Bad karma: Christopher Tilghman's Right-Hand Shore

Christopher Tilghman isn't complaining. When his first book in eight years, The Right-Hand Shore, rolled out last year, he got glowing reviews in national publications like the New York Times. His publisher sent him out on a 20-city tour, which just doesn't happen that often anymore for writers. "I've been pampered," he says.

Still, he's noticed changes in the publishing biz since the last book: the rise of online publishing and Internet recommendations like Goodreads, and the decline of newspapers, leading to fewer local reviews. "Some reviews I didn't get were a surprise," he notes. "The Washington Post– I didn't get a review there on a book with such regional appeal."

The novel is set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, more specifically on a farm that's been in Tilghman's family since 1657 where he's been going since he was one year old. It's a landscape to which he keeps returning– or perhaps can't escape– with this prequel to his 1996 book, Mason's Retreat.

"I'm haunted by it, in part because there's been a lot of tragedy in this place," he admits. "These are my old family stories. This is me reinterpreting them."

In the course of writing this multigenerational tale which takes place from 1857 to 1920, he learned what happened to his forebearer's slaves. "They were literally sold down the river," says Tilghman. The ancestor couldn't afford to feed them and foresaw that the malevolent institution was near its end, so in an early chapter, families are ripped apart by a man who saw it as a smart business decision.

A reviewer has described Tilghman's five books as centering on the "dissolution of family." But Tilghman points out another underlying theme about the place that's become for him what fictional county Yoknapatawpha was for William Faulkner: "What are we going to do with it?" Tilghman asks. "How are we going to make it pay? The Eastern Shore has been broke most of the time."

In the late 19th century, thousands of peach trees were planted in the area, and Tilghman is, frankly, fascinated by the doomed-by-blight agricultural enterprise.

"I'm interested in the details of work," he says, "of people having to eat and survive. When you try to recreate this life, you've got to know what they do with their hands."

Getting right the details of the 1880s, which saw a "blistering" rate of technological change, caused him a small nervous breakdown, confesses Tilghman, 66. "This was a heavily researched historical novel. I was terrified about getting things wrong."

What he gets right is the tale of two families, one white, one black freeholders, and what happens to the kids of both families who grow up together. "Mostly bad," reveals Tilghman, "but it has a happy ending."

His colleague from UVA's creative writing program, John Casey, pops into Tilghman's office in Bryan Hall. "This is one of the great books because it comes up through the soles of his feet and all the way up," gushes Casey. "He does something brave and confronts this race issue. If I were doing it, I would have given it a prize."

"I've always seen the dark, more malevolent side of this place imbued with ghosts," says Tilghman. "I am haunted by it."

Bad karma aside, he's off to the Eastern Shore for the weekend. He's not complaining.

Tilghman appears with Jill McCorkle, Randy Susan Meyers, and Susan Shreve to discuss "Fiction: Life and Death" at 8pm Thursday, March 21, at UVA Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections

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