Q and A with Paulette Livers, Author of the novel Cementville
Tell us a little about Cementville.
In late spring of 1969, a picturesque southern town is turned inside out by the deaths of seven young National Guardsmen in a single Vietcong attack. The return of the bodies sets off something inside the town itself—a sense of violence, a political reality, a gnawing unease with the future—pushing the families of Cementville into alienation and grief.
The town appears blind to the PTSD of Harlan O’Brien, POW and war hero, even as his horrific experiences bend his mind in terrifying ways.
Giang Smith, the ‘war bride,’ has fled the violence of Vietnam with her American husband only to encounter echoes of it in her new home.
Evelyn Slidell, the wealthy icon and a descendant of Cementville’s founders, is no stranger to what close-mouthed grief can do to a family.
And members of the notorious Ferguson clan, led by the violent Levon and his draft-dodging brother Byard, share a secret despair of their own.
Through one strange summer Maureen, the adolescent sister of a recently returned GI, attempts to document the changes happening to her town.
What were some of the challenges of writing a novel with multiple points of view?
That wasn’t something I set out to do. The first glimmers of what would become this manuscript came to me through Maureen’s voice—the thirteen-year-old who is trying to wrap her head around all the changes happening to her family and her town, not to mention all confusion inherent with the changing adolescent body. I wrote several first-person pieces in her voice. So when I first began conceiving it, I imagined a “long short story” told through this adolescent’s viewpoint.
But then I also had snatches of other stories, vignettes, in the voices of other people, characters I didn’t connect to Maureen or her town, early on. Some people in my writing group gently suggested that I might actually be writing a novel. I would barely allow the word into my consciousness, the prospect was daunting. But I kept working on the vignettes, and after I had 400 or so pages, I printed them out and laid them on the floor and just began walking among them, trying to figure out how they fit together. This was at Artcroft Artist Residence, on the edge of the Appalachians. I had to physically sink myself into the sense of the book as an actual space. The awful tragedy that the novel was struggling to encompass (something I write about in the book’s Afterword, which is similar to events that actually happened to my hometown) needed the voices of the group.
Writing in multiple points of view didn’t so much present a challenge, but rather this particular story challenged me with the impossibility of telling it from a single point of view. I guess I could have leaned into good old biblical omniscience, but that didn’t feel right or true to the gritty emotions, the rage and sorrow stirred up by the sheer volume of senseless deaths in that war.
What is it about America's involvement in the Vietnam War that particularly interested you as a fiction writer?
I don’t know if I can separate what interests me as a writer from what went into the forming of myself as a person. As a child of the sixties, I was very aware of the effects the Vietnam War was having on the adults around me—my adults had been young people during World War II. That was a war people understood: there was Pearl Harbor, there were our European allies being invaded.
But Vietnam? People did well to find it on a map back then. The bodies were piling up on our living room floor every night, almost as if they were pouring out of console TVs all over the country—there was no censorship preventing news of casualties or pictures of coffins. For a lot of older people, questioning the fact that thousands of young lives were being sacrificed for some nebulous goal in a country whose people mostly did not want us there (sound familiar?)—questioning authority at all went against the grain of collective loyalty to country. In the rural United States in the late sixties, the sentiment of “My country, right or wrong” was still deeply woven into the fabric of identity, particularly for the generation that came before my own. In the eyes of the younger generation, our parents’ generation was confused, baffled, and blind to the horrible decisions being made by authorities, they had no access to justified rage. So it became incumbent upon the young to question authority. And that’s what we did.
By the end of the war, the small Kentucky community I came from had suffered more deaths per capita than any other community in the United States. This was something I discovered in my research for the novel. It suddenly made sense, why the losses of those years have stuck with me into adulthood, and why I needed to write about it.
What was most fun about writing this novel?
By the time my agent sold the book to Counterpoint, I don’t think I could have answered that question with anything but a groan. But working with my editor, Dan Smetanka, was a gas. He’s a great line editor, which is important. A nitpicker like me loves a good line editor. But what was really fun was when Dan would call me up and say, “You’re going to hate me for saying this, but what if . . .” and he would have some off the wall idea that I might not have ever thought of in a million years. Some tiny detail that could charge whole scenes with new possibility, or a sentence or two that would throw the reader a new curve in the narrative.
Your novel is set in small-town Kentucky but there's a feeling of universality about the characters and this setting. Cementville is set 40 years in the past too - is America today much different, in your opinion? Why or why not?
I do think America is different. I spoke earlier about the old confining dictum of “My country, right or wrong”—that is not something you run up against too often now. People are not hesitant to express views that differ from some broadly accepted communal view, that thing decried in the 60s as the Establishment, the status quo. The threat of being ostracized for one’s beliefs seems has lost its teeth, maybe because you can Tweet or post your brilliant ideas, or criticism of government, or praise of the rare honorable politician, or your absolutely insane malarkey, and instantly have “friends” that agree with you.
Our landscape has changed too. The corporatization of every commodity we touch has made communities that existed forty years ago seem like insects trapped in amber. Small towns, just like neighborhoods in the big cities, are shedding identity with each shuttered shop, and are being re-clothed in the same dreary corporate trappings of Target and WalMart and The Gap as the next town over. Some reviewers have said Cementvilleoozes the sense of a lost place and lost time, and I think they are tuning into the loss of community identity. Individual identity was once shaped in part by community narrative, and “community” has been redefined now as virtual rather than physical.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my community of writers on Facebook. And I’m far from being a Luddite, most days (although I can forget that I even own a cellphone for long stretches of time).
Sadly, the thing that hasn’t changed is our government’s go-to method for settling differences with other countries. Which means that families continue to lose sons and daughters today in the same way they were lost in Cementville.
What are the novels that you turn to again and again as both reader and writer?
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, both of which deal with the effects of war. Marilynne Robinson’s novels are new every time I go to them. Generally I would say I turn to certain writers rather than to particular novels. Louise Erdrich, Bobbie Ann Mason, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty all seem to sink into geography and community in the same way I enjoy doing. Not to slight the menfolk, two who do the same for me are Faulkner and Joyce. Faulkner’s wicked work with Old Testament potboiler stuff in Absalom, Absalom! is the kind of stuff I wish I could just steal when nobody’s looking. But I promise I won’t.