The Louisiana native’s first book “The Blood of Heaven” takes a band of brothers across the Southern frontier and introduces us to some disturbing figures in American history.
Lots of writers get inspiration from their own lives and families, but Kent Wascom soaked up stories of his family’s wild history for years before putting it on the page. “My father’s side, they have a really, really fabulous history,” he says. “All those relatives would kind of just churn out these tales every once in a while, whether it was my father telling me about, as a child, being driven by the bank in Slidell, Louisiana, and his father pointing at this immense hole in the bank that one of his older cousins had dynamited.”
Wascom, who recently moved home to Covington, is quick to point out that most of the incidents in his family tree were nonviolent, but he can’t say the same for the characters in his book. Those stories of bank robbing and general rascality made him curious about the early days in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast. He set his novel at the beginning of the 19th century in the newly settled Mississippi River valley, but when it came time for research, there wasn’t much documented about that time period. Wascom did run across a trio of brothers named the Kempers, who would become the basis for his novel.
Since the historical accounts he did find were often overblown, Wascom took liberties in telling his story, but a few characters, like the Kempers, didn’t need any embellishment. (Kemper County in Mississippi is named for them.) “The historical Kempers, Reuben especially, kept a jar of human ears in this tavern that he owned. It’s like, if this is what they’re willing to advertise, then what’s beneath?” Wascom says.
His main character, Angel Woolsack, starts out as an innocent, obedient preacher’s son, but it doesn’t take long for him to fall in with the Kempers and adopt their lawless ways. The third Kemper brother, Nathan, was the basis for some of Angel’s fictional deeds, reveals Wascom. After an act of violence frees Angel from his preacher-father’s wrath, he falls in with another religious figure, the Rev. Morrel.
Wascom says he found a book called “Reverend Devil” many years ago and ended up using the real-life preacher it was based on for his character. A bandit who preyed on travelers along the Natchez Trace and slaves looking for freedom, Morrel operated under the guise of religious fervor. “He is a terrifying, terrifying character. I think I softened him a bit actually,” says Wascom. Amid all the testosterone are a few women who help to soften the story and pull at the strings of Angel’s heart, along with a group of “misshapens” who sound like they belong in a circus carnival rather than Morrel’s entourage.
“My perspective on it is very much an influence from Harry Crews, whereas the most attractive thing for a person is a physical fault,” Wascom explains. “I thought, this is a hardscrabble time and everyone is malnourished and suffering and maybe the most beautiful or striking thing you’d notice in someone is they have a pattern of ringworm around their neck. There’s not going to be that rose blooming on the dung heap. It’s whoever you end up with.”
Wascom cites his time as an undergrad at Louisiana State University as a turning point in his writing. After writing several stories obviously inspired by Hemingway’s sparse style, a professor pulled him aside and gave him a reading list that included Barry Hannah, Crews, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. “That was the game changer, really discovering what modern Southern writing is and then taking the leap from there to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” he says.
Wascom says readers have been surprised to see the face behind “The Blood of Heaven” at his readings and signings. “They expected a Harry Crews kind of look,” he says, but the 26-year-old is clean-shaven with blonde hair and a Capote-esque look of innocence. He also has no plans to stop writing. Wascom was inspired by Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy and decided he didn’t want to stop at just one book. Fans of “Blood of Heaven” will be thrilled to find out that he is planning a six-set series that covers the history of the Gulf Coast from the Louisiana Purchase up to Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“When I first started, I envisioned it as a stand alone and then I wasn’t able to put everything I wanted into it,” he says. “It became an idea in the back of my head to do some sort of series, and I got married to doing it about what I would feel is my region. Greedily, I’ll take the whole Gulf Coast.”
The next book in the series, which is set during the Civil War in New Orleans, is scheduled for release in 2015. Until then, get to know the Kempers and the rest of the characters from “Blood of Heaven” below.
Angel Woolsack – Thought to be age 13 at the start of the story, Angel serves as the narrator. “The need to witness was in me and I considered it my repentance to weep and tell the people my sins and calamities, with Samuel standing like the God of Judgment behind me.”
Preacher-father – Angel’s father “was so godly that he wouldn’t even let me call him Father, always Preacher. And Preacher-father was a hard thing to have. No whiskey tits for your fevers or teething and no fairy-tale reading, as I give my own son. There were no such things as tales when I was a boy—I was read to from but one book and all of it was true.”
Samuel Kemper – Angel’s companion and protector who makes him an honorary Kemper. “And then from the second wagon there was a rattle of kit and binds and from around the side came this great bleary-eyed bastard—Samuel Kemper—who, once he had his feet, proceeded to shove me aside and do the task himself, eyeing me as he did from two heads taller height but still a young man’s face.”
Emily Fladeboe – Angel’s first love, “had an eye that wandered; her left, a mud-colored marble rolling untethered in her skull. And she might have been ugly, my little starveling girl, but she was of age and I grew in her presence then, counting the ringworms in her neck and numbering them like pearls.”
Reuben Kemper – Samuel’s legendary brother he and Angel are searching for. “Not unlike the river itself, Samuel’s talk would ever flow back to his brother Reuben. The eldest Kemper had thrashed fourteen men in an Ohio tavern with nothing but a busted chamberpot, sat on river docks reading the philosophies of the Greeks in one hand and lifting sugar barrels with the other, had never married for there was no woman who could content him.”
Mother Lowde – Proprietor of Natchez-Under-the-Hill Saloon (pictured) “who’d once been a whore of some repute, famous for her barrenness, but now in her dowager years she only took callers on occasion.”
Aliza – Reuben Kemper’s Natchez mistress who operates a notorious whorehouse in a church. “They called her Raw Liza, Bloody Lizzy, Miss Chop-and-Swing Liz … Aliza was a child born from sharp things—her mother a razor, her father a bayonet. ”
Rev. Ivan Morrel – A friend of Mother Lowde’s who takes Angel and Samuel under his wing. “The man at the far head of the table was bejeweled and shining as Lucifer himself. At his neck he wore a silver collar-guard; his hands—one holding a glass, the other hugging to him the bare shoulders of a mulattoe girl—were covered in rings.”
Red Kate Collins – Angel’s whore turned wife who killed four people with a hatchet and who Wascom says may be the only worthwhile person in the book. “Presently a short girl with hair the color of fresh-spilt blood came by and handed me a cup of rum punch. Her features were broad and rough-hewn, her skin dark. She regarded me with a fierceness that sent a shudder in me as I hadn’t felt in many months.”
Johnny Crabbe – Part of the Rev. Morrel’s entourage, “who was red-skinned and walked on all fours, with his limbs cocked at weird angles in their joints.”
Kent Wascom will be in Baton Rouge at the Louisiana Book Festival November 2, talking about “The Blood of Heaven” from 10-10:45 a.m. in Senate Committee Room A.