Lydia Peelle

Year of Graduation: 
Lydia Poolle, author of The Midnight Cool

"I think there are perennial problems in the human heart, and this book looks at some of them."

Lydia Peelle ’96 was already a multi-award-winning short story writer when her debut novel, The Midnight Cool, was published earlier this year, but the authorial poise that runs so elegantly throughout her new book is still striking. Ostensibly the tale of Billy and Charles, two horse traders (well, traders in anything they can lay their hands on, really) in 1916 Tennessee, The Midnight Cool also trades comprehensively in the most universal of elements, from migration and income gaps to love and war. As talk of women’s suffrage, local temperance and World War I battles swirl around them, Billy and Charles become invested in the mules that are needed on the killing fields of Europe. As Charles falls for Catherine, daughter of the town’s wealthiest man, this also becomes a book about the stories people tell each other to feel better about themselves, to cope, to live.

Q: I understand that you actually met your husband, Ketch Secor ’96 of the band Old Crow Medicine Show, when you were both preps?

Peelle: I did. I did. The greatest gift that Exeter gave me.

Q: What else did you gain from your Exeter experience?

Peelle: Exeter, more so than college and graduate school, shaped my education. One thing that stuck out for me — I mean, I had teachers at Exeter who I think about on a daily basis — but the memory that came back to me so clearly this morning was of sitting in assembly listening to Allen Ginsberg play the squeeze box and recite poetry, and I thought, “How many people get to do that in high school?!” I remember waking up the morning after his performance and it was like the whole world had changed.

Q: When it comes to your fiction, do you have a particular approach or writing process? What is your starting point?

Peelle: For me, so much of it is an exploration and an inquiry — I don’t have a plan. The Midnight Cool took seven and a half years of writing, and it looks, you know, nothing like the first draft. But it’s the same story. My first question or inquiry was about being a woman in a man’s world in 1916. And what happened was that the men in the story took over, and the women were just literally eclipsed in the telling of the story. When I realized that was happening I thought, “Well, that’s reflective of how their lives would have been,” so it became the men’s story in a very organic way, even though my first question was about the women.

Q: You do have the character of Catherine, whose voice comes through more and more as the book goes along. At first, I thought, “Oh, she’s just someone that Charles is in love with.” But ultimately, she’s the one who stands up to, well, everything, and kind of even shapes the end of the story.  

Peelle: Yeah, Catherine is the heart of the book for me. Of course, she can only do so much, not only as a woman in the early 20th century but also being a Southern woman and an affluent Southern woman — she just has so many ties that bind her. In all of the reading about that era that I did for this book, I was just so taken by the plight of women, the plight of African-Americans, the plight of all of the oppressed in this country at that time of war, and how they still managed to have some agency because it was a time of war.

Q: The title refers to a mysterious, dangerous horse, whose backstory broke my heart into a million little pieces. This is a book of big, sweeping, universal elements — haves and have-nots, immigration, persecution, fear-mongering, first love — yet it’s so specific to its time and place as well. How did you maintain that beautiful balance?

Peelle: Our times are very similar to the times preceding America’s entering into World War I; it was actually very striking to find these correlations as I was researching that period. But there was also a point where the research had to stop and I had to follow the story and follow my instinct. And so much of what’s in that book about those issues you bring up are the things that I have seen living in rural Tennessee for almost 20 years. I think there are perennial problems in the human heart, and this book looks at some of them; I always think about how we approach the universal through the specific, so I just picked a particular period and dug deep. But my hunch is that I could pick any time period and dig deep and come up with those same perennial problems.

Q: I loved the slogans in the window of the town’s laundry: “We clean everything but your reputation.” “We will dye for you.” “We smooth everything but your family troubles.” “A time to rip and a time to sew.” Did you make those up?

Peelle: I’m glad you like them. In my research of this time period, I discovered a successful African-American-owned-and-operated laundry business in the town that my fictional Richfield is based on, and I worked it into the book: I got half of the slogans from the real owner, clearly a comic, and then, inspired by him, I made up the other half. I spent a lot of time in the Tennessee state archives just reading old newspapers, and I got the best stuff from the ads. But the whole experience was great — I mean, I feel like these people, my characters, are friends of mine. It was seven years of living in this time period, in my own region, in my own backyard, and it was such a beautiful way to be engaged with history. I tell people it was the closest you could get to being a time traveler, because I literally lived in that time. ... There was such a resonance with current events and the things I was reading about.

Q: Is that why you set your work there, because you feel an affinity for it?

Peelle: That’s a good question. It never occurred to me to set this book anywhere other than Tennessee, I think because I’m so interested in the extremely complex problems of Southern history. Also, I’m not a Southerner, I’m a Yankee who moved south 20 years ago, so it’s been my way of engaging with it as my home, writing about it.

Q: What’s next for you?

Peelle: I’m working on a new book! It’s set in 1890s San Francisco as well as in the present, and it’s been this wonderful, freeing thing to actually write about my own time. I’m researching in San Francisco at the Maritime Research Center in Fort Mason, and it’s so beautiful to sit there and look at the Golden Gate Bridge and read old maritime history books. But the thing I’m really excited about is that all the heroes in this book are women, so I’m loving that. I had to sort of look at the world through men’s eyes, because in all the books we read in the white male canon, the men are the heroes; it’s part of my DNA to write about men because I read about men. With The Midnight Cool, I kind of got that out of my system; now, writing about women, it’s like this whole new world has opened up. 

—Daneet Steffens ’82

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.