East Nashville author Lydia Peelle explores history, culture, and honor in her new novel, The Midnight Cool

  • “I think of mules as totally rock & roll even though nobody else does,” Lydia Peelle says. She’s sitting on a bench in Shelby Bottoms as joggers, families, and other assorted individuals pass by on a gloomy, overcast December day. Peelle reflects on the role of mules in Tennessee history, a subject that provided the fabric of her first published novel, The Midnight Cool.
         “Mule traders used to be everywhere,” she says. “They were the used car salesmen of the day. Mules were a huge economic driver and were part of the slang, songs, and culture of America. Thousands of mules were kept and traded not far from this very spot in East Nashville, and yet today, a lot of people don’t even know what mules are.”
         Peelle built her novel upon the once ubiquitous mule (a sturdy, hardworking hybrid resulting from crossbreeding a male donkey and a female horse) and the unique personalities of mule traders. A native of Boston, Peelle has garnered acclaim for her fiction. Her 2009 short story collection, Reasons For and Advantages of Breathing (Harper Perennial), received an honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and she is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Prize, a Whiting Award, and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honor. A Nashvillian since 2000 (except for two years obtaining her MFA at the University of Virginia), Peelle discovered the history of mules in her adopted home state, giving her the impetus to cultivate a story that had been germinating for many years.
         “I initially wanted to write about horse traders,” she says. “When I was in college, I worked at horse auctions, and there is still a definite subculture with its own code of ethics. They will spin all kinds of stories, but are inherently honest. If you ask them a direct question, they will give you an honest answer. I wanted to explore that subculture in its heyday, and 1916 was the end of that era due to the spread of automobiles and the United States’ entrance into World War I.”
         As she researched the background for her novel, Peelle realized that the real “work horse” of the preautomotive era was the less glamorous, but far more reliable mule. The mule’s steadier disposition and hardier physique powered American accomplishments during both peacetime and war.
         “Over 300,000 mules were shipped to Europe for World War I, with many of them passing through Nashville,” she says. “Just thinking about that number and knowing that was a small percentage of the mules in this area gave me the setting for the novel. There was a huge clash of cultures at that time — you would see a mechanized tank next to a mule-drawn cart. Even machine guns were sometimes carried on the backs of mules.”
         The contrast between mechanization and mules served as a metaphor for the larger story within the novel. “Ultimately I wanted to tell the story of a man who has lived outside of mainstream culture, on the fringes, very free, coming to terms with his role as a citizen and an American,” Peelle says. “An offshoot is the question: What is freedom in America? While I was writing the book, I put blinders on in regards to current events. I was immersed in the period — reading papers and documents from the time, listening to the music — but when I would check back in with the present, I realized it really wasn’t that much different. It became an interesting lens on current events.”
         The Midnight Cool is now available from Harper Perennial. Throughout the months of January and February, Peelle will be touring bookstores across the South with her husband, Ketch Secor of the band Old Crow Medicine Show. Secor will be providing a musical accompaniment to Peelle’s readings from the novel and a slideshow of mules in American history. Despite mules’ rock star status with Peelle and her desire to proselytize their history, Peelle doesn’t think of herself as a historian.
         “I don’t think of it as an engagement of history so much as an engagement with place,” she says. “The great freedom of fiction is to explore a place different from where you are, but find the commonalities you have with that place or time. Writing this novel was a way of connecting with my adopted hometown. I like to think about all the untold stories that have happened in a particular place — that’s what I love about writing. It’s a way to get in touch with those stories; it’s like traveling in your own home town.”
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