Native son Kent Wascom’s harrowing debut novel, The Blood of Heaven, explores the often violent history of the early-19th-century region known as West Florida through the eyes of the fictional Angel Woolsack and the historic Samuel Kemper, both itinerant preachers’ sons.
When did you learn about the violence on the Southern frontier and Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to seize South Florida in 1804?
It wasn’t until college that I came upon it. My mother found family records containing the birth of Aaron Burr Patterson, who was born in Natchez in 1805, the year following Burr’s visit to that city. Apparently the family supported Burr’s designs. So I started reading about Burr, and through him came upon the revolutions in West Florida, and the Kemper brothers, those vengeful frontiersmen.
How did the novel develop?
It grew from a short story to a novella, and swiftly to a novel. The jumps in size and scope came with intensifying research. The more I discovered, the more expansive and detailed the story became. Of course I strayed from history in service of the story. I’d say the book is the iron pyrite to the historian’s gold; luster aside, it shouldn’t be confused with the real thing.
Angel Woolsack, your protagonist is unsympathetic in many ways, yet his disturbing experiences as a boy clearly influenced the man he became. Did your concept of Angel change as you wrote about him?
Stepping into Angel’s skin, trying to understand him as he tried to understand himself, was a difficult exercise in empathy. We all have this capacity for cruelty and delusion, so my effort was to explore the circumstances that draw out these malignant impulses.
You portray revivalist preachers and the power of their oratory. Have you experienced this power firsthand?
A natural byproduct of growing up in the South is to experience reactionary Christianity in a very immediate way. You most certainly come to understand its power—the insidiously pervasive idea that assigning the inspiration to God can justify any wrong. I don’t believe that religion’s ability to fuel violence has lessened since the time in which the book is set.
How did you get the book published?
I spent three-and-a-half years working on the book as a thesis for grad school. My friend and mentor Bob Shacochis, in December of last year, mentioned it to [editor Elisabeth Schmitz at] Grove, and they asked for the manuscript. During the next two weeks leading up to the AWP conference, Bob tells me it doesn’t sound like they’re interested, but that I should come to this Grove/Atlantic dinner anyway. Bob suggests we wait outside for Elisabeth to arrive. As her taxi pulls up Bob is saying morosely, “I’m sorry, Kent, but I can tell you right now that Grove is not prepared to offer you a one-book contract...” At that moment Elisabeth steps out of the cab and says, “Because we’d like to offer you a two-book contract.” I burst into tears. Bob had known that Grove wanted it. What he did was make the moment truly magical.