Glenn Taylor is the author of The Marrowbone Marble Company. In it we meet Loyal Ledford, an orphan who becomes a working class man then a whiskey-drenched WWII vet and finally the proprietor of an egalitarian marble factory in West Virginia during the violent racial unrest of the 1960s. The Marrowbone Marble Company is founded by Ledford, his half-Indian cousins – the Bonecutter Brothers, a wide-eyed, philosophical preacher and Mack Wells – an African American man well aware of the civil strife associated with skin color. Equality becomes a battle and Ledford finds himself fighting for the future of the Marrowbone, its workers and his family.
MPPL chatted with Glenn Taylor about The Marrowbone Marble Company and more.
MPPL: What sparked the idea for The Marrowbone Marble Company and how long has it been stewing around on your desk?
GLENN TAYLOR: I had been reading a good bit about World War II, after having picked up a copy of Donald L. Miller’s The Story of World War II. It really got to me, reading of what young men endured, and I began to recognize how young enlisted men and women are still enduring it today. I teach several sections of required Freshman Composition each semester, and inevitably, I always have a few students who have recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Once, when I asked a particularly bright and thoughtful young man (who had served three tours) how he had come to be in the military, he told me, “I enlisted on September 12, 2001.” That kind of answer sticks with you. I had Ledford in mind, and I knew that after Pearl Harbor, Ledford was the type to do the same thing my student did. Beyond this little spark of instigation, I was very drawn to glass making. And, like always, I feel compelled to write of folks who struggle against oppression.
MPPL: Some writers can’t or don’t write about a certain setting until they have lived there and left. For example, Joyce wrote all his best work set in Ireland after he’d left his home country. The Marrowbone Marble Company is set in West Virginia, as was your first novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, how tied to place are you as a writer?
GT: I am very tied to place. The question here is so insightful that it reveals its own answer. For me, it took leaving home to discover how to write about it. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in West Virginia, and during that time I was not drawn to investigate its history. Only upon moving to Texas did I fully develop the pride that leads to digging up the past. And what a past it is. Only upon moving to Illinois did I fully develop an appreciation for hilly terrain. And what hills they are.
MPPL: It’s been said that there is a “hidden south,” meaning that there’s the magazine Southern Living and then there’s real life. Does that idea hold true to you? If so, who are the people and places of your “hidden south?”
GT: I suppose the people and places of my “hidden south” are those oft misunderstood people of the southern coalfields of West Virginia. My father grew up in Matewan, Mingo County, and I visited there quite a bit as a child. It’s a complex place that the national media has not ever taken the time to understand. The people are diverse and tough and possess great ingenuity, I think. Yet, the civic resources to build on such qualities are long since gone. The boom and bust of the coal industry has left some scarring and heartache in its wake. The “hidden” part comes about in the media presentations of the people of such areas. These presentations usually involve very little historical perspective, so that contemporary viewers never realize how relatively socially and racially progressive such places once were, before the money disappeared.
MPPL: What kind of research did you wrestle through to nail down the setting in The Marrowbone Marble Company?
GT: The book takes place in Huntington, my hometown, and in Wayne County, my neighboring county, so I had that advantage. Time was more of a stumbling block than place. And the spot where I envisioned Marrowbone Cut itself is now covered over by a 1200 acre, man-made lake, so that was a challenge. I suppose it was a combination of reading and talking to older folks. I read books like Huey Perry’s They’ll Cut off Your Project, and I talked to people like C. Michael Gray, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement in Huntington and elsewhere.
MPPL: Were there any bits of phenomenal research that grabbed your brain that you couldn’t squeeze into the novel?
GT: So many accounts of World War II experiences were either too painful or too beyond my realm of understanding to fully convey. I felt strange just trying to write about a few select days on Guadalcanal, as if I was treading ground I shouldn’t be, having never served in the military. Beyond that, there was research on glass blowing that was fascinating that simply didn’t fit, as well as a wealth of knowledge concerning the War on Poverty.
MPPL: Do you think you’ll ever write any full-length nonfiction?
GT: I’m open to it. It would probably be down the road a ways.
MPPL: How’s about a short story collection?
GT: Though I’m open to that too, I don’t foresee ever returning to the short form. I’m simply not as good at it. In hindsight, there was a reason for all those rejection slips over the years. Some writers can make stories feel full, like little novels. Mine have traditionally run the risk of seeming gimmicky, or too clever for their own good. We’ll have to wait and see if I have the time and energy to change that down the road.
MPPL: Speaking of short stories, have you read any good ones lately?
GT: Yes. I’m reading Ron Rash’s Burning Bright, and they are all good. He is a true storyteller, no gimmick.
MPPL: Do you have a favorite bookstore around Chicagoland?
GT: I must admit my lack of experience here. Where we live, the chains are easiest to visit. Beyond those, I’ve visited a decent range of city and suburban stores, yet I haven’t scratched the surface. I’ve been to Quimby’s, which I found very unique and interesting. I like the other style too, the old “stacked to the ceiling” kind, like Jack’s Used Books on Northwest Highway used to be. I got a signed first edition of a Harry Crews book there once upon a time. And I look forward to doing a reading at The Book Table in Oak Park. I hear it’s a great one.
MPPL: What about favorite libraries you’ve visited while winding around on book tours?
GT: I did a reading once at Barnes & Noble Georgetown, and it was embarrassingly sparsely attended. But the trip was worth it in the end, as I spent a day at the Library of Congress. It was incredible. I filled out the paperwork, got my researcher card, and had at it. I could’ve spent a year inside those rooms. Little staircases connected little alcoves of book-lined treasure chests, room after room after room. A couple was getting married in the main hall. Hell of a library.
MPPL: In a bout of drag-down, knock-out literary fisticuffs, who would win in a cage match?
Flannery O’Connor vs. Carson McCullers
GT: O’Connor. She’d throw mud in the eyes if she had to.
William Faulkner vs. William Gay
GT: Tough one to call. I suppose Gay might triumph, even if it wasn’t in a totally “fair” manner.
Mark Twain vs. Harper Lee
GT: Twain would go down by decision and claim later he let her win, but that would be a bald-faced lie.
Stephen King vs. James Patterson
GT: I’ll go with King here. I heard Patterson has other writers do some of his legwork, which leads me to believe he’d slack on training.
Dorothy Parker vs. Shirley Jackson
GT: A draw. Neither would manage to do much more than pull a few loose stands of hair out.