A note from Matthew Neill Null
on writing Honey from the Lion
Honey from the Lion reclaims a vanished past—a history of daily toil and desire. It is a book of dreams, of the drifter and the clerk, of the washerwoman and the panther. I wanted to write America’s shadow story—the characters popular history crops from the frame. My home state of West Virginia has produced no great men, in the old sense of that phrase, no presidents, but hundreds of thousands have lived and died there, a rich human pageant. This novel is my bid to give them back their stories.
My dad had a good buddy on Fenwick Mountain named Brown. He was a mine foreman from Richwood, one of the boomtowns on which the novel’s Helena is based, in Nicholas County, where I was born. One summer day when I was eight or nine years old, Brown took us to visit a friend of his, an ex–coal miner. The friend was hunched over and shuffled as he walked—he lived off a disability check. After a long round of talk, he led us to what he called his museum, a cramped room in the attic of his farmhouse. Tables overflowed with shellacked hornets’ nests, shed antlers, obsolete hand tools, arrowheads and pestles, the skulls of bobcats, and stone-hard clutches of burrs from the American chestnut, gone a hundred years. But most impressive to me: on the backside of his mountain, the remains from a logging camp. He had picked his way down there and raked the earth to find what was left. He placed a spent pineknot in my palm, no bigger than a hand grenade, and explained how the loggers lit their way of a night, using the pitch as a torch. He had found their bottle dump and its wonders, like the three-sided blue bottles that once contained arsenic, bringing up visions of poisonings, of jealousies and fist fights in high mountain camps, far from the law. Last he led us to the garage, where he kept antiquated logging tools: drag chains, harnesses, the crosscut saw the loggers called the misery whip. After we’d waved good-bye to his friend, Brown spoke of the man’s loneliness. I looked back through the window of the truck, where I sat on the bench seat between Brown and my dad. He had gone back inside. Like that man, the keeper of those things, a novelist desires objects, textures, physicality. A novelist reconstructs vanished lives.
West Virginia is a museum of failed enterprise. The landscape is marked with the detritus of bygone commerce: sealed coal mines, rusting oil derricks, shuttered banks and schools, empty towns. These aren’t torn down or paved over as they would be in prosperous places; they’re left to weather away. Living in that place, I couldn’t help but fear their eventual disappearance, and my own. I think of the German term Ruinenlust, the mixed pleasure of wrecked buildings, the appeal of decay. We know the tools workers used, and where they lived, but their fear and desire, their complaints and their jokes, often go unrecorded. I’ve tried to create an emotional history that bridges the space between our ancestors and ourselves.
Honey from the Lion is also the story of how our landscape has been used: for solace and sustenance, for material gain and social control. West Virginians love the land and draw comfort from it, but the relationship is tenuous, always in flux, subject to the whim of external forces. Many times I’ve walked to fish a trout stream, only to find a mine or a well opening in the headwaters. The roads have been gated, the yellow POSTED: NO TRESPASSING signs have gone up. That access has been lost. When I was younger—in high school, in college—I kept a pair of bolt cutters in my truck and happily cut the locks, climbed the fences, and, if caught, claimed I had permission from landowners I’d never met. It’s harder to get away with that these days. Surveillance cameras are cheap. Now that I’m respectable and employed, being hauled in front of the county magistrate is a risk I’d rather not take.
During my semi-criminal ramblings, when I wanted to see all of the state the human eye could behold, I went to Randolph County, walked miles on the abandoned tracks, and followed the Cheat River to the ghost town of Spruce, where hundreds of loggers had lived, enough to need a commissary, post office, blacksmith, cookhouse. All that’s left are the scorched foundations and the odd rusted pile of peavey heads, slicks of spilled coal, the dynamited river, the rails, the lone switchman’s shack. It was such brutal work, such a brutal enterprise, but no one was buried there. The dead were hauled back to bigger, more permanent towns. There, at nineteen, I decided to write a novel about that place and the people who once inhabited it. I would let my daily struggles—for friendship, money, security—fall to the wayside in order to try to write theirs—to give the dead their due.
The historical moment of Honey from the Lion is marked by not only environmental destruction, but also the birth of a situation West Virginia hasn’t found a way out of. Our incredible natural resources—and all that profit generated—failed to create a successful society. West Virginia is, even now, an internal colony, providing fuel to the country in which it uneasily resides. It has all the colonial troubles: corruption, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, inequality, a sclerotic political class, the unsteady lives of boom and bust. What began with timbering has continued in coal mining, and hydrofracturing of the Marcellus shale for natural gas, and will continue in some unknown and unguessed substance.
The arc of Honey from the Lion begins in the United States’ murky prehistory—the chaos and ferment of colonial times—and travels through the Civil War and the Gilded Age, ending as a WPA sculptor unveils a questionable monument. The New Deal coalition of 1932 is the beginning of modern America, our rise as a superpower and technocratic bureaucracy, the first moment that the country’s past becomes totally intelligible to contemporary minds. I wanted to explain this leap to myself—and the novel seemed the perfect tool to probe ambiguity and change, to tell what scholars cannot. I wanted to do so at ground level, among the anonymous and unstoried men and women who do the work, who vanish as historians fasten like remoras onto the lives of so-called great men. My forbears are not the Roosevelts and the Carnegies; they are the hands on the plow, the ax, the petty clerk’s pen.