The Widow of the South is based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, whose house was commandeered as a field hospital during the 1864 Battle of Franklin, a Civil War bloodbath in which over 9,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed in one afternoon. Over a thousand of them were eventually reburied on the McGavocks' land, Carnton Plantation, and Carrie McGavock devoted much of her life to tending their graves.
Author Robert Hicks, a music publisher, art collector and preservationist, felt the story of Carrie McGavock needed to be told, but he wasn't sure at first that he should be the one to tell it.
"I tried to foist and pawn the idea on others, collaborations, walk away from it and read Russian novels -- anything to keep me from tackling it," he said in a Barnes & Noble interview. "Then one day I knew I had to do it."
Hicks, a native of South Florida, moved in 1979 to an 18th-century log cabin near Leiper's Fork, Tenn., where he still lives. In 1987, he joined the Board of Directors of Historic Carnton Plantation, where he has done everything from house restoration to hauling out the trash.
As his connection with the historic site grew, so did his curiosity about its former mistress, whom Oscar Wilde once described as "the high priestess of the temple of dead boys."
"Around the time we were seriously beginning a state-of-the-art restoration of Carnton's house and grounds, descendants of the McGavock family, who had moved out of Carnton in 1911 and had lived in the same house in Franklin ever since, opened up their family archives to us," Hicks explained in an essay on his publishers' Web site.
The scrapbooks and papers, he said, "began to suggest some answers, even while I found myself asking more questions." Among the papers were obituaries from newspapers across the country for Carrie McGavock.
"The obituaries clearly linked Carrie to the creation and maintenance of the Cemetery, but no journals or diaries were left to explain her motivation -- so, in the end, I felt that I had to sit down and explain, for myself, why she did what she did."
The resulting novel made it to the number five spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Kirkus Reviews called The Widow of the South "an impressive addition to the library of historical fiction on the Civil War, worthy of a place alongside The Killer Angels, Rifles for Watie and Shiloh."
"You'll swear you were smelling gunpowder and blood, and you may shed real tears," wrote Jeff Guinn of the Dallas Star-Telegram.
Hicks is pleased with the success of his book, but his work as a guardian of Tennessee history isn't done. More recently, Hicks has headed up Franklin's Charge, a coalition dedicated to preserving the remaining open space on and near the Franklin battlefield as a historic site.
"Why do we want to save it?" he asked in a National Geographic interview. "Because in the South's loss at Franklin, all of us won. This is where the Old South died and we were reborn as a nation."
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"My first job was in a bookstore during college. I got the job to make enough money to pay for a dinner party for 50 friends of my parents in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary. I didn't want a penny to come out of their pockets, so I got a job."
"My passion for many years has been the preservation of Historic Carnton Plantation. It is the site of most of the novel. Simply put, Carnton, Carrie McGavock, and her cemetery are the inspiration of my writing."
"I live in a magical place: my cabin, 'Labor in Vain,' my community, the green hills of Middle Tennessee, and within my head. The entire world, both within and without, is surrounded by the stories from my father, older relatives, strangers, books, and movies. I was raised surrounded by storytellers. They've made the world I live in forever magical and rich, even within the solitude of my cabin walls."
"I am forever a southerner. By this I mean to say that I remain forever eaten up with religion, passion, history, the past, the land, and stories."
"I'm passionate about travel, but always return to my cabin and to my past. I claim little connection with Faulkner, other than the hold that the past had on him and has on me. Like him, I remain optimistic about the future, despite the turmoil of the world."
"I am a collector by nature. I've collected since I was a kid. It began with fossilized shells from our driveway to rocks and leaves and baseball cards to books, 18th-century maps of Tennessee, Tennesseana in general, southern decorative arts, to outsider art. I am surrounded by collections. A friend says that the next thing I bring home must come with a crowbar -- to get it into my cabin."
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During the summer of 2005, Robert Hicks took some time out to answer a few of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
If truth be known, probably the Bible. It was the foundation of our lives when I was a child. After all, I'm a southerner and as I will always be a southerner, the Bible will no doubt forever hold its sway over me.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
One of the first books to have a lasting impact on me was Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. I attribute my continuing passion for travel and adventure to the nights I went to sleep reading of Halliburton's adventures around the world.
Many of my lifelong favorites can be found on any seventh- or eighth-grade reading list: C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird, and All the King's Men taught me about the value of goodness and truth. Moby-Dick and Lord of the Flies taught me to read, and Ayn Rand's Anthem made me think about what it meant to be an individual. All of these books were to impact my life forever.
In high school I discovered biography, reading about Robert E. Lee, Nicholas and Alexandra, and Confessions by St. Augustine, to name a few. This passion for biography has continued through the years, with books like Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis to a recent read, Surviving the Confederacy, about Roger and Sarah Pryor.
James Webb's Fields of Fire had a profound impact on me, as it brought me closer to the idea that I might be a writer someday myself. His most recent book, Born Fighting, has taught me a bit more about myself through my cultural heritage. I struggled through William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in college, but once I was done, I was hooked on Faulkner forever.
While my taste ranges from Smith's Vitruvius on Architecture to John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, I can get hooked on popular culture like anyone else and was absorbed enough after reading John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to make the mandatory pilgrimage to Savannah.
As far as Civil War reading goes, I would say that my favorite remains Co. Aytch by Sam Watkins. I'm privileged to own his personal copy of the first edition with his correctional notes in his own hand.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to
Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard -- One of the greatest films ever made.
Watch on the Rhine -- A wonderful, preachy, antifascist film by Lillian Hellmann with murder, intrigue, sacrifice, and doing the right thing all taking place in a Virginia country house on the eve of WWII.
Robert Altman's Nashville -- Again, one of the greatest films I've ever seen.
Apocalypse Now -- Not the director's cut, but the original. Best war movie of all time.
Visconti's The Leopard -- A superb period piece dealing with the decline of one culture and the rise of another. As a southerner, it's one of our themes.
The Godfather, Part II -- Sometimes The Godfather, Part I, but never The Godfather, Part III
North by Northwest -- Hitchcock at his best.
To Kill a Mockingbird -- Makes me feel better about mankind.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- Ditto.
The Apostle -- I knew many of these folks growing up in the South.
Goodfellas -- Enjoyable storytelling -- as lives unravel before us.
The Usual Suspects -- One of the few films where I really was surprised by the ending, yet wanted to see it again.
Waiting for Guffman -- One of the funniest movies I've ever seen.
The Russian Ark -- Great storytelling combined with sheer genius in the one-take layout of the film.
The Searchers -- My favorite western of all time.
Cool Hand Luke -- Just a great guys' film about triumphing over the system -- even if you really don't.
At Close Range -- Filmed in Franklin, Sean Penn and Christopher Walken at
their best -- and the all-time best Madonna theme song.
Raging Bull -- My all-time favorite Martin Scorsese film, and my all-time favorite Robert De Niro film.
Broadway Danny Rose -- I love many Woody Allen films, and know I'm supposed to pick Annie Hall, but this remains my favorite.
Being There --I can't recall how many times I've seen it. This is a case
where the film led me to read. After I'd seen Being There, I began to read Jerzy Kosinski.
Das Boot -- A near-perfect guys' film.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to
listen to when you're writing?
Dylan, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Deryl Dodd, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, the Carter Family, Randy Newman, John Prine, Buddy & Julie Miller, Steppenwolf, John Hiatt, Django Reinhardt, Barry White, Van Morrison, Waylon Jennings, early U2, Willie Nelson, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Guster, the Stones, Guy Clark, Pink Floyd, Merle Haggard...everything.
I never listen to music when I'm trying to write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Harold Bloom's Genius -- To make me finish it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
There are no limitations on what they might be. Last Christmas, I gave 17 copies of Born Fighting to friends. To a young reader, it might be Sam Watkins's Co. Aytch, a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor, or Shakespeare's Richard III.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on
your desk when you're writing?
I just to try to keep on writing. Sometimes I need to take a break -- watch a movie, or some TV, or listen to some music -- but in the end I must get back to the work at hand. Way too much stuff is on my desk.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
There was no overnight success to this story. I spent nearly six years trying to figure out how to get this book out. I tried to foist and pawn the idea on others, collaborations, walk away from it and read Russian novels -- anything to keep me from tackling it. Then one day I knew I had to do it.
By the time I got going, I knew my characters; it moved faster than I'd believed it would. I had a great support team in my agent and editors.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read passionately -- and get a good agent.
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