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The Never-ending War

In “Pickett’s Charge,” author Charles McNair imagines settling a 100-year-old Civil War score

A 114-year-old Civil War veteran, sporting one grievous battle scar, decides that before he draws his last breath he has to settle one last debt from that long-ago war.

Atlanta author Charles McNair, 59, imagines this wild journey of veteran Threadgill Pickett, in McNair’s new novel, “Pickett’s Charge” (Livingston Press, $30) Set alternately in 1864 and 1964, it’s a whirling trek that’s wild and disorienting. But it’s firm in its consideration of this question: whether revenge at any cost is worth it. McNair, whose reading voice is reminiscent of a character in an old-time radio play, will read from the book and discuss historical fiction at the Atlanta Journal Constitution/Decatur Book Festival this weekend. Here, he talks about his own journey to publish his second novel after a 19-year hiatus from long-form fiction.

Q: It has been a while since your last novel, 19 years.

A: Nobody had been more painfully aware that it had been 19 years than this writer. The first novel, “Land O’ Goshen,” took 12 years to write, which may just brand me as being a particularly slow writer. In my defense, what happened was the same year of the publication of “Land O’ Goshen,” my daughter Bonnie was born. So when a book is published and a baby is born there is always a priority after that and it’s not the book. I can happily report that my daughter stepped onto the campus of Bard College this month.

Q: So now you’re to writing full time?

A: I picked up steam over the last few years, because there is a window that we’re in right now that is the maximum opportunity for a novel that has a Civil War context.

Q: The sesquicentennial.

A: That’s a hard word to say, but we’re right in the middle of it. I had hoped to have this book out at the 150th anniversary of the actual Pickett’s Charge, which took place at Gettysburg, which was this past July 3rd.

Q: What inspired you to pick this particular battle of the war?

A: It’s the climactic battle of the war and is probably the single battle that is easily identified as being in the war. I grew up in Dothan, Alabama, and so the memories of the war were very close. This is a book that tries to address the persistence of the Civil War in memory. The old man nurses this great vengeance and has to finally come to grips with whether it’s the right thing to be vengeful. And that’s the point of this novel. It’s an investigation of why we have held to the revenge motive for so long and what did it do for us.

Q: Is there any bit of you in these characters, because they are quite fantastic.

A: I’m not writing a history, I’m writing a tale. And the closest human equivalent of Threadgill Pickett is an old story my daddy told me when I was little. He told me that he remembered being in Troy, Ala., in a hardware store and he talked to a Confederate veteran who himself had been in the war as a young boy. Somewhere in that story is the seed of Threadgill Picket. He is that last Confederate, that old, old man has seen some things and has a story to tell. He may or may not be telling you the entire truth about what he’s experiencing.

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