Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
Brian Panowich’s sweeping debut novel, Bull Mountain, is a story of one family across several generations of moonshining, meth-making, and violence. Panowich is a Georgia native whose narrative resonates with the rich language and history of Appalachian culture. On July 15, he’ll be sharing his novel and his process at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café. The reading will be followed by a Q&A and book signing.
The novel follows members of the roguish Burroughs clan as they distill and swill their way to legendary outlaw status in McFalls County, Georgia. One family member, Clayton Burroughs, makes the decision to pull out of the family business and go into law enforcement, but a visit from the federal government forces him to face the past he tried to bury. The resulting narrative is captivating. Panowich spins a tale of Southern mountain justice that is filled with characters whose commitment to a twisted code of honor hearkens back to deeply-rooted Scots-Irish traditions of power and protection.
Panowich pulls from a deep well of knowledge of Southern culture—its music, geographies, and flavors. The book is fascinating, and talking with its author was like focusing a magnifying glass on the wild traditions that make these mountains so special. I spoke with Brian about this book, the publishing process, and his eclectic past (he was a touring musician before settling down to become a firefighter in East Georgia).
Ali McGhee (AM): Bull Mountain is your debut novel. What was the writing process like for you? Any highlights (or particularly interesting lows) from conception to finishing the final sentence?
Brian Panowich (BP): Bull Mountain was the first novel I'd ever written, so I really didn't know the rules as to the three act system that most writer's follow. I also have four small children and need silence to write, so writing around my house is nearly impossible. Luckily, I work as a fireman, and the down time during those late night 24-hour shifts allowed me the time I needed to focus. The entirety of this book was written every third day at the firehouse.
AM: What was the publishing process like? Any enlightening and/or or frustrating experiences as the book moved forward?
BP: The whole process of writing the book, being agented, and then getting published was such a whirlwind experience, that even right now, it's still hard to digest. The best part has been finding and working with the best people in the industry by way of my editor, Sara Minnich and the rest of the folks at Putnam. They were a constant source of enlightenment. The frustration came from learning to let go, and let other people have control over something this personal. I've been self promoting myself for so long, it was hard not to want to be involved at every level of the process. I had to learn to step back when they said, "Brian, stop worrying. We got this."
AM: McFalls County is an imaginary place, but it clearly grew out of a deep knowledge of the real geographical area where it's set. Were there any specific locations or landscapes that influenced the setting? I did see that the Southern terminus of the AT is in an area called the Bull Mountain trail network. Is this area around where you imagined these events to take place?
BP: I ride mountain bikes. It's during these rides that most of my ideas come to me, but no they are not the same place. I did indeed borrow the name of those trails for my fictional mountain, but the area I used to base my version of North Georgia on is more akin to Clayton County (which is where my main protagonist gets his name).
AM: Similarly to the last question, is anything in the narrative pulled from real events, people, experiences, etc. (that would be safe to share, haha)?
BP: I did research a lot of post-prohibition crime that grew from that huge hiccup made by the federal government that created a lot of models and monsters all over the world, but there isn't much out there about Georgia's role in that game. I found out a lot of what I know over campfire and picnic table stories that infer just how much more intelligent those people must have been to stay out of the history books and that far under the radar. Of course, it is fiction, so I dramatized a lot of those stories, and don't plan on asking too many questions. I do live here.
AM: How has your own eclectic background (as a musician, a firefighter, etc.) influenced your work and the topics you choose to write about?
BP: Being a musician on the road put me in contact with an assortment of seedy characters in clubs and bars across the Southeast and I'm sure bits and pieces of those folks made it into the characters I created, but as a fireman, nobody tells a story as well as a group of firefighters sitting around the pinning table in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about the crazy and sometimes horrible things they'd seen the shift before. I file away all those mannerisms and turns of phrase and use them to pepper my own fictional creations.
AM: Any particular influences in terms of other authors, music, and/or art that you as a writer (or your writing process) are inspired or flavored by (generally or for this book specifically)?
BP: It's funny. I read Cormac McCarthy, and Daniel Woodrell, and I love them as much as anyone should, but I've always been an Elmore Leonard guy. The dialogue alone was worth reading his books. The universe he created where characters floated in and out of his novels was always what I imagined I'd want to do. Music was more of an inspiration to this novel. In fact the entirety of the book essentially sprang from the first line of The Band's "Up On Cripple Creek". I built a playlist based on each character and worked from there. There's a BULL MOUNTAIN playlist on Spotify for anyone out there that wants to dig into what I was using as a soundtrack to gear up before I sat down to write the story.
AM: Being a WNC native myself, I'm very interested in ideals of justice as they manifest in the South, particularly the Appalachian South (areas that tend to be thought of as more stereotypically “redneck”). Your characters are obviously committed to ideals of justice (in its myriad and strange forms) in a way that is also very connected to heritage and family. Do you feel like this is a central aspect of Southern Appalachian culture? If so, can you speak about it as you've experienced it?
BP: Family is the central theme to the entire South in my opinion. It comes before anything else and nothing is more sacred. I think the idea of justice in the South is altered and sometimes skewed by that shared view. Looking out for your kin can almost always be more important than what's right or wrong. Distill that opinion down to about 120 proof and that is exactly what this book is about.
Check out Bull Mountain for yourself—it's now on sale at Malaprop's. And absolutely plan to come out for an evening of story-spinning (and maybe even a moonshine recipe or two).