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William F. "Bill" Kaiser

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BLOODROOT: A Novel of the Civil War
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HCW JOURNAL INTERVIEW

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BILL KAISER INTERVIEWED BY MAGGIE BISHOP AUGUST 2008

Give us your "elevator speech" about your current writing project.

I've rewritten my elevator pitch a number of times. I switch between the following:

"Bloodroot" is a historical novel about what happened in these North Carolina mountains during the Civil War. It tells how our mountain society was torn apart...

or --

"Bloodroot" is an adventure story about Billy Jack, a mountain boy, and Elvira May, a Yankee woman, who meet, fall in love, marry and fight to stay alive in the Appalachian Mountains during the Civil War.

How did you end up in Watauga County?

That's a long story. It begins in 1949 at the University of Wisconsin. Chapter 44 takes place in 1992 when my wife, Joyce, and I came to Boone to help my daughter Kyla and family move from Key Largo, Florida, into a new home in Deep Gap, Watauga County, North Carolina. The following year, to be near my daughter, we moved into the Powder Horn Mountain development in the Triplett community of Deep Gap. That was May 1, 1993.

Regrettably, my wife did not get to long enjoy these mountains. She passed away in 1994.

What do you remember about the first piece you wrote? (topic, your age, inspiration)

I have it. It is a postcard:

Dear Mama,

Camp Mohican is great. The train ride took a long time.

Then we rode in a bus a long time. It was hot. I passed my swim test. I am learning to conue. Your son.

I was 12. I'd just become a Tenderfoot Boy Scout. I hadn't yet learned how to spell canoe.

What drew you to journalism?

Integrated Calculus... "i is an imaginary number; what is the value of i?" The year was 1945. I was in my second semester in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. In June I was 18. In July I was drafted into the U.S. Army. I spent one year, one month and 13 days in the Army. Among other activities I read some 100 books, mostly mystery novels. I returned to UW with the realization I'd never make it as a civil engineer. I switched to the School of Journalism. One of the better decisions in my life.

What was the most difficult in your leap from journalism to fiction novels?

Looking back at the collection of cards, letters, school essays and book reports my mother had saved for me, I see I was cut out to be a writer; a journalist. For 50 plus years I made a living as a journalist; a non-fiction writer. All those years I harbored the dream of writing a great novel. I have a box full of fiction stories I wrote bits and pieces of. In looking over clippings I have of some of my feature articles that were published in newspapers and magazines, I note there are touches of "color, plot, drama, pacing." So when it came time to get into the business of fiction writing, there was no leaping. Just a small step across the line into imagining characters and events within the frame of the real world.

What will you do differently in your sequel to Bloodroot? (what did you learn in writing your first novel?)

One of the first things about fiction writing I heard said by a successful author guest speaker was "your characters will take over your story." I was a skeptic. My characters will do what I tell them to do. I was wrong. About halfway into the story, Billy Jack and Elvira May began arguing with me. I rewrote the initial chapters several times until they were satisfied.

Now I am listening to them as I draft the sequel to "Bloodroot."

As the scope of the story is expanding, several characters--old and new--are telling me their own stories within the main story.

I'm learning from authors like John Jakes and Jack Higgins how to handle parallel stories (in terms of different style and tone) that affect the main story.

Tell us about your writing habits.

My novel writing habits are erratic. My other lives keep interrupting. Researching the times and events in the post Civil War period, my stage for the sequel, is time-consuming. If I manage to draft a page or two each week, it is a pleasant surprise.

Since Bloodroot is about the Civil War, tell us about your own kin's involvement with the war.

I served in a New Jersey unit of the Union army at Bull Run, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox. I served with a Georgia Unit of the Confederate army at Manassas, Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Petersburg. I was with Burnside in Knoxville when Longstreet's troops made their disastrous charge at Fort Fisher.

I hid in the North Carolina mountains as a Confederate deserter.

I rode with Stoneman's mounted infantry as we raided into the mountains on our way to the Confederate prison camp in Salisbury.

I lived dozens of different lives during the Civil War. I was a bushwhacker, a mountain farmer, a hunter, a newspaper editor, a sheriff and a mayor.

To my surprise I became an educated Yankee woman with strong opinions about slavery and war.

Believe it! I do.

I have no kin who lived in the United States before 1920. Nor did I make my appearance until 1927. To write about the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction, I have to rely on research and my imagination.

Of the many books on Civil War history, which is your favorite and why?

All of them. I have at least, by last count, just over 100 of them. Some are in the bookcase next to my computer. Most of them are in storage boxes in the basement. I grab and read and keep any Civil War book I can get my hands on as long as it is free or cheap.

Tell us about your cats.

Today I am owned by two cats. Pandora is a purebred Tonkinese. Her mother and sisters all have been champions. She came to us 15 years ago with the stipulation she never be bred. Rocky adopted us some six years ago. He came out of the wild with a wounded left eye and a torn left ear. We nursed him and he decided to stay with us. (Sad Update: Rocky passed away in August after a brief illness.  We miss him terribly.)

I have had a cat or two since I can remember. There have been Satan, Ginger, Patches, Cinnamon, Samantha, Samson, Spooky, Autumn and Tigger. There will always be a cat or three in the Kaiser household.

For one stretch of about 25 years my wife Joyce raised collies. I kept the kennel and handled the transportation to shows. She handled the breeding and showing. I had some favorites: Blazer, a big hansom stud who went on hikes with me; Lady, a tri who snuggled me every time I took her out of her pen; Adam, the last of the studs. He was every bit champion quality but would not "show."

We closed the kennel and found homes for a dozen collies when we moved to North Carolina. Another door closed.

You didn't ask about my future plans, but here they are:

My dream is to write and publish successful novels: a series of sequels about the "Truehill" family through American history. Maybe I'll find time to dig out my notes and plots for several mystery novels. Whatever the future holds I will write, write, write. It's what keeps me happy and healthy.

Bill Kaiser

Lived long; loved the ladies

William F. "Bill" Kaiser * North Carolina Writer