[Previously published at BookBrowse.com, rights retained by author.]
In the bio on your website, you wrote: “I became a Southern writer because I wanted to recreate the South that I know, and I learned to write about the South from the writers I loved.” Why is southern writing so distinctive? Do you feel you had the choice to become any other sort of writer?
One thing that makes southern writing so distinctive is that it relies heavily on the voices of its characters and narrators. Southerners are pretty proud of their accents, no matter how much the rest of the country makes fun of them; southern writers want those accents reflected accurately in their work. I think it’s important to be true to the diction and vocabulary of southern speech, but I think it’s also important to remain true to the southern style of storytelling, which means as a writer you have to pay special attention to how southerners tell stories. Rarely are these stories told in a linear fashion; very often the storytelling is circular or digressive. I’m thinking of the narrator of Thomas Wolfe’s narrator in The Web of the Earth, an elderly woman based on Wolfe’s own mother who starts the story and then immediately changes the subject, only to return to the central story intermittently throughout the text. I’m also thinking of Kaye Gibbons’s novel Ellen Foster and the way Ellen, as the novel’s narrator, moves chronologically with long stream-of-consciousness digressions. The novels reads as if Ellen is telling the reader her story as it comes to her.
I don’t know that I had any choice to become anything else but a southern writer, and I don’t think that’s true just because I was born and raised in North Carolina. I grew up reading the work of southern writers like Clyde Edgerton, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest J. Gaines, and those writers really informed my writing. But I think I was just as affected and influenced by the stories I heard from people like my maternal grandmother and the other people who surrounded me as I grew up. I might’ve learned to write from what I was reading, but I learned to tell from what I was hearing.
Why has the South been such a looming presence in so much of the best American literature?
The South has continued to loom large in our collective imagination because it so dominated the imaginations of this country’s earliest settlers. Aside from Jamestown, most of our early colonists settled in New England and along the northeastern coast. They built cities like Boston, Salem, and Philadelphia, and they rarely ventured too far outside those cities. They knew the French were in the north, but they didn’t quite know what was down there in the south, and that’s why they sent their outcasts to the southern colonies.
To these early Puritan settlers, the woods represented evil, unknown things, and they built a great mythology around what stayed hidden out there in the woods. The early settlers in the Appalachian Mountains did the same thing. Even after the south was settled that mystery stayed strong, and people in other parts of the country were still incredibly interested in the region. That’s why the local color writers like Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar were able to stake their careers on writing about this region; their fiction, nonfiction, and poetry gave many readers their first tastes of the South.
Seldom can I say I loved – or loved the strong depiction of – every, single character in a book but I felt a very strong sense of acquaintance with the full cast in ALMKTH. Even the characters I despised I couldn’t quite bring myself to hate because you were able to show bits of goodness in them. Except, well… Readers of the book will know. Does characterization come as easily to you as it seems? Do you think this is the strongest aspect of your writing?
It’s important for me to create characters that readers can believe in, even if they’re unlikable. I don’t know that I’ll ever create a character more unlikeable than Carson Chambliss, but I can tell you that I enjoyed putting him on the page. I grew up watching guys like Jimmy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart on television, and I grew up aware of what they did with the power people gave them; some of those observations went into Carson Chambliss.
But I think place is probably the strongest aspect of my writing, at least I hope it is anyway. When I wrote Land I was trying to recreate western North Carolina because I missed it so much. I was living in southwest Louisiana, and I found myself homesick for those mountains, seasons, and fresh water. When I wrote the novel I got to go back there; I think these characters spring from that place. They wouldn’t be as real to me if they didn’t.
I loved Christopher/Stump most of all. He lodged in my heart and never let go. When you wrote his character did you realize how singular and special he was? Did you base his character on anyone in particular (in fiction or real life)?
What I wanted to show was how much Jess loved his brother, and I thought it was important make that love just as real as the characters themselves. Christopher’s presence looms large in the novel even though he doesn’t appear on very many pages, and I wanted the reader to feel his absence as much as Jess does.
Did you have a personal favorite character from the book?
I really liked Jimmy Hall. He comes into the novel with more past and more baggage than any other character, and we’re wondering if he’s going to screw everything up or finally do the right thing for once in his life. To be honest, I never really knew what he was going to say or do when I put him on the page. There was a time when I attempted to use him as a narrator, but he was just too out of control. He wanted to tell the reader what happened at the end of the novel, and he wanted to defend himself and try to explain the decisions he made. I had to cut out his narration even though I had over one hundred pages of it; I just couldn’t get it to fit.
How long did it take to write ALMKTH? With so many intersecting plots, how did you keep them straight and so well-balanced?
I started writing this novel as a short story in the spring of 2004, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to work; the story needed more space and more characters to round it out. I experimented with a host of narrators, but Jess, Adelaide, and Clem seemed to be the best folks to tell this story. Each of these three narrators represented a particular knowledge of the event: Jess knows what went on inside the church and what happened to his brother, whether he understands it or not; Adelaide knows the history of the church and she understands the hold Carson Chambliss has over his congregation; Clem is an outsider just like the reader, and he’s trying to put all the facts together just like we are.
The first draft I wrote of the novel was more like a character study where I delineated the pasts of each character in order to understand their role in the community and their role in this tragedy. In the later drafts of the novel I focused more on the plot and trying to keep it moving while maintaining the novel’s heavy emphasis on the characters. Toward the end of the revision process I found myself overwhelmed with trying to balance the pace of the narrative with the development of the characters, and I ended up making calendars that allowed me to match the evolution of the characters and their knowledge of events with the major plot points in the story. I wish I’d thought to do that earlier.
Do you keep a specific writing schedule, any particular place you need to be in order to best concentrate?
I’ve kept a lot of schedules. When I started the novel I was in graduate school in Lafayette, Louisiana. If you’ve ever been to Lafayette then you know it can be tortuously hot for much of the year. As a graduate student I couldn’t really afford to run the air conditioner, so I’d get up early in the morning – 5 or 6 a.m. – and write until late morning. I worked at a Cajun lunch house and in the evening I worked at another restaurant, so I liked to have those morning hours to focus on work.
When I moved to West Virginia to teach at Bethany College I’d still wake up early and try to get some work done before class started, usually around 9 or 10 a.m. I tried to write or revise a thousand good words a day. I wrote this book while living in Louisiana, and I revised it while living in West Virginia; it made for a lot of early mornings.
I’m no longer teaching every day, so that it makes it easier to get some good writing done. I’ve been traveling a lot since the book’s been published, so I’m getting used to writing in hotels and on airplanes. When I’m at home I work on a desktop computer without internet access. I still like to wake up early, have some coffee, read the headlines, and start working around 8 a.m. My desk is on the top floor of our house, and the window looks out on a hill where cows graze. It’s really quiet, and that makes it pretty ideal.
Did you write a thesis for your Ph.D.? If so, what was the subject? (Would love to read that!)
My Ph.D. is in creative writing and American literature, and an early draft of A Land More Kind Than Home served as the creative portion of my dissertation. The academic portion was a study of Charles W. Chesnutt and Thomas Wolfe, two North Carolina writers from opposite sides of the state. The study considered the ways Chesnutt’s and Wolfe’s literature portrays issues of race and class in North Carolina in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression.
Who are the literary luminaries writing today whose works you believe will stand the test of time? Any particular works you’d recommend to readers of literary fiction?
This is a tough question. My background is in American literature, and as a student of literature I’m used to those established canons and I’m used to the anthologies that have already made the decisions about what’s important and what’s not. That’s why I think booksellers and book reviews are so important to contemporary; they’re shaping the canon in real time without the benefit of hindsight that professors and literary theorists have. Booksellers are making decisions about what to put on the shelves and reviewers are making decisions about what to review; their jobs are really important, especially to contemporary readers.
There are a lot of contemporary writers whose work will stand the test of time. Ben Fountain and his new novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk come to mind, as does Karl Marlantes’sMatterhorn. Those are both debut novels, and that just blows my mind. I think Louise Erdrich’s work is incredibly important, and I feel the same way about Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, and Richard Ford; these people are chronicling the America they know, even if those Americas are all a little different.
When can we expect to see your next novel published? Will the themes be similar to ALMKTH?
My next novel is tentatively titled Stealing Home, and we’re thinking it should be out late 2013 or early 2014. It’s set in my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, and it’s about a washed-up minor league baseball player who kidnaps his two daughters from a foster home and goes on the run. There are the same themes of fathers trying to do the best they can, children trying to make sense of the world, and the constant threats that families face when they’re not as strong as they could or should be.