Serendipity, Saragossa, and Moonshine

Sadieville final cover When first pondering the story that would become The Fairies of Sadieville, my initial idea was one of form. I’d just read Jan Patocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and seen the Polish film adaptation, The Saragossa Manuscript. Both novel and film are “nesting” or “frame” stories, in which a tale is told within another tale, which is told within another tale, sometimes for multiple levels, like Russian nesting dolls.

Saragossa ManuscriptThis fascinated me. I’ve always looked for ways to create an illusion of depth and antiquity in the Tufa novels, to give a sense of the Tufa’s immense past. I decided that the first section would be modern, but was less clear on the second one, which would be a story that one character tells others. I knew it had to take place in the past, but how far back should I go? And around what concept should I base it, so that it works both as part of the overall novel, and on its own as a story?

Sometimes if you leave yourself open to ideas, then they’ll just drop in your lap. And in this case, during a visit to Frugal Muse in Madison, WI, I came across Southern Mountaineers in Silent Films by J.W. Williamson.

Southern Mountaineers cover

This is not a typical history, or even a critical consensus. It’s simply a collection of “Plot Synopses of Movies about Moonshining, Feuding and Other Mountain Topics, 1904–1929,” as the subtitle explains. Williamson told me over e-mail that it was “a footnote that got out of control” to his book, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies. 

There’s an introduction to put things in context, and it’s fascinating. Between the dates covered by the book (1904-1929), at least 476 movies were made about mountain folk, primarily set in Appalachia and the Ozarks.

The Library of Congress paper print of "Fred Ott's Sneeze," 1894.

The Library of Congress paper print of Fred Ott’s Sneeze, 1894.

Most of these are lost due to the decay of their nitrate film. However, a few remain thanks to the practice of making physical paper prints of each frame of film in order to register the copyrights. As a result, the earliest film mentioned in the book, 1904’s The Moonshiner, can still be seen:

One of the compelling details of this initial “mountain” film is the utter lack of any expected “hillbilly” cliches. Note that the titular moonshiner wears a fedora and tie, and that one daughter sports a nice dress and hat. There’s also no doubt that the film sides with the moonshiners, not with the revenue agents hunting them. It’s primitive filmmaking, but fairly sophisticated storytelling.

The well-dressed moonshiner, circa 1904.

The well-dressed moonshiner, circa 1904.

So with this amazing look into a world I barely knew about, I found the concept for my second-level story. I created a fictional filmmaker and sent him to my imaginary coal-mining town, where his intent to capture “reality” gets sidetracked by his encounter with The Fairies of Sadieville.

Which you can pre-order here.

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