Jon Sealy doesn’t look like the kind of guy who might write a novel about a Piedmont, North Carolina, hooch maker that reads like a cross between AMC's Breaking Bad and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, with a pinch of Black Snake Moan.
A cheerful slender fellow carrying a worn leather briefcase, Sealy hails from a little town called Six Mile, South Carolina, “which is outside of Central which is outside of Clemson,” he says. Sealy knows how big stories occur in tiny places like what’s described in his first published novel, The Whiskey Baron (Hub City Press).
Much of his family comes from Chester County, South Carolina, in specific his paternal grandfather, one of 11 siblings. “They came out of the cotton mill culture of the Depression South,” he says. He went from Six Mile to study English at the College of Charleston and earned his Master of Fine Arts at Purdue University. In 2008, he moved here with his wife, Emily, while she studied law at the University of Richmond. “I figured I could be an unemployed writer anywhere,” he says.
He wrote and published short stories and worked on various fiction projects. A scene — a glimpse, really — of a character desperately digging up earth near a barn and about to go on the lam came to him. Sealy wanted to explore what it meant. The novel resulted.
The epigram at the opening of The Whiskey Baron describes rats eating the corpses of dead World War I soldiers stranded in No Man’s Land, basically doing everyone a favor. The action then opens in the immediate aftermath of a double murder. Things go wrong from there for the novel’s characters, and thus, right for the reader.
That initial quote came from Sealy’s research to realize the story’s setting in sharp focus. “I ended up reading about many different subjects, far afield from my original intention,” he says. Maj. George Crile, who made the gruesome observation, was a prominent Ohio physician and co-founder of the Cleveland Clinic. He became the first to conduct a successful blood transfusion, among other innovations. Sealy wryly says, “You start digging and you don’t know what you’ll find.”
At first, he thought the novel’s subject embraced labor, especially the upland North Carolina textiles industry. The Hopewell family of the book is invested in it. “I thought it was going to be more of a [John] Steinbeckian worker book, the family wakes up, eats breakfast, goes to the mill, people hack up their lungs, have terrible accidents, and I’m thinking, ‘How do you write a novel out of that that people’ll want to read?’” He calls this “a parking garage moment.”
“You realize that you’ve built the parking garage for the building on the wrong side of the street. And so, you pick up the whole thing and move it over. It’s so much hard work, but now you’ve realized what it is you’re doing.”He needed a sharp storyline, and since he enjoys a good crime story, two bodies on the second page was a way to start.
The novel transformed into a murder investigation that also considers the complicated wheels that drive people, the law and its limits. Make no mistake, there’s material here about aboveground business — the textile companies that kept small towns living even if some of the inhabitants died from the conditions and the underground of running bootleg liquor. Both are industrialized processes and one reflects the other. Larthan Tull is a sociopathic businessman, a gangster, but worse is the calm and cruel Aunt Lou, who to outward appearances seems like a nice little lady. Business in that time was a man’s world and Aunt Lou defies the social norms, in more ways than one.
Mary Jane Hopewell’s name masks a man who isn’t what he seems, either. At a time and place that nicknames are applied to the opposite of qualities — like big guys named Tiny — Mary Jane got his name for a reason that, if you know about early 20th century child rearing, makes sense. “And while he’s in the culture, he’s an outsider, too,” Sealy says. And as turned out, Sealy was seeing Mary Jane dig that hole for a dire and gothic purpose. “Writers complain about how hard it is, but when you have those, ‘Ah-ha! That’s what I’ve done!’ moments, it’s great fun.”
This is a novel, too, about the views the characters have of faith and spirituality, and the meaning of these things. Swirling within the heads of the opposed characters, veteran Sheriff Furman Chambers and the unguent illegal liquor manufacturer Tull, are dark and apocalyptic visions. In Tull’s case, they justify his antisocial undertakings, while Chambers sees a broken world where maintaining order is a taxing and debilitating struggle.
“I lived next door to a meth den during graduate school,” Sealy requires. “I certainly had this in the back of my mind when I was writing about these bootleggers during Prohibition.” His territory for fiction falls into, “country noir,” the term invented by writer Daniel Woodrell, who's best known for Winter’s Bone, and other writers who have a certain fidelity to the Southern side of stories, like Ron Rash and William Gay, whose subjects often take on the down-and-out and marginal.
Sealy wrote the first scene of Mary Jane fleeing to settle out of town business in 2005. He studied South Carolina history, and he would a write a scene, then take a pause for more research and write another. In 2008, with his MFA, “I committed to be an unemployed writer and I drafted the novel in a summer.” This followed two or three years rewriting and rewriting until about 2011, when he began querying agents. While he received good feedback, nobody said "Yes," and this continued until 2013 when Sealy gave up on agents and submitted direct to small presses. Hub City in Spartanburg, South Carolina, picked it up early 2013 and this led to yet another round of revision.The Hub City Writers Project is similar to the James River Writers in that they are both community arts groups which host readings, discussions and programs. The Spartanburg organization runs a bookshop that is participating in the revival of the city's downtown business district.
The Hub City Press specializes in regional work, history, some poetry, and short fiction, and publishes one novel a year. On even years, it’s usually a first novel through the South Carolina Arts Commission and in odd years, a manuscript is selected from the back submissions. “Betsy Teter is the executive director and editor,” Sealy explains. “She really hustles. I don’t know how she does it. She fundraises, sits on the board, coordinates and edits their fiction, sets up book tours — she’s a force of nature.”
Hub City is also a member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. “The neat thing is that Hub goes to the SIBA trade show in the fall, where authors meet and mingle with book sellers, and those are the people who sell the books and get the word out to readers.” He cites Kelly Justice of the Fountain Bookstore, a longtime SIBA member, as a champion of first-time authors.
You can see Sealy on June 26 at the monthly Writing Show of the James River Writers at the Broadberry. He’ll also participate in the JRW’s annual conference in October. His next novel, set in 1980s Florida, is crime-driven and concerns a financial officer who gets involved with an Iran-Contra money laundering operation that metaphorically goes south.
Meanwhile, Sealy is touring with the The Whisky Baron. And you can, too, for $26.