‘What’s a Whirligig?’
It’s the most common question I’m asked when discussing my novel, right up there with ‘What’s it about?’ and ‘How many have you sold?’ I often feel I make hard work of the answer, giving a longwinded and rather literary answer.
I usually start with my ‘eureka’ moment in the Chicago Institute of Art where I found a wonderful piece of 19th century folk art (see, you are already fighting the urge to run), a chin high tower of cogs and sails painted in red, white and blue. Then I explain how as I drove down through Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, I saw the same patriotic impulse, albeit in different forms, repeated a thousand times on billboards, above front porches and in the names of gas-stations, carwashes and burger-bars. It got me wondering how America and the Union were perceived at the time of the Civil War, and how the war might have shaped modern attitudes to America. It was something I wanted to explore thematically in the book, albeit as secondary to the story. So I invented the Whirligig man as an eponymous character who took his piece of folk art from town to town and fair to fair and collected pennies for people to see it. It acts as a metaphor for America, both then and now. Cele, a little slave girl, wants to know if the Whirligig is happy.
Cele, pleased to be part of the show, moved over to the [Whirligig] man. ‘Is it happy now?’ she asked. ‘How can you tell?’
'That’s an intelligent question, little miss.’ He went to Cele and bent low, putting both hands on his knees. ‘Happiness is at the root of it, wouldn’t you say? Mostly, though, it likes to be busy; that’s how to tell. When the windmills are spinning so fast that the colors blur and the bells are good and loud, that’s when I think it’s happy.’
By this point, most people who have asked me about the name are thinking they might just buy a Dan Brown, or that they haven’t read Fifty Shades yet. It’s all come to mind because this week I heard from a retired American Major who is reading Whirligig. He wrote to me about this very part of the book in which the American flag, floating about a town square in Eastern Tennessee, is fired upon and the mayor is forced to lower it. Subsequently (minor spoiler alert) the Whirligig is smashed to pieces, leaving its owner destitute. I wanted it to be metaphorical of the American Union being smashed and broken at the outbreak of the war, but as with all metaphors, you’re never quite sure if it’s clear enough. The firing on and lowering of the flag in Cleveland, Tennessee, is a true event, the Whirligig man my own fiction. My American major confessed to being deeply moved by both.
This was a source of deep, deep satisfaction for me: that without any explanation on my part, for this American, the scene connected the patriotism and love of country that exists today with the tragedy of a hundred and fifty years ago. The abolition of slavery was the lasting and most meaningful outcome of the war, but for most soldiers on both sides, at least at the war’s outset, the issue was the Union itself and its continued existence or destruction. There are so many echoes of disunion today in my own county, both internal and external. The parallels fascinate and sometimes frighten me.
From a commercial point of view, I probably should have called the book ‘Blood in the West’ (actually that’s not bad!) or ‘River of Death’, but for me there’s so much tied up in my Whirligig, so many connections to different events and feelings, that I’m happy I picked it.
‘As on this Whirligig of time, we circle with the seasons.’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson'
I never met Colonel Samuel Emerson Opdycke, but I’d like to say he’s a friend of mine. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for Georgia based Historical-Fiction.com about a writer’s dilemma when it comes to representing history within fiction. It prompted me to think a little deeper about the particular ‘relationship’ I form with historical figures. To be frank, it’s all a little one-sided.
I don’t mean to be flippant. I feel slightly uncomfortable spending so much time with someone who died over a hundred and thirty years ago, and to whom I was never formally introduced. It’s as if I’m some sort of time-slip stalker. I know Emerson from his letters which are published in ‘To Battle for God and the Right,’ by Glenn Longacre and John Haas. They were originally preserved by Emerson’s wife, Lucy, to whom they were mostly addressed. They have the feel of letters that might have been intended for posterity. He wrote a great deal about his experiences post-war. If he didn’t want me to know him, then I guess he wouldn’t have let his wife transcribe his letters.
I also understand him from the writing of his men and his fellow officers in the 125th Ohio; the Tigers. I know him because I’ve been to where he fought: on the battlefield of Chickamauga, atop Missionary Ridge, at Kennesaw and Franklin; all places where his decisions, actions and personal bravery made a difference to the war. I know his horse, Barney, of whom he was so fond. I’ve read the gentle lines to Lucy that bracket his opinionated view of the Union generals. Emerson always knew better; he thought a lot of himself. He thought a lot of his cause too, fighting for the Union but also for freedom. His part of north eastern Ohio was strong in abolitionist sentiment. I took a long detour via Kentucky to visit his burial site in Warren, Trumbull County. I found him in the Victorian centre of Oakwood Cemetery in the middle of the rundown Rust Belt town, though most of its industry arrived long after Emerson’s day. I know of his tragic and accidental death. I know more than he ever did in life in that I’ve read of his only child’s suicide in 1914. I didn’t mention it at the tomb. Sometimes it’s best to keep secrets from your friends.
Knowing all of this is fine, it’s really just admiring him. But when I come to write, to put words into his mouth, thoughts into his head, feelings into his body, it’s like a gentle form of possession. I wonder if he ever felt the cold shiver of me walking beside his tomb. Mr Longacre and Mr Haas studied him too, but they simply published his letters, they didn’t take liberties as a fiction writer does. And now that my book is being sold, more people are coming to know him. Bizarrely, there’s now a whole clutch of people where I live in West Sussex, England, that know of this Colonel from Ohio. What would he make of that? He wasn’t overly fond of England.
I always think of Emerson as older and wiser than me, even though he was just thirty-one when the war started. I guess it’s history that is older and wiser. I’d like to think he’d be content with my efforts. Glory was more in vogue back then and, while I try to be as accurate as I can, I think my added imagination reflects well on Emerson and the 125th, on Opdycke’s Tigers.
You can read more on a fiction writer’s relationship with history at
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My dog, Duffy, has a part in ‘Annie the Musical’ with our local theatre company. It’s a big deal in our house. Like all well-loved dogs, Duffy is the best dog in the world.
She has no previous experience of treading the boards so it’s come as a bit of a shock to us all. My daughter, Tara, was already in the show and when Duffy got ‘hired’ she was mildly jealous that the dog has a seven show gig while she has just the three.
The timing for me isn’t great either. I launch my novel, Whirligig, a couple of days before the show starts and either myself or my wife have to be in the wings managing Duffy for all the shows. Even when not backstage with the dog I’ll be running my wife back and forth or in the audience proper. Two days have matinees as well as evening performances so I really only have the morning to do any book promotion.
I had imagined twelve hour days to try and get the sales rolling. There is a monster list of people to email: civil war societies, re-enactors, museums to contact. I need to be active on a million and one blogs, manage my Twitter and Facebook, update my website, get Tara to train me on Instagram. But now the dog's taking the lead (as it were). After five years work to get the book published I confess to being jealous myself.
Duffy is taking it pretty easy and there is no sign of her becoming any sort of a Diva as yet. She still seems happy to travel in the back of the car. She’s accepted that her stage name is Sandy and that she’s now a ‘good boy’. The cast give her no end of attention of course, but she must be getting some strange doggy déjà vu from the rehearsals. By now she is well aware that it’s a hard knock life and that Annie is supremely confident in the weather outlook.
Tara seems to have made her peace with it and perhaps I should too. She wasn’t fazed at all that family and friends ticket sales only boosted when we told them Duffy had a part as well. We’ve had to advise them to try and get tickets in row Z and avoid any eye contact with Duffy in case she decides to go crowd surfing during Annie’s big number. There’s a chance it will all pass off well, but I think there might be an unscripted canine moment or two over seven shows.
I only have myself to blame; I did write Duffy’s personal statement, but I never really expected her to get the part. I guess these off-beat events are sometimes the best experiences of all. It’s great to be involved as a family. We get to be back stage and see the workings of a musical and we’re meeting all sorts of interesting people. I have toyed with the idea of placing a Whirligig bookmark on all the seats but perhaps not. I think maybe the lesson is to relax, not take myself too seriously and that too much social media isn’t good for anyone. Not when we can all face the music and dance.
PS. Please buy the book. https://www.richardbuxton.net/whirligig/
I’ve been learning to co-habit with my novel, Whirligig. We’ve moved in together. There are two copies now, a third having moved out after a brief stay. It’s weird. I’ll wander into the lounge and there they’ll be, lounging. Or they might have found their separate ways to the study or the kitchen.
I have trouble telling the twins apart; the first copy and the follow up proof. Why does that matter? There’s a small box of them coming tomorrow. How will I tell them apart then? Maybe I should start naming them…
It might seem an obsession but think for a moment of the transformation that has just happened. For four of five years I have lived with this story in my imagination and laboured to convert it to bits and bytes, sent parts of it out into email-land for others to see how it’s coming on, taken it back, reshaped it.
Occasional chapters have churned out through my printer and whole sections made it into submissions and my dissertation. But in the last few weeks there has been a late rush of creation as it’s taken on first a virtual and then a physical skin. It was birthed somewhere in South Carolina to a stranger’s eyes and only then came to me.
I’m very proud of it. I’m in the habit of moving a copy to the side table by the door so visitors might notice it. I produce it at every opportunity.
‘Hey, Richard. What have you been up to lately?’
‘My first novel just arrived. Would you like to see it?’
‘Can you sign for this package please?’
‘Of course. Actually I need the practice. Do you like historical fiction?’
‘Nice weather we’re having.’
‘Sure is. Especially for books.’
One or other of the twins has already been with me to the pub, on a school visit, to a rugby game. I need to get a grip; it’s still over two weeks to launch date. I’m going away with some mates for a golf holiday. They are decidedly not booklovers, but guess what’ll be in my hand luggage? I may accidentally slip a metal bookmark between the pages just so it goes off during airport security. ‘It’s alright everyone,’ I’ll say, holding my book aloft. ‘Everything’s OK. It’s just my novel.’
I guess I’ll get used to it, this thing that was inside my head but now has physical form. Sooner or later, I may actually put it on the shelf.
Last week was Christmas; at least it was for me. I had a UPS package number and I wasn’t afraid to use it. It was like Christmas Eve when you can go on-line and follow Santa’s flight around the world. I’d ordered the first proof copy of my novel, Whirligig, and was tracking it as the internet god that we all are these days.
Ironically, like the American Civil War, the book took physical form in South Carolina and then worryingly headed the wrong way; out west to Kentucky. The next day it popped up in Blighty at Castle Donnington, then Tamworth, then Newhaven and finally ‘out for delivery’ just when I had to leave to get to the London Book Fair. Christmas was put on hold.
I got home late and Sally handed me the parcel. We took it to bed and I opened it as if I was a six year old with my first train set (that dates me doesn’t it, maybe my first PlayStation). The book was wonderful. When I turned out the light I put it on the floor like I would any book that was my night time read.
Since then I’ve been casually taking it along with me to show friends and relatives, enjoying their reactions, jovially extracting promises for a sale when the time comes. On Saturday I was with drinking with ex-student colleagues from Chichester Uni’ and they were asking about how the book came into being, the physical book rather than the words. I started to explain and realised how lucky I was to have been able to steer its production. I love my book jacket and how Lucy Llewellyn at Head and Heart involved me so much in the creative process. The Whirligig on the inside cover comes from a day on my own in Chicago at the Institute of Art, starting at this piece of folk history I’d just discovered and knowing that it mattered to me somehow. And every chapter has its own private genesis from travels earthly or imaginary. On the long walk home from the pub – somewhat mellow – I started to wonder if the cover image of the Appalachian ridges fading away one behind the other was first born in Wales, in my love of the view from our farm over the Welsh valleys when I was a boy. It’s hard to say when you really started a book.
But then I stepped past myself and began to think on how many other people are ‘in’ this book. The turning whirligig sketch was done by the talented Juliet Croydon, my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother. The wonderful period looking maps were put together by my neighbour, Julia Brown. The strapline, ‘Keeping the Promise’, is a cut down version of a suggestion from my ever supportive friend Tracy Fells. Friends and family gave opinions on the draft covers. And then there are all the friends who read early drafts of the book, made suggestions big or small, workshopped a chapter or a scene, corrected my typos; maybe suggested only a single change of word. There are my tutors from Chichester who marked my submissions, worked with me on the Chickamauga sequence for my dissertation. I remember the very first person, Anne Canning, who made me believe she was enjoying my writing for its own sake, that I could really produce a book that people would like to read.
So what a gift it is to have such a thing jetted to you from America. Better than a trainset or a PlayStation. A present made wholly by me and just about everybody else.
It’s only through writing (quite a lot of it) that it’s been possible for me to find out what sort of writer I am. I guess that makes sense. If you equate it to painting, you would be forced early on to decide if you wanted to paint landscapes or people; if you preferred to work in rich detail or dwell more in the abstract. But there comes a point where you have to take a step back and consider what you’ve produced.
Sometimes a little outside help is useful. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working with Lucy Llewellyn at the publishing services company Head and Heart as well as marketing mentor Yen Ooi at CreateThinkDo. Their help, along with the imminent need to determine how my first book will look and how I might present myself to the world, has forced me to look again at both what I write and why.
I began to writing about five years ago, taking evening classes as a creative outlet from a rather dry IT career. I explored stories set in the American Civil War simply because that was a period I knew the most about. I was naïve enough to believe it was as simple relating what happened; no particular ingredient needed from me other than description, a dab of imagination and passable grammar.
When I began to share my stories, my second daughter, Becky, who was studying philosophy at the time, pointed out that most of my stories involved some sort of existential crisis. I was surprised but, sure enough, many of them were about middle-aged or older men exhibiting some angst about the value of their lives and searching for some redemption. As I was merely approaching fifty, I comforted myself that the term middle-aged didn’t yet apply to me . . . It was a useful intervention, helping me to see that I was placing something of myself into my characters. I quickly wrote a story in first person as a twenty-something woman from Kentucky to try and break the mould.
A couple of years later on, here I am wondering what sort of cover image would best reflect my writing and considering how to go out into the world with a book to sell. The first part was easier. When Lucy asked me to pick out the sort of covers I liked, they were pretty much all landscapes. I’ve always loved writing that has a strong sense of place. This was perhaps just relearning something I’d forgotten. The work with Yen was more surprising. The CreateThinkDo method focused on me rather than my writing. It felt more like a counselling session, extracting my values and attitudes, good and bad. Even as we were going through the exercise I was relating it to my most recent stories and was amazed at what I could see. The existential stuff is still hanging around, but I also saw more clearly other values reflected in my writing. Many of my characters are amiable; they make use of humour and have a tendency towards responsibility (not always what you want in a character). Above all I could see that they either possessed or were searching for a certain generosity of spirit.
This last realization was especially powerful. I could guess at some of its sources. Two of my favourite writers are Garrison Keillor and Tim Gautreaux, both writers that dig for that spirit in their respective community landscapes of Minnesota and Louisiana. I could also see in it a reaction to the way the world is tending: a need find a bedrock of charity and selflessness. I have certainly met some exceptionally generous people through writing. I’d like to think that they know who they are, but they probably don’t. Perhaps I was just reflecting on them. Wherever this need comes from, it’s probably not a million miles from that old existential crisis, measuring myself against the worth of others, real or fictional.
Head and Heart http://www.headandheartpublishingservices.com