John Ballam’s Forthcoming Novel Blends Fiction, Family History

No one could accuse Dr John Ballam of being an underachiever. As well as holding down a day job as Director of the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing at the Department for Continuing Education, he has published two collections of poetry, six stage plays, one novel and a number of academic works – and he also works as a script writer and editor. His most ambitious project yet, a second novel that comes in at a thumping 600 pages, will be published at the end of this year.

The Mary House, which took Dr Ballam a year to research and then another year to write, is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western Maryland, the area where he grew up.

The story takes place in 1963-64 and concerns a fictional American novelist called Mary White whose husband has killed himself, and whose son, in response to his father’s death, enlists for the Vietnam war and goes missing in action. Mary decides to start a new life, so buys a big old house with slave quarters. ‘The shape of the novel is her diary while the house is being renovated,’ Dr Ballam explains.  Grieving her dead husband, and preoccupied with her son’s disappearance, she also writes stories, which are interwoven with the main narrative. ‘All of the stories pick up local themes and also they're manifesting what's on her mind while she's experiencing all that. So it's a kind of a recovery of from grief.’

Telling the women’s stories

The ‘Mary House’ is based on a house that has been in his family for five generations, and he realised he wanted to tell the story of the women who had lived in the house.

‘There are three storytellers for Mary's stories: there's a version of herself, there's a version of the African-American slave who lived in the house before her and there was also a Catoctin American woman, a Native American, who was, depending on your point of view, either rescued or abducted by the family who took her in. So in a way they are telling stories of women's lives over about 200 years.’ To make the book as authentic as possible, when he was working on it he read ‘nothing but fiction by female writers to see what is different about the way women tell stories.’

Extensive research means that every geographical and historical detail is as accurate as he can make it. ‘I spent a long time reading everything – customs and history and legends and folklore to do with the local indigenous Americans as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of slave narratives, and all the strange peculiarities about it. The Civil War features in it, but it's not the big battles war. It’s things you don't think about, like American roads full of refugees or churches bathed in blood from the wounded.’

Dr Ballam’s earlier, best-selling memoir, The Road to Harmony: an Appalachian Childhood, was about growing up Western Maryland and his first novel, The Toymaker, was set in the same region.

Because he grew up in the area, the geography came more easily, but he checked some details with his mother, who has lived there all her life and could remember, for example, where a particular trolley stop was 50 years ago.

The lens of distance

Dr Ballam has now lived in the UK for 30 years. How does that affect his writing about his home country?

‘I think there’s no way to tell a story without establishing some sort of perspective on it,’ he says. ‘And I think like James Joyce leaving Ireland and never writing anything else, in a sense that’s what it feels like: it’s a difference of time, difference of space that gives you an angle.’

As someone who has written plays, film scripts and poetry as well as novels, Dr Ballam is nothing if not versatile. Does he have a favourite? ‘In a perfect world, I suppose I would have Alan Ayckbourn's life. I'd like to work on other people's plays for most of the year and then do one of my own at the same time. Failing that, I do love prose fiction, especially if it's got a real passion of the writer in it.’

Despite being a prolific writer, Dr Ballam still enjoys teaching creative writing classes.

‘I think they cross-fertilise,’ he says. ‘I think it's stimulating for students to know that the tutor faces the same blank page they face, that you still have to give it to somebody and say, “Am I making sense here?” And you also learn from other people – I'm constantly preparing classes and thinking, “Here's an interesting way to do it,” so I think the two are really interdependent. I don't know that you should teach writing without writing.’

He feels lucky, he adds, to come into contact with so many ‘extraordinary’ students: ‘It's a very stimulating environment. I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to be part of this.’


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Published 4 February 2019