?
TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing?
AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies.
TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle?
AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.