Jackson Taylor

Rhetoric and History: An Interview With Jackson Taylor, author of The Blue Orchard (Simon & Schuster 2010)
by Molly Rose Quinn

In the first of Freerange Nonfiction’s new series of author interviews, I spoke with Jackson Taylor about his novel The Blue Orchard (Simon & Schuster 2010), the recipient of a Publishers’ Weekly “Starred Review.”
 
Jackson Taylor’s novel The Blue Orchard is a monument to the life and quiet perseverance of Verna Krone, the author’s grandmother. With only an eighth grade education, Verna overcomes extreme poverty to become the steadfast nurse to Harrisburg, PA’s most prominent black doctor, until they are arrested for performing abortions. Regarding the consequences of gender, race, and class that have led to her arrest, Verna looks back through her life in a deeply felt narration, one whose voice I have not heard before. Verna’s world is a regionalist portrait of Pennsylvania and an evolving political culture of the 20th century. As Taylor’s articulate prose details in the interview below, The Blue Orchard grows from many focal points: it is historical, familial, heroic.
 
The book boasts heavily researched narrative material and a careful, studied prose. I found Verna’s discontented voice to be modern and new. Though the scope of the book moves beyond the issue of abortion which sits at its center – I do think it is impossible to discuss the text without addressing its implications. Taylor does so at the end of the interview with extraordinary grace, and in the afterword to the book he writes, “I wasn’t interested in taking a position for or against, but I was simply fascinated by the truth, and the way historical fact informed the era that led to Roe v. Wade.” Since its publication in January of 2010, I have not come across any other book which weaves so deftly this kind of complexity.
 
The Blue Orchard itself has an intriguing history, leading to Walmart eventually reneging on their deal to sell it (a fascinating story which only Jackson can tell rightly). As such, I am deeply honored to showcase this work and this author here. I encourage our readers to learn more about this exceptional book. To purchase it and read a synopsis, see Taylor’s page at Simon & Schuster. His website also features his many well-deserved praises, from such lauded sources as Wally Lamb, Sapphire, Phillip Lopate, and Vivian Gornick.

 

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I’d like to begin this particular interview by asking you about nonfiction. The Blue Orchard is a novel; in print and in other places you have said that the book is based on true facts from your grandmother’s life. In some ways The Blue Orchard nudges further towards nonfiction than other “based on a true story” works as it involves a great deal of historical context. Much of the narrative draws attention to the climate of politics and medicine throughout Verna Krone’s life. What led you to write this story in this genre?
 
Writing a novel with extensive historical research was not my first inclination or intention. I was more interested to act as a cipher for a certain regional vernacular and to use it in a way that might celebrate the poetry present within. A deep practical relationship to the earth and its sustenance is contained in that tongue and I sought to re-imagine how words form a way to endure hardship. The rural landscape of America in the early part of the 20th century was particularly arduous for certain food-growers for they felt little of the profit that other booming industries enjoyed.
 
The book began and still rests on a foundation of poetic license and the rule of probability, but through research the modest story began to broaden and deepen with political implication–one whose significance was so unrelenting that it refused to be ignored. The local tale I was imagining eventually revealed through fact that votes were bought during elections, and that their tally actually aided Richard Nixon in his ascendancy to the White House.
 
Publisher’s Weekly has written that the book ‘might be an American classic.’ Part of the reason I believe there is that perception is that its setting mirrors or symbolically suggests any number of medium-sized quasi-industrial cities—the majority of which went into spiraling decline after World War Two, and most have never recovered.
 
Did you feel influenced by other authors, particularly in crafting an historical novel, or a novel based in nonfiction?
 
As with all people who write, many authors have inspired me, and they represent a huge spectrum ranging from the classical canon to the ridiculously popular. What I look for in novels is not that which is fashionable or that which re-enforces my already held beliefs, but rather that which parses out an unusual or varied human response thereby provoking and challenging me to wrestle with my own set ways and a mind that could always be more flexible—one that considers new ways of thinking.
 
For me a heightened application of language is also enjoyable, as are the possibilities a story offers to examine social conflict or make theoretical, theological, philosophical, or historical ideas accessible and ponder-able to everyday readers like myself. I think many novelists today are interested in the form of fiction, or writing to engage a small coterie of like-minded souls, literary and elite, who may also share a pre-determined aesthetic, one honed from certain limiting educational experiences. While some such writers can entertain each other–they often seem to me pre-digested in their opinions–or they fail to harness a larger social consequence thereby foregoing the power to challenge propaganda, knee-jerk decisions or ideas beset with the kind of rigor mortis that plagues the critical mind in any age.
 
I’ve read before that The Blue Orchard took a decade to write. I’m making the assumption that this was in part due to research. What was harder: the historian’s responsibility towards truth, or the weighty task of writing about one’s family?
 
One of the biggest criticisms I hear about the book is someone who says “I didn’t find your grandmother very likeable.” That comment actually feels like a compliment to me because it means I have done my job well by having properly complicated her character, the way all people are complicated, so that they aren’t just some cardboard or saccharine stock representations, the kind of idealized figures that to my taste too many cinematic offerings depend on. When people write about their families, they will often depict only the virtues of their ancestors and that is really lying by omission and asking readers to indulge in eating a whole pot of honey. Such sweets fail to render the salty range of human characteristic, they romanticize and protect the people depicted preventing them from being flawed and inconsistent just like we are.
 
Do you think of Verna of The Blue Orchard as the same person as your grandmother? Did you fear that writing this book could in some ways replace part of your family history? Or add to it?
 
I feel that my character Verna Krone symbolically represents my grandmother but that she resides in the imagined world of literature within a pair of bound covers. Whatever one writes becomes a metaphor for something else whether one wants it to or not. So I’m not sure what the book does to family history, except to leave an imperfect piece of narrative behind where there might have been nothing.
 
Your portrayal of Verna’s life before she meets Dr. Crampton is rather grisly: the poverty in her childhood home, her first foray into domestic work and consequent experience with abortion, such as it is. Verna’s struggle for financial and familial stability is dark, and in some places difficult to stomach. I found many of the men in her life despicable. Do you feel the same? What motivated you to write about Mr. Wertz and Charles Dennis?
 
Many people have commented on the poor quality of men in Verna’s life, and I do feel bad about that. I don’t think the men are particularly bad, but that both men and women in that period were enduring a limiting binary moral code based on gender that eventually became so pronounced that it sowed the seeds of feminism. That world is a patriarchal culture, and what we know of male dominated structures is that they can at times appear as attractive to women as they do to men until their constrictions end up dividing the cohesion of complicity. If you look at Patriarchal religions, you will find statistics that describe an inordinate number of women, particularly in middle age, who depend on anti-depressants to cope with too little question of a culture they subscribed to while very young.
 
I wrote about Mr. Wertz and Charles Dennis because they were private stories my grandmother had shared with me and as I came to comprehend them I recognized how many of these challenging situations with men had shaped her independence and her joyfully humorous cynical view of the world.
 
Did you know much of your grandmother’s background before you began this project?
 
Yes. Some pieces I knew from an early age, some only a few years before I began to work on the book.
 
Verna’s own politics concerning abortion are an important point of tension in the book. When she begins her nursing degree, she is pretty ignorant about women’s health, and has a lot of misconceptions about her own past life experiences. I couldn’t help think that this sentiment is meant to reflect that generation more broadly. Are these issues something you felt representative of this time period in this part of America?
 
It is up to each reader to determine what their relationship to pro-choice or pro-life is. Verna would not have prescribed what anyone else should or should not be doing with the body that they own. She disliked the piety of the sermon, the equivalent sanctimony of politics, and the corresponding manipulation in advertising—she believed all three forms of rhetoric relied on the same spins, using a limited and distorted rhetoric to persuade people to think and act alike. Verna is a rare woman in that she found her own freedom, and she liked to see idiosyncratic decisions and freedom in others.
 
She was a great believer in the phrase “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and deplored leaders who used fear to exploit people. She would detest the tactics of officials who use the word “terror” to frighten–and she would deplore as illegitimate the increasing powers of surveillance afforded by recent acts of congress which are anything but ‘patriotic.’ Verna also believed a clear separation between church and state was essential, and that politicians like all people should keep their relationships with God a silent practice, reserved for churches or private places within their own hearts.

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JACKSON TAYLOR read at Freerange Nonfiction’s June 1, 2011 show. You can read about The Blue Orchard at http://theblueorchard.com. Taylor is the Associate Director of The New School’s Graduate Writing Program, which he helped launch, and where he teaches. For more than fifteen years he has been the Director of The Prison Writing Program at PEN American Center. His short fiction has appeared in Spit, Pink, Moss and Punk, and his poems have appeared in Lit, Sleeping Fish, Witness, and others. For three years he worked at The New York Times in the Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the National desks. He holds a BA from Columbia and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in Manhattan and Greenport.

MOLLY ROSE QUINN is the Managing Director of Freerange Nonfiction. She is a poetry and prose writer, whose writing can be found here. Molly is also the Editor-in-Chief of LUMINA, the Literary Journal of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program. She lives in Brooklyn.