Pulitzer Prize finalist Margaret Verble joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, When Two Feathers Fell from The Sky, which was inspired by both the lore of a shuttered zoo in her hometown of Nashville and the thrilling stories of female performers in Wild West shows. The two discuss Margaret’s years-long research process, why she wanted the novel to be both entertaining and to share the history of Native Americans in Central Tennessee, and how her career has changed since becoming a Pulitzer finalist.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Margaret. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When Two Feathers Fell from The Sky.

Margaret Verble: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Zibby: I am still recovering from the feeling that you created when Two Feathers and her horse fell through the tank, got stuck underground in the caves, and couldn’t emerge. I was having claustrophobia-induced reading at what happened afterwards. Thank you, I guess, for the immersive read, I should say.

Margaret: I’m glad you enjoyed it, sort of.

Zibby: I did enjoy it. I found it all very fascinating, especially all of the research that you did about how this is what was happening in your neighborhood in Nashville and how you’ve even discovered how this — the book starts with a sweeping tale of where this place came to be and how we got rooted in that place. Then we find out that you even found hippopotamus bones or something like that near your back tree or something. Tell me a little more about how your neighborhood and home inspired the story.

Margaret: I was raised in a neighborhood in Nashville that we knew, as children, had been built over the ruins of a zoo that Nashvillians absolutely loved. That park and that zoo, they’d been there from the late 1880s to 1931. If you talked to people’s parents and grandparents, they thought it was the most magnificent thing in Nashville. Everybody just loved it. People went there to court and to have fun and do all sorts of things. There were remnants of that park and zoo all around us. As a child, I had always heard that a big tree that was behind my next-door neighbor’s fence had been where either the hippopotamus or the rhinoceros den had been. We didn’t know which one. Probably, at the time, we didn’t know the difference between a hippopotamus and a rhinoceros because we were living in the 1950s. Kids didn’t have all that information. Anyway, we liked to dig around things. We got into digging around the roots of that tree. It was sort of overturned because it was so old. We found this huge bone. It was a shoulder bone. We were so thrilled. One of us ran in to get a father. You know how you’d go get your parents. Got a neighbor’s father. He came out. He looked at it. He was this real straight-up guy. He was a devout Catholic. He said, “It’s disrespectful to dig up bones. Put that back in there.” We had to put the bone back into the ground. I never did know if it was a hippopotamus bone or a rhinoceros bone. Of course, it could’ve been any other kind of large animal bone for all I knew, but I always thought it was one of those. When I started researching to write this book, I thought, I need to find that out. In my research, I found one mention of a hippopotamus at the Glendale Park Zoo in 1926. I found no mention, ever, of a rhinoceros. I set the book in 1926 when I knew that hippo was there.

Zibby: Wow.

Margaret: I know.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that story.

Margaret: I love it too. It tickles me to this day.

Zibby: Then how did you come up with the whole rest of the narrative? Why this diver? By the way, the way you described what it was to get injured as a performer back then, of course, there’s no safety net, literally and figurately. She just plunged. She had no resources. Even taking the train home would’ve been — based on her rib accident, which was very painful for her to take the train all the way back to her home. What happens? How do you recover? All of that, just tell me a little bit about this and how the central feature of this girl’s life, too, and how every dive, every performance, she’s taking her life into her hands.

Margaret: I based her on female performers in Wild West shows. I read a couple books on that. I had gotten interested in that because I was up in what Cherokee’s call the Cherokee Outlet, which is really the northern part of Oklahoma. I was up there in Ponca City a couple years before I wrote the book. I was in a museum, or in, actually, a historic home, and there was a museum in the basement. I had run into what was left of the 101 Ranch. It was astonishing. I had never seen a thing like it. It was the last surviving Wild West show. I got interested in the 101 Ranch, which was world-known at the time, it existed, which was for decades. If people came from Europe, they went to that ranch like people go to New York or Disneyland today. They’d go to that ranch. It was just a worldwide phenomenon. They sent entertainers all over the world.

I got interested in these cowgirls. They were doing just astonishing tricks on these horses. They were wrangling bulls and doing all sorts of things. It’s almost unimaginable. I think the only one that we really know anything about now is Annie Oakley, but there was just a whole slew of them. Some of them were diving on these horses off these platforms. That was a big thing from about 1890 really into the — it died out in about the 1930s, but it went on until about the 1950s. In fact, I think there are a couple of places today where they still do it. It seems bizarre to us now. It did to me, at least. These people were doing this. Everybody thought it was glorious entertainment, just loved it. I thought that was a good thing to have my heroine do. I discovered in my research that there actually had been a diving tank in the Glendale Park Zoo. There had been female performers diving off of platforms on the horses. It was sort of a natural thing to make her do.

Zibby: I feel like this is — what was the Hugh Jackman movie? Do you know what I’m talking about? The famous Hugh Jackman movie where he basically establishes a circus in his —

Margaret: — I did not see that movie, but I know what you’re talking about.

Zibby: You should see the movie.

Margaret: I love seeing anything he’s in.

Zibby: Yeah, he’s great.

Margaret: I know. He’s great, isn’t he? Good-looking.

Zibby: Anyway, it’s the same sort of entertainment, shock value. This is how people congregated before. Yet to be in the mind and backstage I found super fascinating, particularly some of the dynamics and some of, even, the racial dynamics and what it means to be Native American and then having to rely on people who owned all the caves to help out and all of that and the different things that simmered in the community. Was that based on the times as well, or no?

Margaret: Really, basically, at the core of novel, I was trying to write an entertaining novel but yet a significant novel. I was really trying to write about race and about, fundamentally, at one level, about the Cherokees and the Creeks and the Shawnee being run out of what it is now Central Tennessee. I had always been concerned with that. Since I was a child, I was concerned with that history and how that history was told. I was also raised in the segregated South. I was interested in writing about that. Even as a child and growing up in it not knowing — I’d never been north. You could tell it was just crazy. It was crazy to treat people that way. None of it made any sense. There were official rules. Then there were unofficial rules. Everybody was always negotiating those rules. I was interested in writing about that. I was able to get both of those themes into that book, in a pleasant way, in a way that’s not alarming.

Zibby: The best way to get any point across is through telling a story.

Margaret: That’s right. You don’t want to raise people’s hackles in order to teach them anything.

Zibby: Right, exactly. Very true. You were the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. What was that like? Tell me about that moment in your life when you found that news out. What is that like?

Margaret: I was in my basement office. I have two basement offices and, actually, a literary study upstairs, which I can’t use for Zoom because it’s too far from my router. I was in my other basement office down here. I was writing an email, and the phone rang. It was my agent’s secretary. She said, “Lynn wants to talk to you. Have you heard yet?” I said, “Heard what?” She said, “Lynn wants to tell you.” Lynn Nesbit, my agent, got on the phone. First thing she says, “Now, Margaret, I’ve got wonderful news for you. You didn’t win this prize.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “But you were runner-up. That’s going to change your life.” Then she told me what a — the word finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and how the Pulitzers are done as opposed to other prizes is a little bit different. She explained all that. She said, “This is fabulous. I would’ve caught you two hours ago, but I had to call your publisher because we had to get the badge on the paperback book. Had to be sure that was done.” She was right. It did change my life. It’s a life-changing thing.

Zibby: How did it change your life?

Margaret: It gives you a lot of credibility. There are not many people who are finalists for the Pulitzer in things like fiction. There are a lot of finalists for Pulitzers and Pulitzers winners in journalism. In fiction, that’s not true. It gave me instant credibility. Now if I say anything, people think I’m smart. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m talking about. I try not to sound too emphatic when I talk because I know there’s a built-in willingness to believe me. Sometimes I should not be believed in whatever it is I’m saying.

Zibby: Did it make you feel more pressure to write something amazing, or was it more a relief, like you don’t have to prove anything anymore?

Margaret: It was more of a relief.

Zibby: Amazing. When you tackle a project like this, there’s research. There’s topography. There’s backstory. There’s narrative and character development and all the good things that go into a novel. How do you tackle that? Is it in your basement study with post-its all over the walls? Do you allow yourself to go upstairs and put papers all over the carpet? Give me a visual of how you’re doing this.

Margaret: Well, I no longer write in the basement. I write upstairs in my study. Maud’s Line, I didn’t have to do much research on. I read a couple of books, three or four books, maybe, about 1927 because it’s a year that’s written about a great deal. I wanted background on that. Other than that, I didn’t have to do any research for that. Cherokee America demanded years of research. I did a lot of research for Cherokee America. That took years and years of research. I did a lot of research for When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky. That took about maybe a year and a half of research. I have a novel coming out a year from this April. I did no research for it at all. It varies on what I’m trying to write about.

Zibby: Tell me about that novel.

Margaret: It’s still going back and forth between my editor now. I think we’re in the last phases of that. It hasn’t been sent to production yet. It’s a short novel. It’s got a main character who ranges from six years old to about eleven years old in the novel. It’s set in Middle America. They haven’t given me my talking points about that yet, but that’s all I’ll say.

Zibby: That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. We’ll find out. We’ll find out later. What kind of books do you like to read?

Margaret: I read a lot of nonfiction. In part, that’s because if I’m writing a novel, I don’t want the voice of somebody else’s novel in my head. I don’t want it to interfere with whatever I’m writing. At certain times, I won’t read fiction at all. Until I get a voice really nailed down in a novel, I just read nonfiction. Right at the moment, I’m reading a biography of Oscar Wilde and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s completely unlike anything in my life or anything going on. It’s a brilliant biography. I’m enjoying it a great deal.

Zibby: Amazing. When you’re not writing, researching, and reading and doing all the literary things, what’s your go-to pastime? What do you really enjoy? What’s a guilty pleasure?

Margaret: I exercise every day. Of course, I have another job, too, that I have done for forty years. I do that sporadically. It depends on me traveling and being up in front of people. I haven’t done a lot of it in the last two years, but I’m getting ready to spend two weeks in April doing that job.

Zibby: What job is that?

Margaret: I train people how to ask for organ donations. I have done that for a long, long time and still continue to do it. I don’t do it as much as I used to because travel was killing me, but I still do it. I still enjoy it. Still love it. I publish in that field, so that takes time too.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Margaret: I think my main advice is that you have to keep writing. Writing is a craft. It’s not just like, oh, I’ve got an inspiration. This interesting thing happened, so I think I’ll write it down. It’s a real craft. Most people get discouraged before they get really good at that craft. The only way to get really good at it is to do it every single day. That’s what I would say. I’ve been up this morning writing. I get up every morning and write. It’s like practicing for a sports event or the Olympics or something. You got to do it every day. You just can’t think about doing it. You can’t just talk about doing it. You can’t just talk to other writers. You got to write.

Zibby: Perfect. I love it. Margaret, thank you. I hope that you get out of your basement. I’m having this fear. What happens if we’re on Zoom and you keep choking? Next thing you know, I’m like, wait, help! You’re alone in Nashville, I’m assuming, in the bottom of your house. Help, oh, my gosh!

Margaret: I think I’ll be okay. Where are you?

Zibby: I’m in New York City.

Margaret: Oh, you are? All right. Is it cold up there today?

Zibby: Not as bad as usual. How about there?

Margaret: It’s raining here. It’s a nasty day.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Well, good day to podcast.

Margaret: Yes, absolutely.

Zibby: Good day to write. Thank you so much for your time.

Margaret: Thank you. Nice to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Margaret: Buh-bye.



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