Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Stephanie Allen about her debut novel, Tonic and Balm, which follows a traveling medicine show as it winds through rural Pennsylvania, reeling in audiences with bogus miracle “cures” and old-fashioned variety acts.
Your 2008 NEA Fellowship gave you the opportunity to finish this novel-in-stories, yes? What did that process look like, before and after the award?
The NEA fellowship was a huge boost. I didn’t take the NEA year off completely, but I did have a lot of mostly free time to write and revise. I thought I would finish the book that year, but as it turns out, there were some parts of it that I didn’t get in shape until later. I’m a very slow writer. The less tangible and more long-term benefit is that an NEA fellowship is a confirmation of what you are doing. Other writers have judged your work to be of merit, and that is very supportive when you are wandering around in the wilderness of a manuscript that you are not sure how to finish.
Which character came to you first?
Several of the characters exist in somewhat different form in a short story that predates Tonic and Balm. They evolved into Ed and Louise Fleet, Antoinette Riddick, and Oscar Sauer.
Which character is your favorite and why?
I don’t really have a favorite. That would be like favoring one of your children over the others, wouldn’t it?
Which character surprised you most?
Several of them, because they turned out to be flamboyant, talkative, wisecracking people. I am nothing like that, and I wasn’t sure I could do them justice.
How did A Place between Stations give rise to this book? Please talk about the research that brought you to Tonic and Balm.
Most of my first book is short stories set in the present, and if they are not technically semi-autobiographical, they at least draw on my own direct observations of people and places. But I wanted to branch out in time and place after writing those stories. One day, in a travel book of all things, I read about an incident around the turn of the 20th century involving a small traveling circus that lost its elephant in a bizarre accident that happened while it was on the road. The story kept coming back to me. I’m fascinated by things like that, bits of history that don’t make it into history textbooks, that reveal corners of American culture you might not otherwise hear about. I did some research into circuses, and the story “Mud Show” in my first book is an outgrowth of that research. But I kept reading about traveling shows of many sorts, and more broadly about forms of popular entertainment, like dime museums, that have died out over time. That research, particularly what I learned about medicine shows, gave rise to Tonic and Balm.
Which aspects of the research for this book most resonated for you? Which were the biggest rabbit holes? Were you ever in danger of losing yourself to the research?
From pretty early on, I was interested in exploring how a diverse group of people like the members of Doc Bell’s show might have come together and managed to work as an ensemble in an era that did not encourage collaborations across the color line. There is a lot of material about circuses, their history and their culture, but far less about medicine shows, and I found only fragments and glimpses that told me what a troupe like Bell’s might have been like: a blurry photo here, a passing reference in a memoir there. I did a lot of research into the time period in general: mainstream medicine of the day, certain illnesses and how they were treated, World War I, the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, strikes and violent responses to the labor movement, and race riots and rampant violence against black people in the Red Summer of 1919, as it came to be known. Sometimes getting all of the details and context right seemed like an impossible task, but I tried very hard to make my characters’ thoughts and attitudes consistent with American society as it was in 1919. In some ways the characters are outliers who have rejected a deeply flawed society and its values, but in others they reflect the racism, sexism, and other troubling attitudes pervasive in that same society.
What made you decide on the novel-in-stories structure?
I wrestled with form for a long, long time. After publishing a collection of short stories, I wanted very much to write a “traditional” novel with a small set of main characters and a straightforward plot. But that didn’t work out well in early drafts, even though those drafts had fewer central characters than Tonic and Balm now has. It would be easy for me to say that the characters took over the manuscript, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the characters didn’t really come to life until I gave them room to breathe in the structure the book eventually took on.
I’m a great fan of the novel-in-stories form. Probably my earliest model for a novel-in-stories would be The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, which also deals with the stories of individual characters in a marginal community. At the same time, “novel-in-stories” is a fuzzy category. My publisher and editor, Rosalie Morales Kearns of Shade Mountain Press, has always referred to Tonic and Balm as simply “a novel,” and I’ve come around to her view. Each chapter after the first is too tightly bound to the other characters’ stories, too dependent on events in those other stories, to make sense by itself. Novels comprise a great variety of structures, and quite a few are really built around distinct short- or long-story sequences. Some novels I admire that work this way are Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, and David Haynes’ The Full Matilda.
In the context of this book, what does the word ‘Americana’ mean to you? What images does the term conjure?
When I run across the term “Americana,” it usually seems to refer to folk art forms from the country’s past, or at least art forms that incorporate folk traditions and that form the roots of contemporary culture. In that sense, Doc Bell’s medicine show is itself Americana, as are the elements that medicine shows tended to incorporate, which might include anything from minstrelsy to vaudeville skits to circus acts. Those elements are not artifacts for the members of Doc Bell’s show, though, who are living through cultural change, like the shifting currents of music’s evolution. Jazz is becoming prominent in the WWI era, and Ed and Louise Fleet, who come out of an older blues tradition, are trying to adapt to it. Incorporating a new style of music into their old repertoire turns out to be very difficult for Louise.
Do you see contemporary equivalents in any of the characters? Or their circumstances?
When I began work on the book, back in the mid-2000s, I was dealing with some chronic and undiagnosed health problems that had me thinking a lot about illness and medicine. I’d read Susan Sontag’s essay “Illness as Metaphor” and been struck by her ideas about how society projects its own anxieties and fantasies onto the ill. That process is one you see with Antoinette, the young woman with hydrocephaly that Doc Bell takes on to exhibit in a sideshow tent, and the way her perceptions contrast with the range of reactions of show members to her.
The novel is not alluding to any particulars from the present day. But I hope my historical fiction is true enough to human nature and the ways of the world to speak to the present-day concerns of readers who want to make connections. An operator like Doc Bell, for example, is a type to be found throughout the ages, and it’s probably useful to compare him with counterparts who use the same kinds of techniques he does to cajole strangers and keep his own team on board with what he’s doing.
Doc Bell himself is freakishly tall–a tower of a white man. Who or what inspired him?
Doc Bell is an outgrowth of my research into medicine shows and their proprietors, but he is not based on any particular person. He is more like an embodiment of the charisma, the showmanship, the business savvy, the flimflam, the corruption, and the wish fulfillment at the heart of an enterprise like his medicine show. He probably has a growth disorder, but he has turned his unusual stature into part of his razzle-dazzle.
Why Southern Pennsylvania?
Southern Pennsylvania sometimes reminds me of the more rural parts of New York State that are not too far from Poughkeepsie, New York, where I grew up. But then, sometimes, southern Pennsylvania seems like the South. I guess those conflicting impressions are not surprising, since Pennsylvania’s southern border is the Mason-Dixon line. A place that feels like border territory, like you cannot be quite certain of where you are, seemed like the right setting for Doc Bell’s medicine show in its summer of turmoil.
If this book had a soundtrack, what might it be?
Probably Old Hat Records’ Music from the Medicine Shows, which is a wonderful time capsule of music from the early 20th century.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what did you listen to while writing this book?
I don’t listen to music when I write. I’m too easily distracted. But it was important for me to have a sense of what the music of Doc Bell’s medicine show might have sounded like, so I listened to a fair amount of music from the time—blues, country, ragtime, early jazz, novelty songs. I also looked at a lot of photographs, some of musicians, many of people in other settings–farms, factories, hospitals, schools, orphanages, street scenes, people posing with their cars, people doing their jobs, as much as I could find. And I looked at a lot of newspaper articles from 1919. All of it, the music, the images, the bits of news, helped me construct the milieu of the show and the places it visits.
If this book were a movie (and I can see that happening), who would you cast as your chapter characters?
Not a clue. I do enjoy movie adaptations of books, but I don’t think in a way that lends itself to adaptation. I’ve already seen the characters, heard the music they make, smelled the torch smoke and stumbled around in the dark. I’ve already been to the movie. That doesn’t preclude an adaptation, but I’m probably not the person to create it.
What’s next? Projects on the horizon?
Next, I hope, is a long vacation. Then, maybe, it’ll be time to think about the next project.
Stephanie Allen is an NEA fellowship recipient and author of the story collection A Place between Stations, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist. Her work has appeared in the anthology Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women and in literary journals. She has taken part in the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program in Washington, D.C., and taught classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland, where she also teaches.