Congratulations, Beth, on the publication of your new novel! Before we chat about In This Ground, I’m curious to know how long you’ve been writing and if you have any other novels tucked away in drawers, like so many novelists, myself included?
BC: I started writing fiction in grade school. Back then, I created a lot of staple-bound, illustrated books featuring kids or families who wandered into haunted houses or other creepy places. After that, until I reached college, I didn’t do much writing beyond what was required for school.
In my early twenties, I began composing short stories and sharing some of them in fiction workshops. But I didn’t take a crack at a novel until a few years after I graduated from college, and the product of those efforts is moldering in my basement.
After years of working on this novel, I decided to put it aside, because I could never get its various storylines to hold together, even after drawing on insights from several thoughtful critique partners. That was a tough moment, because I worried that all those years of effort amounted to a big waste of time. But looking back, I realize that I really had to go through those multiple cycles of writing, rewriting, and rethinking that first book to come to some understandings about what a novel is, and isn’t. That experience taught me more about writing—and perseverance—than I can say.
Right now, I don’t have any other books in a drawer/basement. But I do have a novel that I’m actively working on, and I’m hoping to shop it around in a year or so. [Check out a brief description of Broken Sisters on Beth's website.]
VP: In This Groundis set in a graveyard and tells the story of a former indie-rocker who takes a job as a gravedigger in the cemetery where a former fellow band member is buried. What led you to choose such an unusual setting for a novel and profession for a protagonist?
BC: Cemeteries have fascinated me since I was a kid. Back then, a friend and I would wander the graveyard near our homes, reading the names on the stones out loud, and making up stories about the lives we imagined these people to have led.
The idea of cemeteries containing countless stories lingered at the back of my mind for a long time, surfacing a few years ago as an idea for a story collection or novel, one that would bring together the tales of people who are buried in a particular cemetery or who have some other business there.
In my early days of working on the manuscript that became In This Ground, I had the idea of a gravedigger, Ben, being the central character. To me, Ben felt like the perfect connection between the living and dead within the world of the cemetery where he works. He tries to do his best by those buried there, by their friends and loved ones, and by members of the larger community.
At the same time, Ben is dealing with struggles of his own, the most daunting of which is his guilt over the death of the former bandmate who’s buried where he works.
VP: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Any haunting graveyard experiences you’d like to share?
BC: I ended up researching several topics for the novel—among them, the day-to-day responsibilities of gravediggers and other cemetery workers; green burials, which the central character, Ben, hopes to offer; and the challenges of keeping a non-profit cemetery financially and infrastructurally viable.
The most fun I had during the research process was shadowing a gravedigger, Bobby Burke, for a day. Although I personally haven’t had any haunting or strange cemetery experiences, Bobby definitely has. Especially at night, his cemetery has been the site of everything from drug deals to voodoo rituals. The paraphernalia of these rituals—headless chickens, rum bottles, burned-out candles, etc.—are left for grounds workers to clean up in the morning.
I also had a lot of fun researching the controversy surrounding the exhumation of a renowned nineteenth-century vagrant, a.k.a. Leatherman, in Ossining, New York. This dispute ended up inspiring a plot strand in the novel.
To give you some background, in 2010, the Ossining Historical Society, which maintains the cemetery where Leatherman was buried, announced plans to move his grave, which was believed to be dangerously close to a busy highway. The Historical Society also wanted to have Leatherman’s remains scientifically investigated to determine, among other things, his national origins.
But the plans to exhume Leatherman and examine his remains ran into huge opposition from those who believed that these actions would constitute serious violations of his privacy and dignity. The opponents’ arguments really fascinated me, and I loved how they got at the notion that entitlement to privacy—and to respect for one’s personal space—doesn’t necessary expire upon death.
I put Ben at the center of a similar controversy, because it really tests his beliefs about what it means to be doing his best by both the living and the dead: what he sees as his most important mission at the cemetery.
VP: Your previous novel, Marion Hatleyis an historical novel set in small town Pennsylvania in 1931. Did that story require a lot of research as well? How different was it for you to write about a time period outside your experience and a story set in the present?
BC: Yes, that novel also required a good deal of research. Because the title character, a seamstress, creates an innovative corset over the course of the novel, I had to investigate the status of foundation garments—and what might be considered innovations in them—at the time of the novel.
Also, because another central character experiences flashbacks to his experiences in World War I, I spent a lot of time reading about the experiences of veterans of that war.
For me, one of the challenges of writing a novel set in 1931 was making sure that characters’ language and mannerisms were appropriate for the time. That meant staying on the lookout for anachronisms of every kind. But the greatest challenge I faced writing Marion Hatleyalso applied to In This Ground: trying to tell a compelling story while doing justice to characters’ interior lives and struggles.
VP: What types of novels do you tend to like to read? Does it matter if they are historical or contemporary? I’m just curious what feeds your own writing.
BC: This ties right into my previous point in that I’m most taken with novels and story collections that, while telling a great story, take a deep dive into characters’ interior lives. (To my mind, the master of this kind of deep dive is Alice Munro.) It doesn’t matter to me whether a work is historical or contemporary.
VP: Tell us how you started Small Press Picks, your much-respected blog that reviews books from independent presses. How does it enlighten you as a writer, not to mention as a reader?
BC: Small Press Picks grew out of a few different concerns I had back in 2013, when I founded the site—and those concerns remain today. Mainly, it’s gotten harder and harder for most fiction writers to get reviews, but it’s especially challenging for those whose works are published by indie presses (as I can attest myself). At the same time, indie presses are putting out loads of compelling, thought-provoking literature, and they’re willing to take chances on new voices and on stories and subjects that diverge from the mainstream.
Through Small Press Picks, I’m trying to play a very small part in supporting those efforts and to draw some much-deserved attention to indie presses and their authors.
Everything I read for Small Press Picks enlightens me in some way as a writer. For example, although my narrative style tends to be more conventional than experimental, I think some of the more experimental books I’ve read for SPP have pushed me toward testing new approaches to time sequence, point of view, and other aspects of the craft.
VP: What else would you like us to know about In This Ground? I’m excited to read it and I want others to be psyched, too!
BC: I can’t think of any other big points to make. But if anyone would like more details about In This Ground,my writing challenges and adventures, or my other books, they can visit my website: https://www.bethcastrodale.com/.
Finally, thanks so much for your kind words about In This Ground, Virginia. And thanks for taking the time to interview me!
Beth Castrodale has worked as a newspaper reporter and book editor. Her novel Marion Hatley (Garland Press, 2017) was a finalist for a Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press, and an excerpt from her latest novel, In This Ground, was a shortlist finalist for a William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Award. (In This Ground will be published by Garland Press in September 2018.) Beth recommends literary fiction on her website SmallPressPicks.com, and she has published stories in such journals as Printer’s Devil Review, The Writing Disorder, and Mulberry Fork Review.
Order In This Ground at: http://garlandpress.com/store/#!/In-This-Ground/p/105597774/category=0