Abigail Cutter Interview

Inheriting a haunted house and reading Civil War soldiers’ letters inspired this gothic novel.

Long Shadows by Abigail Cutter. She Writes Press. pp.344. $16.95.

Konstantin Rega: How long have you been in Virginia?

Abigail Cutter: I’m a long time Virginia resident and really love the Shenandoah Valley. I was born in Richmond and went to college at Mary Washington. My husband and I inherited a farm down in the Valley that was from his family since the 1850s. We used it as a weekend place, though no one had lived in it for 20 years. Luckily it was fully furnished. We had to do a lot of work to it and the minute we started something became angry and stomped up the stairs and slammed doors. One night, I turned on all the lights, drank four beers so I’d stay asleep and then I suddenly woke up at 4 am and all the lights were off. It’s a real force.

What inspired Long Shadows?

I started thinking about the book after reading about the first Crimean invasion in 1853. So, I tried to imagine sitting in the parlor, here, at the time of the Civil War and actually hearing cannons firing. There were skirmishes on the road in front of the house and a soldier was actually brought into the house. So I thought about how that changes my relationship with this land that I love so much. That connection to Virginia landscape was one of the inspirations.

This ghost business, however, was a motivation for writing Tom, the ghost protagonist. My husband’s great-grandfather was a foot soldier and from letters there’s evidence that he quickly became disillusioned. I spent 2 years researching and was really surprised by what I didn’t know. In the Valley of the Shadow Database, I found a trove of letters and diaries that I used to make the main character. And I always knew that the main character needed to find peace at the end. Tom and his sister Mary sort of evolved on their own. But it did grow out of a lot of research. And then gave myself permission to let my imagination take hold. As Geraldine Brooks says: writing fiction is different from writing history because you can let your imagination fill in the gaps.

Did you start off wanting to be a writer?

Not really. I have a MFA in printmaking and taught at schools and I worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Because we funded so many projects (I was there for 15 years), I became fascinated by history and the stories that could be told. In the beginning, I was a lousy writer and it took me a long time, a bunch of courses, and several editors. I think being an artist helped me a lot, though, of being visually aware of the story, scenes, characters.

What do you want readers to get out of your work?

I wanted the story to be about an ordinary man who has PTSD and has lasted more than 150 years, stuck in his boyhood home, surrounded by things that remind him of a more peaceful time in his life, because he is sure that he will soon be in hell for the things he did. 

Circumstances force people into making decisions that they regret for their entire lives and carry into the afterlife. It was also looking at the devastating impact that it had on the region. I wasn’t interested in the generals, the battles, wins, losses. I was interested in what it felt like as an ordinary person caught up in that experience, who didn’t have any idea where they were headed.

I think we take for granted the landscape that we see and our own lives, especially for those in the Valley. The counties were so transformed by all the tragedy and any real experience of it is completely gone except for the larger outlines. I think we need to be reminded of what that might mean.

What are you working on now?

It’s a novel set in the late 19th century during the Jim Crow era. The central character is an orphan who lives on a mountain top tobacco farm and when the market crashes the girl takes work in the Valley at a school. And when a lynching occurs, it forces her to think about her neighbors and life. It’s based on someone who actually lived. Without it being overbearing, I created a circumstance about being white or black at the time and the interactions with each community.

Buy a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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