THE COPPER ROAD: Seven Questions for Richard Buxton [INTERVIEW]

Richard Buxton reimagines the Civil War in his series, Shire’s Union. (Photo courtesy Canva/Ocoee Publishing/Richard Buxton)

Gone with the Wind. Gods and Generals. Cold Mountain. North and South. There is no shortage of novels about the Civil War. But few capture our imagination like Richard Buxton, one of England’s rising literary stars. With the release of the second volume in his Shire’s Union series, The Copper Road, we sit down with the author to discover why he’s so fascinated with American history and how it compares to events that are taking place today. Enjoy the interview! —J&H

J&H: The Copper Road is your second novel about the Civil War. As an Englishman, what is it about America’s history, particularly that of this time period, that compels you to write about it?

RB: Like most people my age – let’s not go there – my fascination with America started by watching movies, mostly westerns and WWII, as I was growing up in Wales. Larger than life characters in a larger than life country. At age nineteen, I was one of ten students from my London University to go on an exchange to the State University of New York for a whole semester. I loved it. The energy and ambition of America is palpable when you visit from outside, especially if you start in New York City. I won a scholarship to return a couple of years later to study for a Masters in International Relations at Syracuse University and the year had a lasting impact on me.

When I came to start reading about the Civil War – I must have been about thirty or so – I guess the history reignited my younger excitement for America. Those larger than life characters were right there in the generals and the politicians on both sides. The sheer scale of the war was something I hadn’t appreciated. Great overland marches, incredible navel battles, steam trains and steamboats, and the huge stakes in terms of slavery and keeping the Union together. I was hooked and ate up the history books.

So, when I had the opportunity to go back to university in my mid-forties and study creative writing, the American Civil War was my natural specialism. I knew more about that part of history than any other. It allowed me to justify numerous research adventures and road-trips to the places I wanted to write about. There is so much written about the war, so many stories of ancestors that people have shared with me. I never run short of inspiration. Often it helps to be an Englishman. Park rangers, museum guides, the guy next to you on the bar stool, they are all extra generous with their time because they’re surprised and thrilled that someone has crossed the Atlantic to get closer to the Civil War. British fascination with the subject is not as rare as you might think. I belong to the American Civil War Round Table chapter in London and there are numerous re-enactor units based in the UK. We all share a fascination with America’s story. We all care about America.

J&H: What were perhaps the most challenging parts about writing this novel? 

RB: My great joy in writing is finding a narrative for my mix of fictional and historical characters that sits within and illustrates the history. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There were any number of things I wanted to explore in The Copper Road: the particular dark history in and around the historical Copper Road itself and in Ducktown, Tod Carter’s incredible feat (he’s a real character) in escaping deep in the north and finding his way back to his regiment in Georgia, the attritional and relentless nature of the Atlanta Campaign. Add to all that the ongoing bubbling under relationship of Clara and Shire and the intrigue and evil introduced by Matlock.

It’s not easy to find a plot that knits all these things together. I spent three days alone in a lodge at the Cumberland Falls in Kentucky where the sole purpose, apart from enjoying the great view from my bedroom, was to get a skeleton plot together. But most of the hard work is done during the writing itself when a series of lesser or greater revelations arise about how you can believably align all the characters’ lives. I love it.

J&H: Were there any specific moments where you felt the characters took the story out of your hands because they had their own tale to tell? 

RB: I think only at a micro-level. So things that they said, or the way they reacted in a particular scene. Less so overall as I’m not so free and easy with my characters as some authors. I like to be sure of their motivations, their wants and needs from the start. That said I worked a great deal with my editor, Patrick LoBrutto, to deepen the characters. He picked up on this paragraph in the draft I sent him where Shire is wistful about his former self.

“He’d hoped perhaps for a rebirth of the younger Shire, the one he recalled from before a mix of happenstance, friendship and love – love had the majority share – had pulled him away from his English home and into an America at war with itself. Instead, at times, he felt he was becoming reacquainted with some distant cousin, who’d travelled abroad for a number of years and returned worn and slightly saddened by the experience…This new Shire, this partial stranger, had to be negotiated with…”

This loss of self, the change engendered by harsh experience of the war, was something I revisited and explored far more in the final draft. And it’s continuing in book three. Shire might miss his old self, but characters can’t remain unchanged. He’s having to become someone new. They all are. I’m enjoying finding out who they are becoming.

J&H: Your characters travel across different parts of the South, such as when Clara goes to Cincinnati by way of Nashville and Tod sails down the Ohio River. Have you had the opportunity to visit these places yourself? If so, which places did you like best? Or which would you most like to visit?

RB: Oh yes. I’ve made a series of trips to places of interest. Either because I know that the novels will go there or because I want to pick up some period details. Usually I take two weeks and plan a road-trip between cheap motels, but sometimes I spoil myself. I’ve been on a period riverboat in both Cincinnati and Nashville. I’ve sat on the heights above Pittsburgh and looked over the city where the Ohio is born as Tod does. I’ve been to many period homes. I’ve visited almost all the battle sites in The Copper Road and watched many re-enactments. I’ve re-enacted myself in West Virginia. Also I’ve walked parts of the Copper Road where it still exists. I can only get so far without getting up and out of my study chair.

I think my favorite place is Chickamauga, the battle site just outside Chattanooga that features in Whirligig. I spent four days there following the footsteps of the 125th, even walking the battlefield after sunset to get the right summer aromas, watch silhouettes of flying beetles, listen to the crickets and the frogs. I get huge pleasure when I read those scenes back because I’m transported right back there.

For Tigers in Blue, the next book, I need to go back to Nashville, which I’ve previously only scratched the surface of, so I’m looking forward to that. Also, south from Nashville down to the Alabama border. It’s a huge frustration that Covid has stopped me travelling this year.

J&H: There’s a scene where Shire is at Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia and he becomes quite excited about drinking coffee again, something there was obviously a shortage of during the war. But there were other things that the soldiers had to do without. What are some of them? And have you found that you’ve had to go without similar items during the pandemic? 

RB: Supply to the soldiers was a constant problem for both sides, but more so for the South. They had fewer resources to start with and were blockaded by the Union Navy. When you read the accounts it’s sometimes hard to credit how little the soldiers survived on. They would go days without any rations and be forced to subsist on ears of corn or whatever they could forage. They would have been glad when they received just the basics of meat, flour and salt. Anything more was a luxury. Twice as many soldiers died of disease as they did from wounds and poor food had a lot to do with it.

When re-enacting, my pa’rd Jeff baked us a batch of hardtack. Really just flour and water fried in a skillet. They were interesting to try just the once! Sorry Jeff. I found an account where some soldiers of the 125th stole some old hives to get at the honey to flavor up their hardtack and used it as a scene in Whirligig. The soldiers were endlessly inventive.

To be honest we’ve had no shortages of food during the pandemic. Just occasionally something is missing from the shelves but it’s back the next week. In some ways our experience of the pandemic is the polar opposite of the civil war soldiers. I eat well but rarely get away from home. They ate poorly and some didn’t go home for years at a time. Many never made it home.

J&H: Trapped in the midst of a major conflict, each character in the novel seems to be caught on the wave of change, regardless of their politics. Did you find any parallels between what they went through at that time and the current state of the world today as you wrote this story? And was it difficult to extract today’s values and ideas to tell a historically accurate tale? 

RB: That’s an interesting question. Certainly, I think the feeling of helplessness, that you are caught up in something far bigger than yourself, is something I’ve reflected on and tried to use. We would all like things to get better now, for the pandemic to disappear. It must have been like that in the middle of any great war when you know it has a way to run. It’s about endurance and fortitude. Some people do better than others at times like that.

The Copper Road was largely complete by the summer of 2019. I think this comes into play more in the third book, Tigers in Blue, which I’m in the middle of writing right now. While we know the war ended in 1865, the characters don’t. Circumstances in the west were such that there was the prospect of it going on for several more years. Shire and Tuck are fearful of that. They are fatigued, both physically and mentally.

On extracting today’s values, you have to be careful with that as a writer. First up, are you clear on what the values of the time were? To a large extent the Civil War was fought to create or re-enforce some of the values we have today. It’s a greater danger for say, a writer on Tudor times. I think is you fully reflected values, dialogue, conditions, then most readers would switch off. It has to be relatable to us and our values. It’s a balance.

Luckily for me I have the letters and thoughts of many of the soldiers in the 125th. I’ve always been struck my how modern the writing feels. Colonel Opdycke’s letters home to his wife Lucy for example. If you didn’t know, the style is such that you might well guess they are far more recent.

Clara is an interesting character in this regard. I didn’t want her to be a victim, set up to be rescued again and again. She does need a bit of rescuing, but she fights against that label and is determined to cut her own path. I’ve never bought into the cliché that women were passive in Victorian times. There are just too many examples that tell us otherwise. Clara makes her own decisions and certainly doesn’t behave in a stereotypical way.

J&H: If you could sit down and share a meal with one of your characters, who would you most like to spend time with and why? 

RB: I feel I already know Shire so well he’d not have much to tell me. So I think it would have to be George Trenholm. He’s a relatively minor character in The Copper Road but pulls some big strings that impact Shire, Tod and Clara. He’s a real historical figure, a very wealthy empire builder who supported secession, owned a fleet of blockade runners, had offices in Liverpool which traded cotton and supported the Confederacy’s spy network in England. In 1864 he was made Financial Secretary to the Confederacy and was on the train out of Richmond with Jefferson Davis when the city fell. He’d have some stories to tell and I’d have some questions to ask him. Also, he has a never-ending supply of good whiskey.

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ABOUT THE COPPER ROAD

Richard Buxton's THE COPPER ROAD
Ocoee Publishing

Shire is far from home, his old life in Victorian England a fading memory. He’s battled through war-torn America to keep a cherished promise to his childhood companion. Now she’s pushing him away, while the war won’t let him go. Fighting for the Union, Shire must survive the brutal campaign for Atlanta and try to imagine a future without her.

Clara is free from her husband but not from his ghost. After a violent end to an abusive marriage, she struggles to keep her home in the Tennessee hills as the war steals away its treasures and its people.

Tod, a captured Rebel, escapes in Pennsylvania. His encounters on the long road back to his regiment cast the Civil War in a different light. He begins to question his will to fight.

Three young lives become wrapped in the Rebels’ desperate need for copper. Friendships, loyalty and love will be tested beyond breaking point. Shire has new promises to keep.

Richard Buxton
Richard Buxton

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Buxton is the author of Whirligig, the first novel in the Shire’s Union series published in 2017, which was shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award.

His short stories have won the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award.

He completed an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University in 2014. He has an abiding relationship with America, having studied at Syracuse University, New York State, in the late 80s.

Richard lives with his family in the South Downs, Sussex, England.

To find out more about the author, visit his home on the Web at RichardBuxton.net. You may also like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.

THE COPPER ROAD
By Richard Buxton
442 pp. Ocoee Publishing. $19.99

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Purchase The Copper Road direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, Hudson Booksellers, IndieBound, Powell’s, or Walmart.

The Copper Road is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

2 Responses to THE COPPER ROAD: Seven Questions for Richard Buxton [INTERVIEW]

  1. I always love your interviews! Thank you so much for hosting Richard & his blog tour today!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

    • Jathan Fink says:

      Thanks so much Amy! Interviews are one of our absolute favorite things to do. It’s always so fun to get inside the head of writers and learn more about their motivations, passions, and the details they wanted to share that never made the final cut. Have a great week!

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