The Murder behind the Myth: Jayne Anne Phillips talks to MaryAnne Kolton
By MaryAnne KoltonOctober 11, 2013
A TRICKY yet compelling and successful melding of truth and fiction, Quiet Dell is the much-anticipated new novel from Jayne Anne Phillips. Haunting memories of chilling, true-life crimes committed by a master con man led the author to create a harrowing narrative of loneliness, desperation, and untold risk.
What inner voice called you to write Quiet Dell?
I grew up hearing the story of Quiet Dell, as a myth or even a ghost story, though the place where it happened no longer stands. The rural road and the unincorporated hamlet are still there. My mother’s story made it personal for me; she told me of holding her mother’s hand one hot day in August, walking along the dusty road that was lined with glinting black cars as far as she could see, and hearing the banging as crowds took the “murder garage” apart piece by piece for souvenirs. She was six years old. It was as though she shared her own dark initiation with me. Thousands walked along that road, drawn by the newspaper stories and by the sense that something completely otherworldly had happened so close to them. The crime was also posed as a warning and lesson to women who strayed beyond society’s protections, who took risks or expressed their own desires. Emily Thornhill, of course, counters that belief or prejudice in the novel. Crime against women and children is still about vulnerability.
This is an actual ad placed by Harry Powers:
Personal Ad: Civil Engineer. College Education. Worth $150,000 or more. Has income from $400 to $3000 per month.[ . . .] My business enterprises prevent me from making many social contacts. I am therefore, unable to make the acquaintances of the right kind of women. As my properties are located through the Middle West, I believe I will settle there when married. I am an Elk and a Mason. Own a beautiful 10-room home, completely furnished. My wife would have her own car and plenty of spending money. Would have nothing to do but enjoy herself, but she must be strictly a one-man's woman.
— Cornelius O. Pierson,
P.O. Box 227, Clarksburg, W. Va.
It’s surprising to learn women in the 1930s would answer advertisements like these, as the risk of doing so was great. When researching for Quiet Dell did you find they were driven primarily by loneliness or were there other motives involved?
It was clear to me in doing research on the 1930s that it was a very different time. The type of crime in which Powers was involved was quite rare. Today there are numerous television shows that actually center on serial murder, and we hear of mass shootings, school shootings, et cetera with sad regularity. Though men might be suspected of being “bounders,” being irresponsible or behaving like “cads,” there was not the consciousness or widespread suspicion that those writing to lonely hearts clubs might be psychopaths. Matrimonial agencies during the ’30s thrived, mostly for middle-aged people, and their success depended on being “respectable.” No one was “dating,” matrimony was the desired result, and courting was a long-term proposition carried on through letters. Life expectancy was much shorter; it wasn’t unusual to be widowed by age 45. I think Quiet Dell gives a real sense of Asta’s motivations, her past, her isolation within her marriage, and a sense of why she specifically was vulnerable. But though she might suspect Cornelius Pierson of misrepresenting his height or his resources (which she mentions), it wasn’t a cultural norm at that time to consider the type of crime now represented on the internet on various websites. Powers’s/Pierson’s skills can’t be discounted. He corresponded according to codes and plans, appeared the perfect gentleman of means, delaying meeting his victim until she was eager to marry him, or perhaps even concerned that she might miss this chance for happiness. As Emily remarks in the novel, “he was a consummate actor with whom women eagerly traveled and spent time, never sensing the darkness within him until it was too late.” In his scenes with the Eicher children, we see that he could be very nearly mesmerizing.
MK: “Cornelius’s” interactions with the children, Annabel, Hart, and Grethe, might possibly be the most heart breaking fragments of Quiet Dell. Hard to read. Hard to write?
JP: There is sense of suspense and foreboding for the reader, certainly, as we think we know the end of the story, though Quiet Dell moves beyond that end into deeper questions of how we are connected to one another. I knew the story of the Eicher children for many years before writing the novel — the tragedy of their loss, as so many children are lost to circumstances beyond their control. Once I began writing the children, however, they became real to me, alive — saved, in a way — and I wanted to describe the richness of their lives, their strengths, their beautiful Christmas. Lives can have deep meaning that is in no way canceled by the length of time allotted us, or by tragedy. For me the true tragedy is that of vanished lives, lives never known or remembered. And throughout, Annabel’s sense of a more dimensional reality promises a world beyond August of 1931, a world beyond this day, as well, as I write these words. Her mind cannot conceive of Powers’s darkness, but she apprehends the sound of the fields, the bounty of the land in the place where she will once again encounter her beloved grandmother, “a meadow full of sounds and creatures. Crickets, whirring [. . .] and birds, singing and clicking.” Much later there is the sense of the earth and the beauty of Quiet Dell almost reclaiming what Powers took, erasing him. Yes, hard to write “Cornelius” scenes with the children, but I felt I knew him within the material, as the dark inverse of a human being, with “powers” he has honed . . . his subtle touch is like that of a hypnotist, his very blue eyes can be mesmerizing. Yet Annabel has powers of her own — she believes, when “Cornelius” returns for the children, that her mother has come back for them; she “smelled her mother’s scent, below her, then above and before her [. . .] she reflected that the scent had weight, as the wind has weight, or force, to blow here and there; it had moved past her.” It’s as though Annabel, in her innocent prescience, calls forth her own protectors and champions. Emily is never clearly aware of her, though the reader senses Annabel’s influence on her, indirect, subtle, definite, and hard to define, like the faint scent of the perfume of someone known and beloved, who has left the room forever, moments before.
Will you talk a bit about the purpose of the fictionalized characters added to the true-crime narration?
From the beginning, I thought of Quiet Dell as Annabel’s book. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” was my favorite fairy tale as a child, and I patterned Annabel’s relationship with her grandmother, Lavinia, on that story. Lavinia’s death is a removal of the last protection truly afforded Asta and the children, and an even greater tragedy for Annabel, for it was Lavinia who encouraged the theatrics, drawing, and fantasy at the heart of Annabel’s sense of the world. The reader comes to realize that Annabel is not merely “fanciful,” but that she truly “sees” images out of context, scenes that will come to pass. Lavinia was her confidante; Asta finds Annabel’s preoccupation with her grandmother’s continuing influence worrisome. As for other invented characters, I hesitate to say too much here, as some may read our interview before reading the novel. The arc of the book is that what we think of as “goodness” exists alongside darkness, damage, suffering — and that the human will to intervene, to oppose dark motives, to commit, to thrive, to love, may begin to redeem tragedy. Some are lost; some are saved, or save themselves and others; is this happenstance, coincidence, fate, luck?
This might be another question where you may have to tread lightly. Do you believe Luella and Eva Belle knew more than they revealed? How is it they were still alive, as there would have been money involved in their deaths?
It’s known after Powers’s arrest, the details leaked to the press to publicize, that Powers made out a will naming his new wife, Luella, beneficiary, shortly after their marriage, as a ploy to encourage her to sign a similar document. The sisters’ mother had suddenly died of “unknown causes,” which means that Luella and Eva Belle had inherited her property. The sisters didn’t sign, however — possibly Eva Belle refused, and the will (for Powers owned nothing beyond what he married into or swindled from others) was never notarized. Powers leaks this news through his lawyer to make it seem the sisters might have been his victims, had they signed. As Emily surmises in the novel, it seems likely that Powers found them very accepting of his hours, his travels, his sudden influx — every few weeks or months — of cash and trunks of possessions. They became a perfect cover, and so were useful, and perhaps, in some version of himself, crowded into the swarm of persons he pretended to be, they were the “wife and home” normal men possessed. They may not have known who or when or how he pursued his dark purposes, but they enabled him to succeed until the Eichers’ deaths, as Emily says after the trial, led to discovery, and to Powers’s end. It’s clear that the dogged pursuit of the truth about Powers concerns saving victims yet to be, as well as finding justice and release for those whose fates became entwined with him. I actually have a copy of Luella Powers's death certificate. She died in the ’50s, alone, in Clarksburg; the causes listed are malnutrition and “Parkinson’s syndrome.” One imagines the sisters living on, recluse, outcast, peering from the windows of what was once the “Powers grocery.”
Obsession is a characteristic of more than one protagonist in Quiet Dell. Would you admit to a certain amount of preoccupation with the events? And if so, why have you just recently written the story?
Obsession can be a form of focus, and if informed by perception and compassion, a form of “meditation.” Emily becomes obsessed with stopping Powers, with exposing the truth; she’s a journalist accustomed to penetrating the surfaces of events; she’s experienced loss herself; she’s free to follow her instincts and impulses, which are sensible, yet she’s confidently intuitive. She’s like a lot of modern women, though the independence she enjoyed and expressed was much more unusual in the ’30s. Her work is her “family,” until this case plays out in unexpected ways that change her life. From the beginning, she’s taken with the unusual child she recognizes in Annabel; it’s surely Emily’s depth of perception that allows Annabel any suggestive influence. As for myself, I become equally obsessed with the worlds of all my novels, and live a life within them as I lead my life in the world. The “adjacent worlds” represented in Quiet Dell are perhaps a metaphor for the way that writers perceive reality — as multilayered, concentric circles of deepening understanding. As to timing, I had other books to write before this one. I think of my work as a continuum in which I investigate and experience perception itself, the simultaneity of time, the pressure and weight of meaning, and the redemption that writers might offer within the arc of narrative.
Did the completion of the novel give you any intellectual and/or emotional peace regarding the place and events?
Love defies death. I feel as though a version of the story is alive now, in Quiet Dell, and so remains alive — that the children are alive in the mind of the reader whose sympathies they engage. The arc and intent of the novel is to take the reader deeply inside the world of the events — with its stark differences and haunting similarities to our own time — and into the completion of a classic turning: a tragedy oddly foreshadowed, intervention and justice, a balancing of elements, the power of good in its spiritual superiority to dark intent. The tales and fairy tales that so inform Annabel’s reality travel within the novel as freely as the figures in flight in her drawings. The space she inhabits as a consciousness — “bridging great distances in the space of a thought” — is some counterpart to what she only imagined in life. I hope the reader feels a sense of completion and release, and deep happiness in knowing these characters so intimately, both in darkness and light.
MaryAnne Kolton is a regular contributor to LARB.
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in myriad literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, and Connotation Press, among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was short listed for The Glass Woman Prize. Author interviews have appeared most recently in the Herald de Paris, Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City Center, January Magazine, Word Riot and Prime Number. MaryAnne can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.
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