The 1920s evoke images of the American Jazz Age, of a country emerging from World War I with momentum and promise. After a friend read Hang the Moon (Scribner), the new novel by Jeannette Walls that is set in the same time period, a comparison was made to Game of Thrones.
Walls is ruthless throughout the novel, killing characters, illustrating violence, and executing schemes.
“One of the things I found in researching the 1920s, and the [1910s], is that it was a dark time,” Walls tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “If you’re going to shy away from the realism of the period, then don’t do the period.”
Walls, best known for her acclaimed memoir The Glass Castle, will appear on Sat., May 13 as a featured guest of the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books.
Hang the Moon, the third novel from Walls, takes place in a rural Virginia county where bootlegging is a way of life. The story features Sallie Kincaid, a young woman who eventually becomes a figure of prominence in the region after suffering an inordinate number of setbacks, including the heartbreaking loss of family members.
Walls, who lives in rural Virginia, used the life of Willie Carter Sharpe, known as the Queen of the Roanoke Rumrunners, as a touchstone to create Sallie’s character. During her research, Walls found that Franklin County, located in southwestern Virginia, was regarded as the wettest county in America during Prohibition, with an estimated 99% of residents involved in the moonshine industry to some degree.
“I wanted to get inside the heads of these people,” Walls says. “They were conducting an illegal business, they were being shot at, they were being put in jail, but in their minds, they weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just doing what they’d done for generations, and more importantly, they were doing what they needed to do to survive.”
To make Sallie believable, Walls had to find the character’s voice. The author listened to archival recordings from the era to get a sense of the rhythm and the cadence of language. She had to write in a way that sounded old-fashioned without being archaic to give contemporary readers a sense of the era without “taking the reader or listener out of the moment,” she says.
“To be honest with you, the book didn’t work for a long time,” Walls admits. “I switched to a first-person present and tried as much as possible to channel Sallie, and something clicked. That was the biggest challenge — if I could get her voice, I thought this thing was going to work.”
Another challenge was finding enough source material. Walls found a lack of books about women from the era and turned to mostly small, local newspapers for background. But even newspapers lacked information about women from that era.
“You really weren’t anyone or anything until you got married,” Walls says, noting that Sallie desperately wants to be like her father, Duke Kincaid, who runs the county, “but in those days, a woman couldn’t. And as much as Sallie is stereotyped by not being allowed to follow in her father’s footsteps, her younger brother is equally stereotyped by being forced into doing something that’s not in his personality. … That’s one of the dilemmas women had in the period. You could become something other than a wife, but you were an oddity — you were amusing or pitied or something from a sideshow.”
At its heart, Hang the Moon is a morality play, a look at how people survive in trying times. While Prohibition made selling alcohol illegal, the families in the novel, and in real life, didn’t necessarily see their activities as wrong.
“Sallie is trying to figure out her position and what’s right and wrong within the context of family in the backdrop of a nation that is trying to figure out what is right and wrong,” says Walls. “It was such a peculiar time, Prohibition. The 18th Amendment is the only amendment that takes away people’s rights, and it’s the only amendment that’s ever been repealed. And it was telling people that something they’d done for generations to survive was wrong, and it was making outlaws out of people who had been law-abiding citizens.”
Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., May 13. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Campus. 616 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty. Free. Some events require registration. pittsburghbookfestival.org