Tom Eblen

Lexington author’s first published novel is Pulitzer finalist

Lexington author Margaret Verble, one of two finalists for this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
Lexington author Margaret Verble, one of two finalists for this year's Pulitzer Prize in fiction. teblen@herald-leader.com

Nobody was more shocked than Lexington author Margaret Verble when her first published novel was chosen as one of two finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

“It was a total surprise when my agent called me,” said Verble, who didn’t even know she had been nominated. “I found it unbelievable.”

In the two months since then, sales of her book, Maud’s Line, have been strong. Her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is bringing it out in paperback July 26. The Pulitzer recognition also has gotten Verble some press attention.

“It’s sort of like being sprinkled with pixie dust,” she said. “I suddenly am a lot smarter than I was before, and the book’s a lot better than it was before. It’s sort of a disorienting feeling, to tell you the truth.”

The other finalist this year was Get in Trouble: Stories, by Kelly Link (Random House). The winner was The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press), an immigrant tale set in the United States and Vietnam.

Verble’s novel is the opposite of an immigrant tale. It is the story of Maud Nail, a headstrong young woman coming of age in rural eastern Oklahoma in 1928 amid the poverty of dispossessed Cherokees nearly a century after the Trail of Tears.

Maud’s mother is dead, her father is either drunk or absent and her beloved younger brother is mentally fragile. She is desperate for a better life that includes electricity, indoor plumbing and more books than the few she is able to borrow from a neighbor.

When a good-looking, school teacher-turned-peddler from the city drives his wagon down the “section line” road to her farmhouse, Maud’s heart skips. Then things get complicated: a fire, a double murder and another good-looking man.

Maud is discovering her sexuality, and she is not shy about using it to further her ambitions. Verble’s website warns potential readers: “Although the protagonist, Maud, is eighteen years old, the novel is written for adults, not for a (young adult) audience. Anyone looking for a YA book about Indians should look elsewhere.”

Maud’s Line is a page-turner whose spare, vivid prose brings its characters to life in a time, place and circumstances that few non-Indians know much about.

As big a presence in Maud’s Line as any of the characters is the land itself — snake-infested Oklahoma Indian country, divided by a checkerboard of “section line” dirt roads every square mile. Maud and her kin have scratched out a living there for 90 years since federal troops force-marched them from Georgia.

The novel’s setting is based on Verble’s family history. She is a voting citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma whose ancestors were removed there in 1838 from a prosperous farm along Daves Creek in Gwinnett County, Georgia — now a northeast Atlanta suburb near Lake Lanier.

“All of that was stolen from them,” she said. “They lived in poverty, really, until my generation.”

Verble’s parents met during World War II when her father, who was from Muhlenberg County, was stationed in Oklahoma.

So my mother got out of there, mainly because they didn’t have indoor plumbing and electricity and she wanted a better life.

Margaret Verble, author

“So my mother got out of there, mainly because they didn’t have indoor plumbing and electricity and she wanted a better life,” she said. “I grew up in Nashville, but we were in Oklahoma all the time. I’ve been up and down that section line a million times.”

Verble said the characters in Maud’s Line are based on her relatives, except for Maud and her two suitors.

“Maud’s totally fictional, because basically what a novelist has to do with a main character is put them through hell and abuse them in every possible way imaginable,” she said. “I couldn’t do that to anybody that I knew and loved.”

Verble began writing the novel with a time and place in mind, as well as the book’s opening scene: A cow is cruelly axed to death in a feud, an incident she read about in an old family letter. Once her protagonist met the peddler in the next scene, Verble finished the story in 14 months.

“After that happened, the novel just flowed,” she said. “There really are only a couple of basic plots. One of them is a stranger comes to town.”

Verble came to Lexington to study English at the University of Kentucky, then returned to Nashville and taught high school for four years. She came back to UK in the 1970s to earn a master’s degree in English and a doctorate in education.

She lives in Lexington and works all over the world as a consultant, training health care organizations’ workers to solicit organ donations. It is an odd specialty she developed after her mother died young and she saw the need.

Writing has always been Verble’s passion. Before Maud’s Line, she wrote two novels she couldn’t get published. She next tried short stories, whose acceptance in literary journals gave her credibility. Then her luck changed in a big way.

At a writing workshop, Verble befriended author Roxana Robinson, now president of the Author’s Guild. Robinson introduced her to Lynn Nesbit, a major literary agent whose other authors include Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Joan Didion.

Verble said she is now on about the eighth draft of another novel, set in Tulsa, Okla., in 1930. At Nesbit’s suggestion, she is making some revisions and experimenting with changing the point of view. But the plot is set.

“We’ll find out what happens to Maud in this book,” she said.

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