October 2010

Pauls Toutonghi

features

An Interview with Skip Horack

For The Eden Hunter, Skip Horack has moved out of the present moment, a moment that he delineated with grace and precision in his first story collection, The Southern Cross. The Eden Hunter travels back nearly two centuries -- to the wilderness of Spanish Florida in 1816. In that milieu, Horack tells the story of Kau, a pygmy tribesman who has been captured and brought to America by slave traders. Kau's escape -- and the way this escape intersects with the lives of a group of runaway slaves holed up in a fort on the Apalachicola River -- form the backbone of this dazzling and fluid historical novel.†

I caught up with Skip Horack in a rainy, neon-lit bar in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The fog rolled in off the bay and we drank Anchor Steam beer and looked out over the brutal promontories of Alcatraz.

Actually, I e-mailed these questions to him. He was kind enough to respond.

You've written a beautiful book in The Eden Hunter. But it's also a deeply violent book. Was this something you were attempting to do -- alternate between sketches of nature and images of violence?

Well, the book is set during a very violent period in the history of that corner of the world, and so it was important to me to have that dark reality come across in the book as authentically and as viscerally as possible. At the same time, however, this was also a place of incredible and largely unspoiled natural beauty, and therefore it was equally important to me to paint that picture for the reader as well. Honestly, I donít know how overly conscious I was (at least early on) of the juxtaposition of violence and beauty in the book -- in the quest to be both accurate and vivid, that was just the world that emerged on the page, if that makes sense.

This isn't a complicated question but it's one I like to ask: What's your favorite scene in the book, and why?

If I had to choose Iíd go with the brief epilogue that concludes the book. I guess I shouldnít spoil that here -- other than to say that itís a scene/image that came to me fairly early on in the process, and that writing toward (and making sense of) that moment, in essence, gave me my story. Finally arriving there on the page was a very exciting moment for me.

Can you describe the novel's genesis? Did it come from the character of Kau -- or perhaps from some broader historical event?

I used to live in Florida, and during my time there I stumbled upon the story of this fort that the British had built along the Apalachicola River during the War of 1812. Florida technically belonged to the Spanish back then, but it was also more or less a wilderness. This fort was not very far from the American border, and its purpose was to recruit runaway American slaves to enlist with the British in their war against the United States. The British were actually quite successful in convincing a large number of runaway slaves to join up with them, but before the fort ever saw battle the treaty was signed that ended the War of 1812. A few months later, the white British officers sailed back to England and left the fort in charge of these recruits.

So, for about a year and a half, you had this frontier fort -- just across the border from Georgia -- that was completely controlled by runaway slaves. This came to be a real thorn in the side for certain American slave owners because, even though the war was now over, many of the slaves in the Southern states and territories knew of the fortís continued existence, and so quite a few of them continued to run off and seek refuge there. The plantation owners complained of this situation to the government, until finally the American military agreed that something needed to be done.

I wonít tell you what all went down after that, because thatís a big part of my novel -- but fascinating, right? For whatever reason the story of this fort is not widely known, and so I started doing what research I could -- at first because the subject simply captured my imagination, but then also because, as time passed, I started to think that there might be a novel in this that Iíd like to tackle.

The question then became how to tell the tale, and somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted to present the story of this fort from the point of view of an African pygmy who had been sold into slavery. Once I had my protagonist (Kau) and point of view, I was able to start writing.

Your ties to Florida -- and the Southern swampland, in general -- must have animated your sense of the novel. Did your ties to the history of that state affect your process with The Eden Hunter?

I grew up in Louisiana, and spent about five years in North Florida as well, and so the Gulf Coast forests and waters are very special to me both as a writer and a person. That certainly informed the writing of The Eden Hunter, as I always saw the novel as an opportunity to express my enchantment with that landscape.

Jill McCorkle compared your book to both Conrad and Melville -- and this comparison, to me, makes a lot of sense. But the novel reminded me of early Melville -- his adventure novels, Typee and Omoo, the ones based on Melville's life in the South Pacific. Conrad is a writer who's fascinated with isolation and psychological damage. Did these two writers figure into your reading in the years before you wrote The Eden Hunter?

Well, the novelís African ties, as well as its ďfort in the wilderness,Ē certainly had me thinking of Conradís Heart of Darkness quite early on, and The Eden Hunter actually contains several allusions to that book. As for Melville, I do very much admire the premium that he places on regaling the reader, and in fact a line from a letter he wrote to Hawthorne shortly after Moby-Dick was published gave me my epigraph (as well as a certain way of looking at this book that I was attempting to write):

Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory -- the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended.

With whom did you study in the Stegner program?

During my two years as a Stegner Fellow I was fortunate enough to have workshops with Tobias Wolff, John LíHeureux, Elizabeth Tallent, and Colm TůibŪn. They were all great.

What are you working on now?

For the past year or so Iíve been working on a novel (contemporary, this one) about a guy who gets injured while working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, then heads out to California to meet a relative he never knew he had. I just finished the first draft, actually -- so now itís revision time.