Robert Lee Bailey is the author of a historical suspense novel, Monongahela Blood. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Big Adios, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Wild Violet, and Navigating the Heavens. He received his MFA from Carlow University in Pittsburgh. He provides updates about his recently published work at www.anatomyoftheartist.com.
Robert was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.
MJF: I’m curious about the kind of research you conducted for Monongahela Blood. Would you tell us a little bit about that?
RLB: I approached my research from a few different angles. After I got the idea to write about Pennsylvania coal miners, I started talking to my grandfather who grew up in a company town and worked as a butcher in the company store. His father was the blacksmith at the mine, which gave me the idea to make my protagonist, Daniel Byrnes, a blacksmith. My grandfather still had a few of my great-grandfather’s tools, and I guess something about it was in the blood, because I started wanting to learn how to forge steel. If I was going to write about blacksmith, I wanted to get my hands dirty. So I started looking around, and I found an old blacksmith who was selling his forge and all his tools for $500. I bought everything and started teaching myself, took a few classes, and got a bunch of instructional books at the library.
But I still had to learn about coal mining. Fortunately, one of my father’s best friends who’s in his late eighties worked in the mines during the hand-loading era before everything was mechanized. So I sat with him and interviewed him a few times. My father also owned a rare book written about the coal town where I grew up. Our family is mentioned in the book in fact. Unfortunately, the writer, Charles Gersna, is deceased so I couldn’t talk to him, but his book From the Furrows to the Pits: Van Voohris, PA was my most valuable resource as far as texts go. I also went to the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Department where I found a lot of other books on the region’s coal mining and poured over the newspaper microfilms to learn more about the time period. Finally, I toured a few coal mines and visited some mining museums.
MJF: Rage, paranoia, mania, hopelessness… In the novel, we follow Daniel as he endures all the forces arrayed against him. How did this character come to be?
RLB: Write what you know, right? There’s this quote I like from Cormac McCarthy: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” Let’s just say I wasn’t in a very healthy state of mind for about four years straight. And I was consistently obsessed with Hamlet throughout that time. I wanted the plot of Monongahela Blood to mirror the plot of Hamlet very closely at first. I wanted every character to have a parallel from the play; I wanted Daniel to have seven soliloquies. But gradually I loosened those constraints and let the story become its own thing. So, aside from my own prolonged mental shit-storm, the character Hamlet was the primary source of those negative emotions.
MJF: A writer is often “stamped” by certain books, by a certain style of writing. What are your influences, and how do you see these influences emerging in your own writing?
RLB: As I mentioned, Hamlet was first and foremost. But the most aesthetic-altering book I’ve ever read was McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Reading that changed everything about what I wanted to do as a writer, and I quickly sought out and read everything else he’d ever published. His entire oeuvre probably stamped Monongahela Blood. But whenever I got stuck somewhere, whether it was sentence-level or structural problems, I looked to two texts for answers: Hamlet and Blood Meridian. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given as a writer: when you get stuck, look to the books you love for answers.
Also, I have to at least mention David Milch’s profanity-laced HBO series Deadwood. That show was hugely influential in terms of dialogue and seedy underworld content. Other honorable mentions would have to include King Lear, and anything by Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I like to think my writing has its roots in the Southern Gothic tradition.
MJF: Reading about the grim world of coal mining that you describe so well in your book, I was reminded to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life, while I still can. What gives you pleasure in life?
RLB: Aside from coffee and novels? That’s a surprisingly difficult question. There’s this place Ohiopyle State Park, where I like to go to decompress, you know, just hike and camp out. I spent a summer living there out of a tent in the middle of the woods. That was my Thoreau summer. I seem to function best when I’m isolated in nature; it’s a good place to think through your ideas for stories. I should probably think about planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail or something.
MJF: You attended Florida International University’s creative writing program. What was the importance of your time there?
RLB: I came to FIU straight out of undergrad at Pitt, where I studied both poetry and fiction. Then when I applied to FIU I decided to focus exclusively on writing poetry. But I came to realize poetry isn’t my strong suit. I remember my professor pointing out that a poem I had written was more like a short story. That’s when it became clear to me. I was not a poet.
The background of dabbling in poetry inevitably bleeds through in my prose though. Studying poetry in the MFA program helped me to pay close attention to syntax, develop an ear for rhythm, things like that. I still occasionally write and publish a poem, but my natural tendency is to tell stories. I also met Joe Clifford at FIU, and that alone was enough to make me feel like I got my money’s worth.