Louisiana-native Kent Wascom is cutting quite a swath through the historical fiction landscape. The 28-year-old LSU alum stepped into the literary spotlight two years ago with his searing novel The Blood of Heaven—a violent and visceral Southern Gothic tale set against the backdrop of Floridian swamps and the Mississippi Delta.
Now Wascom is back with a new book, Secessia, in which a mixed-race mother tries to cope with a changing sociopolitical environment in the world of Civil War New Orleans. Before heading to Houston's Brazos Bookstore this Thursday for a reading, the writer chatted with us about the inspiration for his new book.
Houstonia: You’re a young novelist, but have already received great acclaim. Who are some of your favorite novelists who started out young?
Kent Wascom: Not so much a novelist, but Stephen Crane was quite young when he was writing masterpieces like The Black Riders and The Red Badge of Courage. Eleanor Catton and Helen Oyeyemi spring immediately to mind.
Your novels have deep historic backdrops. What is it about the past that draws you in?
For me, it’s the past’s continual applicability to the present; particularly its darker aspects. That and the thrill of discovery: reading an old newspaper, say, and finding some obscure but nonetheless fascinating detail that ignites a scene in my mind.
Apart from your roots, why are your works set in the South?
I’ve chosen this particular swath of the South—the Gulf Coast from south Louisiana through the panhandle of Florida—chiefly because that’s where I’m from. The Gulf Coast is a region beset by disasters both natural and manmade, a region either dismissed or a victim of the rest of the country’s belief that the South is a homogenous whole, which is a misconception plenty of southerners are glad to perpetuate. So the feeling that my region is threatened and misconceived makes the already compulsive urge to write about it all the more acute.
What was the historical research like for Secessia?
Secessia really benefitted from all I learned about research in writing (my first novel), The Blood of Heaven. It didn’t hurt that I know the geography of New Orleans, am comfortable with the city as a setting and live close enough to just head down and hit up different special collections and poke around.
Did your research change the way you looked at the South or New Orleans, specifically?
Yeah, quite literally. When I’m in the city now I can pass somewhere that’s now an office building or a coffee shop and know that it was once a place where enslaved men and women were sold, for instance, or executions held. Now I walk through not only the New Orleans of my personal past, my associations, but the New Orleans of the distant past.
What are some of the book's themes?
Conflict: between cultures, regions, men and women; the American army’s first prolonged occupation of an enemy city; the insidiousness of racial animus; the amorphousness of racial identity: the idea of passing for white [like] Elise, the female protagonist. An, most pointedly, the creation of various Confederate symbols and emblems, such as the Battle Flag, which have recently met their long overdue end (at least in terms of state sponsorship). What those symbols at their inception might have meant to a diverse cast of people in various, almost unimaginably difficult circumstances: those who were victims of the system such emblems represented, those who benefitted from it, those opposed, and all between.
Kent Wascom reads from his newest novel, Secessia, this Thursday, July 16, at 7 at Brazos Bookstore.
Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet St. 713-523-0701. brazosbookstore.com