Monday, April 29, 2019

The Story Behind My Novel

You can preorder Blood Cries here.

Harper Lee went down to Alex City forty-two years ago to research the story of Reverend Will Maxwell, the so-called voodoo preacher. Maxwell was the man who allegedly murdered five members of his immediate family for insurance money but seemed immune to prosecution. After he was charged with the murder of his first wife, the DA's star witness changed her testimony and provided him with an alibi. She later married him. Then she was found dead too, and so was the Reverend's brother, his nephew, and his 16-year-old foster daughter. Some suspected at least one other mysterious death could be attributed to him. The justice that was finally served was of the frontier variety, delivered from the hands of the girl's uncle at her funeral, when he shot the Reverend down in front of two hundred witnesses.

You can read all about the story in To Kill a Preacher by E Paul Jones.

Harper Lee's side of the story will be covered in Casey Cep's book, Furious Hours, when it is released on May 7th. Lee presented a lot of good reasons why she never completed her book, which was to be called The Reverend. When I wrote to her in 2009, she wrote back saying she found, "a mountain of rumor and tall tales to a molehill of fact." In a letter she wrote to the writer Madison Jones in 1988, she noted how the story seemed to draw out people's inherent vanity and narcissism. She told him, "if a hero is what you want, invent one."

I got interested in the story when I first heard it when I was very young and then rediscovered the story in 2002 while working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Spalding University. I conducted a lot of research, read trial transcripts and newspaper coverage, interviewed people, and wrote to others, including Lee. In 2012, I produced a book called The Reverend.

For some reason, I still couldn't let the story go. In 2015, I discovered new information and got an idea for a new book based on the same source material.

By September/October of last year, I was feeling pretty much the same way Harper Lee must have felt—that there was nothing good to be found in the story. I was three years into writing Blood Cries, and I was ready to walk away for good. I felt like I had gone and stuck my big nose into a story where it didn't belong, and the only way I could see continuing is if I could bring something more to the table than I brought with my first novel.

Then in December, I went to visit my dad, and he told me how he and some people from his church had gotten together and bought a refrigerator for the local food pantry. Because of that I reached out to my oldest friend in the world, Brian, to see if he knew of a good local charity I could donate half my sales to, assuming I could finish the book and get it published. I figured people in East-Central Alabama were the ones who got the worst of this story, they should at least reap some benefits.

Brian told me about Feast of Sharing, founded by Helen Walton and Pastor Bill Etheridge. People from the First United Methodist Church partnered with others from St. James Episcopal to provide meals to people in the area. It took me a full morning before I realized this was the charity I was meant to donate to; it immediately felt like the right thing to do.

But there was still the matter of the book. What story could I tell that wasn't already being told by E Paul Jones, Casey Cep, or Mark Seal, whose piece, The Devil and Harper Lee, just appeared on Scribd.

Lee said if a hero is what you want, invent one. Well...

Meet Louella Harper. Some people say she looks and sounds an awful lot like Harper Lee. Forty two years ago, she went down to Jackson City, Alabama (which seems a lot like Alexander City) intending to write a book about a so-called voodoo preacher. In Blood Cries, you can read roughly ten chapters of her book-within-my-book, which happens to be titled The Reverend, and another hundred pages or so of 1st person accounts telling exactly what happened when she went to Jackson City and why she never published her book. The reasons may shock and surprise you.

Of course, no one would ever know what was in Louella Harper's manuscript if it wasn't for the efforts of her number one fan, Chris Hope. How those precious documents came to be in Chris's possession is another question that will be answered within the pages of Blood Cries.

I hope you like it.


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