All Heart: An Interview with Andrew Bryant

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Andrew Bryant is all heart. A songwriter and musician from Bruce, Mississippi, Andrew’s music captures the joy and hard-time struggle of the working-class musician. . A husband and father of two, the former sawmill worker’s songs carry a wisdom and a warmth that can only come from real life. He’s also got a hell of a new solo album coming out in January called This Is The Life. I spoke to Andrew while he was on tour playing drums with his other band, Water Liars. He called me from a Burger King parking lot in Reno, Nevada, the closest coffee spot to his hotel.


Jimmy Cajoleas: A lot of people who know you as the drummer for Water Liars might not be familiar with your solo output. You’ve been making solo records for what, ten years now?

Andrew Bryant: Well, yeah. My first record was The Story Never Told in 2004. In 2006 I released The Magnolia State. I did two albums in 2007 and 2008, one called The Cowboy and one called Bad Man Blues, which I think are both terrible. And then in 2009 I released Galilee, so that’s five proper albums. I also did a cassette tape EP in 2011.

JC: I remember The Cowboy and Bad Man Blues a little bit more fondly than you do. Especially The Cowboy. But I do remember Galilee coming out and everyone being so surprised, seeing how it was just a massive step forward.

AB: I don’t remember anybody freaking out about it, but if you say so.

JC: I do! It was a big record for a lot of people I knew.

AW: I’m glad that people love Galilee. It’s funny because now when I’m on the road with Water Liars, I meet somebody who says, “That record is fucking amazing.” And I’m like, “Cool. How did you get that?” That’s my question, always. How the hell did you find that record?

JC: It seems like the kind of record that goes out and finds people. It sounds kind of corny to say that, but Galilee is a record that’s waiting on you. It finds the people who need it.

AB: Around the time that I made Galilee, I was going through some shit. I wasn’t even able to realize that people were listening to it. I didn’t sell hardly any copies of it, you know? I had a buddy of mine from Memphis who helped me press it on vinyl. I didn’t pay anything for that. In fact, I still owe him money. But I felt like it was a real release and I had some good shows around it. I sold a handful of copies around Oxford and Memphis, and I did a long tour with Justin (Kinkel-Schuster, from Water Liars) and his old band Theodore for that record.

JC: Is that tour with Theodore how you met Justin?

AB: No, I had met him before that, in St. Louis. I was touring with my friend Matt, who plays under the name The Gunshy. We were playing this really small art space right next to the Lemp Brewery. Theodore had just started, and they opened the show we were playing. I remember the first song that he played, called “Back From The War.” Justin played it sitting down in a chair, on an old Harmony guitar, and I was like, goddammit, that dude can write a fucking song. Because on tour, you play with all these bands, and none of them are any good. It was one of those moments in the tour where I was like, oh man, finally, a band that’s great.

JC: How did the Theodore tour go?

AB: It was terrible. It was the worst tour of my life. We did the whole country in a van for six weeks, me and Justin and three other dudes. We were so broke. We didn’t make any money and nobody came to those shows. I mean, I don’t think I sold thirty records in six weeks, and that’s really bad.

You know, I still had boxes and boxes of those records in my attic. CDs for days. I started to wonder what in the hell I was still doing this for. All the records you made are sitting in boxes, cluttering up the house. They’re just clutter.

That’s the point I was at after Galilee. I tried to make a record as quickly as I could when I got home from tour. It was supposed to be called Love Standards, but I hated everything I was doing. I re-tracked it four times. I was just really burnt out on the whole fucking thing.

Luckily, that was when Justin came along and said, “Hey I’ve got these songs, and I like the way you record. Let’s get together and make something.” And that something turned out to be Water Liars.

JC: Kind of amazing that Water Liars came out of the worst tour of your life.

AB: That tends to be how things happen.

JC: So then you made those three amazing Water Liars records, and things started happening for you guys. Why did you decide to release a solo record now?

AB: Because I had something to say, and that’s what it’s always been about for me. After Galilee, I was working on an album called Love Standards. It was loosely based on Big Bad Love by Larry Brown. It had a bunch of super-weird shit in it. I can’t even listen to it now. It’s all super-depressing, oh my woman left me, blah blah blah type of songs. I was drinking so heavily and I was so into that literature.

And I felt like I was stuck. I shouldn’t be writing these songs, because I was forcing it. I just decided I didn’t want to do that kind of thing anymore.

When Water Liars started and we went on tour, I consciously took a break from songwriting. I figured it was a good opportunity for me to be in a band and just play instruments and let Justin handle the songwriting. It was a different way for me to be creative. I love being in that band, too, because I don’t have to write the songs. It’s a heavy burden, and I don’t envy Justin, not at all. That pressure to write good songs, consistently, when people love your songs so much. That’s hard shit to deal with. He deals with it extremely well and is consistently murdering it, writing amazing things.

I can’t figure out what happened exactly, but last winter Water Liars were on a break, and I was at the house all day. I would go out on the porch and play guitar, and I started writing these songs. Within a week or two I had an album together.

I’m definitely not trying to leave Water Liars, or anything like that. Water Liars is my band, you know? I love it. But I’ve always approached music this way. You get to a point in life and you just have something to say, and the way I say it is to write songs. I’ll lock myself in a house for a week or two, whatever it takes, and just make a record. So that’s what happened.

JC: It seems that, in the time between Galilee and this new one, This Is The Life, the jump between the albums is remarkable. The growth artistically, but also the tone. There’s an optimism to this record. It’s a hopeful record. Especially the first song, “Do What You Love.”

AB: Starting with that song was extremely intentional. That song and the sentiment of that song all come from the years surrounding Galilee, the failures that I considered it to be. Going back and forth between whether or not to play music at all, or if I should just be a dad and husband and work at the sawmill. Or maybe go to school, which I did, briefly, trying to get a real job. I mean, we couldn’t pay our fucking bills.

But then the success of Water Liars made me see what it takes to do this thing. Justin says it all the time: “If everybody could do this, everybody would do this.” It’s a really hard thing to do. You always hear people say, “You got to cut your teeth. You got to pay your dues. Eventually it’ll pay off.” What they don’t tell you is that it’s damn near suicide, going through the whole process of it.

Writing that song was me coming to the realization that I can do this thing, as long as I treat it like work, and work really hard at it, and just keep going and don’t stop. Yeah, you’re going to fuck up, and yeah you’ve done work that’s subpar, but never judge anything by the past and just keep going forward. I grew up a little bit.

I always knew I wanted the record to start with “Do What You Love.” I mean, the title is very clichéd, it’s like a greeting card title. But I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. Because I do love what I do. And I want to keep doing it. I wanted to start the record off with the most positive thing I could say. You know, I get down on myself, and I can be real negative about the music business, and every fucking other thing on the planet. I decided I wasn’t going to be negative anymore. I was going to be positive. I was going to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and that’s what I needed to express. This is what I’ve learned over the past three years, and here it is.

JC: It’s also got a sing-a-longable, catchy chorus.

AB: Yeah, that’s something I picked up better from Justin. A good chorus is important. I’ve done it in the past, sure, but not to this extent, writing something deliberately catchy. Also, there’s a reference to a song off The Cowboy in there: “Sing a song of love.” That’s a song off that old record. I knew this was the kind of song I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to reference something old that I’d done, that I’d paid my dues and I was leaving it behind and moving forward.

JC: Talking about paying your dues, you have a lot of road songs on here. “Lose My Shit” stands out.

AB: You play music and you want to make a living off of it, it’s art, sure, but it also has to be business. And then it becomes the music business. If you think of it like that, then you start to wonder what in the hell you’ve done wrong, what have you done right. Something that I’ve always had in me was that you treat it like any other job. All the jobs I’ve ever had, at the factory or at the sawmill—all I’ve ever done is labor work—you come to work every day, keep your mouth shut, and work hard, and eventually you’ll move up the ladder. That whole American dream thing. Put in the man hours, and it’ll all work out. There’s a lot of that sentiment in there, because I like that idea.

But I also know that it’s bullshit. Especially in the music business. There have been so many bands that worked harder than a lot of bands that have been way more successful. It’s not fair, you know? But I don’t feel like I’ve been treated unfairly. Because there’s more stuff on this record about what I need to do to make my shit work more than blaming other people. Sometimes I feel it though. Like what the fuck? I paid my fucking dues, what’s going on? I’ve been doing this for ten years. And then you say, okay, this is how it is. The chorus of “Losing My Shit” is about how if you love what you do, and you want to make good art and do it for the right reasons, then you have to be smart and figure out how to move forward.

JC: That reminds me of the line at the end of “My Saving Grace,” one of my favorite tracks on the record. You say, “I have become my own saving grace.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?

AB: I had a little bit of a religious thought in my mind when I was writing that, for sure. But not in the way that someone like David Bazan will write a break-up letter to God. It wasn’t something like that. I was raised to make my own way, to pull my own weight.

But that didn’t apply to music. My parents and grandparents and uncles don’t know anything about the music world. They don’t consider it work, they don’t consider it something you can do for a living. They’ve never seen that happen. They live in a small town where people get up early, go to work, come home dirty, are tired and go to bed. To them, that’s work.

But to me, that song is saying that I’m going to be my own saving grace, and I’m going to do it my way. It’s all encompassing. I’m not going to do my religion the way you do it. I’m not going to do my work the way you do it. I’m going to do it my own way.

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True Characters: An Interview with Filmmaker James Alexander Warren

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James Alexander Warren is a writer and filmmaker from Jackson, Mississippi. Alex, as he’s known to his friends, has made two short films, Young Bros and RAUT, as well as directing and producing work for Complex Magazine, Red Bull, McDonald’s, and several others. You might also know him from his music video work for Bass Drum of Death, Dead Gaze, Dent May, FLIGHT, and Pell. Alex’s new film is called Sequence, which he’s currently screening across the country. We recently had a conversation about it.


JC: For those of us who are unaware, tell us a little about your film.

AW: The film is called Sequence. It’s a series of four short films, made between January 2013 and March 2014. None of the stories cross-pollinate any of the characters, none of the stories are necessarily connected, but I’m playing them all together and calling them Sequence because that was the intention from the beginning. All four films were written before we shot the first one and I re-wrote them continuously along the way. It’s supposed to work—in my head, at least—like Brian Eno’s Ambient series, or Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Or even the story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. The idea of a body of work that comes from a theory, a certain style and a certain ethos. That’s what Sequence is, I think. It also works as individual short films.

JC: You say the films are held together more by an ethos than by any overarching story. Can you explain a little bit what that ethos is?

AW: First and foremost, the production of everything was really cheap. We worked on a very low budget. That was the beginning foundational principle. Let’s do it whether we have a lot of money or whether we don’t. Let’s pull some ideas together and make it happen, if people are willing to throw their ideas in, their craft, within the scope of this bigger project. I’m talking about guys like Chase Everett, who is mixing the film. He was excited to get to work on a longer project, to sort of hone his craft. Let’s make four films for not much money. Luckily, my producer Robbie Fisher came in early and helped me finance most of the shooting. She’s been a really outstanding partner throughout the entire process.

Thematically, I wanted Sequence to be about wandering. All of the stories relate to one another in that they have characters that are searching for some kind of meaning, usually within the context of a woman, in one way or another. The films are centered around guys in different age ranges and backgrounds, but what holds them all together is their common curiosity and lack of understanding of the opposite sex.

JC: So all of these are definitely coming from a male perspective?

AW: These came from personal writing experiences. But I wouldn’t say they come from a strictly male perspective. They don’t feel like male-dominated rom-coms. They don’t have this overwhelming whiff of masculinity. Just a rhythm and a motion that this is these characters’ lives.

JC: Where did you guys film everything?

AW: Mostly around central Mississippi. We shot “Sequence I” in Magee and Yazoo City. We shot “Sequence II” in Ridgeland and in midtown Jackson, behind Millsaps College. “Sequence III” we shot at mine and Sam Lane’s house in Jackson, and at St. Andrews Lower School, Fondren Sellers in Fondren. “Sequence IV” is also predominately Jackson. I think we shot one scene in a neighborhood in Madison.

That was fun for me, because Jackson isn’t what most people in the world necessarily consider a “cool” place. You know, it’s cool to me in its uncoolness. It was really fun to shoot there because I’ve lived in Jackson my whole life and it’s been fun to put places in the film that I was seeing daily during the pre-production process. Making films in a familiar environment frees you up to make more dynamic decisions for your project, I think. I guess it could work in the opposite way, too. We made the films with what we had and Mississippi was a perfect place to film.

JC: How do you think the location—Mississippi specifically, and the South in general—shaped the thematic elements of the film?

AW: I intentionally didn’t want any of the films to feel overtly “southern.” In the first film, “Sequence I,” some guys fix a lawn mower and take it to a woman’s mansion, and when she comes out and greets them, she has a glass of wine and is obviously partying because you can hear music coming from the house. She has a very southern accent, and she’s supposed to be a sort of rich Delta woman. That was the only really overtly “southern” thing in the films. The actors come from all over: California, New York, and some from Mississippi. Akua Carson, who plays the character Ray in “Sequence IV,” is from Canada. She’d never been to the South before. I mean, she went to Miami one weekend a long time ago, but she’d never been to Mississippi. She had no context for playing a “southern” person. That was very important to me.

The film never feels like you’re in a Delta field, or a barbecue restaurant, or something you would only find in Mississippi. I intentionally tried to make it a bit more ambiguous as to where the story was taking place, because the geography was never that important to the stories, or the way the stories were told.

JC: I wonder if that has anything to do with growing up in the South and in Mississippi. How the second anything set in Mississippi comes on screen, the first thing you hear is some god awful corny slide guitar riff.

AW: Definitely. That’s something I’ve experienced my whole life. The common “southern” aesthetic to a huge audience nationally is the slide guitar, twangy blues, the Morgan Freeman voice. Or you know, Paula Deen. Now it’s the fucking Black Keys, on every sporting event, on everything remotely “southern.” Even though they’re not from the South. They’re from fucking Ohio, but they represent southern culture. Trying to pick music and actors and locations that didn’t feel so colored by stereotypical southern culture was important to me. I want to be known as a filmmaker from Mississippi, not as a Mississippi filmmaker. Maybe that sounds pretentious or stupid to say, but I don’t want my films to feel limited by location.

JC: You did cast a lot of your friends in the film as well, right?

AW: Yes. I think if you’re really good friends with someone, then the candidness is there in your relationship, and hopefully you can express things on a deeper level than you could to just some hired gun. But I like to think that all the actors, whether I’d known them for a long time and written the role specifically for them or whether they came to the production a few weeks before we shot, I consider all of them friends because of the line of communication that we had while we were making the films.

Specifically Thom Shelton and Jamie Granato come to mind when I think of friends that I intentionally wrote parts for. I wrote the role in “Sequence IV” of Jeffrey specifically for Thom, based on a lot of conversations and frustrations that we have shared. You know, working on other projects, wanting a better future for yourself and your art, hoping that somebody one day gives a fuck about what you’re doing. The character Jeffrey was born out of that.

I wasn’t as good of friends with Jamie going into the production as much as I was just enamored with him. He’s so funny to me, the way that he communicates and talks and speaks his slang is comical to me. I knew that if he and I worked on a character and a story together, it would be a lot of fun. I was at a party at some mutual friends’ house in New York, and he told me he had been doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. I had been writing these short stories while on tour with Dent May (playing drums) that I was slowly adapting into screenplays. And at the party I just said, “You want to be in a movie?” And he said, “Hell yeah!” That was sort of it. I woke up the next day excited, and from then on I knew I was going to make this film with Jamie.

David Baker, who plays Father James Martin in “Sequence III,” which is called “The Temperature of Father James Martin,” was someone I’m just a big fan of his. I met him through a friend in New York, and I began to babysit his kids sometimes when he and his wife were busy. I wrote my second short film and I gave him a copy and asked him to play the role of the father in it. He grilled me about the intentions of the character, going deep into it, asking me questions that I’d never even really considered. Honestly it kind of stumped me. I remember leaving that coffee meeting and being like, damn, I need to shape up. I have to develop my ideas more, I need to speak them more clearly. So he declined working on that film.

So then I met with him last August, when I was working on this project. I had written this script for film about a priest, and I called David up. He met me for coffee again, and I told him about the role, and we had a long, interesting talk about a lot of stuff. I told him I’d send him the script in two weeks. Well, three weeks went by, and I still hadn’t sent him anything, because I was so nervous.

One morning David emailed me and said, “Don’t you owe me a script? It’s a week a late.” And I was like, Oh shit, he’s keeping up with me. I sent it to him and he called me the next day. All the questions he asked me about the character this time I was ready for, and I nailed them, because I had learned to think through the character inside and out this time. Working with him on that film was one of the most fulfilling experiences so far in my life. He’s really an incredible actor.

JC: Can you talk about some major influences on the film, cinematic or otherwise?

AW: Raymond Carver’s short stories have been hugely influential to me. They feel comfortable to me when I read them, even though a lot of them are pretty dark. I wanted to capture time and space the way he does. You don’t need a lot of context to know this father is on a train, waiting to meet his son that he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. You don’t have to know much more than that to be interested in what’s going on. If the character is good—which they are in Raymond Carver stories—then you’re going to be interested in what happens to them. You don’t even need the big moment, the big landing. You already care. I wanted to make stories like that, and tell them visually.

So obviously, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a big influence on Sequence. Those stories did cross-pollinate—he made a three-hour film where he combined a ton of characters from the stories in a kind of never-ending combination of bumping into each other and either knowing or not knowing. I wanted my film to be a bit more isolated, the way that Raymond Carver’s stories were before Short Cuts. But Robert Altman is a huge influence.

But as a filmmaker, in my ideas about directing actors and writing, my biggest influence is John Cassavetes. He was after true experiences, whether those are funny or really intense life-and-death experiences. Cassavetes’s tenacity at attacking whatever subject matter he was dealing with was amazing, and I want to write in such a way that actors are able to sink their teeth in. It becomes something that we’re experiencing together, in a director and actor relationship. It becomes a common experience that we’re both drawing from. I know Cassavetes created that with his wife, Gena Rowlands. I know he created that with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk when they were making Husbands. I wanted to cast actors that I could create that with so that we were working the characters out together, and they’re drawing from their own personal ideas on the character, and the hope is that they can play the character as comfortably as possible. The actors and I are coming from some feeling that we both want to explore and create together, and that to me is the most fulfilling part of being a director.

There’s so many more. I love P.T. Anderson. To me, he’s my favorite living American filmmaker. I love Michael Haneke, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodóvar. He was maybe the biggest influence on the rhythm of “Sequence IV” where I wanted the film to feel faster and expansive in a quick way. Whereas in “Sequence III,” I was really influenced more by quieter films that took their time a bit more.

I could talk about influences all day, but I think the common theme between all of them is their mindfulness to craft real characters, true characters, that they lead the audience to become immersed in the world they are creating.

JC: It’s wonderful how collaborative the process was for this film. Many directors have a sort of tyrannical reputation, being cruel, barking out orders. It seems like your approach is much different.

AW: Absolutely. Growing up going to sets that my dad was working on, I had some negative experiences sometimes, because I was treated with no respect from anyone working on the set except my dad. I just didn’t like that vibe. So I’ve always tried to foster this environment on a film set that, if you’re there, you matter. If you’re a P.A, please chip in ideas and be involved. I mean, I don’t want everyone screaming ideas at me all the time, because there’s no order in that, and it’s not what I’m suggesting. I can be stern when I have to be. But only in a way that shows respect to the people around me. Most of all I’m concerned with everyone there having something that they’re working on during the production, making sure that the project feels like their own as well.

I can speak about Ross Cabell, a great friend who came on as a P.A. for “Sequence III” and “Sequence IV,” and he did a number of different things. To call him just a P.A. is unfair. That’s what his title was, but he did so much more on set, and I grew to rely on his opinions, even down to looking at some of the dailies with him. I’m asking Ross which is his favorite take and why. Just having that sort of collaborative energy with a crew makes everything a lot more fulfilling. Honestly, it makes everyone work a little better too, because they have something of their own at stake, too.

I come in with a singular vision, and prepare the crew that this is what we’re doing, but there are so many different decisions that have to be made in a film that everyone gets to pitch in. I love having people with great ideas around me, because they make my ideas even better, and their craft becomes essential to my craft as well.

JC: Is there anything you want audiences to keep in mind as they step into a theater to watch your film?

AW: If you watch Sequence at one of the showings we have coming up in December, then you’re seeing it the way it was intended to be seen. If you watch just “Sequence I” and that’s it, at a film festival or something, then I hope it resonates somehow with you. Not in some corny way. I just hope that “Sequence I” works on its own two legs, that it entertains folks and is exciting, same with all four short films. But they were made to be seen together.

JC: What’s your goal for Sequence, as far as presenting it to a wider audience?

AW: I just really hope people come and see it. We’re having screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and in Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi. I want people to come and watch them. I’m so excited to show our films. I hope for more screenings all over. I didn’t want my only opportunity to build an audience to be getting accepted or declined from film festivals only. I want Sequence to play at festivals, for sure, but I don’t want one screener for a film festival to be the only person that sees my film. I don’t care how, I just want people to see it.

Sequence is screening at the following locations: 

Dec. 3    Oxford MS                  Oxford Commons      7 PM

Dec. 4   Jackson MS                  Malco Grandviev     8 PM

Dec. 11  Los Angeles, CA           Cinefamily          7 PM

Dec. 18  New York City, NY     Anthology           8 PM

Purchase tickets here:

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 In 1979, in Oxford, Mississippi, Lisa Howorth and her husband Richard founded Square Books, one of the greatest bookstores in the United States. In 2014, Lisa’s first novel, Flying Shoes, was published. Jack Pendarvis visited Lisa at her house. Richard was on the couch, finishing a sandwich. Then Richard left.



LISA: Is he gone?

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Is he?

JACK: That’s going to be the first thing in the interview.

LISA: Ha ha ha! He’s gone! Quick!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Uhm. So… Theresa said when y’all were shooting pool the other night you had a…

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: … package of raw chicken in your purse. Ha ha ha!

LISA: Is that so unusual?

JACK: Did you…

LISA: Housewife and mother?

JACK: Did you cook it?

LISA: Well… we cooked some of it.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (pause) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: It was a variation on the old Portnoy’s Complaint tactic.

JACK: Oh no!

LISA: No, shit, we ate it. I couldn’t just leave it out in the Volkswagen.

JACK: Right.

LISA: It was like nine thousand degrees.

JACK: Uh… well, let’s talk about your book. It’s great!

LISA: Thank you.

JACK: I love everything about it. Uhm… How long’d you work on it?

LISA: Well, I started it in another form, and… not really seriously able to work on it… in the early 90s, really, but, mm… I just couldn’t do it. I was working at the time… and kids, and bookstore, and… you know, I’d take it out and work on it a little bit and put it back up. And then in 1994, my brother—one of my other brothers—discovered all this stuff about this crime in our family, which sort of changed a lot of things for me, and… I just didn’t do much with it for a while. Let it sink in. And I’m sure, to a certain extent, there was a lot of avoidance, not wanting to… thinking it was going to be mostly about this crime and not wanting to go back and have my soul stuck in that forever. So, anyway, it wasn’t until I got a McDowell fellowship in 2007 that I really worked on it, so it was really about… really getting it off the ground, it was really about five… five years.

JACK: That’s not bad!

LISA: It seemed really slow. Ha ha ha ha ha! It seemed… interminable.

JACK: Well, it’s about so much more than you thought it was going to be about, right? And the other night you were… we were talking about how, uh, in a large degree… you brought this up. That it’s a portrait of Oxford, right?

LISA (very long pause): Correct. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: All right! The interview’s over.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But did you feel any… did you think about Faulkner while you were…

LISA: Writing?

JACK: Yeah!

LISA: Yeah, you think about it. You think… I mean… You think, God, don’t let me do anything Faulkneroid.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Or somebody’s going to accuse me of that. But I also kind of wanted to put a few little… uhm… I don’t know, it’s cheesy to say, homages, but there are a couple. I mean, it’s Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha, right? We’re talking about the same crappy little postage stamp. So I used a couple of Faulknerian names, but of course Faulkner uses a lot of names of people who are really here.

JACK: Right.

LISA: And they’re still here! So… I didn’t feel like that was too cheesy. And I threw in some honeysuckle and crap like that…

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: That the Faulkner people would recognize, and appreciate, I hoped, and not take me down for doing… yeah. You can’t do it without thinking about him. Can YOU?

JACK: I don’t… care anymore.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But, uh, honeysuckle. Yeah! There’s so much beautiful nature writing in the book, that’s one thing I loved about it.

LISA: There’s lots of flora and fauna.

JACK: That’s beautifully done, and the history parts… I mean, the old history.

LISA: Thanks.

JACK: … with William Byrd. Great, and real unexpected. I mean, it’s such a surprising book in so many ways. Two of my favorite chapters, that could really stand alone, is when Teever is getting some help for his foot, and he’s hallucinating in front of the fire and all that stuff, you know? And I also love the ice…

LISA: Are you sure he was hallucinating?

JACK: No, no, not sure at all!

LISA: Ha ha! It could have been magic realism!

JACK: Right. It could HAVE been!

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: I was wondering. Ha ha ha! And also, yeah, yeah, forgive me. And… the ice storm, the aftermath of the ice storm, and I want to say the character’s name is Jack, but now I’m afraid I’m projecting onto that rough-and-tumble war correspondent and would-be novelist.

LISA: Jack Ernest.

JACK: Yeah! So… uh… hey! I just thought of this. Was that a play on The Importance of Being Earnest? At all?

LISA: Uhm… not so much. Although he, uhm, when I was writing him I got so involved in him and there was a lot of crap to do with him that I knew I couldn’t put in the novel, and maybe he shouldn’t have been there at all. But, uhm, I wrote a short story about that character called “Importance.”


LISA: And it was kind of about that. But really I’m not so sure that came through in the novel. Really it was kind of the identification with this bravado, this Hemingway crap. You know, his novel’s called what? It Tolls For Me? Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! But, I mean, those two chapters are interesting to me because Mary Byrd is—your protagonist—is not in either of those chapters, really, so…

LISA: That’s true.

JACK: And I love the scope. That’s another thing about the novel I love, the scope of it and the variety of characters that we get to spend time with. And you were saying, you were wondering if he should be in the novel at all, but… to me that’s one of the things that’s so good and fascinating about the book.

LISA: Well, thank you, but I think, uhm… I did sometimes feel like I was writing two books.

JACK: Mm-hm?

LISA: And I have gotten some criticism.

JACK: Screw that.

LISA: But maybe that’s what I should have…

JACK: What’s wrong with that? People should say “Thank you! Thank you for these two books!” If that’s…

LISA: I mean…

JACK: … the case.

LISA: To me, it still rang true. I… you know, life is schizophrenic. At least for me. I feel like I’ve got several different lives and those two characters were very much a part of the protagonist’s, Mary Byrd’s, life.

JACK: Mm-hm?

LISA: And very much in her head. And Jack Ernest is in the… he’s trying to… he’s chasing, he’s bird-dogging her around, all over town, trying to get laid. And, uhm… and… he brings a certain dimension to her personality and…

JACK: Right.

LISA: … her life, the way she acts, that I thought was really useful to the book. That she’s very much imperfect and sketchy.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha! And unstable, that she’s attracted to somebody like that. And Teever, he goes off on his own, and he’s not so connected to her. But…

JACK: He thinks about her a lot.

LISA: He thinks about her, and he’s always looking for her to bail him out or help him, or he thinks often that he’s helping her, which he is in his own crazy way.

JACK: Well, the funeral scene, that’s a beautiful…

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: That’s a beautiful instance of…

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Him helping her, I think, or them helping each other.

LISA: Yeah. he’s finally the one to which, sort of surprisingly, maybe, she finally kind of breaks down and unburdens all this crap that’s been sort of haunting her.

JACK: Mm-hm.

LISA: And only to him, who’s somebody totally inappropriate and…

JACK: And who, as you say, is apart from… apart from society, even, in a lot of ways.

LISA: Yeah, those two guys are the other? And she’s very much engaged with the other. For whatever reason.

JACK: Well, I mean, you are, too…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: … as a writer, you know. Uh…

LISA: I love me some other.

JACK: Ha ha ha! One thing I love, and I was talking with you about this the other night (clears throat)… this is silly, but I think it’s gonna to get to something that’s not silly… When Jack Ernest makes his, uh, makes that long speech to these kids out of…

LISA: Oh yeah. Ha ha ha!

JACK: Out of Batman Returns. I mean, that was like a Henry V moment, almost.

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Right? And, uh, but I love… what I’m getting at is I love the way you use pop culture. Have you…? You’ve seen quote-unquote “literary writers” that look down on using actual popular culture in their work?

LISA: Oh, yeah.

JACK: I find that perverted.

LISA: Ha ha! How can you live without noticing?

JACK: Ha ha!

LISA: I mean, you know!

JACK: They seem to think it’s cheating somehow, which it’s… it’s… allusion, you know?

LISA: Why would it be cheating?

JACK: Mm. Maybe they consider it shorthand or something? But I don’t think it’s that at all.

LISA: Oh, that it’s kind of using devices to just… but so is anything else! So is using plants, and anything you use to evoke a mood or a time or a character’s, you know, being… it’s usable, totally legit.

JACK: I agree! In fact, the thing that, uh… the thing… oh. Look, when I… uh… but when I cried at the end of the book, it was the scene when she’s dancing. And what was effective about the dancing at the end of the book was that it was… there were certain dances, the pony and the… what else?

LISA: The Monster Mash…

JACK: Yeah!

LISA: … and the swim, the monkey…

JACK: The swim! I almost tried to say “the swan.”

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: I made up a new dance in my brain, the swan.

LISA: That would have been good for William Byrd.

JACK: Doing the swan?

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Is he related to the comp… the British composer William Byrd? Is there any…?

LISA: I can’t… you know, I used to know that. I used to know everything about him, and now it’s kind of gone away.

JACK: Where did it go? It went into the book, I think!

LISA: You know, the brain cells are dropping one by one. Ha ha ha! I think they were all related at some point. But his father, his own father, was a gold… He might have been a farrier, but called himself a goldsmith.

JACK: What’s a farrier?

LISA: Uhm, you know…

JACK: Rowing people back and forth on a ferry?

LISA: Like, has to do with ferrous. Shoes, horseshoes. Shoeing horses.


LISA: A horseshoer.

JACK: He shod horses!

LISA: He shod horses, don’t he?

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Uhm, wouldn’t that be a blacksmith, or would a blacksmith employ a farrier?

LISA: That’s what I’m saying… so many people came over…

JACK: Oh, I see! An ironsmith. Like ferrous. Iron!

LISA: Yeah. I think he did more practical metalwork.


LISA: But kind of… when he came over here, like a lot of people, they wanted this pretense of aristocracy, that they were somebody in the Old World, so they kind of pumped up their credentials in lots of ways. I could be talking out of my ass. I’d have to go back and look.

JACK: Well, that’s fine, we don’t factcheck at this…

LISA: Thank God!

JACK: … publication.

LISA: Anyway, to quote Barry [Hannah], “I fucking hate facts.”

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: He told me that when he was working on that, uh, Johnny Cash article for Spin?

JACK: Right.

LISA: He said, “Man, this would make such a good book but it’s gotta be, you know, a real nonfiction piece.” He said, “I fucking hate facts.”

JACK: Ha ha ha! Mmm…

LISA: Uhm… so this was leading to something, you said.

JACK: No, well…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: No, I think…

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: In my mind I got there, but maybe I didn’t.

LISA: Uhm…

JACK: Oh! Let’s talk about Deliverance.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That makes a huge appearance… not a huge appearance, I’d say half a page.

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: And it’s in one… it’s almost like a poem, made up of lines of dialogue from the movie Deliverance.

LISA: Yeah, uhm, yeah, that’s something that’s taken from my own brothers. I have Jack Ernest and his goofy buddies playing cards during the ice storm, they’re playing bourrée, and for every negotiation or play that’s made, for every hand, there’s a line from Deliverance—ha ha ha ha!—that somehow is perfect. And I took that from my three brothers, who only speak…

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: … to each other, or to anybody, if they can get away with it, in lines from Deliverance. Or to my mother, we’re eating dinner, “This corn’s special.”

JACK: Ha ha! That’s spread to our house now.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha! Oh no.

JACK: Theresa and I say that all the time because of you.

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: And, uh…

LISA: “Don’t say anything, just do it.”

JACK: That’s another popular one! Although when you think about it in context, it’s horrible. But… it’s very handy in real life. And “This road don’t go to Aintry” is the other…

LISA: That’s a favorite in the car.

JACK: And “Give the boy a dollar…” What’s it?

LISA: Well, you know, one of my brothers pointed out I had that wrong. And I don’t know if I was using something out of the movie, ‘cause there’s stuff in that horrifying scene…

JACK: Oh, Lordy.

LISA: … Ned Beatty scene in the movie that’s not actually in Dickey’s book. Like, “Squeal like a pig” is not in the book.

JACK: Right.

LISA: And I didn’t use that. But my brother said it’s not “Give the boy a dollar, Drew.” It’s something else. But I haven’t gone back to check and fix that. But coming from my brothers, who are pretty reliable on the text of Deliverance… it’s like talking to Lee [Durkee] about Shakespeare. They’re on the money all the time, so I’m sure they’re probably right.

JACK: Maybe I shouldn’t out this about Lee, but we were talking about when we—ha ha ha ha ha ha!—cried at the end of the book. But we cried at different moments. But anyway, you make all the men cry in Oxford.

LISA: Y’all are lying.

JACK: No we’re not! Why would we even admit that out loud? We’re manly like Jack Ernest.

LISA: Yeah, but you’re a little bit gay.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: You know, all y’all are. Ha ha ha!

JACK: You mean men in general? Or just men in Oxford?

LISA: Real men are a little bit gay. Let me say that.

JACK: William Gay?

LISA: No, not William. I never really knew William all that well, you know? He was, uh… I think he perceived there was a class thing there that…

JACK: Which way did it go? Ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha ha ha! I know! Of course, he was a hard person to know. And also there was a thing, he and Larry… Or Larry.

JACK: Brown?

LISA: Yeah. Felt uncomfortable with some of the stuff he wrote.

JACK: Oh, should I…? I can put that in this thing, can’t I?

LISA: Sure!

JACK: Or… I don’t want…

LISA: Larry talked about it.

JACK: Well, I mean, uncomfortable how? I’m just curious, not that we need to go off on it.

LISA: That’s right, they’re both dead, so who cares, right? But I think he thought that William Gay was too derivative of Cormac.

JACK: Oh. Well, see, you know, I haven’t really read much Cormac McCarthy, is that a terrible thing to admit?

LISA: I’ve always really liked Cormac, and thought he was a great writer, but… there was something a little bit bloodless about his characters.

JACK: Bloodless? All they do is chop people’s heads off!

LISA: Well, that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. They weren’t really flesh and blood to me all the time. I mean, nobody ever stopped to take a leak.

JACK: Do any fictional characters ever stop and take a leak? Hamlet never takes a leak! “Pardon me.”

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: “To be or not to be… wait a minute. Hold on.”

LISA: That’s probably not true.

JACK: You know, you’re right.

LISA: In Chaucer, certainly there was…

JACK: Oh, they farted a lot.

LISA: … effluvia involved. Ha ha ha!

JACK: That brings us back to your book. Ha ha ha ha ha! But you’re so good with cursing, too, and the… uh… uh… earthy side of life, shall we say. Are you a champion cusser?

LISA: I can cuss. I mean… I love cuss words.

JACK: But you do it in a very literary… no… that sounds like an insult. But in the book, it’s poetr… it’s almost poetic, the… uh… the flights of, the flights of cursing.

LISA: Well, you know, I think there’s something really wonderful about cursing, which isn’t just… cursing. It’s vernacular speech.

JACK: Right.

LISA: That I hear a lot around here.

JACK: Right. I think that’s an important distinction. It’s not just cursing. But! Uhm, but, people can do it in a really artificial way that robs it of any impact at all. You know, people who are trying to imitate Quentin Tarantino, or trying to imitate David Mamet, I suppose.

LISA: Or David Milch. Deadwood, which I think is sort of lampooning things. I don’t know. What was I just reading about Scottish writers, where was that? About James Kelman. I just read it. It was a James Wood article, and he was talking about how there were something like four thousand occurrences of the word “fuck” in this little novel. I’m not sure if it’s this new one… it’s used almost gratuitously, but… and I don’t know about Scottish vernacular, really.

JACK: I think they like the “c” word a lot. This is based on…

LISA: They do.

JACK: … movies I’ve seen.

LISA: Yeah! Well, I don’t know much more than that. I’ve never even been to Scotland. To the airport, maybe. But… those words are so useful. I mean, think of the meanings of the word “fuck.” In fact, there’s a book about it. It’s called The F Word, by… shit. What’s that guy’s name? Sheidlower. Jesse Sheidlower, who, I think he did the revision on the American Heritage Dictionary. I don’t know. He’s a…

JACK: Wow!

LISA: What do you call those guys?

JACK: I don’t know. Roy Blount was one of those too, wasn’t he? Didn’t he write for American Heritage?

LISA: Etymologists, I suppose. Anyway, “fuck” has so many uses.

JACK: Was James Wood saying that in a disapproving way? ‘Cause…


JACK: I can just imagine James Wood with his little calculator and his little glasses, counting all the words.

LISA: No, he was just talking about it. And, uh, he just made some points about why… is this useful? Does this work? I don’t think he comes to any conclusions. Maybe I didn’t finish the article.

BOTH: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Well, who’s ever finished a James Wood article?

LISA: It’s right here, we could read it.

JACK: I’ll just transcribe it into the text of the interview. Job finished.

LISA: But I tried not to use it gratuitously, and I took a lot of “fucks” out of there, I gotta say. In Southern vernacular especially, there’s so many wonderful ones that I never had heard.

JACK: Let’s talk about that a little bit. You came down from where when you first arrived in Oxford?

LISA: I was coming from San Francisco.

JACK: But that’s after long travels.

LISA: Right, right. I grew up in D.C., in the suburbs of D.C.

JACK: So you’re coming from San Francisco, you land here in Oxford in what year?

LISA: ’72.

JACK: I knew that. According to legend you’re driving a hippie kinda microbus?

LISA: Oh, God! That’s so embarrassing now. I had a ’62 VW camper with a sun painted on the front and a rainbow on the back and clouds on the side. I mean…

JACK: Oh, beautiful.

LISA: Is there any bigger cliché? Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha! Well, it worked.

LISA: Did it?

JACK: I don’t know.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You’re still here. So I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t.

LISA: I didn’t get killed. I remember when I first came and moved into this house on South Lamar… it’s 1003 South Lamar. It’s a huge McMansion. But it used to be an old decrepit Victorian or turn of the century house, and all the kinda underground people lived there. And they all decided I was a narc. Maybe because the bus was so obvious.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Like something a narc would have, to fool people into thinking…

JACK: Like The Mod Squad? They would… ha ha!

LISA: Exactly.

JACK: Arrive in the…

LISA: Fool people into thinking he was a… freak. Like everybody else. But you know, the words, they stuck with me, the words that I would hear. And some of them I got from Richard and his brothers. Not necessarily cuss words, but things like, uhm, sexual words, like “mossyjaw.” And “dirtyleg.”

JACK: Is… mossyjaw one word?

LISA: I think so.

JACK: Is that how you spell… it sounds like a Joycean… that’s almost Joycean-sounding, isn’t it? Mossyjaw?

LISA: Well, I mean, Ireland?

JACK: Mm-hm…

LISA: The South? There’s a lot…

JACK: I’m afraid to ask about mossy…

LISA: Ha ha!

JACK: I think I can guess. But… What about dirtyleg?

LISA: It’s the same thing.


LISA: I mean, it’s almost the same thing. It’s… skanky hos are dirtylegs… or dirtlegs.

JACK: Wh… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That’s really… really… bad.

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Somebody needs to research those words, go to the OED, and I’m sure they go back to Elizabethan England.

JACK: You know that guy… uh… oh! Vance Randolph…

LISA: Yeah!

JACK: … did those, those lexicons of… where was he? In the Ozarks. And they’ve got wonderful things, about the same sort of things, a lot of sexual euphemisms…

LISA: What’s the one that’s so crazy, that’s used for so many…?

JACK: Red onion?

LISA: Never heard that one.

JACK: You never heard red onion? That’s from a Vance Randolph book.

LISA: No… it’s another word for the female genitalia. But it’s also a word… God! I wish Richard was still here. Maybe I’ll come up with it. But it’s a word for something else in normal…

JACK: Satchel?

LISA: No! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Jack!

JACK: These are Ozark…

LISA: I’ve heard that one.


LISA: It’s not cooter, it’s not cooter, but it begins with a c. Goddamnit! What is it?

JACK: Oh dear! How did we get down this road? Sorry.

LISA: Ha ha ha! It’s a well-traveled road.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: For you and me.

JACK: Well, uh, so. What about touring for the first time? How was that?

LISA: That was fun and really interesting. Every stop I’d make there’d be some weirdo from my past crop up and really freak me out. Two old boyfriends showed up in D.C., one of whom, there’s a character kind of based on him in the book but I don’t think he has any idea and I sure didn’t tell him.

JACK: They say people never do.

LISA: Don’t recognize themselves…

JACK: Do you find that people, because it’s obviously based in this town, in large part, do people seem to want to sort of…

LISA: Oh, yeah.

JACK: … sit down and map out who’s supposed to exactly represent whom? That’s not the way writing works, though, is it?

LISA: No, it’s not. And it’s funny because I just was reading the poet and now novelist Ben Lerner? A young guy?

JACK: I know… I know the name. What’s… what’s his…?

LISA: He wrote a lot of poetry books and of course I don’t read a lot of poetry, so I can’t speak intelligently about that, but his breakout novel was Leaving the Atocha Station. I haven’t read that one, but his new one that’s not out yet, I think the title is 10:04. And, uhm, it’s pretty amazing, and a lot of it is obviously autobiographical, but a lot of it is what he calls “virtual.” And there’s a lot of shapeshifter, timeshifting…

JACK: Mm-hmm…

LISA: And reality shifts and stuff, and he talks about literary New York a lot, and people are always trying to pin down who this person might be and that person might be, and he said that, you know, it surprises him, and surprised me, that people don’t get it about fiction.

JACK: And not only that but smart people, and even people who write fiction sometimes…

LISA: I know!

JACK: It’s amazing what people will assume is something you took out of your own life.

LISA: It’s a little bit… it’s not insulting, but it’s a little bit like, “You think I’m not capable of making crap up?”

JACK: Yeah! That’s right, that’s right.

LISA: Of course, you do have… this guy Ben Lerner talks about “memoir disguised as fiction.” And of course, you do have personal experience in there, and memoirisitc elements, but those are just your points of departure, you know, they’re not… I guess it’s just a natural human thing that you wanna… I mean, people around here are still trying to figure out who are the Snopeses… not to compare myself to Pappy.

JACK: Why not?

LISA: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: He’s dead too.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha! Fair game. But you know, I guess it’s just normal. People want to know what you actually experienced.

JACK: You have to almost enjoy that people are going to do that while you’re writing. You can write something really shocking and while you’re doing it kind of anticipate the joys of people thinking it’s something you really did.

LISA: And those things, because I do have this true crime at the heart of the novel, which… it’s not the novel… I do deal mostly with facts and stuff… it was a real relief, and the thing I gave myself, to make up these other characters and these other events… enjoying that. It’s fiction! You can write whatever you want.

JACK: You mentioned recently to me that because there’s a crime element to the book that people assume it’s going to be a plot-driven crime novel, but you didn’t worry about that at all while you were writing it, did you?

LISA: I… I did worry about it, because I knew there would be people who’d be disappointed. And when I became aware of the fact that that was going to be the hook that my publisher would be pushing… and… uhm… I did worry about it, but I still, somehow, I had enough faith in what I thought I was doing that I just kept going.

LISA CONTINUED: And you know, again, Barry was such a huge influence on me. Not that I tried to write like Barry, but one thing that he used to always say: “I know I’m not strong on plot. It’s all about character to me.” To him. And I just feel like if you do the characters well enough, the story is there, and it doesn’t matter if it’s bang, bang, bang. But you know, another thing about plot… you know the classic form of the narrative is supposed to have all the things you learn in English class, and the denouement and all that. But you know, life doesn’t follow an eighth-grade English-class trajectory.

JACK: Or if it does, that’s really sad.

LISA: Yeah, and even if you have a plot, plots don’t end up resolving themselves. You know what I mean? In life, they don’t necessarily have a Hollywood ending…

JACK: Or an anti-Hollywood ending.

LISA: Right.

JACK: Or an ending. Well, they do have an ending.

LISA: They do have an ending. I don’t know, so I just kept on keeping on, mainly with characters and stuff, and hoping…

JACK: I’m learning the value of structure more now that I’m writing for this cartoon show where things are in a really very serious… I mean, you know, you can’t tell when you’re watching it, but underlying that seemingly wild, uh, stuff that’s going on, there’s a really strict kind of three-act structure, and that’s very helpful, although I don’t think I’ll ever apply it to my own stuff. I’d like to try, but… I’m weak on that.

LISA: I admit it, I’m really weak on structure, and I don’t get it.

JACK: How would you describe the structure of the novel?

LISA: Structure was [raspberry sound].

JACK: Oh, that’s not true. I don’t think that’s true at all. I mean, I’m not smart enough to sit down and draw you a diagram…

LISA: It has some structure, but I needed a lot of help. I begged my editor for help.

JACK: Tell me about that process.

LISA: You know, at one point, and I wrote the whole thing by hand like a total idiot, and at one point it was all out, in the next room, on the floor, the way I had written it. But I knew the structure was weak and I knew it could work better. So for about a week I just shuffled papers around on the floor. So I had the narrative flowing better, and there were places where it didn’t work so I had to go back and fill in some gaps and do some knitting and stitching and repair work.

JACK: And you try to make that look… you don’t let the seams show if you can help it, right?

LISA: That’s right, and some probably do show, but I did it the best that I could.

JACK: It’s not like any other book I’ve ever read, and you can’t say that about too many books.

LISA: Well, going back to what you were saying about the script, I want to say, uhm, about following script structure and all that… I want to get better at that and I’ve thought about taking a scriptwriting class. I do not think in a linear way.

JACK: I don’t even bother trying to write anymore, because what’s the point?

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Jack!

JACK: But as much as I’ve learned about structure from doing this new kind of work, I’m not sure it translates over into fiction. I don’t think I could use it in my fiction. I’m not sure how. It seems like a different part of my brain doing that.

LISA: Yeah! I agree!

JACK: So are you thinking about writing something else, can I take that from…?

LISA: Oh! Yeah. I’ve got tons of stuff I’d like to write if I can live that long.

JACK: Are you working on anything?

LISA: Well… I’ve got too much homework stuff right now. My book just came out in England this week.


LISA: So I’ve got some, you know, some writing stuff to do.

JACK: Why do you have to write something because your book came out in England?

LISA: Uhm, I have a two-thousand word essay to do for Bookanista, which is a blog over there that I know nothing about, but my UK publicist wants me to do something on why there seems to be so much good writing coming out of the South.

JACK: Oh, that’s a fresh topic. Ha ha!

LISA: I know. There are no fresh topics, I’m afraid. I just do what they want me to do, and…

JACK: Why don’t you write an essay about why there’s so much bad writing coming out of the South?

LISA: Now there’s a good idea. That’s one I’d like to do.

JACK: That’s our dirty little secret.

LISA: That reminds me. Another thing about scripts, although I’d really like to get better about writing structure and thinking that way, it is, like you say, using another part of my brain that’s not very well developed. But I also… lots of times I feel like so many writers now, younger writers especially, tend to rely on the way scripts look. They’re thinking maybe in terms of film.

JACK: I understand why. When you’re writing fiction you’re working in this… really antique… ha ha ha ha ha!

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: … kind of, you know… You say you wrote your book longhand. What other profession can you think of where you’d be allowed to do such a thing, uh… like, like some kind of monk?

LISA: I grew up with the big, kind of—may I use the word?—kind of sloppy novels of the 60s.

JACK: What are some of those novels? Were they influencing you with Flying Shoes?

LISA: Yeah. I mean, yeah! They were character-driven novels, like all the Jewish writers.

JACK: Like who?

LISA: Heller…

JACK: Oh! Heller, my favorite.

LISA: Bellow, Malamud. They’re all about characters. Maybe they didn’t go anywhere… I mean, they did. But those guys were brilliant.

JACK: Did you like Norman Mailer?

LISA: I liked some of Norman Mailer, but, uhm…

JACK: Philip Roth, you mentioned him when we first started talking. But he’s got… I don’t know. I feel like he’s a master, though. I think structure would almost be second nature to him.

LISA: Yeah, I don’t want to compare myself to any of those people. But those are the novels that influenced me. By “sloppy,” I mean… that wasn’t a good word. Loose?

JACK: Not loose or sloppy, it sounds like we’re talking about dirtyleg. Ha ha ha! Not loose or sloppy, but I would say… bountiful. Like you can’t contain… and that’s what I like about your novel, that it feels like there’s so much… it’s got everything in it, and that’s a feeling I like from a novel: that it’s got a whole world in it.

LISA: Oh, good. And there were other writers, like Kerouac and Kesey that I was reading and really heavily influenced me… Tom Wolfe…

JACK: Why do people not like… I don’t know, maybe people do like Kerouac. Is he…?

LISA: I liked Kerouac. And I liked that he was just kind of… you know, it was sloppy. But everybody’s life back then was sloppy. And nobody knew where anything was going.

JACK: I’m reading The Dharma Bums right now and I’m really enjoying it. It’s so funny, because he’s so cute… and one thing I like about him, and I know this is artifice, he’s doing this, I think… but he just seems like a little boy. He’s so excited about everything, that it almost feels… you’re almost embarrassed at how sweet he is.

LISA: Exactly.

JACK: You know, and at the same time he’s kind of abusive towards women. You know. The whole oeuvre, is that a word? Ha ha ha ha! Yeah. But at the same time he’s like, “We’re eating pudding!” I just read a part where he’s like, “Oh, mmm! I’m going to eat some pudding!” You know? Where he’s so excited about chocolate pudding. In On the Road  they break into a kitchen and he puts his arm into a tub of ice cream.

LISA: See, I loved all that stuff, the hedonism. That’s what I grew up reading. I also read a lot of nonfiction, Civil Rights stuff. But I was very influenced by those character-driven novels.

JACK: Well, you’ve written one now. Is it a big relief?

LISA: It’s a huge relief. But, you know, it wasn’t the kind of woo-hoo moment I thought it would be.

JACK: If I may say so, in the months leading up to the publication, you seemed almost, uh, what’s the word? You seemed… well, you didn’t seem that excited.

LISA: You know, it was just so postpartum or something. I mean, there were a lot of reasons for that. I did feel really flat. I thought, “Hmm. I don’t feel that great. I’ve exposed my family to this crap again, this tragedy. And I’ve made money off of it.” And… I… there’s no way you can really do something like that justice. I don’t care how good you are, I just don’t think you can really express… that kind of horror. So, I felt… and I just… and my brother’s still dead. You know? And we still miss him. You know?

JACK: In a way, when you write a book, you are trying to put some kind of structure… when you write any book, you’re trying to grab, trying to get something between those covers that in some way approximates life, and that’s a way of trying to put structure on life, I guess.

LISA: But I, you know, uhm… I didn’t realize Virginia Woolf had influenced me as much as she did. I read her stuff a million years ago, and I didn’t really remember it. But then my editor said, “Your book really reminds me of Mrs. Dalloway.” I couldn’t even remember it. But I went back and read it and I was like, “Wow!” It’s all in this woman’s head, in a much more compressed way than I did it, time-wise.

JACK: Unless I’m crazy, doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway, like your novel, also go off into other characters’…

LISA: Yeah! I think for the time it was really kind of revolutionary. It’s not for me, now, but… and that obviously affected me in some way, that you could write… and Joyce, and those people… you can write what’s in people’s heads. That is worth talking about. And even if it’s not acted out viscerally…

JACK: It’s funny, it still seems revolutionary to people, I think. Because they’re doing it a hundred years ago…

LISA: I know, isn’t that crazy?

JACK: People can still get bent out of shape looking at Picasso. People can still be shocked by Charles Ives or Stravinsky, or reading Gertrude Stein or Joyce, and you think, that’s pretty powerful. To still be able to make people uncomfortable.

LISA: Another thing that influenced me, like an old nineteenth-century person, I was a huge letter writer, and I had friends who were letter writers, and we had these big correspondences, all of which I kept.

JACK: Oh, that’s great!

LISA: And that, to me, that was a huge influence. Being able to write a letter to somebody, and embellish it…

JACK: Do you still write letters?

LISA: Not that much. Like every other idiot it’s email. I just heard from a really close friend from twelfth grade, who I’d known since sixth grade. We were really close in high school. She lives in Chicago and she’d seen the book. She got in touch with me—we’d been out of touch. And I just wrote her back a ten-page, actual letter.

JACK: Wow!

LISA: She was one of the people I corresponded with after high school, when I was on the road, and on the bus, whatever. And that was so much fun. I just don’t do it anymore. And it wasn’t just that: in a way, maybe this is related to cell phones, but I also kept all—you’re too young, probably, to remember this, but in junior high school, girls wrote notes in class constantly, and passed them back and forth.

JACK: I’m not too young to remember that!

LISA: Well, I have hundreds. I’ve saved them all. Hundreds of those notes, still saved. Ha ha!

JACK: Thinking of Kerouac, large parts of On the Road are Kerouac taking letters he got from Neal Cassady and just sticking them in the book, you know. There’s some curious connection between letter writing and novel writing.

LISA: There is, and I fear for it, because it’s not the same. Now you have people composing novels on their cell phones and stuff.

JACK: That’s all right, I guess. I’m sure somebody was upset when…

LISA: I guess it is! But it’s just so different. And another thing that worries me is literary manuscripts. Where are those going to be?

JACK: Yeah, who cares?

LISA: I care! I care. I love… I worked, when I was getting my degree in library science at Chapel Hill, I worked in the rare book room there. I wanted to be… I needed a job. I knew I wasn’t going to support myself writing, at least not right away… and I wanted to be a… a… a literary manuscripts librarian, you know, or an archivist. And I would read all this crap down there, it was kind of in a dungeon… and you know, you’d see little notes and doodles and stuff in the margins. Grocery lists, and who’s coming to the party this weekend, or some idea that you know is about two chapters ahead but you’re afraid you’re going to forget it—you just write it in the margin. My manuscript’s full of that kind of stuff, and maybe there’s a way people do that on the computer now, but…

JACK: Mmm…

LISA: I don’t think so. I miss… I think those things tell you a lot about a writer that we aren’t gonna…

JACK: But do we need to know anything about writers? That’s the question.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You know?

LISA: That is a good question. I like it. It’s the voyeur in me.

JACK: One of my favorite times was when we had a friend who was working at the Ransom Center…

LISA: In Texas…

JACK: And she said, “Whose stuff would you like to see?” And I said, “I don’t know, James Joyce.” And she brought out a box of his letters. They were in Italian, so I couldn’t read them…

LISA: Ha ha ha!

JACK: But I got to touch ‘em.

LISA: Yeah! It’s like porn for me.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

LISA: It really is. So exciting. I remember finding a poem at Chapel Hill in some box, you know. It was a manuscript of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that nobody knew about, boxed in a bunch of junk, and I was like…

JACK: What?

LISA: And I was just shaking, I was trembling, and I took it to the archivist, and…

JACK: Wow!

LISA: And it wasn’t supposed to be there. He’s so contemporary and fresh. And very few poets have ever reached me. But he always did somehow. I don’t know how we got off on that. Ramblin’ Jack! Do you remember Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? He just died.

JACK: He did?

LISA: Yeah.

JACK: Like everybody else.

LISA: Ha ha ha ha! You were asking me this the other night and then you told me to shut up because you were going to ask me about it today. It was about male characters.

JACK: And writing from the point of view of male characters!

LISA: Right. And that is something… you’re not the only one to mention that to me. It came very naturally because I had nothing but brothers. And I married into a family at a very early age, 22, of nothing but brothers.

JACK: Mm-hm.

LISA: I kind of grew up with all those Howorth things. Boys. And, uhm, and I always… uh… I had… my mother was one of four girls, and no brothers. And they were so… they were close but they were so vicious with each other. And I think I had a natural, uh, not a fear, but a hesitancy about women… getting close to women. I was insecure.

JACK: How did you describe them? They were…

LISA: Vicious!

JACK: So… how were they vicious? Just verbally?

LISA: Vicious the way girls are often vicious.

JACK: How is that?

LISA: How is that? (long pause) I think girls and women are very judgmental about one another. And I think a lot of the times it’s in an instructive way, like mother to daughter.


LISA: And I’m sure I’m guilty of it if you ask Claire and Bebe. But my mother was certainly that way, and her sisters were that way. Very critical. Sometimes meaning to be constructive, but other times not. And my experience with the boys in my family was: they didn’t give a flying fuck about emotions and discussing… and dressing properly, or saying and doing the right things… they were so much more natural and, it seems to me, comfortable in themselves. In a lot of ways, more upfront about stuff. I just think there are issues between women that are hard sometimes. And I’ve always been attracted to women who are kind of boyish, guyish. I’ve always felt less likely to be judged and that I can be more myself with guys.

JACK: But guys are judging women.

LISA: Well, they are, and I write about it. I try to write about the horrible things that guys think about women and say about women when they’re just being themselves. And of course, women can’t get away with that kind of stuff. And I also… there’s a thing. I really wanted to write like a guy. You just don’t see a lot of novels written by women where characters do use bad words and talk terrible sex talk and all that stuff. But girls do it. But it’s just… I think a lot of women writers are kind of afraid.

JACK: Well, maybe they’re afraid they’re going to be judged!

LISA: Exactly!

JACK: Well, you did a great job on those male characters.

LISA: Well, the Teever short story… he’s a character who I realized is too much in the book and I excised it.

JACK: Do you have a lot more Teever material?

LISA: I do! I have a short story but I never could sell it.

JACK: Have you thought about…? You don’t want to go back, or do you have that desire to be like Faulkner and revisit the characters?

LISA: No, I’m done. I’ve got a bunch of new stories.

JACK: Do you want to publish a book of short stories?

LISA: No, because nobody really wants those anymore.

JACK: Tell me about it, sister!

LISA: I know! I do think I’ve got a couple that if I sit down and let go, could turn into novels. I’ve got two, I think.

JACK: I look forward to that. Your next novel.

LISA: Yeah. If. If… I don’t… kick the bucket. The old bucket.

JACK: And even if you do!

1 of 48  

Fiction and Bullshit: An Interview with Ace Atkins

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You can divide Ace Atkins’s literary output into four nice pie slices. First came a series of what Barry Hannah called “blues-detective” novels. Then Ace moved on to real American crimes and the people who committed them, in four richly imagined novels ranging chronologically from the 1920s to the 1950s. Lately he is operating on all cylinders at once, having taken over the phenomenally successful Spenser novels for the late Robert B. Parker while simultaneously introducing his own creation: Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger, back from Iraq and Afghanistan, who finds himself the decent sheriff of a corrupt Mississippi county. The Forsaken, the fourth installment of the Quinn Colson saga, will appear in July. Jack Pendarvis talked to Ace in his office, which overlooks the Square in Oxford, Mississippi.

(sound of a cork)

JACK: That was the sound of a cork.

(gurgling sound of rye being poured)

JACK: Coming out of the rye bottle.

ACE: This is six-year-old rye, Smooth Ambler spirits. No, excuse me, seven-year-old.

JACK: I can’t pay you for it?

ACE: No. No, you can’t. It’s yours.

JACK: Wow. Thanks.

ACE: I think you’ve brought me a few bottles. Here you go. All right.

JACK: Okay. Well, uh…

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I’m reading The Forsaken now. Uhm… and, do… do reviewers talk about this much? The Faulkner connection? Because, I mean, it starts with a lawyer named Stevens.

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: Like, kind of like Gavin Stevens.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And then you’ve got Bundrens in there, and Varners, and other Faulknerian… is that just something you do for fun?

ACE: Yeah, just for fun. It’s interesting, though, how many people don’t notice it. I think maybe only people who read Faulkner or live in Oxford notice that kind of stuff. But it’s fun to put in there, because I do think that some of these characters are the modern, uh… folks, people who you would have seen running a general store.

JACK: Yeah, like Johnny…

ACE: Like the Varners are now running the Quick Mart.

JACK: Johnny Stagg has got a lot of Snopes…

ACE: Definitely.

JACK: … to him.

ACE: Yeah, yeah.

JACK: Now, he seems like a character you love to write. I mean, he’s the bad guy in the Quinn Colson books. You obviously relish getting to write about him, right?

ACE: I think so… it’s always fun to write about the bad guys because they’re amoral and you can do what you want. I like Johnny because I think he’s a smart guy. There’s a point in one of the books where he’s talking about people who have been made very malleable by religion. And you see that Johnny can use those platitudes, as far as wearing an American flag pin…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And professing to be a good Christian and a deacon at his church. But he really knows the score. He really knows what he’s doing as far as using those tools to make things happen.

JACK: Right!

ACE: So he’s very Southern in that regard.

JACK: Uh, I like in the new book when he refers to a guy as “the Will Rogers of shitbirds.” Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! I don’t remember that line. But that does sound so true. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s great. I love the Quinn Colson books. As you know, I was worried about, uhm, when you were moving from…

ACE: Mm-hm.

JACK: … doing the period, the historical, how… How would you… What would you call that group of books?

ACE: I mean, I guess you could call them historicals, I mean, I’ve got no problem with term historicals. I usually think of historicals as being fictional events occurring in a time period, uhm, I’d call these… they’re not really true crime…

JACK: Nnnh-nnnh.

ACE: … because they’re fiction. I’d say, “based on a true story.”

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: That’s probably the best way to describe them.

JACK: And they all take place in the… somewhat distant… I don’t know, how… how…

ACE: I wrote a book set in the twenties about Fatty Arbuckle… in the thirties about Machine Gun Kelly… and then I did two books in the fifties, uh, one set in Tampa, in the Latin area of Tampa, and Havana in the 1950s, and I did another one set in Phenix City, Alabama.

JACK: Yeah, of course! And you’ve got the poster for The Phenix City Story on your wall here.

ACE: One of my all-time favorite movies.

JACK: And, uh, Hud and Harper posters. Why Hud and Harper? I know why Harper!

ACE: Actually what I thought about doing, I was going to frame all the Paul Newman “H” movies.

JACK: Hombre?

ACE: I’m missing Hombre. Uh, there’s Harry Frigg. There’s The Hustler

JACK: Harry Frigg???!!!!???

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: I don’t know that one.

ACE: Well…

JACK: Are you sure there’s…?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: A movie called Harry Frigg? Are you sure that’s not a movie you saw on Cinemax late one night?

ACE: There was a lot of nudity but the guy looked like Paul Newman.

JACK: Uhm, ha ha!

ACE: Ha! Yeah, but so, no, in fact that’s why Lew Archer from the Ross MacDonald novels became Harper in the movie, because the studio executives thought Paul Newman could only do movies with an “H” in them.

JACK: Was it like a good luck thing? Or…

ACE: I guess so, yeah.

JACK: “We’re doing great with ‘H’ movies, let’s make another one.” You have another “H” movie up here, High Noon. That’s… not…

(sound of ice tinkling)

ACE: Not Paul Newman.

JACK: We were just talking about John Wayne earlier. You know, John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated High Noon. That’s where Rio Bravo comes from. Uhm, politically they found it too liberal or something.

ACE: Well, I’m sure they hated it, with all the guys who, you know, turn their back on people to turn them over to the Senate committee on, uh, you know…

JACK: Right.

ACE: … during the Red Scare.

JACK: Yeah, man, John Wayne was unapologetically, you know… Man, he hated communists.

ACE: High Noon may be… I mean, it’s definitely my favorite western and it may be one of my favorite films ever.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: You know, that image of Will Kane throwing down that badge at the end of the film…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: And how no one would help him… That’s quintessential.

JACK: But that’s exactly what John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated… Hey! Paul Newman should have made a movie with Howard Hawks.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: Because of the H’s! Howard Hawks’s Hud.

ACE: There would have been a lot more shooting in it.

JACK: And you’ve got the Skin Game poster.

ACE: Yeah! I think that’s a great film, one of the forgotten movies. Skin Game, coming out in 1971, was during the heat of a lot of racial tension and it’s surprising when you watch that film how carefully they discuss the issue of race. Lou Gossett is amazing in it, and it’s also a very funny movie.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: I think it’s terrific. And Garner was never better.

JACK: Garner, uh… Garner made a lot of funny westerns.

ACE: His comedic abilities are, I think, unparalleled. Just those… Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, going all the way back to Maverick.

JACK: What else do you want to talk about? I want to talk about the Quinn Colson books.

ACE: Okay!

JACK: I mean, when I mentioned the Faulkner comparison, I think it’s legitimate.

(sounds of ice being dumped into two glasses)

JACK: Not just because you put those names in there, but you’re really trying to make a…

(more ice noise, loud)

JACK: … a world there. In The Broken Places, and I’m not sure this happens in any of the books before The Broken Places, but there’s a map…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … in the front. You know, kind of like something Faulkner would… Did you draw that map?

ACE: No, no, no, God. I can’t draw. But a buddy of mine who’s a graphic artist drew it and it was certainly based on one of those many maps that Faulkner did. And it started out being a place of reference for me, because it’s a county that I’m exploring and I want to know all the different areas and the people, the connections… you know, obviously, living in Oxford, that’s something that’s sort of hard-wired to your brain and you’re trying to keep that story alive. But then I gave it to my editor and he thought it was cool and ended up putting it in the book.

JACK: Well, you know, uh… and another thing you do, you get to look at these same characters again and again and… and really explore their hist…

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: They’ve all got interesting pasts that still have an effect on them, and…

(quiet ice sounds, louder ice sounds, sound of a bottle being plunked down)

JACK: You get to explore… I feel like with every book you get to go deeper into these people and what makes them who they are. That’s one thing I love about that series.

ACE: I think these books came out of my experience writing those “true” books, and writing those true crime stories. It was very liberating being able to write stories about real people and real events because you didn’t have to put yourself into it.

JACK: Right.

ACE: And you know, we were talking earlier at lunch about all the trappings and the clichés of the private eye genre, the trappings of those hero books, where you’ve got the same type story. And what I wanted to do with these books, I wanted to be completely absent from them. I’m not one of those writers that…

JACK: Now, you’re talking about the historic…?

ACE: I’m talking about the Quinn Colson books.

JACK: Oh, okay!

ACE: That’s what I wanted to do. I did not want to write a book with an alter-ego who’s…

JACK: Yeah, BUT! I have to say… sorry to interrupt…

ACE: Sure. No, no.

JACK: That, uhm, that… I don’t know… I read ‘em and I… I see so many of your interests. I feel like there’s a lot of you in those books, just because they’re filled with stuff that we talk about when we’re having a drink. Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha! There’s certainly a lot of me in the interests and the timeframe and the pop culture references and the films… that’s all me. But as far as the characters, I mean, I don’t think I’m an ex-Army guy or whatever. I mean, that’s so far away… anyone who knows me would think it’s ludicrous. That’s just a particular type person that I know from these small communities.

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: And, let’s face it, if a guy’s going to be a sheriff, going back to westerns, the local gunfighter, the guy who’s good with a gun, well, he was probably in the army. It’s that simple. There’s not anything more complex about it. But it’s not me, it’s not my alter-ego. Hopefully that’s far beyond me as a writer. But! My interests as far as 1970s films, and, you know, Burt Reynolds movies, and…

JACK: Cigars?

ACE: Cigars.

JACK: He does smoke… That’s one…

ACE: That is true.

JACK: That’s one characteristic that you guys have in common.

(a bunch of ice noises)

ACE: I think that comes about because I’m often having one while I’m writing. I’m also drinking a lot of coffee. So that’s why.

JACK: That’s funny because, uhm… you know…

(tinkling ice)

JACK: I feel bad because I’m such a bad writer that if it’s cold…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: … then my characters are cold. So I can’t really, ha ha ha! If I’m sweating, my characters start sweating.

ACE: No, no, I know what you mean, because there’s a point when I’m writing a book and it’s supposed to be a novel set in the summer and I’m writing it in December.

JACK: Mm. Ha!

ACE: It’s really hard, you know.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: The trees don’t have any leaves on them, and it’s a gray day… I think it just bleeds into your subconscious, especially if you’re writing from a personal place.

JACK: Well, that’s a relief. Uhm… I haven’t read any of the Parker… the, uhm, Spenser novels, because I feel like I should read some Robert Parker first. I’ve never read any Robert Parker.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Now, you got me to read some John D. McDonald for the first time recently.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: I’ve read two of them now and I must say… they were a lot alike. Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: What did you read? You read The Deep Blue Goodbye

JACK: I read, no, no, I didn’t read that one. Megan [Abbott] read that one.

ACE: Okay.

JACK: I read The Turquoise Lament.

ACE: Yeah?

JACK: And then I, uh, I read, uh… Bright Orange for the Shroud.

ACE: That’s a good one, that’s one of my favorite ones.

JACK: It was good… uhm…

ACE: Is that the one where his buddy shows up to The Busted Flush and he’s all messed up?

JACK: Yeah, he’s all… he’s starved…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: He’s literally starving to death because of a bad woman.

ACE: Yeah… yeah. We’ve been there.

JACK: They put him back on his feet, and…

ACE: Well, you can see: There’s my complete John D. … I inherited those. One of my best friends from high school, his father was an avid John D. MacDonald fan and got me to read him. I think John D. had become, at one point, largely out of print. And he wrote, I mean, God knows. Eighty books? Something like that… and I have all of them, but I really mean all of them… Down to… I’ll find it, wait. He wrote a novelization of a Judy Garland movie.

JACK: WHAT????!!!!????

ACE: Yep. Called [Ace finds the book on his shelf] I Could Go On Singing.

JACK: Wow, a novelization of a Judy Garland… have you read it?

ACE: I have not. You’re welcome to read it.

JACK: Uhm, I don’t want to take it out of the collection.

ACE: I’m a real advocate of John D. MacDonald, especially for younger readers. Younger readers, people in their twenties, I find are much less snobbish about crime fiction. I find that hipster readers are very cool and very hip with… obviously, they’re hipsters.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But getting beyond Chandler and Hammett… you know, John D. MacDonald has been largely ignored. People have forgotten about him.

JACK: You know, Ross MacDonald… anybody named MacDonald…

ACE: I think he’s had a better afterlife.

JACK: Yeah, maybe.

ACE: And he’s not… I love Ross MacDonald, the books are obviously psychologically complex and wonderful, and the family drama and that stuff… but as far as pure fun, enjoyment, if I’m sitting having a cocktail, reading a book at night, John D. MacDonald to me is as good as it gets.

JACK: Yeah, but do you like reading all about how… “Now I have to get the bilge off of the…”

ACE: Yeah!

JACK: I guess that is kind of fun. It is good.

ACE: Yeah, I like it.

JACK: Me, too. I’m sorry I was dismissive. It’s good because… uh… uhm… I don’t know, but it feels grounded, it feels real, like you’re in a real place.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And, uh… I think there’s a lot of that in the Quinn Colson novels. Sorry I keep talking about Quinn Colson!

ACE: No, no!

JACK: But I just love those books so much.

ACE: It’s kind of what’s on my mind right now. I’ve got to get on a synopsis and kind of an overall story and start writing the next book. We talked about the trappings and clichés, hopefully those books go beyond that with the family connections…

JACK: Oh, yeah!

ACE: … and histories.

JACK: I like the way, uh, the… the… plot will…

(ice sound; glass on table)

JACK: … be put on pause for a moment…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … so we can get these quiet family dinners…

ACE: Right. I…

JACK: The relationships are all so interesting between Quinn and his sister and his mother and uh… that absent… father… What were you going to say? That you’d like to write a book about them where there’s no crime? Ha ha!

ACE: I think you could. I think you could take out the crime element and you could easily do a family drama, a history of the town…

JACK: There’s a lot of 70s stuff in the new book.

ACE: Yeah. And it gets more so as the book goes on, you’ll see, bringing back a lot of the major players from that time. But again, people who try to pigeonhole crime books are often the ones who don’t read them. Because you can do whatever you want to. Limiting a crime book to me… I don’t want to get on that tangent, but it’s the same as the people who would like to limit the western…

JACK: Go ahead and get on a tangent!

ACE: No, but you know, it’s like… you can do… think of all the wonderful novels. The Ox-Bow Incident.

JACK: Oh my gosh.

ACE: That was a really heavy draw for me in this next book.

JACK: In The Forsaken? Oh yeah, I can totally see that. Of course. Uhm…

(ice; glass)

ACE: Which is a terrific film, too. Henry Fonda…

JACK: You like your westerns liberal! Ha ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha! I do! I guess so, I never thought about it like that.

JACK: That just shows you right there, there is a huge variety in film westerns. I’m not even talking about the revisionist westerns either.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: … but in the classic western era. In fact, I often think there’s a similarity in westerns and noir.

ACE: So many of those great western writers who we really love wrote noir.

JACK: Like Elmore Leonard, who…

ACE: That’s it.

JACK: You dedicate this new book to Elmore Leonard and Tom Laughlin. Why would you do that? I thought that was a very nice gesture.

ACE: Well, they both…


ACE: Well, I had known Elmore, he was a hero of mine for a long time. I admired his work greatly and I knew him personally, got to spend some time with him and we kept in touch over the years, and he was, to me, I think, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and I was fortunate to know him. I did not know Tom, but I loved those Billy Jack movies.

JACK: Man, Billy Jack!

ACE: And they both… what happened was that they both died during the writing of this book. And I think actually you and I had been watching Billy Jack during that time or whatever… and there’s a lot of Billy Jack in Quinn Colson. There’s a lot, you know. That whole story, once again going back to the western, the simplicity of a man trying to root out corruption in his community, is all very Billy Jack. Those films kind of unravel at a point…

JACK: Oh. Well… We watched that three-hour The Trial of Billy Jack, which… it had some good stuff in it, but they just…

ACE: Aside from the hapkido demonstration, there’s not a lot. But there’s a… You can tell that the people who are making them are having a lot of fun. And there’s a lot of… uh… uh…

JACK: I don’t know if I’d call it… fun. They’re sobbing a lot.

ACE: They are sobbing a lot.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But I think they’re committed. There’s a commitment.

JACK: Yeah, there’s a commitment, that’s a good way to put it.

ACE: They really cared about that character.

JACK: I don’t know if Tom Laughlin seems like the kind of guy who ever had a lot of fun, really. He’s pretty intense!

ACE: Wasn’t there something you told me you had come across? There was something in the obit… Someone was talking to his daughter, who said that’s who he was. He was Billy Jack.

JACK: Right. An intense guy, man! Another kind of…

(ice swirling around as a glass is placed on the desk)

JACK: … super liberal western, when you think about it.

ACE: It is!

JACK: We’ve… we’ve discovered something very interesting about your love of liberal westerns. When you talk about taking yourself out of the books, that’s a fascinating thing to say. That must be especially true for the Spenser books, right? Is that liberating, to feel like… or is it a burden in a way? I don’t mean a burden.

ACE: It’s funny. Although I did not create Spenser, it is much easier for me to understand that character…

(ice crunching around)

ACE: and to get into writing a Spenser book…

(ice going into a glass)

ACE: Spenser is a lot more like me personally.

JACK: How so?

ACE: Well, let’s see. He likes to drink. He likes beer. He likes his dog. He has, you know, he kind of has the same worldview…

JACK: Mm-hm…

ACE: Going back to views on social issues… He hates people who abuse their power… it’s very much what I was drawn to as a newspaper reporter. Ferreting out the truth, exposing people, he’s very committed to that. He also has, I think, a somewhat humorous view of the world, likes good food… You know, I understand Spenser. In fact, I think reading him as a young man kind of shaped who I was.

JACK: Mmm!

ACE: Then when I write Quinn, I know his world, I know people like him, but we’re such separate people.

JACK: He’s pretty stoic.

ACE: We’re talking about the westerns, we keep on going back to that, but of course that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to do westerns set in Mississippi, and something really lean and spare, going back to Randolph Scott…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: Gary Cooper…

JACK: Yeah, yeah!

ACE: Those laconic western heroes, that’s who I wanted to write about. And that’s not me. I like to talk. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha!

ACE: I’m not a man of few words by… by any stretch.

JACK: Quinn’s got such a weary oldness about him, even though he’s a young man.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So do you think about his chronological age at all while you’re writing?

ACE: Quinn has a definite timeline that I’m thinking of. He’s very interesting to me because he’s… Quinn is exactly ten years younger than I am.


ACE: And Spenser I always think of as being ten years older than I am.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And so they’re people who are at very different places in their lives. Quinn is somewhat based on a guy who is a young ranger lieutenant who I did extensive interviews with before I started writing. So there’s parts where you’ll hear Quinn talking about stuff that happened in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s not just me talking out of my ass about something I read in the New York Times, that’s something that he actually told me about, something he had been a part of and how it made him feel. This came back almost to journalism, creating this character. Also, these guys who have come through a truly life-and-death experience have a gallows humor because that’s what gets them through things. That’s what I learned from this guy.

You talk about being an old man. You got this guy eighteen, nineteen, going in, you know, right around 9/11, and all of a sudden he’s out, you know, he’s been in war for ten years, I mean, and especially with what he does, being a U.S. Army Ranger, those guys are deployed, deployed, deployed, they’ll have like thirteen deployments, I mean where he’s like, not just sitting playing cards in the desert but they’re out doing these really intense missions. I mean, thirty years old, you’re going to be an old man. Again it goes back to the western. A lot of figures in the western were Civil War veterans…

JACK: Sure! And of course in a lot of classic noir it’s a lot of World War II veterans.

ACE: Absolutely.

JACK: Coming back… You know, William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: With a plate in his head!

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: And Chandler, who wrote the screenplay, wanted to make him the killer, even. But that was just too dark for the studios at the time.

ACE: Hammett, he didn’t write after World War II.

JACK: He was…?

ACE: Yeah. World War I and World War II.

(cork coming out of a bottle)

JACK: He was too sick to be in World War…

ACE: No, he was in World War II, he worked for a newspaper in the Aleutians.

JACK: I didn’t know that!

ACE: Yeah, he wanted to…

(pouring sounds)

JACK: I kind of thought he was dead already.

ACE: No, he never wrote after that. He actually wrote at the base, but he was, uh… he wanted to be involved.

JACK: Hmm! Interesting. We’ve talked about Spenser a little bit, we’ve talked about Quinn Colson and the “based on a true story” books, but we haven’t talked about that first series. You won’t remember this at all, but the first time I bought some of your books I bought Wicked City, which I’ve taught in classes—back when I used to teach—many times. And I bought Dirty South. And you… for some reason you said “Don’t read…”

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You told me not to read Dirty South! Do you remember why? I haven’t read it yet! Ha ha, I felt nervous after that.

ACE: I wrote four books essentially when I was in my twenties. Dirty South I guess I wrote when I was in my early thirties. I was doing a series character, and that kind of thing, and I really learned what not to do.

JACK: Now you’re making me want to read ‘em!

ACE: Yeah… there’s so many things in those books that… it… I think there are some parts of them that I… like.

JACK: What did you learn from writing those books?

ACE: Going back to taking yourself out of the character. There’s a part that’s ego. I think what I was doing essentially, I was writing books where I thought there were certain things that had to happen in those novels because of what I was reading at the time. I was writing a fictional world, a hero-driven book, an alter-ego character. Look. The books were from HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press and they did well. But! There was a stylistic element, something that read like fiction, and that’s what I try totally not to do now. I try to quit writing fiction and bullshit.

JACK: You were coming out of being a newspaperman, so at first did you want to try doing something… really different? And that’s why you were writing at such a heightened…

ACE: No, I was writing those books as I was working as a newspaper reporter. I was still a very young reporter when that first book came out. So I was really still adhering to those things I thought needed to be in that book, like the character carrying a gun all the time. It’s kind of ridiculous. I wouldn’t carry a gun. The more you know about playing with the form in a way that’s interesting… You know, we’ve often talked about The Rockford Files.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: And I love the fact that Jim Rockford never carries a gun. He keeps his gun in…

JACK: You know, he’s always walking in that trailer and…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: And somebody was waiting inside waiting to beat the hell out of him.

ACE: Maybe he should have carried a gun, you know?

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But those novels read to me very much like fiction, and they felt like something that I thought I needed to mirror from books that were being published at that time.

JACK: So who were you tying to imitate when you were first starting out?

ACE: Mmm… I hate to name any names.

JACK: But you’re not saying they’re bad, you’re just saying that you…

ACE: Also, my characters were so over-the-top… And I was trying to be funny…

JACK: I think there’s an amazing amount of humor in the Quinn Colson novels. In fact, in the one I’m reading now, even though I could tell that some really horrible shit was about to happen…

ACE: Right…

JACK: I was laughing on the second page. I mean, just a little aside about one character’s father: he wouldn’t even laugh when the animals crapped on Johnny Carson’s desk.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: That’s a great detail!

ACE: Hopefully those asides come from real people, real things.

JACK: Yeah, because life has a lot of humor in it.

ACE: That’s why I hate books that are totally dark and serious. The writer misses the humor in the world, and I feel those books are also totally inauthentic.

JACK: Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this, but I didn’t like that movie Se7en because it was so ponderous. Gwyneth Paltrow’s head was in the box.

ACE: Now that part was funny.

(ice, ice, ice)

JACK: I hate to even bring this topic up, but do you think there’s something about Southern writing? Because even in the darkest Faulkner there’ll be humor… or Truman Capote… I don’t know if there’s any humor in In Cold Blood. You know I’ve never read In Cold Blood? I’ve always been too nervous to read it.

ACE: Yeah, there’s not a lot of humor. Ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: But it’s so authentic, obviously. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life. It really influenced me in the kinds of books I wanted to write.

JACK: Oh, really? Interesting!

(cork squeak)

JACK: I don’t know if you remember this, but you gave me a copy of Blue City by Ross MacDonald, which is not one of the Archer books. It’s more… hard… hardboiled, I guess.

ACE: It is the hardest boiled.

JACK: I was happy about bringing books like that into the classroom. That’s about the only good I did. Ha! So tell me about the movie version of Blue City.

ACE: Ha ha ha! With Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy.

JACK: Ha ha ha ha! But was that based on…

ACE: Yeah, it was. I’m sure Ross MacDonald saw it.

JACK: Was he alive when that came out?

ACE: Yeah. I think he died shortly thereafter.

JACK: It’s probably what killed him.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I didn’t want to make the connection. It’s supposed to be this bleak, anonymous noir town, no particular time, no particular place…

JACK: Sure, sure…

ACE: But for some reason they decided to set the movie in the Florida Keys, and Judd Nelson is in it, and I remember that he rides around on his motorcycle with his basketball.

JACK: Ha ha! Which I don’t recall from the novel. Ha ha ha ha ha!

ACE: The whole film I remember he had this basketball with him.

JACK: Was it his friend? Like in Castaway?

ACE: They brightened that world up considerably. Ally Sheedy was a cocktail waitress, not a prostitute.

JACK: Hmm! I used to talk to the late William Gay about Ross MacDonald. He was the biggest Ross MacDonald fan I ever met.

ACE: William and I got to be pals.

JACK: Is that right?

ACE: Yeah, we met at a writer’s conference in Florida. And we had met a few times before, but we were sitting down at you know, some poolside party that was horrendous and we ended up talking about John D. MacDonald.

JACK: Hmm!

ACE: And one of the remarkable things about William Gay, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of books. He had a really nasty divorce and he said that John D. MacDonald helped him get through that. And he also said that he loved… we were talking at one point about All the King’s Men and he said that it was more hardboiled than Chandler. And he’s right on!

JACK: Hal Needham comes up a lot in the Quinn Colson books because Quinn’s dad goes out to Hollywood to be a stuntman.

ACE: Yeah, that part of my childhood was a really fun part for me. Being from Alabama, in exile from Alabama as a kid. I was born there, and my family’s all from Alabama from way, way back, but then because of my father’s job we moved everywhere… I just vividly remember that part of the 70s when the South was getting to be cool again. And the South was, of course, such a dark, ominous place in the 60s, and in the 70s there was a cloud that had lifted and a New South was starting to emerge.

JACK: You know Jay Watson, don’t you?

ACE: Yeah, sure.

JACK: The Faulkner scholar here. He’s written a really interesting article about Sharkey’s Machine. That’s kind of a New South movie, although it’s very dark.

ACE: It’s an ugly film, too. And you see what they did, which was interesting, and it wasn’t the intention, it was just the way it was, because they shot the damn film there, but, you know… Atlanta, they basically razed almost all of downtown Atlanta.

JACK: Yeah.

ACE: You look at Sharkey’s Machine, all you see is that Peachtree Towers building coming up. And the flat expanse of…

JACK: Well, he writes about that a lot in the article, that building.

ACE: Yeah, they push a man out of it.

JACK: They do! Now, did Burt Reynolds direct that movie, or am I crazy? He directed a couple of… he directed The End. A classic, uh, I don’t mean the movie is a classic, I mean a classic situation. “You’ve only got six months to live.”

ACE: I just remember the poster. Dom Deluise with a gun to his head.

JACK: Well, you know.

ACE: High comedy. But yeah, I think about that time period, coming back to the South, everyone had CB radios.

JACK: Mm-hm!

ACE: Everyone’s wearing Frye boots, and the South is like a cool place…

JACK: Frye boots?

ACE: F-R-Y-E. Everyone’s wearing cowboy jeans, all the trucker movies are coming out, Jimmy Carter’s president. Carter’s coming out of the South, a new breed of guy.

JACK: There was a TV show, Movin’ On. Do you remember that TV show?

ACE: No, but we’ve talked about it. You said it was Claude Akins.

JACK: Claude Akins and Frank Converse truckin’ across the country. They shot an episode in my hometown of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, I was in seventh grade, I was 12 years old, that would have been… uh… ’75? And we all… it was Catholic school, right on the Bayou.

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: My friend Henry Barnes got in trouble with the nuns because somebody hit a softball into the Bayou and he dove in to get it. He just really wanted to dive.

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: You know, that was an excuse.

ACE: Sure.

JACK: The nun was right! But, uh, we were out on the sidewalk watching the truck. We were like, “Yay!” It was just a truck. I mean, it was just somebody driving that truck. But we cheered for the truck.

ACE: We just recently watched Smokey and the Bandit, and that image of the South in the 1970s, I just have such an affinity for that time.

JACK: You mentioned your father’s job and moving around. Now, what was your father’s job?

ACE: He was a professional football coach. So we lived all over the country. And he was a guy who came out of a place named Lamar County, Alabama.

JACK: There are some connections with your family in Phenix City.

ACE: Yeah, that’s where my mother’s family… my other grandfather was from a place named Alexander City, Alabama, where he was working for the highway department and he was responsible for… basically… uh, he was a bag man for the ex-governor, Big Jim Folsom.

JACK: A fascinating character.

ACE: A hell of an interesting guy. He was kind of like Alabama’s Huey Long.

JACK: Much more progressive than George Wallace. I mean, who isn’t?

ACE: He was a big drinker, a womanizer, got himself into trouble. But he was six foot eight, three hundred and something pounds, called himself a friend to the little man.

JACK: Do you want to talk about football at all?

ACE: …Nnnnnnnno.

JACK: Okay, me either.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s good.

ACE: I don’t watch football anymore. That’s why I don’t live in Alabama. That’s really pretty much all… and you know this… all people talk about. It’s all they talk about!

JACK: Even though I didn’t know a damn thing about football I wrote my fourth grade book report… I think it was fourth grade…

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: On who do you think? Who do you think?

ACE: Bear Bryant.

JACK: Yes! I read his autobiography and wrote a book report about it. My fourth grade teacher Miss Matthews loved the Miami Dolphins.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: This was the Larry Csonka era.

ACE: He was the Burt Reynolds of the NFL.

JACK: He was! And I think her sister was a cheerleader maybe?

ACE: Really!

JACK: For the Miami Dolphins? I might be making that up.

ACE: In my family, honestly, I had no choice.

JACK: I remember once when you and I went to the movies, I think it was The Town, that Ben Affleck film…

ACE: Right…

JACK: No, it can’t have been that! It must have been some other, more wimpy movie, because the preview was for a high school comedy…?

ACE: Yeah…

JACK: Or a romantic angst-filled would-be John Hughes thing…

ACE: Right…

JACK: And you were mad because they made the football player be…

ACE: The bad guy?

JACK: A jerk, yeah.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You said, “They always do that. They always make the high school football player be a jerk.”

ACE: Yeah… well, they… they often can be. I was always more interested in… When I was in high school I couldn’t wait for football practice to be over or football games, I really hated it. It was kind of like part of my job, I had to do it.

But there was a station that was out of Columbus, Georgia, and they were airing these movies that were from the sixties, because I think they had just entered that twenty-year period where it was sort of becoming public domain, and so they would show all these films. I’d watch To Sir With Love, Duel at Diablo, Steve McQueen, that was my film education. I had this book. What was it called? Movies on TV. They would do a brand new edition every year.

JACK: Yeah, yeah, Leonard Maltin had that thing and I was thinking I feel sorry for him because now we have the internet.

ACE: But before the internet, that was a hell of a great thing. And a lot of spy movies, a lot of spy spoofs, so that to me… I couldn’t wait. And there were so many films that were not on VHS.

JACK: Now your kids, if they wanted to, couldn’t they just watch 40 hours of Teen Titans Go!?

ACE: Oh, sure!

JACK: You like that show, I’m not putting that show down.

ACE: I adore that show. But now TV is nonstop and it’s tailor-made to your taste.

JACK: Mm-hm.

ACE: But back then, you’d have to really hunt. I remember one time I couldn’t find The Cincinnati Kid and I had always wanted to watch The Cincinnati Kid, because what’s not to like? It’s Steve McQueen.

JACK: It’s Ann-Margret AND Tuesday Weld! In one movie!

ACE: And you’d see it just show up out of Columbus, Friday night…

JACK: Yeah, you’d have to stay up late. I remember once we had to evacuate because of a hurricane. We went to Birmingham and I was excited because one of the local Birmingham stations was showing Sabrina, the Billy Wilder movie. And I’d never seen it. I remember just being thrilled that this hurricane had sent us to Birmingham so I could watch Sabrina.

ACE: Strangely enough, I think it was football that brought me to this. There was this guy, he actually used to be the head coach at the University of Alabama, his name was Bill Curry. And he was also the coach at Georgia Tech, so when I was a kid living in Atlanta, his son was a really good friend of mine. And I remember being about 13 years old and being over at their house and they had Vertigo on VHS.

JACK: Mmmm!

ACE: And I remember thinking, “Jesus, why are we watching this old movie?” And then to see, for VHS, a fairly nice print of Vertigo, and the look and everything… I’d never seen anything like it.

JACK: That’s one of the most devastating endings of any movie…

ACE: Ha ha ha! Maybe that’s what shaped my psyche. Thirteen years old, I had to see more. It just blew me away. I was one of these poor idiots who invested in a great collection. These bookshelves in my office now were all filled with VHS. And it’s all turned to shit. But there are a lot of movies that were only ever available on VHS. The original cut of one of my top five all-time movies, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I like it better than The Wild Bunch. You know why I like it better than Wild Bunch? Because it’s a lot funnier.

JACK: I don’t like him shooting chickens at the beginning. You know, Sam Peckinpah has so much animal cruelty in his movies. Even in a comedy like Ballad of Cable Hogue he shoots a lizard at the beginning.

ACE: Or at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, the burning scorpions.

JACK: About two or three days before we got married, they had re-released The Wild Bunch on the big screen. Theresa and I…

ACE: Did you see it in Atlanta?

JACK: Yeah, at the Phipps Plaza…

ACE: I was there.

JACK: Hey, that is so weird!

ACE: We could have been at the same movie at the same time.

JACK: It was opening day, I’m sure.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: So guess what happened. Theresa’s already tense because of the wedding stuff, it’s crazy…

ACE: Sure…

JACK: And so we get in there…

(ice rattling)

JACK: First they show the horrible torturing scorpions with ants scene.

ACE: Had she seen it before?


(cork squeaks)

JACK: Now she teaches it every semester, that’s the funny part of this story. She loves it now. But, uh, at the time… the first line of the movie, of course, is, “If they move, kill ‘em.”

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And Theresa said, “I’m not watching this.” And she got up and left the movie theater, and I was like, “Oh, dammit!” So I didn’t get to see it on the big screen.

ACE: I saw The Wild Bunch there, I saw Rear Window there. I was at home and unemployed. I had graduated college in ’94 and I was looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. So I went to a lot of movies.

JACK: I bet we were in movie theaters together all the time and never even knew it. That’s my biggest complaint, maybe my only complaint, about Oxford: the lack of that kind of movie theater.

ACE: We could use one. I just back from Austin and there’s a place called the Alamo Draft House. I went to go see Big Trouble in Little China in Austin and it was terrific. You know, a packed house, everybody was there, laughing, and they do it every week. You’re not just watching Casablanca, you’re watching gems from the eighties and fun stuff.

JACK: When Theresa was an undergrad, she was a projectionist at the theater on campus and they would order whatever they wanted. The Crimson Kimono, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls… I went to see the Charles Bronson Machine Gun Kelly, directed by Roger Corman, which wasn’t very good, and nothing like the real story, which is what you wrote about. I told you about this before, but my friend Ward and I wrote a screenplay about Machine Gun Kelly called Bullethead, and it was so much like your novel Infamous. We took the same angle on it, which is that his wife was the brains.

ACE: I think that’s the turnoff for a lot of people who want to do something about Machine Gun Kelly. He was a fairly nice guy.

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: He really was not that ambitious. He was kind of lazy. Most people who want to write, like, a Dillinger film are turned off by that. But that’s what makes it great.

JACK: There’s supposed to be a great Don Siegel movie starring Mickey Rooney in an unhinged performance as Baby Face Nelson. That’s unavailable.

ACE: This is like a real vaulted movie.

JACK: I know you have ways of getting some of these obscure movies.

ACE: I’ll see, but that’s a famously rare film. The one thing that would make Oxford better is if we had a film series where you weren’t sitting in a dank hallway on campus, but a place you could get a cocktail, sit down, like the Lyric.

JACK: I think they showed Baby Face there, the Barbara Stanwyck film, when Megan came here to read from Bury Me Deep.

ACE: Yep. That’s it. Why don’t we try to facilitate that?

JACK: I’m… too tired.

ACE: Yeah, me too.

ACE ANDJACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Well, this got off of literature, but so what? I like that you use “fiction” as a bad word. That’s interesting to me.

ACE: Well, completely off track… the thing that I try to do, whether I succeed or fail is not up to me, is write authentically. If I could write a story that’s authentic, and the characters are authentic, and the world is authentic, then I’ve done my job. My first four books, that’s what I don’t like about them. They’re inauthentic books.

JACK: But I have to say that your characters, even now, speak in lines that we wish we could think of to say. They’re not mumbling the way we do in real life. They say things in an interesting and memorable way. So, you’re still practicing the craft.

ACE: Yeah, but the biggest compliment I get is when somebody says, “I know those people.”

JACK: Yeah, sure!

ACE: Those people inhabit our world, those are real people. Those first four books that I wrote, they’re very booky kind of books.

JACK: Hmm.

ACE: There are a lot of “characters” in them. And that’s my aspiration: not to write characters but to write real people. It’s more interesting to me to write about family connections and personal histories than just to write about the continuation of a hero. The continuation of a hero, you know, it’s a very rare author who pulls it off book after book. John D. MacDonald could do it, Robert B. Parker could do it. They can be drinking a beer or having lunch, it’s just exciting to be with those characters.

JACK: Mm-hm, and comforting too. Because you know Travis McGee is going to take care of everything.

ACE: I probably couldn’t tell you anything about the inner workings of the con in Bright Orange for the Shroud, but you think about the conversations he had with Meyer while they’re sitting on The Busted Flush drinking Plymouth gin…

JACK: Yeah!

ACE: I mean, I don’t know, that’s real to me, it’s absolutely real.

JACK: But he doesn’t… he’s not like Quinn Colson, though. We don’t get deeper into Travis McGee with every book. We’re accessing Travis McGee on the same basic level. Unless I’m wrong! I’ve only read two of them. But we know everything we need to know about him by reading one book. He’s just in a different adventure. Is that true? I mean, I don’t know.

ACE: The only thing we know is how the person acts in real time in the real world of what they’re doing. And Travis McGee is just so wholly realized, he’s like a buddy. You just know him completely. You know how he’s going to react in certain situations and what he’s going to do. His personality is so fully formed. I don’t care what he did as a child. The same with Ross MacDonald. We don’t know anything about Archer. We know he was divorced, we know he was in World War II. I think the most background we ever hear from that is one time he talked about the smell of the flamethrowers in the South Pacific. That’s like one line in 20 books that we know about him.

JACK: Ha ha!

ACE: And that’s it! But I respect that.

JACK: With Chandler, with Philip Marlowe, uh, one thing I think is funny, there was that pamphlet written that suggested Marlowe might be gay…

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: And so immediately in The Long Goodbye he has sex with two women.

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: For the first time in any of the books, you know.

ACE: And the truth of it, you know, is that there were a million of those books being written at that time period, and the reason that he didn’t have him bedding down every woman that he met is because it was a cliché. And that’s why he wasn’t doing it. But, uhm, you know… Chandler is the high mark for everybody who writes hero books.

JACK: I’m always trying to talk you into becoming a private detective. You have no interest in that at all? I mean, you’ve got the research capabilities.

ACE: Ha ha ha! It’s only time. If I had more time I’d be a private eye.

JACK: Then just stop writing books!

ACE: Let’s do it. We don’t need a license.

JACK: You don’t need a license here?

ACE: Not in Mississippi.

JACK: Wow. What are we waiting for? I just want to be like Archie Goodwin, is that his name? And you can be like Nero Wolfe.

ACE: And just eat.

JACK: Just eat and sit in your office and I’ll go out and, you know, rough up people.

ACE: Well, we certainly live in a town where… I think there’s about 7,000 attorneys here. And there’s probably zero private eyes.

JACK: No, I found a… a business card for a private eye on the ground here one day. It was called… it had a dragon…

ACE: Ha ha!

JACK: I can’t remember what their name was but the logo was a coiled dragon. And Megan suggested to me, I don’t know if you know this or not, that you should be mayor of this town. Yeah. You have any interest in that? And then I could also be like John Cusack to your Al Pacino in City Hall.

ACE: Or like the character in The Glass Key.

JACK: That’s a very good rye. Smooth Ambler Old Scout.

ACE: It has a horse on the label. You know it’s got to be good.

JACK: A lonesome rider.

ACE: Nice, nice. All right, so what’s the birthday party you have to attend?

JACK: Beth Ann, Beth Ann Fennelly.

ACE: Oh! Okay! All right. How old is Beth Ann this year?

JACK: I don’t know! Nor, as a gentleman, would I say or guess. But she looks to be a sparkling, you know, sparkling, creamy-skinned youth. Wouldn’t you agree?

ACE: I do, absolutely. I totally agree.

JACK: She’s, uh…

ACE: Have you seen, uh… have you seen X-Men?

JACK: Mn-nnh. Have you?

ACE: No.

JACK: Theresa wants to go and I don’t want to go, so why don’t you and Theresa go?

ACE: Okay, I’ll go with Theresa! Why don’t you want to see it?

JACK: I’m kind of up to the teeth with superheroes right now.

ACE: Well…

JACK: I’m kind of tired of it.

ACE: I’m super excited about the new Star Wars movie.

JACK: Mmph. Wha… I don’t even… I was excited when I saw the FIRST Star Wars movie. I was in the theater and the first shot of that giant ship going over just blew my poor young mind.

ACE: I think J.J. Abrams is going to do an excellent job. He did everything right. First of all, he hired Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay.

JACK: Mmph.

ACE: And you know, Lawrence Kasdan, his currency in Hollywood was probably not that high. But he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was the script doctor on Empire and Return of the Jedi.

JACK: You know, Leigh Brackett wrote Empire.

ACE: Well…

JACK: … who also wrote The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep…

ACE: And El Dorado.

JACK: Barry Hannah used to teach one of her novels.

ACE: You know, I have never read a Leigh Brackett novel.

JACK: Me either. I have one, but it’s on the shelf. One reason I taught the hardboiled books is because Barry used to do it and I thought after Barry passed away… I wondered whether anybody would keep that up.

ACE: I talked Barry into… that was a conversation that Barry and I had. And he was talking about all the guys he really admired and I said, “Why don’t you teach a class in that?”

JACK: Oh, really!

ACE: And he said, “Interesting.” And that’s what came out of it. He actually… we talked about what the title would be for the class. One of the last conversations I had with Barry, he was talking up Charles Willeford. And this was the last week he was alive. He called Charles Willeford a personal hero. Charles Willeford and Jonathan Winters.

JACK: Yeah, and Richard Pryor. Barry knew the value of humor.

ACE: Jonathan Winters did what every writer would like to do. Maybe it was on Jack Paar? They’d give him objects, here’s this hat. Who are you? And he would become that instantly.

JACK: On the downside, we have him to blame for Robin Williams. Ha ha!

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: You know.

ACE: Yeah.

JACK: Bicentennial Man.

ACE: Was he ever funny?

JACK: Well, yeah. Mork and Mindy was terrible. It was… execrable. Execrable? Is that a word?

ACE: The last season? When they were on cocaine?

JACK: The whole… there was some horrible television station that was rerunning Mork and Mindy, which I watched every week when I was kid, but…

ACE: Does it hold up?

JACK: WHAT???!!!??? Lord no.

ACE: Ha ha ha!

JACK: Hold up?

ACE: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: NO! It’s garbage. I’d like to watch film of seagulls at a garbage dump better than that.

ACE: So you’re not going to see the Mrs. Doubtfire sequel? Tell Theresa I will definitely go see X-Men with her.

JACK: She’ll be very excited. She was sad…

ACE: She’ll be X-cited!

JACK: Yes! All right. I guess I should… what time is it?

ACE: It’s 4:30.

JACK: Uh… wanna smoke these SEE-gars?

ACE: Yeah, sure, why not?

JACK: I didn’t mean to pronounce it that way, but I…

ACE: No, let’s do it.

JACK: It’s my country coming out.

ACE: Let’s do it.


ACE: Yeah, Angela has granted my afternoon off.

JACK: All right, let’s smoke some cigars!

ACE: Yeah, I want to actually… it’s interesting, because I want to pick your brain a little bit.

JACK: Okay.

ACE: I’m going to tell you what the next book is about.

JACK: I’m going to turn the recorder off so that the world at large will not know.

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The Devil’s Own Finest: an Interview with Megan Abbott

1 of 68  

Megan Abbott’s seventh novel, The Fever, is coming out in June. She mostly lives in New York but has been in Oxford, Mississippi, a lot lately, as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the university.

She and Jack Pendarvis met at an empty bar on an early weekday afternoon during Spring Break for a little talk. None of the resulting celebrity gossip has been fact-checked.

Nothing has been fact-checked.

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott killing it.

Jack Pendarvis

Jack Pendarvis spinning records at The End of All Music.


JACK PENDARVIS: Why is it a red light?

MEGAN ABBOTT: Because it means it’s recording.

JACK: Shouldn’t that be a green light? Red light means stop.

MEGAN: I think a red light always means record.


MEGAN: As well as stop.

JACK: Uhm, so… this is the recorder I bought when I was going to interview Jerry Lewis and he fainted, remember that?


JACK: You wound up in that article more than Jerry Lewis did.

MEGAN: Does this mean I’ll wind up in the hospital?

JACK: No. You have to talk louder, though. You have a meek… I mean, not a meek, but, uhm… You’re not a meek person.

MEGAN: A little meek.

JACK: Are you?

MEGAN: On some level.

JACK: What level?

MEGAN: I guess, uhm, performatively.

JACK: Okay, you’ll have to speak up a little. Maybe I’ll put it on top of these salt-and-pepper shakers. There you go.

MEGAN: That’s nice.

JACK: Good. Also I recorded on this… no, never mind.

MEGAN: What?

JACK: Just Beth Ann Fennelly and I drinking bottles of chocolate wine. I was gonna…

MEGAN: Chocolate wine?

JACK: Well, I was gonna write about it for the Oxford American food issue…


JACK: Beth Ann and I were gonna drink bottles of it and I was gonna record…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: … what happened, because it sounded really gross, and…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: But Beth Ann was pregnant, so she couldn’t do it, and by the time she had the baby, I think my relationship with the Oxford American had soured… so I was going to do it for Gravy, the…

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: The Southern Foodways Alliance’s magazine, so we got the bottles of chocolate wine and we started drinking them and they were pretty good, sort of!

MEGAN: Was it like chocolate milk?

JACK: Yeah, it was like a Yoo-Hoo.

MEGAN: That sounds good.

JACK: And you know what? It was okay! And that ruined the whole idea, which was we were gonna be drinking it and saying, ugh, this is gross…

MEGAN: When I was a teenager once we put blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake and it was really good.

JACK: Blackberry cordial in a chocolate milkshake?

MEGAN: Yeah!

JACK: When you were a teenager?

MEGAN: Yeah! You know, when you were a teenager and somebody’s parents had blackberry cordial… That was the one thing you could pour from and they would never know… ‘Cause they would never drink it…

JACK: My parents’ friends were Southern Baptist so there was no liquor…

MEGAN: No blackberry cordial?

JACK: Cordial? Oh no!

MEGAN: Easter comes and…

JACK: No! Oh my God! Are you kidding? No way! I mean, once I think I had to have whiskey for…

MEGAN: A cold?

JACK: I mean, bronchitis… and I… I mean, a teaspoon of whiskey…

MEGAN: Right…

JACK: I don’t even know where they got the whiskey.

A handful of Megan Abbott's novels

A handful of Megan Abbott’s novels, including the soon to be published The Fever, which will arrive in bookstores June 2014.

MEGAN: So when did you have a taste of the devil’s own finest? Ha ha!

JACK: Uhm, how old was I? Uhm, yeah, I mean, really old! I mean, I drank some whiskey, I don’t know…

MEGAN: Forty-two? Ha ha!

JACK: I was in college before I drank… and then I didn’t do it very often.

MEGAN: Do you remember the experience of first trying it?

JACK: I’m not sure I remember the first time. I remember some different incidents… like… once when someone had broken up with me… I was 25 by this time…

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I drank a bunch of… I didn’t know what a mint julep was? I got some mint flavoring…

MEGAN: Yeah… yeah…

JACK: From the grocery store…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Like you would put in Christmas cookies?

JACK: Yeah! And I put it in some whiskey and I drank a bunch of it…


JACK: And then my band practiced and I started singing “Cathy’s Clown” in a really serious way…

MEGAN: Oh, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh… what about you?

MEGAN: Uhm, I was younger than that… but I do remember thinking at first that it had no effect on me at all. As I was sort of lying on the carpet, you know, with my face peeled against the shag, you know, I felt because everybody else seemed more drunk, perfomatively drunk…

JACK: Hmm…

MEGAN: And I… because I wasn’t dancing around and sitting on people’s laps, I thought, “I must not be affected by alcohol.”

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha! I must be immune. I’m so powerful.

JACK: This really sounds like one of your books.

MEGAN: Ha ha! They all come from that.

JACK: Well, that reminds me, when I was reading Absalom, Absalom! you were saying, “Do you really think Faulkner saw the world this way?”

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: And what did you mean by that?

MEGAN: Well, like the way it felt in his books… if that’s like it felt to him… as big as everything is… high drama, high stakes… I was just thinking of this today! I read an interview with him and someone was asking him about The Sound and the Fury. He started to talk about Benjy, and the way he talked sounded like a Faulkner character! He starts to talk about him as if he were real and he says, “He’s an animal, but he only understands tenderness the way animals do,” and… I think that’s how he felt.

JACK: What I’m getting at is… you said to me after that, you said that you see the world the way your books are.


JACK: What does that mean?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha! Everything feels dramatically high stakes at all times, which is why I think I responded to Faulkner. I see everything, I now realize, through the lens of Freud, in that there’s no sin committed in which they don’t want to be punished in advance. You only sin, ha ha, in order to be punished for your sins. And that you’re sort of crying out for… uh…

JACK: Correction!

MEGAN: Correction, exactly! And so that’s sort of how I see the world and how I see interpersonal dynamics. I can see it through no other lens. And I’m always surprised that people would see it any differently. It’s like the thing that students sometimes say: “You’re reading too much into it.” And of course that’s what students always say when they’re frightened about what they’re reading.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! But that’s what you say when you want to avoid that this feels exactly like what life is. Life is always complicated and tumultuous and our brains are always overheated… all of ours are! I don’t care what people say. You know how people say, “It doesn’t feel that way to me, I take things as they come”? I don’t believe any of that. I believe it’s all overheated and insane for everybody. Ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Gosh, I don’t know. I guess so.

MEGAN: I mean, maybe not. It probably shouldn’t be for everybody. That’s a lot of heat. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I think some people paper over it and some people have ways to sublimate it. Uhm, we all hopefully have some ways to sublimate it, but…

JACK: Sublimate what?

MEGAN: Like, all these drives, you know! That’s how I see it. Also, maybe this is how you respond to David Lynch, too, but the unconscious and conscious are always this close… I’m putting my fingers together very closely… just this close always and always brushing up against each other constantly. And so we often are thrown into ourselves in ways that are alarming and we often have to see things about ourselves because we can’t completely hide from the unconscious. It’s always going to rear up somehow.

JACK: Hmm… Well, that’s what a lot of hardboiled fiction is about. Well, it’s the past.

MEGAN: The past, yeah.

JACK: The unconscious is represented by the past.

MEGAN: Yeah, I never thought of that! But I think it’s quite true. Because…

JACK: People try to cover things up. I’m reading The Dain Curse right now, and… I’m kind of racing through the last pages because I’m not interested in it anymore, I’m sorry…

MEGAN: It gets to where it’s just wrapping up the plot.

JACK: I feel like it’s been doing that for a hundred pages. I’m sorry to criticize Dashiell Hammett. I love Red Harvest!


Dashiell Hammett kicking it.

MEGAN: Yeah, well, Maltese Falcon is pretty good. I think The Glass Key is probably my favorite.

JACK: Yeah? Why is The Glass Key your favorite?

MEGAN: I love the relationship between the men in that one. It feels really unique. Unique in all fiction, really.

JACK: Well, isn’t it sort of similar to the relationship in Love’s Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain?

MEGAN: Quite! It’s the most Hammett of the Cain novels.

JACK: I always thought Miller’s Crossing was like Hammett, until I read Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and I realized actually Miller’s Crossing is that…

MEGAN: Yeah…

JACK: I mean, the characters have the same names… it’s that much based on Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, which was made into a movie called Slightly Scarlet.

MEGAN: It’s a great movie, have you seen it?

JACK: Yes, I’ve seen it!

MEGAN: It’s really good!

JACK: That’s not Eleanor Parker is it?

MEGAN: No! Oh no, it’s the two redheads. Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.

JACK: Rhonda Fleming. I don’t know why I’d get Eleanor Parker and Rhonda Fleming mixed up.

MEGAN: Well, they both have those ‘50s brassieres. Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha! Always like torpedoes. And that movie is great. It’s like a Douglas Sirk movie, really.

JACK: Does Slightly Scarlet have the men relationship?

MEGAN: No! Because it’s so much more focused on the women.

JACK: Right…

MEGAN: Which is rare. When does that ever happen in an adaptation?

JACK: Never! Faulkner loved the hardboiled writers. He wanted to be one when he wrote Sanctuary.

MEGAN: Yeah. I was just reading an interview in the Paris Review and they asked him if he read any mystery authors and he said he just read Simenon because he reminded him of Chekhov, and I thought, “You’re lying!”

JACK: He did lie! And you know how we know? Because Bill Griffith at Rowan Oak showed us all his paperbacks. He had Dorothy B. Hughes, he had, I mean, everything. He had everything by everybody.

MEGAN: Yeah. No, he read them all. Simenon’s the classy one. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! I’ve never gotten into Simenon. He’s a little cold for me. My parents always read him a lot. We always had him in my household growing up.

JACK: That’s a good question. What were some of the books you saw when you were growing up that your parents had?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like liquor. I think my dad or mom had a copy of Jaws, and it was really… I think Tom Franklin and I were talking about this the other day. Were you there? We were talking about how there were really dirty parts…

MEGAN: In Jaws? No! Really!

JACK: Yeah, the Richard Dreyfuss character of all things, which you don’t particularly want to imagine…

MEGAN: No! Is this the same conversation when we were talking about The Godfather and how dirty that is?

JACK: I’ve never read the book.

MEGAN: Oh, it’s really dirty!

JACK: It is?

MEGAN: I’m not going to tell you about the scene…

JACK: Good!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: But is it with Sonny and the bridesmaid?

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Well, but that’s in the movie.

MEGAN: Yeah, but actually there’s a description that I won’t repeat, but it’s… ha ha! It traumatized all the boys who read it.

JACK: Hey, how come you… how come you’ll write things in your books that you won’t say out loud? Because I’m the same way.

MEGAN: Yeah! Right! You are the same way! That’s one of the many reasons why we’re so alike.

JACK: Ha ha ha!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! You know, it’s so funny, it’s just different parts of my head and they don’t talk to each other at all. Is that how you feel about it?

JACK: Oh, come on! You were just saying about David Lynch: they do talk to each other. That’s all they do.

MEGAN: They talk next to each other. Ha ha!

JACK: Okay, so what we’re saying is… you’re insane.

MEGAN: Yeah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! There’s people talking in my head all the time. I just read this Rosemary Clooney memoir, and she went crazy on pills at one point. And she was talking to another female singer who did, and the other female singer said “I knew I was crazy when I started to count the steps before I hit the streetlight and the stop sign.” And I thought, “I do that every time!”

JACK: Yeah, yeah.

MEGAN: I must be crazy now!

JACK: I check the lock a hundred times.

MEGAN: Yeah, me too. All kinds of crazy things. I think it’s the over-active brain of a lot of writers. It’s always taking things in and measuring things out and turning things into narrative.

JACK: Hmm.

MEGAN: Upturning them, I don’t know. But that suggests I have a more linear sense of narrative than I do.

JACK: That brings up a question. Often your books seem totally planned out, but when I talk to you about writing, you seem like you’re surprised by things that were already there… maybe that’s the unconscious again… something was leading to this certain part of the book… but… you have a good grasp of plot, don’t you?

MEGAN: I’m getting better. You have to when you’re writing crime, because of the expectations of readers, which I understand.

JACK: But you know, when I was reading The Fever, I didn’t think of it as a crime novel at all.

MEGAN: Right.

JACK: I don’t want to give much away about it, but, uh… I was really thinking of Hawthorne when I first started reading it.

MEGAN: It was very influenced by Hawthorne. But I’ve been thinking of mystery in a different way lately. Sort of in the context of Flannery O’Connor’s use of the word.

JACK: Like almost a Biblical use of the word.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: Like the mystery cults.

MEGAN: Yeah, sure! Like that moment when there’s a character gesture that seems to make no sense at all on the face of it, but which is actually the heart of the story.

JACK: Well, you know, that’s what I think of every one of your books. At some point the character does something that really surprises you, and makes everything that happened before it seem totally different, so that you could go back and read your books a second time and read them in a whole different way. I mean, your characters are the mystery in the books, right?

MEGAN: Yeah, I think so. I think character is the ultimate mystery. Especially because—and this is where I think noir gets a bad rap as being this, you know, nihilistic view of humanity… I think in all noir, and all books I love, there comes a point where you realize you can’t judge the characters by any standard you were judging them before then, and the good characters by the same note: good becomes bad and bad becomes good and they all kind of blend into each other. I always like that narrative structure. I think the books that get it wrong, the detective novels, they have the detective always get it right.

JACK: Who does that, Mickey Spillane?

MEGAN: Well, I think most mainstream detective novels do.

JACK: Mike Hammer infiltrates a communist group and drinks their coffee, and he’s like, “This coffee is lousy!” I was thinking that Raymond Chandler would have at least let the communists make good coffee.

MEGAN: If there’s one thing communists could do it’s make good coffee! They’re famous for it! I think that’s the problem with all the Marlowe rip-offs: they don’t recognize how neurotic Marlowe was.

JACK: Can you talk for the record about that John Banville, or do you feel weird about it?

MEGAN: Well, I haven’t read it… but I will not be reading it.

JACK: You will not be reading…?

MEGAN: The Black-Eyed Blonde, which is John Banville’s Marlowe novel. His comments, when he started writing the Benjamin Black ones, about the genre, offended me. He said it required no care.

JACK: It’s really easy to get Chandler wrong. People get Chandler wrong all the time.

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

Badass cover of The Big Sleep

MEGAN: I think most people haven’t really read him. They’ve seen the Bogart Big Sleep and they’ve seen rip-offs of it… just the whole simile thing drives me crazy. Very rarely they’re in the books—and it just becomes so heavy-handed when everybody’s trying to do it. It just drops like a lead weight. Like a lead weight! That’s not even a good one.

JACK: Yeah, that illustrated how hard it is to do a simile.

MEGAN: Like a sucker punch in a welterweight’s gut.

JACK: Oh! There you go. What do you think Ross MacDonald was interested in?

MEGAN: Family secrets.

JACK: That’s kind of like you. Do you have any affinity for Ross MacDonald?

MEGAN: I like him a lot. They remind me of the gothic more than Chandler. The locations feel very Chandleresque, but they’re very gothic. I always think of the end of Double Indemnity, Cain’s novel, the same way, which is the height of gothic horror, really.

JACK: Are they on a ship or something?

MEGAN: Yeah, and she dresses in this kabuki kind of…

JACK: She has a white face?

MEGAN: Yeah, and it’s really kind of gothic horror. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I really firmly believe that the gothic and the noir are kind of the same thing, it’s just that one tends to be gendered more male and one tends to be gendered more female. I think Ross MacDonald draws them together. The reason I’ve never fallen in love with MacDonald? It’s because Lew Archer is a little too sane. You know, straight and narrow.

JACK: He’s a little wounded. You know, in the early novels, he’s almost like Mike Hammer.

MEGAN: He’s more blunt.

JACK: But as the novels go on, and they get later, he seems kind of wounded. He seems sad and wounded to me.

MEGAN: Yeah, and I’ve heard theories, because of MacDonald’s personal travails…

JACK: Oh, he had a little thing for Eudora Welty, you know.

MEGAN: I didn’t know about that!

JACK: There’s a story about it, what is it? “No Place For Us My Love?” I’ll correct this when I transcribe it… that she wrote about her relationship with Ross MacDonald. A lot of people say it was platonic. I don’t know. It’s kind of like that Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn thing, I think.

MEGAN: He was married to Margaret Millar, who’s another good novelist. But I meant his daughter, with the drunk driving, she accidentally killed somebody in a car accident.

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: And it was obviously very upsetting. There’s a lot of sorrow. Taking care of your children becomes a big thing in his mid and later novels, and parents sort of trying to heal the damage they’ve done to their wayward children.

JACK: My God, you can still get in trouble for speculating about Eudora Welty in this state. Although Barry Hannah, I think it was the novel Boomerang, there’s a character kind of obviously based on Eudora Welty and he’s peeking over a fence and she’s in her garden, farting a lot… I always thought that was bold… Barry tried to beat down his influences. In his first novel Geronimo Rex the character kills a peacock in some horrible way.

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh no!

JACK: It’s not with a golf club… I can’t remember… but it’s obviously…

MEGAN: Flannery O’Connor.

JACK: He has to kill Flannery O’Connor, who was one of his idols…

MEGAN: It’s a classic Harold Bloom situation. I’m sure this is not true, but as a Yankee here I will speculate that for Southern writers, the anxiety of influence may be far greater than for other writers at this point in history, because it’s so… there’s still such a sense of regional legacy that makes such a specific and idiosyncratic stamp.

JACK: Yeah, that makes me sick.

MEGAN: You think it’s true?

JACK: What?

MEGAN: That the anxiety of influence may be greater?

JACK: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t like all that Southern writing bullshit.

MEGAN: Oh! Well, you proved my point! Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha! I guess so!

MEGAN: You have therefore enacted it.

JACK: Did you say I have “therefore enacted it”?

MEGAN: Yes! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: All right.

MEGAN: But it’s more diffuse for Midwestern writers… I mean, we don’t even have a Midwestern writer.

JACK: Hamlin Garland!

MEGAN: Well, I mean, Ernest Hemingway’s a Midwestern writer, and Sherwood Anderson, and all these people, but people haven’t sort of given it this school…

JACK: Yeah, but what about your “genre,” quote-unquote? Is there any anxiety of influence there?

MEGAN: Yes, but I think it’s easier as a woman, and as someone who’s not writing straight detective fiction. There I think it would be very burdensome, actually, and that’s one of the many reasons I would never write a straight detective novel. Those sort of straight-talking conversation scenes are not my forte. I think I thrive in indirection. The interrogation scenes, I always marvel at them and enjoy reading them, but it’s always felt very static when I’ve tried.

JACK: So you have tried.

MEGAN: Yeah, yeah, and I guess you could say a few of my books…

JACK: The Song Is You.

MEGAN: That’s the closest. That’s more like a Heart of Darkness structure to me.

JACK: And your bad guys are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: Yeah, ha ha ha ha! They are!

JACK: Oh, that’s terrible.

MEGAN: Ha ha!

JACK: I was just reading about how they took Marilyn Monroe out to dinner because they thought she was lonely.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis being pals.

MEGAN: Oh! I think they were really nice in real life…

JACK: I don’t know about that. I mean, I don’t know if “nice” is the right word. I think Laurel and Hardy were nice. They loved each other.

MEGAN: What if they were evil? That would be a really dark story!

JACK: No, no!

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Don’t ruin Laurel and Hardy for me.

MEGAN: No… no…

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

MEGAN: No, but we’ve talked about this before, and I keep coming back to it, but I think comedians are dark by nature.

JACK: Laurel and Hardy are the interesting exception, though. Now, Abbott and Costello hated each other, hated each other! And of course later on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis got to hate each other…

MEGAN: Yeah… and the tension in some of these duos, like Abbott and Costello, is what made them interesting to watch… there was a crackling tension.

JACK: Didn’t Costello’s son drown in a swimming pool, or some other horrible…

MEGAN: Yeah, one of many celebrities, including David Niven’s and like ten other kids who drowned or died in swimming pools. Lou Costello came up in that memoir I read about that male escort in Hollywood. Lou Costello was only interested in women, but he was really interested in prostitutes, so they knew each other through…

JACK: I have to interrupt and say I knew his granddaughter a little bit, years ago, so…

MEGAN: Well, he comes off as a very genial guy, but he liked hookers a lot. As a lot of them did.

JACK: He gave Dean Martin a lot of money, he thought Dean Martin was really talented and wanted to help him out.

MEGAN: He came up a lot in that Nick Tosches book about Dean Martin.

JACK: Yeah, and Dean Martin spent all the money: “I’m just going to buy ascots!” or something.

MEGAN: They all do! In the Rosemary Clooney memoir there was that too, because they were all poor kids, and they just bought everything.

JACK: They’re always poor kids, they’re always abandoned kids like Jerry Lewis.

MEGAN: And they always have family members or siblings who come back and are a strain on them for their whole period of fame.

JACK: I’m transcribing this whole thing! It’s all gold!

MEGAN: We figured it all out! It’s especially true in the 30s and 40s when people landed in Hollywood out of desperation.

JACK: Betty Hutton! Wasn’t she like a little street performer or something? When she was a kid? I think her mom sent her out on the street, like, “Tap dance for the people!”

MEGAN: Betty Hutton… there was such an intensity to her desire, and Judy Garland too, also grew up very poor.

JACK: I’m going to say the crudest thing I’ve ever said to you.

MEGAN: More than Danny Thomas?

JACK: Oh! Well, I didn’t say… I mean, I hinted around a lot… it was still gross.

MEGAN: Burned in the brain.

JACK: I’m sorry.

MEGAN: No, I would have found out anyway. Is this a crude thing about Betty Hutton?

JACK: It’s just something my friend Jeff McNeil said about her.

MEGAN: Then you’re just quoting it.

JACK: But it’s really bad, I can’t say it to you. It’s really bad. He… he speculated upon some…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha! I want to hear your euphemism.

JACK: Uhm, some enjoyable…

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I can’t finish that sentence. He put it in a quite vivid way that I, uhm… that I’ve never quite forgotten. He speculated upon how much it might be fun to… ha ha ha!

MEGAN: To be the target of all that intensity?

JACK: Yes! Yes! To be the target of all that intensity.

MEGAN: Wouldn’t it be frightening, though?

JACK: Uhm, not according to Jeff.

MEGAN: Cockenlocker!

JACK: I can’t believe Preston Sturges…

MEGAN: How’d he get away with that?

JACK: … got away with the last name Cockenlocker for Betty Hutton’s character.

MEGAN: I’ve heard an explanation for the way he got away with that. Billy Wilder never got away with that.

JACK: No, but he got away with—as Theresa is fond of quoting from Kiss Me, Stupid—“I’m going to go in the garden and show him my parsley.”

MEGAN: But that was fifteen years later! That was really when the code was halfway out the door.

JACK: Billy Wilder helped push the code out the door.

MEGAN: Yeah, he never gets any credit for anything he deserves to get credit for.

JACK: Oh, he’s the best.

MEGAN: He is the best! I really believe that.

JACK: You know, some real cinephiles don’t like him at all. I mean, like Dave Kehr, I love him because he loves Jerry Lewis and he’s very interesting when he writes about Bob Hope but for some reason he hates Billy Wilder. Andrew Sarris hated Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: I don’t see how you can hate him, given how diverse… How can you hate Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity? I couldn’t read anything else they wrote after that. That may be another situation where they have to knock down the big guys.

JACK: It almost seems moral. Sometimes I feel like people have an almost prissy reaction to Billy Wilder.

MEGAN: Yeah, but there’s a lot of earned sentiment in his movies, too.

JACK: You were talking about his fascination with prostitutes, speaking of fascination with prostitutes. And wasn’t he a gigolo?

MEGAN: Well, like a dancer. Like the dancer that’s loose…

JACK: Ten cents a dance?

MEGAN: In the Joe Gillis way. And this is going to sound funny but did you know he was six feet tall? I always had the impression of him being short.

JACK: He seems tiny!

MEGAN: I thought that too. But when you actually see pictures of him next to tall people, he’s as tall as they are. And I somehow pictured him like a Wallace Shawn, but he was really not at all. But he was haunted by—and I think it works on multiple levels—he was haunted by his past. I don’t think he was especially bothered by his past as a prostitute, I think he loved doing that…

JACK: Are you saying he was a prostitute?

MEGAN: Well, no, I don’t think he literally was. Like a taxi dancer! But I think in some ways he felt like he was a prostitute in Hollywood.

JACK: Mmm!

MEGAN: And apparently, according to this book I was reading, he had a sad experience with a prostitute.

JACK: Well, that comes up in a lot of his movies. People have speculated, for instance, about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

MEGAN: Yes. That’s supposed to be his most direct working out of this relationship. He fell in love with this woman, he was seventeen, she was nineteen, and she was beautiful and he saw her… they were having this romance, he wanted to marry her and then someone told him that she was a hooker and he went and found her on the street in her hooker makeup and then he roundly… he actually sort of chastised her. That isn’t strong enough. He said these terrible things to her on the street…

JACK: Oh no!

MEGAN: Oh yeah! And think about the way his movies are… that’s his great regret. Because that’s not something the Billy Wilder of any other age would have done.

JACK: In The Apartment, the worst thing Fred MacMurray can do is treat Shirley MacLaine like a prostitute.

MEGAN: Exactly. Shirley MacLaine was saying in this book that she thinks his best movies are the ones where he identifies with the female character more. And I think that’s very interesting. I think it’s true in Sunset Boulevard. Some Like It Hot, I think it’s true in a lot of them.

JACK: He said in that Cameron Crowe book that he was kind of in love with Gloria Swanson.

MEGAN: And that’s the funny thing that people sometimes don’t get about that movie: she’s beautiful in it, and I don’t think she’s crazy at all. What does she do, I mean other than at the very end? She’s trying to draw attention from him. She’s been raised on the structure of melodrama, so these are the tools at her disposal.

JACK: Nancy Olsen was fantastic in that, why wasn’t she in more movies?

MEGAN: I know! And she’s loosely based on Billy Wilder’s wife, Audrey.

JACK: Hitchcock often had a woman based on his wife or his daughter in his movies. His daughter Pat is in Psycho.

MEGAN: She’s in Strangers on a Train.

JACK: That’s her? I thought it was just somebody who looked like her.

MEGAN: And then there’s the woman who’s murdered who sort of looks like her, which is really weird.

JACK: That is weird.

MEGAN: Yeah.

JACK: But there are always Alma-type characters too. Hitchcock’s great guilt of wanting these women who were sort of the opposite of Alma…

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

Papa Christmas AKA Alfred Hitchcock

MEGAN: Yeah… It’s become fashionable to paint him as sort of a deeply disturbed man, but I don’t really think that he’s deeply disturbed. I think that because of the business he was in and his success, he had license to explore his particular malady, you know?  And most people don’t, so we see it writ large. Here’s another great director: Minnelli. I know we both love him.

JACK: Oh yeah, and he was here in town, making Home from the Hill.

MEGAN: I know!

JACK: And he wanted to meet Faulkner, but Faulkner was out of town.

MEGAN: Or supposedly hiding in a tree according to the back of the DVD case… ha ha ha! I will say I’m not interested in hagiography, but I believe Faulkner was definitely not in that tree. You can’t do anything to diminish him, not even tales of foolishness. Since I was here I thought I might hear stuff that would in some way diminish him, but they’ve only made him seem greater.

JACK: What have you heard?

MEGAN: Well, I heard some stories about the seamstress mistress who had the shop on the square. Do you know this story?

JACK: No, I don’t know that story. Wait, you have to tell me this dumb ghost story I don’t believe.

MEGAN: Oh, yeah, yeah! So I went to this book club and we were all talking about ghosts, and I don’t know how this came up, but I heard two good ghost stories from the same woman, which does add some dubiousness to it, but she was a very straightforward woman. But she said her husband, who doesn’t believe in ghosts at all, and really refuses to believe that what he saw was a ghost… first of all, everyone knew the Rowan Oak ghost story, Faulkner’s homestead.

JACK: Yeah, he made that up.

MEGAN: But her husband was there walking his dog early one morning and he saw a girl in a white dress on the grounds and then he went to the back of the house, he was walking towards the front, and the girl was gone. And it was a—ha ha ha ha!—old-timey white dress and she was a young girl and he couldn’t figure out why she was there. But she seemed to disappear behind a tree and never appear again. And everyone there told me that this was the ghost of a girl at Rowan Oak who threw herself off the balcony.

JACK: That’s the story that Faulkner made up.

MEGAN: But maybe he made it up but it was also true!

JACK: No… he made it up.

MEGAN: Because then one of my students said that he and some friends were getting into some trouble on the grounds of Rowan Oak after hours and that the police came to tell them to leave, and they were just talking to the police and the police said that they had seen the girl in the white dress as well but they would never tell anybody about it, that she could be spotted there at night. What if, in a kind of Lovecraftian way, Faulkner actually generated a ghost by telling the story?

JACK: I think it’s bull. And I believe in ghosts!

MEGAN: Why do you think this one is not true?

JACK: Because Faulkner famously made it up.

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

William Faulkner or a terrifying ghost?

MEGAN: But maybe he saw something. How do you know he made it up?

JACK: I mean he made it up to keep the kids from playing around, roughhousing on the balcony.

MEGAN: But who’s to say?

JACK: But he made up a funny name, and a thing, and a whole story…

MEGAN: I don’t know! I don’t know. I believe in every ghost story. The Barry Hannah Paris Review interview is where I got this quote I keep returning to about how great fiction is fueled by a child’s imagination. You know, because he’s tired of realism. And I’ve always felt that way. And I used the term realism as this interview began to describe what some people consider the real world, ha ha! Because my world doesn’t feel that way—photographic realism, the mundane aspects of life…

JACK: I don’t see the point.

MEGAN: Exactly! What would be the point?

JACK: It’s not even the real… realism is the biggest trick!


JACK: “The greatest thing the devil ever did…”

MEGAN: I think the devil invented realism.

JACK: It’s a silly parlor trick.

MEGAN: It is!

JACK: And I used to, oh, “The old lady picked up the cracked saucer.”

MEGAN: Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: I just don’t care about that cracked saucer, I don’t care about that old lady.

MEGAN: No, I want adventure and mayhem and depravity—all those things.

JACK: That’s the real realism.

MEGAN: Exactly! I really think it is. And I think realism sort of defeats the purpose of reading, and people are like, “But what about Raymond Carver?” Well, there’s nothing realistic about Raymond Carver! He has all kinds of freakish things happen in his stories. People behave wildly.

JACK: Bang rocks on people’s heads! Find a dead lady in a river.

MEGAN: “Why Don’t You Dance?” is full of these things Flannery O’Connor was talking about, when people do things you don’t think they should do. But students were saying, “But why has he invited them to sit there? Why is she lying on his bed?” Every action in that story is surprising and weird. Those are very fevered stories, which the prose style disguises to the casual reader, I suppose. But even then, they’re just weird! I mean, it’s weirder to not name your characters, say, than to name them. It’s weirder, you know, in “Why Don’t You Dance?” “The man, the boy, the girl.” That’s what I was talking about with the students. And now we have every story, no one’s giving a name to their main character! Ha ha ha ha! We had like five of them in the class.

JACK: You haven’t taught a class like that in a long time, have you? Have you ever taught a fiction workshop?

MEGAN: No! It was my first fiction workshop ever.

JACK: Have you ever read Edith Wharton’s ghost stories?

MEGAN: I just took it out of the library! I think she would be great at it.

JACK: I have a book of them. I’ve never read it.

MEGAN: What about writing a ghost story? You’ve dallied with that. What’s the challenge?

JACK: Well, the challenge is making it believable and making it scary… uhm… you know, Michael Chabon wrote an essay about the fact that for a long time in fiction, if you were a serious short-story writer, you had to be able to write a good ghost story.

MEGAN: I would think it would be hard with endings in particular. Are they driven out? Or do they triumph? Or…

JACK: Don’t they usually triumph? What happens in Turn of the Screw?

MEGAN: That’s my favorite. But I read a lot of them when I was a kid and haven’t read many since. I kind of want to revisit all of them. But I like the ones where you don’t really know… I guess Turn of the Screw is the perfect example, but a lot of them are like that, where it really hovers forever in the realm of the uncanny. I was always scared by the Hawthorne stories when I was a kid.

JACK: Well, those are scary.

MEGAN: Really frightening. Family curses and things like that.

JACK: His stories are so ambiguous.

MEGAN: We went there when I was kid, to his house, the seven gables and all, and it all felt so haunted, even visiting it, to me as a kid. I think it was the first time I saw a writer’s house. We saw his house, and we saw Louisa May Alcott’s house, and a bunch of peoples’ houses. But something about being in his house, and doing the Salem Witch Trial tour…

JACK: Oh, scary.

MEGAN: Everything felt haunted about the place, because I grew up in the suburbs where everything was fairly new, and then to go there and see those houses that were a couple of centuries old seemed ancient and terrifying to me. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had gone to England or something. When you would think about all the history that the houses would hold, it just felt really frightening.

JACK: He was always haunted by his own ancestors’ part in the witch trials.

MEGAN: As he should be.

JACK: And he changed the spelling of his name, just like Faulkner changed the spelling of his name, what’s up with that?

MEGAN: I guess that’s another anxiety of influence issue. It’s spooky, have you ever been to Salem?

JACK: No, no.

MEGAN: It is something where even the architecture, it’s so overloaded, the symbolism for us. All of us who grew up reading. It was sort of like Rowan Oak for me, the first time I visited. And even seeing the square here, I still remember the first time driving to the center of it and it was just like The Sound and the Fury. It was literally like the book had jumped off the page. There’s something about that, when so much of your reality is formed by books as a kid. Wasn’t it like that for you? Wasn’t there ever a time when there was something you read about and you came upon it in real life?

JACK: I don’t know, that’s a weirdly specific question. But when I was just reading Absalom, Absalom! recently, there are a lot of references to the Grove. Because Oxford is in the book a lot, not just his fake Oxford but the real Oxford. So he mentions places that are still around now.

MEGAN: Proud Larry’s? Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: Yeah. No. But it was a strange feeling. Faulkner refers to the university in all these really insulting terms.

MEGAN: It’s funny that now they own his home.

JACK: I forget all the mean things he says about it, but at the time of the novel, the part that takes place there, the campus has only been around for ten years.

MEGAN: How is it that that’s one you’ve never read before?

JACK: I’ve always been intimidated by it. It seemed like it’d be hard to read. I read the first few pages several times, it’s about a guy sitting in a room, there’s dust motes… and then I’d read a paragraph about dust motes… but it was a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be.

MEGAN: There’s a lot of him I haven’t read. And partially it’s like Roth: I’m saving a few, because I don’t want to be finished. I just got one of the Roths, Letting Go. I read it when I was a teenager but I don’t remember it at all so I’m considering it one I haven’t read. It’s early Roth, so it’s really different. But you get something out of all his books, just like with Faulkner, so there’s no wasted experience with him. I mean, Faulkner never infuriates me in the way that Roth can.

JACK: I don’t know, Faulkner can be infuriating sometimes. I read Flags in the Dust, that was pretty frigging racist.

MEGAN: I don’t mean on that level. I mean, definitely it can offend me, but I guess Roth is closer to our times, so it feels more… that he has no excuse.

JACK: Nemesis was incredible.

MEGAN: It’s brilliant.

JACK: And that’s one he wrote when he was, how old was he?

MEGAN: Eighty? He couldn’t have written it at any other age and have that ending—and it’s such a plot-driven… it’s so exciting. Suspenseful.

JACK: Real twists.

MEGAN: Heartbreaking twists.

JACK: Oh my God! But the writing is so clear and perfect, how does he do it? It almost seems like, here are some facts, laid down on the page.

MEGAN: But he’s also got a lot of nostalgia in there that I love. I love how he’s always free with nostalgia.

JACK: I believed everything. And you believed that was a real incident.

MEGAN: I absolutely did!

JACK: But in that book, the Claudia Roth Pierpont book we both read, she says that he made that entire incident up.

MEGAN: Yeah, I don’t believe it. Ha ha ha ha ha!

JACK: That’s the trick of realism. That’s a realist novel, don’t you think?

MEGAN: But realism wouldn’t be able to do that, right? Because it really drops you into his consciousness so intensely. It so rises and falls based on his emotion, you know, when he first goes up to the country, and he sort of swells with this joy and vigor, and the swimming and the picnicking and the sex with his girlfriend, and everything is great and everyone is tanned. Even the sentences change, the structure, and you feel this liberation—it’s been so dark in Newark, and so dour. It’s not realism. It’s not an objective rendering of events.

JACK: I see what you mean.

MEGAN: It’s highly pitched to his emotions as opposed to the objective reality, which is one of the reasons that the twist works. You read him and he’s the ultimate magician because his touch seems so light in that book. Not always in all of his books, but in that one.

JACK: He’s barely there. You don’t even know he’s there.

MEGAN: Except that his interests are always there, which is one of the things that I love about him. There’s always a father figure who’s very wise and understanding.

JACK: The prospective father-in-law.

MEGAN: Yes. In this case. Who you feel so comfortable around.

JACK: And also the grandfather, who’s a very, very strong personality. I was looking at a list of his books and realizing that I’ve probably read more of him than anybody.

MEGAN: For sure, in my case.

JACK: I have to pause this, sorry. [Pendarvis returns from Men’s Room and restarts recorder.] Did you know that in the men’s room here there’s some graffiti that quotes our friend Scott Phillips?

MEGAN: Yes! No! I didn’t know that. That would be awful if I knew that.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote. It says, “IF WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.” Isn’t that from The Ice Harvest? It’s on a men’s room wall in the movie. But I think it’s “AS WICHITA FALLS, SO FALLS WICHITA FALLS.”

MEGAN: Which is better, which is better, yeah.

JACK: It’s a slight misquote, but…

MEGAN: It’s a nice claim to fame! I’d like to be quoted on men’s room walls.

JACK: I’m sure you are.

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Don't get bitter: An interview with Willy Vlautin

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It’s hard to say what makes Willy Vlautin’s books so wonderful. I guess something happens to you when you read a Willy Vlautin novel. One of the characters will hook into you somehow—for me, the first was Allison Johnson in Northline—and all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, worrying about her, wondering if she will be okay. Even long after you finish the novel, the people and their lives stick with you. I’ll love Allison Johnson forever.

Willy Vlautin’s fourth novel, The Free, just might be his best. I could try to explain the plot of The Free to you, list the characters, hint at how the book might play out, do all the crap you’re supposed to do when describing a book, but none of that will even come close to explaining why I love it so much. Suffice it to say The Free is a novel about people in truest sense, that in every person exists vast worlds well worth exploring, that everyone has value, is a mystery.

It also helps that Willy Vlautin is one of the nicest guys in the world. Prior to the release of The Free, I called Willy up for a chat.

Here’s how it went:

Jimmy Cajoleas: I just finished your new novel The Free, and I have to say I absolutely loved it. It’s really something special.

Willy Vlautin: Thank you for saying that. That novel about broke my head on a bunch of different levels. Number one, the subject matter is so intense across the board. There wasn’t a lot of good times in the book. Some of my other books, although they can be rough, have some easy-going times, or adventure, or more beer drinking and messing around. This one was really pretty tight. And with the subject matter of the brain injury and a nurse, those were things that I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You know, I must have spent three years rewriting that.

JC: Damn.

WV: Yeah, I know. It drove me nuts.

JC: It’s funny that you bring that up, because a lot of this book is about repetition, people doing their routine every day. You have somebody like the nurse, Pauline, who carries us through the book, because her attitude is so damn good. Even at her worst, she’s still able to get her dad up and get him moving. I felt like she’s sort of our guide through the book.

WV: You know, I started the book with her, with the idea of her. I’ve always admired nurses. In my family’s life and in my personal life, we’ve been lucky. All the nurses we’ve had have been like saints to us. I think I wanted to write in a way a tribute to one nurse, and kind of explore and talk about how rough it is every day to be around such intense dark situations, where not only do you have to deal with people who are suffering, but you have to deal with the tricky dynamics of families.

Everybody’s scared. That’s the part of Pauline that I was interested in. And just having met and known nurses, a lot of them do come from families that are a little rougher or there was a family member that they grew up taking care of. They were just kind of born into a care-giving situation, like Pauline. She’s scarred by the way she was raised and she still takes care of her dad even though he’s kind of handcuffed her to this isolation. The way she lives, they’re kind of codependent on each other.

So I wanted to talk about that. You don’t know when you see a person walking down the street. They could be in that same kind of grind for their entire lives, taking care of an ill or mentally-ill loved one, whether it’s a brother, mother, father, or a husband or wife. I’ve always been interested in that, especially in this book, the grind of taking care of people with long-term illnesses.

JC: I think that especially came through in the sweetness that you always allow with Pauline. She has her despair moments, she has her crying, but she’s still going to call her feet her “dogs.” She never lets the book feel hopeless to me.


WV: I think in a lot of ways she’s a great romantic. It reveals itself when she meets Jo. You find out that there is a lot of hope and love in her, and a desire to take care of somebody or help somebody out. I think that part of her she’s just boxed away. I think in a lot of ways she lives in a sort of forced isolation. Because she’s scared. She was raised by a really tricky guy where she had to navigate her whole life so she wouldn’t get beat up mentally by her father.

So I think she’s pretty stand-offish and pretty scared, and so I think she picks and chooses pretty carefully who she lets in. I think the kid who she kind of falls for and wants to help was the right combination of things to help her let her guard down enough to where she’d open up.

JC: The dad is a tough character, being capable of such love at some times, and then downright meanness. Just the unpredictability of him. But you never let him be totally evil or anything like that.

WV: In a way I think that’s what makes those kind of people the scariest. Abusers are the scariest. If you classify Pauline’s dad in that light, you see that he’s really nice sometimes, and he’s smart enough to know what he can get away with and what he can’t. It is abuse, the way he treats her, and his moods swings, whether he can control it or not.

I’ve always been interested in people who take advantage of other people or abuse other people, because usually they’re also really charismatic and sweet. There’s nothing scarier to me than being around someone that will seduce you into relaxing or being nice, and then they change and show their darker side when you’re not ready.

It’s so tiring to be around people like that. You have to build up these really immense defense mechanisms if you have to deal with people who are like that day after day after day. And that’s why I think Pauline won’t ever let him come to her house. She’s got these rules that she’s had to implement over the years, and that’s something that I understand.

JC: That type of character has come up in your work before. Like Jimmy from Northline.

WV: Yeah, that’s kind of a theme that I can’t shake, because a lot of my life was like that. It’s almost nicer if they were just mean all the time because then at least you could follow that map. But when the map and the rules of the game always change, it’s just rough.

I think that you’re right, Jimmy from Northline is like that. He’s not an evil guy by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a really confused, fucked-up guy whose life has fallen apart. He blames other people. He’s a young man so he’s more prone to violence and being a jackass that way. But still he’s got a good side to him, a sweet side. And those are the kind of guys who have the ability to beat down weaker people.

In that book, Allison Johnson is really weak, and it’s just bad. She found the wrong guy. And it makes sense that she would find a guy like that. But he was just the wrong guy for her and she just gets sucked up into trying to play his game, play his life, and she’s just obviously not strong enough to do that. His life spirals out of control, and his faults and his ability to manipulate and his mood swings get exaggerated as the novel goes on. In Lean on Pete, the trainer Del Montgomery is a little bit like that as well. Never thought of that. Holy shit.

JC: I love Allison. Talk about one of my favorite characters ever. On every page of Northline I’m rooting for her. Even the smallest victory for her feels hugely important to me.

WV:  For such a short book, that was another one that I must have written four hundred pages for it maybe. There was a time where I wrote for a hundred and thirty pages maybe where she moves in with T.J. Watson and goes back to college and all these things. I wanted her to do those things so that, in my own way, I would do those things. It would make her life easier. But it was wrong. It wasn’t what she would do. It wasn’t going to be that easy for her.

Willy Vlautin

You know, I liked her so much I wrote fake stories for her—I’m fucking nuts, but—that weren’t as rough for her. But I knew the situation she ended up going through in the book would be what would probably really happen. For instance, there’s a scene where she meets these two guys in a bar called The Doc Holiday’s. And she goes home with them. I cut that scene out maybe four or five times. But then I realized that she would do something like that, and that I just had to face it.

I think why I took that gal so seriously was that she was basically me and my mom and my grandmother all wrapped into one. I kind of wanted to lay to rest writing about weakness, and how you get into a lot of jams being weak. I guess in some ways Carol in The Free is the same sort of gal, just a little darker and a little weaker.

JC: You have this line in the The Free that Pauline says about Carol. It says, “She’s really messed up, but I like her. There’s something about her. You’d like her too, I know you would.” That describes so many of your characters, and what seems like your attitude towards them.

WV: You know, I never think of them like that… when I write Pauline or Carol or say Charlie Thompson in Lean on Pete… For instance,  with Charlie Thompson I was getting so cynical about things, and dark. I can be pretty dark obviously, and I just started running out of reasons… I just started going down that hole. And so Charlie Thompson, thinking about him got me out of bed every day, and kind of was like shaking me, saying “Alright man, this kid can get up and face these sort of things and get by, and so you should be able to too.”

I think I wrote, at the beginning, both songs and stories as escapism, or so I could have someone around me to help me out. And I still do that. I think Charlie’s like that. And Pauline has been beat up a few times obviously, but she’s tough, and resilient, and she’s still got a good heart. I think for my own life, that’s what you want to be.

You get beat up in life, and you get sucker-punched, and bad things happen. If you keep an open heart and don’t get bitter and you keep trying, then shit will break your way once in a while. I really try to believe that all the time. So I think the characters kind of reflect that.

There’s this famous old saying, and I forget who said it, but it says, “You have to remember to be kind to everyone you meet, because everybody you meet is going through a great battle.” And so remember kindness, kindness, kindness. I try to remember that in my own life, and so I think the characters really reflect that.

JC: It makes me think of the truck driver, T.J. Watson, in Northline who shares his own story with Allison. It’s a heartbroke moment that is also really hopeful.

Willy Vlautin on stage with his band Richmond Fontaine

WV: Well, there’s nothing better than when you’re down and out, and somebody’s kind to you. And there’s nothing worse than when somebody who should be kind to you is rough on you. That’s been one of the things that I’ve never really quite figured out. Or I’ve just been scarred by it, that idea of when you’re down and out and when the person who is supposed to be nice to you is rough to you and you meet a person out of the blue—whether it’s a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or whatever—who takes the time out to say, “No, man, you’re alright.” I think, for me in my own life, that’s meant a lot, and saved my life in a lot of ways.

I think maybe that’s why my characters do what they do. Like when Pauline tries to help Jo out, or when Pauline’s a kid and her neighbors take her under their wing, and when Charlie Thompson gets some breaks here and there, and when Allison gets her breaks. Because I do believe in the kindness of strangers. Some people really do go out of their way to try and help you out. And it’s not necessarily their family members are the ones that do that. I guess in my case I do tend to beat up the family members more. The kindness of strangers is more relevant to the characters’ stability.

JC: Yeah, family never quite works right.

WV: Well, for some people I think it really does. I personally have never gotten great comfort from a lot of my family, but some I have. I guess that just comes out in the books.

JC: There’s great brotherly love in The Motel Life, and in Lean on Pete, there’s some kindness there.

WV: Yeah, I’m not a total sad-sack mother, and I do have a tremendous brother.

JC: It’s nice to hear you talk about all that. You know, I’ve spoken to several writers who don’t necessarily think of their characters as anything real, as anything more than a bunch of words. One guy told me that to care about your characters in any sort of reality was foolishness.

WV: Well, yeah. I mean, everybody does things differently. I always wrote stories for myself, to help me out. I’ve always thought of writing stories as taking a box of all the things that scare you or haunt you or what you want, and pulling them out one by one. And hopefully if you write about them, they don’t scare you as bad, or you figure them out or they don’t haunt you.

For me, I write because I want to tell stories that make me feel less lonely. And I want to write stories that hopefully make someone else feel less lonely, or not so beat up or messed up. Because those are the stories I’m looking for. Same with songwriting. I always like the sad ballads, so I write sad ballads because those are the kind of songs that bring me comfort. So I’ve always written from that side.

And I tend to try to write as a fan. I’m a firm believer in a being a fan of things. I try to write with blood, you know, with the things that haunt me the most. And fuck, I’m a lot different than whoever said that quote you mentioned, because the characters I write got me through a lot of my life.

You know, it’s foolish, but like the guy in The Motel Life, Frank Flannigan, telling the crazy stories. That’s how I’ve always been, and that’s how I’ve gotten through life. When I’m stuck, or when I’m in that hole, I’ll make up a story to get myself out of it. Maybe I won’t actually get out of the situation because I’m a lazy alcoholic, but I can dream myself out of it.

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So Many Forks: An Interview with Jack Pendarvis

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For our interview, Jack said we should get big steaks. I was pumped. I love big steaks! Even better, he told me to invite novelist and crack music writer William Boyle along. I couldn’t believe my luck. Now I was getting big steaks with two of my favorite authors in the world. This was going to be the best interview ever.

Except that I got the times wrong. When I showed up, Jack had been drinking by himself at the restaurant for a whole hour. I felt like a real jerk, but Jack assured me it was okay. And he pointed out that William wasn’t there yet either, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. Still, that’s pretty bad form for an interview.

Jack wore a snappy blazer, and I felt way underdressed, like I always do. I needed to reestablish my cool, so when Jack ordered a “Beefeater martini, up!” I said I would have the same, like a martini was what I always drank and not Bud Light. But then I ruined it by announcing, “I’ve never had a martini before!” I really hoped I could get my act together by the end of the interview.

Because I was really nervous. I mean, I’m always nervous about doing interviews, but Jack Pendarvis was a special case. For starters, Jack is one of my heroes. I’ve read his story collections The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and Your Body Is Changing a dozen times each, and I taught sections of his novel AWESOME to my creative writing classes. His blog is a workday ritual for me, and recently he became a staff writer on Adventure Time, one of the best shows on television. He has written for Vice and The Believer, he plays the accordion, and he knows more movies than anyone I ever met. I kind of think Jack Pendarvis can do anything.

Pretty soon William showed up, we ordered big steaks, and I set the tape rolling.

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by David Swider - End of All Music

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by David Swider – End of All Music

JIMMY: You’ve mentioned that your time spent in Atlanta was a pretty formative period of your life. Can you tell me a little about it?

JACK: I often get nostalgic for Atlanta, but I think I’m really getting nostalgic for Atlanta in a specific time, which was the early ‘90s, when the music was really exciting there. The reason I moved to Atlanta was that I loved hanging out with my friends Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft. I kind of moved there because I loved those people so much. I had this friend named Caroline Young—she’s a poet now—at the time she was working for Turner. She got me a job at Turner. Caroline had a big influence on my life. She introduced me to my wife Theresa, for example. Caroline’s boyfriend at the time was Brian Halloran, who played cello in Smoke and Opal Foxx Quartet. So my whole life really, everything that ever happened to me of any importance, was bound up with those musicians and that particular time in Atlanta.

JIMMY: I love to hear you talk about those times. It must have been wonderful to have something like that.

JACK: Well you have it right now. You’re living it. You’re twenty-eight. So twenty years from now you’ll be saying the same things I’m saying now about what is happening to you right now. How right now is this golden wonderful time where everything that means anything to you came together. Sorry to break it to you.

JIMMY: Good. Because then everybody will be legendary. When you talk about all your friends they sound so legendary and cool.

JACK: In my mind all my friends from that time are like great giants. What they did. I looked at them. I watched how they lived and what they did and thought, “Oh there’s a different way to live. I want to try this way. It looks good.” I never quite did it. But I liked watching other people live the dream.

JIMMY: What’s the dream?

JACK: I don’t know. You know Kelly Hogan is still touring. She’s kind of doing more or less what she did back then. That’s the dream I guess. But if you ask Kelly, I’m sure she’d say it’s work, it’s a job.

JIMMY: The dream is work?

JACK: Well, yeah. Oh look I have so many forks! Put that in the article. Yeah, Kelly sang at Theresa’s and my wedding reception, and Brian played cello as we marched up the aisle. Bill Taft read a selection from Cole Porter during our ceremony. We told him he could read whatever he wanted and he read, “I get no kick from cocaine!” Everybody loved it and it was a lot of fun. So yeah our relationship was all bound up in that music scene of that time.

JIMMY: How did you get into TV writing?

JACK: Well, Caroline Young, who I mentioned earlier, she was at that time—in the early 90s—Kelly Hogan’s next-door neighbor. I was out shooting pool with Kelly at a place called Dottie’s. Caroline Young said “Don’t you write?” I said, “I guess so.” I was working at a coffee shop at the time. I was thirty and my boss was nineteen. So I wrote a little sample and TBS hired me.

JIMMY: What kind of stuff did you write for them?

JACK: Little things like, “Coming up next on TBS, a giant bird terrorizes a neighborhood. The Giant Claw, coming up next on TBS!”

JIMMY: What happened from there?

JACK: There is a connection to Adventure Time from there. I met Kent Osborne who is the head writer for Adventure Time way back before he was doing anything like that. At this time I think his main goal was still to be an actor (you’d have to ask him). He’d been in the movie School Ties. He had a small part. He said something like, “Stabbed him in the back!” That’s one of his lines. We had hired his brother Mark, who is a director, to direct something for us at TBS. We flew out to Los Angeles and we just loved Kent and wanted to think of things we could do with him. Because he was really funny, and such a nice guy. So many, many, many years later Kent was the one who thought of me when an opening happened at Adventure Time.

JIMMY: I guess that’s kind of payoff for being a good dude.

JACK: It’s not payoff, really, because neither one of us was thinking that way. We just liked to talk to each other and write things together, so it was nice.

JIMMY: Tell me about your first television show.

JACK: Adventure Time is my first television show. Unless you want to count this kids’ show I did on TNT, The Rudy and GoGo World Famous Cartoon Show. We were walking a thin line. That’s I think what we would call “packaging” in the television industry, more than a show. But we put a lot of work into it. It was just my friend Barry Mills. He’s this awesome guy from Pine Mountain, Georgia, and he wanted me to help him out with his thing he was doing and I did.

It was a very low-budget operation with not very many people working on it. It was back in the day when you would work all night to finish something and the sun would be coming up, and we would run to the network and hand them a tape and they would stick a tape in a machine. It’s hard for you guys to imagine. It almost seems primitive now. They would stick a tape in a machine and it would go out all over the country. As a result, it aired before anybody saw it, usually, except us. So we got away with all kinds of fun things.

We would get hate mail from parents. “Why is there so much screaming on this show?” We would get really nice letters from four year olds, five year olds, and then like stoned freshmen from NYU. It was fun. I saved some of those letters. They were nice.

I remember one really obscene letter that I won’t quote. It was probably some twelve-year-old kid trying to say dirty words. It was an email. I can’t even begin to describe it except that his knowledge of anatomy was seriously flawed. Something like, “Why don’t you blow your mother!” for example. I’m not even doing it justice, but that was one suggestion he had for us. Really just an obscene tirade.

JIMMY: What did you do to cause that?

JACK: You know, have an email address.

JIMMY: Where did [the character you voiced] Boney Bonerton come into play?

JACK: We had this great guy named Tom Haney who made all the marionettes that we used on the show, and he just had a skeleton marionette that was manipulated by keys like piano keys. They were on the front of the device and you would push the keys and an arm or a leg would move. So we played with that and shot it. The great thing about that show was we had to shoot just a limited amount of footage. For instance we had a live goat who was a character on the show, but you can shoot a live goat for a couple of hours and then that goat has done everything that goat is ever going to do. So we could reuse that footage endlessly. Same thing with marionettes. They’re only going to do a certain number of things.

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Jeoff Davis – Creative Loafing

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Jeoff Davis – Creative Loafing

We didn’t try very hard to match up the voice with the marionettes. There was a lot of improvisation going on. We’d say happy birthday to our favorite celebrities if it was their birthday. Like we’d say, ‘Happy birthday Al Green!’ and our friend Gus yelled, ‘Grits!’ He was a character named Jesse B. who was a marionette. But we couldn’t leave that in the show, because you know what grits means to Al Green. His girlfriend threw boiling hot grits on him and scalded him. That’s not funny, you can’t have that on a kids’ show. Although we did leave this in when it was Demi Moore’s birthday. Gus said, “Disclosure!” We left that in as a celebration of Demi Moore.

WILLIAM: How long did the show run?

JACK: Two years. And then one day, we got called in by the president of TNT. He said, “Show me what you’re doing.” And we showed him what we were doing and he said, “Haha, that’s not going on my network.” And he fired us, on the spot.

JIMMY: Was he a new president?

JACK: No, he’d been around forever. He’d just never seen the show. It was really under the radar. I mean it came on at like two o’clock in the afternoon. Nobody even knew it was on the air hardly.

JIMMY: When did you begin to pursue fiction writing?

JACK: I always wanted to be a writer.

JIMMY: Why’d you want to be a writer?

JACK: Well, it’s easy. You can do it by yourself. I liked reading books. I saw this TV show called My World and Welcome to It. It was based on the writings of James Thurber. I thought it was kind of neat, a sitcom kind of based on Thurber. So I got interested in James Thurber, and I began being interested in things like The New Yorker. Writing seemed like a cool thing to do. You didn’t have to pay for any equipment. In those days, I remember sending things off hand-written. I got rejected. I don’t know how unusual that was. But I would neatly print a story. This is a long time ago. I would carve it in rock with a chisel! But in college I would handwrite papers and nobody cared. Oh what wonderful times.

I failed for years and years and years at getting anything published. I followed too many rules. Like I would send a story to The New Yorker and I would wait nine months for The New Yorker to reject it before I would send it anywhere else. Because you weren’t supposed to do simultaneous submissions. When I stopped worrying about the rules, I started getting things published. I got so mad that I started purposefully using lots of adverbs, doing whatever people had told me not to do. That’s just superstitious-sounding, but I broke a spell by doing that. You get too caught up in the supposed rules of what you’re supposed to do.

JIMMY: Who was telling you all of these rules?

JACK: The little man who lives in my mouth. That’s a Shining reference! I don’t know, dumb magazines, things like that. Dumb how-to articles. You ever look at a how-to article and look at what else that person has written and it’s always like, “Stories of My Favorite Horses” or whatever.

JIMMY: It’s like those How To Become a Millionaire books that have sold millions of copies. There aren’t millions of millionaires, so it must not work. Or else everyone is just doing it wrong.

JACK: But those are the kinds of characters I’m attracted to. The characters who want to do something spectacular. Because, I don’t know, why not? I wrote a whole book that I whittled down to a short story called “Your Cat Can Be A Movie Star.” It’s about a man who wants to turn his cat into a movie star. My reviews would often say that I write about “losers” and I was bewildered and baffled at first, because I thought, “Which ones were the losers?” I thought they were all peppy. They wanted to do something. I guess they were all losers. I prefer to call them “strivers.”

Here’s the thing. If you’re in a class and everybody in the class hates your short story, the best revenge is to publish it in a book or something. And then the conversation’s over except for some critic somewhere. But critics only seem to review ten books over and over anyway, so that’s not a problem either.

Look, I understand about discipline and all that crap. I mostly had a very positive experience in the workshops I taught. I quit teaching, but when I did, I had a lot of positive experiences in workshops. I had one awesome undergraduate workshop—Chelsea Hogue was in that one, Steven Stringer, Maggie White, a couple of other kids—they could have been in a graduate class. I’m not sure Maggie White was in that same class, actually, but she should have been. And Donna Tartt went to Ole Miss, right, when she was an undergrad? Everybody read her stuff and they were like, “Get out of here!” I mean, Barry Hannah and whoever told her, “You’re really good!”

But part of your job I guess—I don’t know what your job is when you’re a teacher, that’s part of the reason I quit—but part of your job is to say to Donna Tartt if she’s your undergraduate student, “Hey, you’re really good. You should go somewhere else and do something.” Recognizing that someone is doing good work and giving them some encouragement. This is so wrong, this is so wrong. Don’t listen to what I’m saying, America! Because I know teachers have to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, but I just don’t feel that qualified to do that.

WILLIAM: Do you think it’s wrong to encourage people who are just not good?

JACK: I don’t really see the harm in encouraging someone who is not good. So what? Some of the best things I’ve ever read were not good.

JIMMY: It’s also weird because a show like Adventure Time follows almost none of the rules.

JACK: I’d have to disagree. Adventure Time is so formal. You wouldn’t know from just sitting back and watching it, but there’s a severe almost classical formality to the way it’s put together, especially in the early stages. When we do an outline, it’s almost like I have to write a sonnet every week. It’s that rigid of a format. Within that format, just like a sonnet, you can do a million different things. But you really do have to pay attention to the form. I’ve learned a lot about structure and form from working on Adventure Time more than I’ve learned from any other experience. It seems like it breaks rules, but it has its own set of rules that it really adheres to.

JIMMY: What’s the basic structure?

JACK: The basic structure of the outline is a three act structure in which the second act is roughly twice as long as the first act and the third act. Then once you hand that off to the storyboard artist, they can go wild and really bring it to life. My part is really getting that initial outline down on paper. It’s fun, and challenging.

It’s kind of like being in a workshop. I’m in a writer’s room with three other guys, usually, sometimes two, sometimes three. It’s kind of like a writing workshop in which Adam Muto—I’m not sure what his actual title is, supervising supervisor or something—anyway, he’s almost like the teacher in the workshop because he’s got the whole big picture in his head. Even if Pen has an idea that Adam finds objectionable, he doesn’t hesitate to say so. They’re old friends.

It’s kind of like me and Tom Franklin. I’ve known Tom Franklin forever. And I get that feeling from Adam and Pen, that they’ve known each other so long they really understand each other and they can be completely open about differences of opinion about a piece of work. It’s really healthy. It’s a good, healthy environment for a writer. You can learn a lot by just sitting in on that. That should be a class. I mean I feel like I’m in a class the three days a week that I do this.

One exciting thing was we did an episode called “We Fixed A Truck.” It was called “Everybody Fixes A Car,” but my dad has worked on cars and trucks and engines forever. I mean forever. Pen sent me a picture of a car engine and said, “Ask your dad what’s wrong with this car engine.” I sent it to my mom because my dad won’t go near a computer. But my dad looked at the picture and said, “That’s not a car engine. That’s a truck engine.” And right away he had already changed the show from “We Fixed A Car” to “We Fixed A Truck.” He just told me a bunch of stuff about the engine and almost all of it ended up in the episode. I was so excited when it aired. Plus it aired on his birthday, just by coincidence.

And it really shows how on the show everybody, whether it’s the storyboard artist or the people in the writers’ room or whoever, people bring a lot of their own lives into the show, which is one reason I think why people seem to respond to it. I think it’s got really honest emotions in it.

JIMMY: I’ve talked to a lot of writers who treat their characters simply as words on a page with which they can manipulate an audience. Is that how it is for you?

JACK: Well, in one way they are, sure. But, in another way, when you’re going into a show like Adventure Time, there are certain ways that I can’t make Finn act because Finn wouldn’t act that way. They do become more than whatever that initial impulse was. They take on a life. There are certain things you can’t violate about the characters. This phrase comes up a lot in meetings: “Finn wouldn’t do that,” or “Jake wouldn’t do that.” That means that the characters are something bigger. We can’t make them do whatever we want. Maybe Pen could make them do whatever he wanted at the beginning, but now they’ve really evolved to a point at which…I can’t finish this sentence. It’s too complicated. But you know what I mean.

JIMMY: What do you like to read?

JACK: I love reading! I read everything! One thing I really like to read is stuff written in the seventeenth century where it’s got a lot of extra Es like owl is spelled “owle.” I don’t like it when the spelling has been “corrected” or the punctuation has been “corrected.” I like to jump in there and swim around in all those extra Es. It really makes you kind of fight with the words one on one, and I love it. It’s a great feeling. There’s a lot books like that at the library on campus. You can find plenty of books where they haven’t fiddled with the old spelling. You really have to sit down and grapple with every sentence.

But I have big gaps in my reading too. Like I never read On The Road until I was forty-five. Everybody told me, “You can’t read On The Road now. You should have read it when you were twenty.” But I find that to be bull. I really enjoyed reading it. You know, to me it was very boyish. Chris Offutt and I were talking today about how it’s like Treasure Island, like a boys’ adventure story. Chris told me that he started wearing V-neck t-shirts because of that book, because Dean Moriarty wore one or something. Mine is the fate of the autodidact. You’re going to have these huge potholes in your reading.

JIMMY: Is the writing world very competitive?

JACK: I’ve never found that to be the case. I think writers are basically supportive of each other. Tom Franklin has been my biggest supporter ever in the world. All the writers in town are great. Poets though. Those are the ones you have to watch out for. Just kidding. I like all the poets I’ve ever met too. Writers help each other out, I find. Any job I’ve ever gotten is because some writer helped me out. Of course, I might not find them very cutthroat because I don’t try that hard.

Here’s a question. What in the world do writers have to cut their throats over? Nothing. It’s like two Beckett characters arguing over a piece of dirt. That’s what two writers cutting each other’s throats would be like. There’s nothing to cut your throat over.   Is it more important to be a writer or a good person? Of course it’s more important to be a good person. It’s not even a question.

JIMMY: Any closing thoughts?

JACK: Well, I taught Blake Butler in an adult education course once. I was living in Atlanta, and there was some guy who had a weird name, like Hamburger Fish. That wasn’t his name but it was something really close to Hamburger Fish. Anyway, somebody called me on the phone and said, “Hey, Hamburger Fish can’t teach this class. Can you teach this class?” And I’d never taught anything. I was like, “Sure!” because they said it paid six hundred dollars.

So I went to teach the class, and I’d never taught anything, never published anything. So I have this class that is basically ten old women and Blake Butler. And he’s bringing stuff in that says, “The somnambulant figure slouched mellifluously in the receptacle of seating,” or something like that. And I’m like, “Do you mean the guy sat in the chair?” I just didn’t get what he was doing. It’s on me. I do now, I think he’s great. I just didn’t get what he was doing at the time at all. And here I am, just a guy that literally wandered into the classroom because Hamburger Fish was not available.

I couldn’t use the Xerox machine. This is how pretentious I was. I was like, “I’ll Xerox the story ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce!” I gave it out and all the pages were out of order. It was just chaos. You know, an old woman saying, “I want to write about my old family recipes!” It was crazy.

Oh, but I learned an important thing about writing. Because there was this girl—and I put this in one of my short stories—there was this girl who said, “I’m writing a Christian romance novel.” Inside my head I was like, “Oh fuck.” She was a woman who was overweight, and her novel was about a three-hundred-pound Christian woman who would sit on and crush her romantic rivals, who were little skinny women. She would sit on them and crush them. It was the best thing in the class. Every week I was like, “I can’t wait to see what happens next in this Christian romance novel.” Because she would sit on and crush her skinny rival and then go home and be like, “Oh Lord, I’m sorry, what have I done?” It was really awesome. It was the best thing in the class by far. And I’m including Blake Butler. As good as he was, this Christian romance novel was better.

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What's the next meal?: An interview with George Singleton

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In my first fiction workshop of college, I tried to write a story about a guy who shit himself whenever he got anxious.

He got anxious a lot.

My professor, author Tom Franklin, wisely wrote at the bottom of my first draft, “cut the shit.” He also wrote the name George Singleton somewhere in that draft. The name meant nothing to me at the time. I thought it might’ve been a note Tom wrote to himself, like a name of a new hotshot mechanic in town who was recommended to him or something. Later, he told me that Singleton was an author and that I ought to read him.

“It’ll help,” he said.

Reading Singleton, I learned that you don’t need to turn your story into a poop joke to be funny, and you don’t need have something “slide out” to make your characters interesting. Good fiction isn’t a quick emotional trick – it’s a full emotional investment that draws your mind back later and makes you think, “Goddamn!” while you’re alone in your car noshing on a cheeseburger.  Singleton did that for me. He was a torch!

Anyways, you ought to go read his work, and you have plenty to choose from. He’s written five short story collections and two novels. Plus, one book of writing advice. He’s also got a couple books coming out soon. If you read this interview, you’ll learn more about them.

A couple months ago, Singleton spoke to me for about forty-five minutes. Afterwards he went and picked a few muscadines.

George Singleton

George Singleton

Phil McCausland: How did you get started with writing?

George Singleton: Well I’m old, so it’s gonna take a long time to explain this.

The more I think about it, I started writing when I was about fifteen or something, but I didn’t know it. I was a distance runner, so I’d get up real early in the morning and run. And I’d run sort of like Forrest Gump – six to nine miles in the morning. I was an okay distance runner. I mean, I was good. So I ran, ran, ran.

I didn’t do all that great in high school – I didn’t care. I went to college because a track coach said, “Come here.” I ripped a ligament in my senior year of high school, so I kind of couldn’t run anymore. And then went off to that same college, it’s called Furman. I was so far behind, and also because Furman was really Baptist and I wasn’t, I hid in the library a lot. So I really started writing in college.

So then I wrote bad poetry and bad plays and then bad novels. About the age of twenty, I started writing bad prose and did that for about eight years. In between, I got an MFA somehow and started writing short stories. And then that all took.

Meanwhile, some of my professors had said, “hey dickhead! Try writing in first person because you’re trying to be funny, and you can’t do it in third person.” And then I wouldn’t do that. After that a bunch of them said, “It takes about 1000 pages before you’re ready.” And I thought, I’m a lot smarter than that, it won’t take me 1000 pages. But it took a 450 page novel, and then a 300 page novel, then 450, then 250, then a 300 page novel before I really started getting published.

Everybody was right, I was wrong. That’s how it goes.

I started writing short stories like hell because I hadn’t read a lot of short stories. I was a bad reader – I am a bad reader now. I’m forever catching up. But I started teaching college in a whole lot of English 101 classes, and I didn’t have the patience to write more bad novels. I didn’t even know how to send them out. So that’s how that happened.

Meanwhile! Somewhere along that line, towards age 28, I started reading some good short story writers, like Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor, and went, “Oh, I can write about the South and small towns.”

I’d been told earlier, “Quit writing about France because you’ve been there for a week. Write about where you’re from, shithead.” And then it all kind of caught up. Then I started writing about kind of the same thing I’ve been writing about for the last 20 or 30 years.

Not thirty years, I’m not that old. Twenty-seven years, Phil. Twenty-seven years.

PM: What was your first publication where you thought, alright this is going to happen?

GS: I went to this MFA school at George Mason for a semester back when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and they had this magazine called Phoebe. And I kind of did a little excerpt, but it was because my buddy was the editor and it was a new magazine. And then I was in Greensboro, I’d just got out of Greensboro [UNCG MFA program], they did a little excerpt from a bad novel. But it was just because I had gone there.

What I think is my first real acceptance, where no one really knew me, was at a little magazine called Sou’wester. S-O-U-apostrophe-wester. It was a regular short story. And then I went, “Okay, that’s all right.”

It was a real short story. It took me a couple weeks to write, it took them nine months to accept. It’s like giving birth. That’s kind of the first one I think.

I always think it’s Sou’wester as my first successful one. I didn’t feel guilty about it, you know?

PM: These People Are Us was your first short story collection, right?

GS: Yeah, but that first story that got accepted was like 1986 or ’87 and my first book came out in 2001.

PM: But I heard a rumor that you don’t look back fondly on These People Are Us.

GS: Well I’m not a big fan of anything I’ve written in the past because it’s kind of dead meat. I’m serious. I go, “Okay, that was then.”

You know, there’re some okay stories – they’re okay. I bet if I got hit in the head and forgot who I was and read those stories I’d go, “All right, maybe they deserve to be published in a magazine.” But I’m not sure I would.

It doesn’t matter to me. There are these people out there who talk about these meals they’ve eaten years in the past, and they go, “That was the best meal I’ve ever eaten twenty years ago in Paris.”

Okay, good for you. I just say it was food, and what’s the next meal?

PM: How do you come up with story ideas and how do you develop stories?

GS: Usually I kind of hear in my head a little voice that says a sentence. Let’s see, what am I working on now?

I got a buddy named Ron Rash and he always says, and I make fun of him, he says, “I have a vision. Like when I wrote Serena, I had a vision of a woman on a white horse.” I don’t really have a vision, but I have a little voice that says something. And it usually has some kind of conflict in it.

Let me look at what I’m writing on today… Oh geez… I can’t find it. Lord, I hope I didn’t lose that whole goddamn story.

Okay, this one goes, “Nobody wants a roommate between the ages of say twenty-five and eighty.”

So I heard this voice. There’s this story by Rick Bass called “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” and I kind of had that in my mind. It’s a great story. It’s an unreliable, vindictive, angry narrator, and I knew that this narrator, in whatever my story is going to be – I’m not even half-way through – is going to be a guy that was forced to get a roommate because of foreclosure, his wife left, and all this stuff. I just kind of went, “okay, see where that goes.”

Usually there’s some kind of conflict that shows up – right away. And you just kind of fly and see where it goes.


PM: So you never have your story planned out? You just have a first line and go from there?

GS: No, no, no. I kind of never know. I mean, I do know this: I kind of know because a long time editor for me at Algonquin once said to me, “George, a good short story’s ending kisses the beginning of the story, and your stories tend to grope the beginning of your stories. You’re raping the beginning of your story.”

What she meant was if I start it in a used car lot, I should probably end it somehow in a used car lot or the narrator driving by a used car lot or some kind of thought about a used car lot. So I know that this one is probably going to end with looking for a new roommate, having to put out an advertisement. I kind of know. It makes it a lot easier. I kind of know how it’s going to end. I’m not worried about it.

PM: I read this thing that you said once, “A writer gets his best work from excess.” I was wondering if you still believe that idea.

GS: Everything in excess instead of moderation? That kind of thing? That kind of thought?

PM: Yeah.

GS: Well I’m just being mean really because I had this background in philosophy and there was that guy Aristotle who said, everything in moderation. I just hate that idea of moderation. I’m not a real big fan of human beings who are in moderation. I’ve met people before and they’ll say, “I can drink one beer a day.” And what I say is drink real hard or don’t drink at all. Either one.

Don’t be like them because they’re boring.

My writing style probably is like that. I write it out real fast and hard usually and then cut. Instead of a little bit at a time. It works either way. I mean some writers, like I have friends who really work on a paragraph forever and ever and ever and the next paragraph forever and ever and ever, and after a year they got this one story, and it will probably come out in the Atlantic Monthly. But I don’t have that kind of patience.

PM: How long does it take you to get through a story? Is it different story to story?

GS: God! In the old days, I’d write like – old days being up until a few months ago, I just took a new job and things aren’t going so hot – in the old days, two a month.

Now I’m getting older and I’m running out of ideas. Hell, I spend half my time just trying to think up names. I’m just going, “God, I’ve used that name – Frank! Frank has shown up in a hundred short stories. I got to think of a different name.”

But if you think you write six or eight hundred or a thousand words a day, and a short story at the max I think should be five thousand words, that’s going to take a week. And then a week of tinkering with it.

PM: You start early in the morning every day when you start writing, right? You get up at 4:30?

GS: 4:30 AM. Yeah.

PM: Do you need music or something? Do you hang out in the dark by yourself?

GS: Gosh, it’s kind of changed a little bit because right now I’ve moved to a new house and my study is right above the bedroom, so I can’t crank music or Glenda is going to yell at me a lot. Wake her up. I guess I could use headphones – I didn’t think about that.

Normally I have bad, which I think is good, punk music or whatever: White Stripes, that’s not so punk, Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Minutemen, something like that – something that’s kind of white noise to me.

PM: I’m just kind of curious about what your twenties were like because I’m in my twenties, and it seems to be an interesting time for most people.

GS: Twenties for me were the 1980s, and maybe there were a lot of drugs more prevalent, and maybe, but I’m not saying, I started drinking real early. I started drinking when I was thirteen or fourteen. But I worked, especially in graduate school.

You could talk to my old friends and they’d go, “Yeah, Singleton was a bad drunk, but, for some unknown reason, he’d get up early and did his work.”

And I did. I kind of liked it. It was fun to get up with a hangover. It’s kind of fun.

It’s kind of like if you go on a big road trip, you get real drunk the night before and you got a bad hangover, and then, say you’re driving from here [northeastern South Carolina] to Memphis, by the time I get to Nashville my hangover is gone, and I’d say, “Oh, I only have a few more hours to go.”

And that’s kind of how it was with writing, I’d go, “Oh goddamn, my hangover finally let up, and I’ve written five hundred words – good.”

PM: So do you have a secret for getting over hangovers easily then?

GS: I wrote an article one time for Oxford American about hangover cures, and it came out in like Best American Food Writing oddly enough. It involved Vienna sausages and habanero peppers. I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone.

PM: Tom Franklin fed me my first Vienna sausage last year.

GS: Oh yeah? Oh man, they’re good and good for you. They’re also good for sick dogs. Whenever I have dogs that won’t eat – you know I got dogs, right?

Dog goes, “Man, I can’t eat, I’ve fucked up, I ate a rabid squirrel, or whatever.”

And I say here, “Here you want a Vienna sausage?”

And they’ll go, “Yeah, I’ll eat a Vienna sausage. I won’t eat dog food, but I’ll eat a Vienna sausage.”

PM: I heard you got a pool, and you were really excited about it but now you hate your pool. Is that true?

GS: There’s a pool at this new house. This morning I got up and graded papers, then I wrote, then I went out with this fucking net, because there was a bad storm and there were leaves all over the fucking pool, so that’s what I did to the pool. And it’s too cold. I guess I need to put some kind of net on it because it’s too cold now. Although two nights ago, it was really cold and maybe I’d had a beer or two, and I said to Glenda, “Hey, let’s get in this pool.”

And she said, “No, are you fucking crazy?”

I jumped in. It was real, real cold. I can’t swim. I can barely swim. You know I’m not like some swimmer. I don’t even think you should swim unless a shark’s coming after you.

So, we’ll see. That’s how I’ll die. I’ll drown in that pool.

PM: Yeah, just walk into the pool.

GS: Just like Virginia Woolf.

PM: Exactly. Just in a swimming pool. It’s a lot more poetic.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

George Singleton with his dog

George Singleton with his dog

PM: This is a question that everyone asks, but I want to know. What are you reading right now?

GS: Yeah, I’m teaching a bunch, so I’ve been teaching standbys for me. I’m teaching a fiction writing class…

Actually I went around my class the other day, and these are twenty year old college students in a fiction writing class, and I said, “Besides the classics, besides what you’re being asked to read in classes, and besides Harry fucking Potter, what have you read?” And it was nothing, nothing, Hunger Games, Hunger Games, nothing.

Then one girl said, “Well I like to read the classics that I’m not assigned. Right now I’m reading Gone With the Wind.”

And I went, “You dumb fuck, that’s a goddamn romance novel.”

And then it was nothing, nothing, and then two of them, they’re twenty years old, they were talking about YA books by Jonathan Green, and I was appalled. Now meanwhile, I have had them read Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill – I’m only like three weeks into the class – Bobbie Ann Mason, Dale Ray Phillips, Pendarvis, and a few others. I mean a bunch, so it’ll eventually take.

Me personally, the last great books I’ve read recently are: Why We Live in Water by Jess Walter, Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, Jamie Quatro… I can’t think of the title of her book [I Want to Show You More]. I can see the cover. It’s got a lot of silver tinfoil on the cover. Those are great bad marriage stories. That’s about it for me that I can think of off the top of my head.

I’ve also read a biography of John Cheever by Blake Bailey that is great. And Cheever was once stationed in an army base called Camp Croft, and it’s kind of right across the street from where I live right now. I mean Camp Croft land is about right across the road. So I like to think John Cheever was running around my yard at some point in his life.

PM: I remember in my fiction workshop we read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay. It freaked half the class out.

GS: We haven’t read that yet. I’m reading that on Halloween day. It’s a great story, and William was a great man. I loved him. I have about six million stories about him and his crazy pit-bull. I miss him terribly.

PM: Well I don’t know what else I have for you. I’m kind of nervous. You got anything you want to add?

GS: I think you’d be better off hanging out at City Grocery or Ajax, drinking all afternoon, and making up answers that I said. That would be fine by me.

PM: Yeah?

GS: Catfish dip! Hey, listen. One time I was in Ajax – you know there for a while it was like a goddamn book tour every fucking year or I’d be doing something, and I’d end up in Oxford. I really liked that catfish dip they had at Ajax, and I don’t know who owns Ajax or anything, but one day I said, “Hey, I sure wish I had the recipe for this stuff.”

I think it was Tom [Franklin] or Jim Dees or someone who said, “Well we can maybe get it.” And they got the owner.

She came out and said, “I’ll go print it out for you.”

I said, “Oh God, that is so kind and nice of you. What a friendly gesture.”

She came back with a piece of paper that started off, “Take four hundred smoked catfish filets…”

And I went, “Well I don’t want to make enough for a fucking town, man. I just want to make enough for me. How do I reduce this?”

PM: You got something new coming out?

GS: I got a new book coming out May 13. And I presume I’ll probably be on another book tour, although summer book tours suck. I mean, book tours suck in general, and summer book tours suck in particular. Because people are at the beach, or they’ve got better things to do than hang out in a fucking book store at night. But maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be in the fall.

PM: Can you tell me about the next book?

GS: The next book that’s coming out is stories and a novella. It’s called Between Wrecks. My last book is called Stray Decorum, and it used to be four hundred-some-odd pages, but because of an agent it got cut in half.

So I got an ongoing narrator named Stet Looper, and he kind of shows up in both, and then he tells this novella. And the novella, it’s called I Would be Remiss, and it’s all acknowledgements. You know how at the end of a novel or any book now, “I would like to thank my agent, I would to like my editor, I would like to…” So I wrote one that’s ninety pages long. You can kind of figure out what the guy’s book is about by what he says in the acknowledgements.

I hope. I hope.

Then I’m supposed to be, I think, writing this novel, which really isn’t going that well. I think it’s called Poke. It’s about a guy being brought up by his uncle. But the more I write it, the more I think that his fucking uncle sounds like that dude on Duck Dynasty called Si. And that’s pissing me off. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that one. Maybe just in the drawer with the rest of the bad ones.

PM: Aw…

The world will be okay without it.

PM: Are you going to get some muscadines now?

GS: Yeah, four o’clock. Four o’clock I’m going to pick muscadines and scuppernong, too.

PM: Well enjoy the muscadines!

GS: Yeah, yeah. No lie.

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A comfortable slam-dunk: An interview with Cole Furlow (Dead Gaze)

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The first time I saw Cole Furlow play as Dead Gaze, I hadn’t planned on going out. I’d been awake for thirty hours and was feeling like a real melancholy turd, sitting on a bar’s porch alone, smoking cigarettes and drinking PBR and Jim Beam. Not a swell time, bad head space. But then familiar faces swarmed the bar, all there for some live music. I remember someone saying the music would be “primo.”

Inside, Furlow started playing with his band, but I stayed on the porch. I was talking to some girl I hadn’t met before about her 1010660_10100760989926946_1421116066_naccounting degree. Not real interesting stuff, but in my sleepless delirium I somehow kept the conversation going. As we were talking, hopeful music, escapist music, floated through the open door. I crushed my beer, told the accountant I was going to get another one, and went inside. Don’t you doubt that I didn’t get another beer, but I also stayed to see Dead Gaze play. I listened to them and my eyes stopped burning and my teeth stopped grinding. I felt normal – comfortable even.

I’ve gone to as many Dead Gaze shows as I could since then. Furlow turned me into a fucking fanboy. There’s a reason for that: Dead Gaze rules. The dude’s pulled together a sick lo-fi poppy grunge sound. The lyrics are gold, too. You walk through your day, listening to Furlow’s songs, and it’s like he’s narrating your outside world. The music, the lyrics, they all match up with reality and stick with you. It’s hummable as shit.

On October 22, Dead Gaze released its next album, Brain Holiday. They’re songs that Furlow has been putting on his setlists lately, and they’ve added a whole new energy to his shows. I’ve listened to the whole album, and it’s killer. But you don’t have to trust me. Go to your local record store and pick up a copy.

I also interviewed Furlow on the porch of a different bar. We talked about his music, his new album, and his compulsions. So pop on his album, read the interview, and get to know the fella and his music.

Phil McCausland: How long have you been doing this semi-professionally to professionally?

Cole Furlow: I mean I’ve been getting paid making music since I was twelve years old. Now, by no means was that some IMG_0259professional band, but we rehearsed three times a week, we had a guy that kind of guided us in ways – he was our coach almost.

But I’ve been playing for a paycheck since I was twelve. Now with this outfit, Dead Gaze, I’ve been doing it since 2008-2009. When that time came around for me to start making Dead Gaze, it was past due, like I’ve been needing to do something like this. I was late to the game in some ways.

PM: When did Dead Gaze come into its own for you?

CF: That’s a general thing because for me “coming into its own” means the live performance was there as well as the recordings. It’s an all encompassing type thing. So for me it probably wasn’t until about two years ago really, when the band was really on top of it with Jimmy (Cajoleas) and Alex Warren was playing drums, Jim Henegan was playing bass. We went into Sweet Tea, we made the next record and at that point it felt like, “Well this is a reality, I can actually do this and make some money and we’ll see how far it can take me because it could take me somewhere at this point.”

Before then it was like, “Oh, I’ve got these recordings, I’ve got these songs: let’s throw them out there and see what happens.” But then it started to snowball into something a little bit more. By no means am I saying it’s this big well-oiled machine or anything. But it’s definitely a thing.

PM: So the Dead Gaze album was your first full length album?


CF: Yeah, as far as full lengths go, LPs, yes it was. Before that I had done a bunch of cassettes, CD-Rs, 7 inches, 10 inches, those kinds of things. And every one of them had an EP kind of feel to it really.

The longest thing I’d produced before the LP was this tape called End of Days Why Not You, and it had 10 tracks on it or something like that, maybe less than that. It was a full kind of thing. But as far as full on LP release with everything all encompassing, that was my first one. And it was a compilation at that.

PM: But it’s kind of all the best of all those songs, right?

CF: It’s the best of them in the label’s eyes. It wasn’t the best of in my eyes. I would’ve put some other songs on there, but you got to remember I’m at the mercy of my label in some ways. So they were the ones that picked out those songs. I would have probably put “It’s Not Real,” bigger tracks like that. But it was cool, they added a lot of songs I wouldn’t have thought of.

For instance, that song “Fishing with Robert” I wouldn’t have put that on the record, but they were like, “This is good.” That makes me feel good in some ways, you know. Because when you don’t recognize how good something is and then you come back to it and someone else is like, “Oh that’s a good jam” you rethink it and you’re like, “Okay well that kind of boosts my confidence in some kind of weird way.” It makes you feel a little bit better.

PM: Yeah, at some point you have to release it to somebody else, so they can be like, “Hey this is good.”

CF: I call that process “kicking it out the door.” You work on it so hard, it’s your baby, its your thing, you spend all of your waking hours devoted to it and at a certain point you hit the wall and you’re like, “I can’t go any further with this,” so you have to just kick it out the door.

PM: So this new album, Brain Holiday, comes out October 22. That’s all new stuff, right?dead-gaze-brain-holiday-500x500-400x400

CF: Well it’s two older songs that I’ve had that we didn’t really release. The song “Carry on Real Nice” got released on a compilation record of an older recording. That was one of my first recordings I ever made. That’s why it sounds so insanely boisterous and youthful in some ways. But I rerecorded that song, I rerecorded a song called “Stay Don’t Say,” and those are the only two that were kind of older songs that we hadn’t really introduced in that light. “Stay Don’t Say” was on a cassette that was released a while back, but it’s a different version of the song.

So yeah, this is 100 percent new to me. It’s a clean record. It’s really not fuzz in the sense that it’s some sort of compression, some sort of digital peaking or anything like that. It’s very direct. Every sound that we made was deliberate. When there’s a lot of sounds on my other recordings, that just sort of happened, due to a mixture of things and me generally not knowing every single avenue that I’m making my music in. Some surprises just kind of happen.

But on this record there weren’t very many surprises – very direct. And every kind of sound we put on the record, we did a lot of a deliberation to make sure that we all thought that was the most diplomatic decision for that song or that sound. So in a sense that was the first time it’s been like that. Very much a band record. I was the one that was in control of it, but I definitely had a band.

PM: So you weren’t doing all of it by yourself?imgres

CF: Hell no. I wish. But I did the majority of it. I didn’t do the drums, I didn’t do very much percussion, I did most of the guitars, with the exception of the guitar work that Henegan and Cajoleas did. And the stuff that they brought to the table was invaluable. Stuff I would never have thought of, things I would never have dreamed of putting on there, but then when they put it on there it’s like, “Oh well, this song can’t be without this now.” Very integral things that were put there that I never even thought of.

PM: It keeps building on it.

CF: Exactly. Right. And so with a sense of knowing that you can get a better grasp of how the record was made. Everyone that knows Jim Henegan knows he’s kind of soft-spoken, he leads by his actions, he’s a very modest man, and I’m kind of the opposite in some ways. Like I’m more in your face, a little bit more aggressive in some ways. So the joke around the studio that whole time was he was Spock and I’m Captain Kirk. You know, he’s the one who’s like, “Alright Cole, do you really want to do this?” And I’m like, “Fuck it, we’re doing this.” It was like shooting from the hip always, but he was kind of like, “Let’s reign it in a little bit.” And that little bit of action that he put on that was invaluable.

PM: You’ve named the album Brain Holiday, what’s the meaning behind that?

CF: Well it’s really funny. Hennigan and I after a huge Dude Ranch party still had gear setup from the night before. We end up waking that morning a little hungover, we smoked a little grass and we were like lets go hang out in the big room and jam a little bit. I got on the drums and he was on this Juno keyboard. He hit this weird arpeggiating, weird thing and it sounded a lot like Willy Wonka. Like that theme:Creepiest-Willy-Wonka

Cole hums the Willy Wonka theme

You know this weird, very psychedelic thing. I said, “Oh, that’s genius, let’s add on that.” Immediately I went to the drums and added these super minimalist drums. Just:

Boom kah, Boom kah

Nothing else, just very minimal, just let that arpeggiator ride out. So we had that song and I remember a couple weeks later we went into Sweet Tea and Jim was like, “Yo, do you remember that time we were at the dude ranch and we did that weird Willy Wonka jam thing.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, the Wonka Jam.” We called it the Wonka Jam for so long. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great jam. Let’s see what happens.” We had a little bit of time, I got the right arpeggiator going, it was a little bit different than what we made, but it was still very much the same vibe. I told Alex the drums I wanted to do, and of course Alex being the better drummer than I am completely elaborated. Still very minimal, but when it kicked in, it was this massive, huge, very deliberate thing.

I just thought about the whole time, when I made that song, when Jim and I were actually writing that song, we were still in this weird state of mind. We were just kind of waking up, we were kind of still in a dream state, were kind of high, just a mixture of all Photo (3)these things. It ended up with us spending a lot of time getting that song right and then we figured out that while we were in Sweet Tea it was this Brain Holiday. It was this amazing, amazing holiday you’re on. We didn’t really know what to do with it really. We just made it this thing to elaborate on. I just thought, what a great idea: take your brain on a holiday. Your body can go on a holiday. The idea of a holiday is you remove yourself from what you’re normally into, and then you go to this place and you drop everything and feel better. I was just thinking what if you could do that to your brain? Just take your brain [grasps his own noggin] and send it on a holiday.

That’s what we were on when we were at Sweet Tea. We’re in this million-dollar studio, we’re recording a record on this console that there are three of them in existence. This amazing shit, and we’re sitting here spending all this time working on a record. It was the first time I’ve ever really had that opportunity to be in a studio like that. It just seemed like the right idea to call it that.

We’re on a brain holiday, we might as well call it that and see what happens.

PM: Is that the idea of the record? Is that what you pulled from?

Photo (2)

CF: In some ways, yeah. It’s a concept record in the sense that, I keep saying in the press release, I want people to feel good about why they’re going to the music in the first place. People go to the music to feel better. I want to exploit the reason they feel better. I want people to go to that record and say, “Oh shit! I am on a brain holiday when I hear this. I can completely turn off all my senses and lay here and listen to how spacey and how heavy and how poppy and all these different elements of these songs.”

I just kind of wanted it to kind of slam-dunk you in a comfortable way. I didn’t want it to hurt anyone or be aggressive in the sense that like it’s not for every general public person. I just wanted it to be this escape.

PM: What do you get out of it when you’re making music? When you’re writing songs? 

CF: Oh, I don’t get very much out of it. Not anymore. The only thing I get out of it is that’s song done, lets go to the next one.

PM: But there’s a compulsion there then.

CF: Oh, yeah. I have to make songs because that’s what I’m here on earth to do. I figured that out a couple years ago. I’m not good at anything else. I’m not saying I’m great at this either, but I do know that I can do it. So it’s kind of this attitude thing with me. I don’t get anything out of you liking my music, man. It makes me happy, I guess in some ways, it makes me comfortable feeling. But the reward is the fact that it’s done.

PM: So you’re getting something out of doing it, though.

CF: Yeah, absolutely. What I get out of it is a feeling of accomplishment. I don’t go to sleep at night until the idea of that song or Photo (4)whatever I’m working on is done. I’m an obsessive compulsive. When I’m making a record, my girlfriend can’t communicate with me and I’m kind of a tough dude to be around. And that’s because it completely consumes me in everyway: the way I eat, the way I dream at night, the way I sleep, the way I see things, the way I drink, the way I smoke cigarettes. If I’m in the moment making something, working, the only thing I get out of it in that sense is the satisfaction of how hard I’m working and once it’s done the accomplishment is everything because that means I get to go to the next thing.

It’s always about making the next thing. It’s not about sitting here and slamming the one you’re on right now. Obviously you want that to be as good as you want it to be and how hard you worked on it, that will show, but the truth is it’s all about getting it done and making the next one. Sustainability, keeping on going. Until I get to the point where I can slam out songs, be happy with them, and then get out to the next one, I’m not really a normal human.

PM: So it’s not really a question of discipline.

CF: Yeah, it’s a compulsion. Well, it is discipline in the sense that when I’m working everything I’m thinking about is that. I put all of my effort into it. It’s not discipline I put onto myself. It’s this nice thing that’s just there that I’m like, “I can do this. Oh God, I’m good at this.” It’s this weird feeling.

When I’m not making anything, I’m a mess. If I’m not making something at that time, I’m a pretty big wreck. But when I’m making a big, big project as much as I seem like I’m not happy, deep inside I’m like the happiest you’ve ever, ever seen.

PM: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on passion. We’ve talked a little about it before.1001900_10151580848996270_490790063_n

CF: When it comes to my stuff, I care about my stuff – obviously. But when it’s somebody else’s stuff then I have no desire for it unless you’re putting 100 percent into it. And if you putting 100 percent into it means you’re putting 50 percent into it and it’s still genius, that’s your 100 percent, and to me that’s kind of badass.

I guess what I’m saying is I really appreciate how hard people work on records, and if you’re not really working hard on anything, then I want nothing to do with it. Because when you’re working your hardest, the nuance of what you do comes out.

PM: So at the end of it though, what do you want? You just want the next project? Bigger and bigger? But you have some other goals too, like you were telling me about wanting to play for Liverpool.

CF: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a good goal.

PM: Are there goals like that that you want?

CF: I want to make a really big record. I want to make one of those records that’s like four LPs. I want to make a White Album type record. I want to make a concept record, like a really big concept record. I want to make a synthesizer record. I want to make an ambient record. I want to make a semi-country record. And in that way those are kind of the goals: to get those projects going, so I can get onto the next one.

I can’t stress to you how much I pine for the next project. When I’m working on something, and it’s done – it feels good because it’s done. And then I can be like, “I’m going to take a little break here, maybe a week or two, and then go to the next one.”

PM: Is that train of thought ever distracting? So while you’re working on a record, you’re like, “Man, I really want to get to this next thing.”

CF: Yeah, in some ways. But that’s the drive to get through it: to get on to the next one. I can’t tell you how much I want to spend all my time on making sure I can keep going to the next one.








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Telling the story of you: An interview with Manuel Gonzales

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One of the few perks of being an intern at a literary magazine is that you can request books from publishers. This past summer I happened to be an intern at such a magazine. So once I became privy to this information, I started scouring the Internet for books that might be cool. I found a bunch that were amazing. Some short story collections, a few biographies, poetry, even a couple books of photos. But the crown jewel, the one that popped open my brain cave, was Manuel Gonzales’s The Miniature Wife: and Other Stories. Gonzales writes stories that I wish I were smart enough or brave enough to write. These narratives are fun and interesting and fantastical. They’re stories filled with unicorns and zombies and werewolves and shrink rays.

But they aren’t just fantastic because Gonzales puts real heart into them. He tweaks reality to see how normal people deal with Unknownextraordinary situations. Never once while I was reading did I think, well this is just preposterous. Gonzales carries you through them and forces you to believe the unbelievable. My disbelief has never been so suspended! He brings you into his world and offers you the La-Z-Boy nearest the television.

I was super pumped to get to talk to Gonzales. We chatted on the phone. The guy saved my summer in a lot of ways. His book was a way for me to chill out after some highbrow literary dick-measuring sword fights. So for that, I owe him a whole bunch of high-fives.

Gonzales is also the Director of the Austin Bat Cave, where he works with youths in the community and shows them an amazing world of words and literature. Talking to him really brightened a rainy Wednesday. He was never as lively or passionate as when he was talking about the Bat Cave and working with kids. It made me real hopeful to see that the writing world isn’t always as cutthroat and gloomy as people make it out to be. That there’re folks in it trying to help others.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, so I’m going to quit rambling and just tell you to read his book and this interview. He’s one of the good ones. Now hasten to a bookstore ya beefbot!

Phil McCausland: How did you start writing?

Manuel Gonzales: I didn’t like writing in school, in high school or middle school, until my senior year. Then I had an English teacher who made us write interesting things and was really good at highlighting the good things that I did and downplaying the bad things that I did in writing – the bad things being grammar and clear expression of my thoughts. Her focusing on my ideas, even though I didn’t express them very clearly, made me want to express them more clearly. After that I kind of caught the bug.

So I went to the University of Texas, majoring in English, with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But one day over the summer, between my sophomore and junior years, I woke up with this idea in my head for a story, and I just started writing it without having any idea of what I was doing or where I would go, which ended up being nowhere. But that became my focus, I became obsessed with writing these stories that weren’t very good and then making my friends read them with me standing behind them. I’m sure it was horrible and annoying.

After that I decided I wanted to be a writer and not a lawyer, and I made that decision without knowing what that really meant. For a few years it meant just floundering in Austin, acting like I was a writer without actually being very much of a good one. Finally, I decided I should take it more seriously, and I applied for graduate schools.

First I was going to apply for PhD programs in English and realized that I didn’t really like writing the critical papers I was writing for those applications, that I would rather work on the fiction stuff I had in my head. And so at the last minute, I changed track and applied to a couple of MFA programs, ended up going to Columbia.

PM: Is it then that you figured that writing was a viable option?

MG: I never really thought about it as a viable option or not a viable option. My parents both spent a good portion of their lives working jobs that they didn’t necessarily like and putting on hold the things they maybe would have done, my father especially.  He wanted to be a writer and he ended up working for the IRS for thirty or thirty-five years. So they always impressed on my sister and I that we should do what we want and do what we love.

I think they were really happy that what I wanted to do and what I loved to do was law [laughs], and then that changed. But they still said, “Manuel, you should totally do what you want.” So I never really thought of it as a way to survive on writing alone. Even in grad school I had a job, and I’ve had a job consistently and sometimes multiple.

PM: But at what point did you think, writing is really working out for me?

MG: I think it was before I started grad school but after I got into grad school that I felt pretty happy with what I was writing. The happiness with what I was writing changed very quickly, but I get a lot of pleasure out of sitting down and making stuff up and creating stories. There have been times I really doubted, before the collection came out especially there was a lot of doubt in my own mind about whether I would be a successful writer based on just having publications outside of the few journals I’d published in, but I never doubted that writing was the right thing for me.

But they’re weirdly separated for me, or until just recently they’ve been very separate: that I would not stop writing. Even if it was not writing as part of a career versus “what other things am I going to have to do to support me and my family?” Since I’ve started, writing has always been something that has worked out for me and that I’ve just enjoyed so much that I can’t go very long without doing it. Only recently, once the collection was sold, and that same summer the collection was sold I started progress on a novel that I became very happy with – whereas the first novel I tried to write took me six years and seven or eight drafts and none of them ever working – have I felt as though I’m making a career out of being a writer. That happened summer of 2011, when the collection was sold, and I started that novel.

PM: I’ve found that the first lines of all your stories are killer. I was wondering is that the starting point or are do you header swamp monstersconstantly tinker with them?

MG: Thanks. I do tinker with some of them. Some of them become starting points. The “Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer” was a starting point. In “Life on Capra II,” that whole first paragraph came to me one night while I was grading high school English papers and was frustrated and needed a break. I was like, “I’m going to write the dumbest first few sentences I can think of.” And I thought that robots and swamp monsters attacking seemed pretty dumb because I didn’t have anything to go with it. I enjoyed writing that paragraph, and I was like, “I feel better.”

But I shelved it, I put it away. Two years later, I came back to it and wrote the rest of the story, once I knew what it was going to be about. But those first lines came to me as a test to write the dumbest thing I could think of [laughs]. And the challenge became well how do I make it into an actual story even though I’m talking about swamp monsters and robots.

PM: Your stories are really fantastical, but you’re amazing at suspending the reader’s disbelief. You create whole new realities. How did you get to these fantastical stories? Who did you look to?

MG: Growing up I liked a lot of fantasy and sci-fi and comic books. As I got older and going through college, I got invested in a lot of Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich and Hemingway and Milton and Shakespeare and all the things you should read when you’re an English major. But when I was casting about my first year of graduate school, I also got introduced to – you know – I’d never read Borges, I’d never read Kafka. I didn’t know anything about George Saunders. There were all these writers that were contemporary and iconic that I had no idea about, and they kind of all, after a while, smashed together in my head.

I mean, Kafka does so many things with the fantastic, and Borges too but in a weird, clinical way. I thought that those were both really interesting counterpoints to Garcia Marquez, who I was reading a lot when I was in college.

What I found was that I enjoyed the storytelling most when I would try and introduce these outlandish concepts into what should be everyday lives and see how those two butt up against each other and see the tension that comes out of them. But I always think back to Kafka and “The Hunger Artist” and the “Metamorphosis.”

But then I love very realistic nonfiction writers like Joseph Mitchell and Ann Frazier. I read their work whenever I’m stuck and have no idea what to do when writing, and they’re maybe the polar opposite of the fantastic, except that they create these rich, interesting stories out of real things. It’s always a nice grounding effect for me.

PM: Who are you looking at now?

MG: I was in Cork in Ireland for the International Short Story Festival, there I was introduced to a couple of short story writers I’d never met. I just finished Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, Safe as Houses, and that’s an excellent book. And then I met a Londoner, Adam Merrick, who’s published by Carcanet Press. I’m reading his book, Instructions for Swallowing, which is also a really good collection.

But I recently, for personal reasons, I got onto a thriller kick, so I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. And I was reading, it’s not JPPORTIS1-popupreally a thriller, but I always think of Charles Portis as a driving narrator. I was just reading Norwood by Charles Portis.

PM: He’s one of my favorites.

MG: Yeah, he does really interesting things. Instead of just moving the story along, all of sudden there’ll be a guy that does a thing and then you’re off in another direction [laughs].

PM: Have you read Dog of the South?

MG: I haven’t, no. I’ve read Masters of Atlantis, Norwood, and True Grit.

PM: Oh, you really ought to. I think Dog of the South might be his best.

MG: Cool, I’ll check it out. I’m going to the library this afternoon. I’ll see if they have it.

PM: So are you happy with how the collection came out? Do you feel good about it?

MG: I am, I feel really good about it. I’ve always liked the stories, but I was really happy with the way Riverhead handled it. I think the cover’s awesome and hilarious because I’d imagined, with the title The Miniature Wife, that the illustrator might come up with something weird or precious. And it’s not that at all. Yeah, I’m really happy with the book as an object. They’re keeping it all the same for the paperback, which doesn’t always happen. They like the design as much as I do.

When it was in copy editing, I read through it so many times, but when it came out as a book, I read through it just to feel how it came together as a book of stories. I thought it came together pretty well. It’s been fun working with Riverhead and those people – they’re good.

PM: So when did you start working for the Austin Bat Cave? What kind of work do you do?

MG: We first moved back to Austin in 2010, which is when I first started working for them – August of 2010. They’d been around for about three years already, and they brought me in. Their current director was going out, I finished graduate school, and they brought me in and wanted to find somebody that shared the vision that the founder and board president had. I’d had a lot of experience doing afterschool and summer workshops with kids and knew pretty well the 826 [Valencia] model that Dave Eggers started and had a lot of ideas coming in of how to expand programming and raise more money for the programming. So I persuaded them I was the right guy.

They pretty much handed over the reigns to me to do what I could to expand it and to make people know more about it. I had a vision for theletterhead kind of programs that I wanted us to offer and the kind of volunteers I wanted to work with us, to work with these underserved kids. I just wanted to make things fun in the classroom and afterschool, and they were kind of doing that already with screenwriting workshops and hip-hop poetry, but I also wanted to make sure the focus was – just thinking back to my own high school career and how frustrating that was for me until somebody finally pointing out the good things I was doing instead of focusing on the things I was doing horribly – I wanted our volunteers and everybody who worked with us to focus on: anything the student wrote you just say, “that’s amazing,” “that’s funny,” “that’s heartbreaking,” or “just write more.” Just to get them to write more because it’s such a daunting thing when you’re that age to write, especially since all the crap they make you write in school never feels internal. It doesn’t feel like it comes from you, even though they try to make it that way. But it still never feels like it’s you that you’re trying to get on the page.

So my focus has mostly been to make sure that people really coax out the kid and the kid’s voice and the kid’s story, whether it’s in rap lyrics or a poem or a comic strip. Or even if it’s just a drawing. If a drawing is the first way to get them to put pen to paper, then let them draw and then from that drawing something will come out of it. You just have to be patient and be persistent, and once they get to that point they just don’t want to stop, which is amazing. That’s what my goal has been to make it so they don’t want to stop telling their stories.

PM: That’s awesome.

MG: Yeah, and it’s really important, too. A lot of people are like, “What’s creative writing got to do with success?” And I try to explain to them that being able to tell the story of you will serve you well long after you leave high school, it will serve you well in any interview that you have, any college application that you put together, or any time you’re just trying to meet a new person. Having these stories about you and having a command over your own life and your own history and being able to talk about it yourself in any kind of articulate fashion is going to make your life easier and give you a leg up on every other person who doesn’t know where to begin when somebody asks them, “tell me about yourself” or “tell me about the hardship you’ve had” or “tell me how you’ve handled a situation where this happened.”

And that’s kind of our focus. I mean we play around with it. We make them write about fantasy stuff and horror stuff and make them come up with movie ideas and travel logs to places you can’t go to and stuff like that. But it all boils down to them discovering they have some power with words and then being able to use it for themselves. 





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Bowing to Big Macs: An Interview with Scott McClanahan

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You probably know about Scott McClanahan already, either because you’ve read his books or because you’ve seen his manic and strange readings, which function more as a live show or performance art than your typical bookstore snooze-a-thon. What first drew me to Scott was all the white space in his books. I mean, I thought I could read them really fast. And the stories were these perfect little fragments, each about a shit’s length. I kept Stories  in my bathroom for just that reason. Then came Stories II and Stories V!, and I realized I was a fan.


I loved the fierce energy of his stories, like the guy next to you in line at the gas station who smells bad and keeps telling you the truth loudly. There was something in there, like in my favorite Replacements songs, that seemed simple and true and impossible. When Crapalachia: A Biography of Place dropped, I had a better idea of where Scott was headed. The title is a nod to Harry Crews’ classic A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, and it follows that tradition of a heartbroke memoir of the stranger side of the world, a place that would seem impossible if it didn’t exist inside you, same as it does in everyone else.

I was really scared to interview Scott. For one, he’s real charismatic and I thought I’d kill the vibe. Plus I’d never interviewed somebody on the phone before. I figured I would mess it up by talking too much, which I did. Also I got real drunk halfway through the interview because I was so nervous. I had my girlfriend’s Amsterdam vodka and I kept mixing drinks because I accidentally bought all these limes from the Kroger. Scott was extremely gracious. We talked and talked until Scott politely excused himself to go to bed and I realized I’d kept him on the phone for almost two hours.

I’m an asshole, right? Yep, and here’s the first part of that two hour interview.

JC: I’m nervous as fuck about this interview. I’ve never done an interview before. I mean, I read a lot of them.

SM: Relax. You’re doing fine. Just go with it.

JC: Cool. Okay. I really like your books, and all. I mean that. Not in the ass-kissy sort of way where I’m buttering you up for the interview. I mean it in a real way. Like, I read all your books. Super pumped about Hill William and all.

SM: Thanks!

JC: So okay, well. How do I start this? Do I just ask a question?

SM: Jimmy, I think we’ve already begun.

JC: Okay. Right. Yeah.  So here’s my first question: in a recent interview with the Oxford American, you said something along the lines of “I’m trying to…just give you a fucking two minute song, in your face. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one.” You want to elaborate on that?

SM: Okay, well, what can I say? I was drunk during that interview. I’m no longer a drinking man. I actually fell down a hill a half an hour after that interview was over. I was supposed to take something over to Sarah’s work—she worked across the street from me, my ex-wife—and I thought I could sneak over there. It was like an hour before she got off. And I mean I was DRUNK-drunk, and I put it in between her windshield and her windshield wiper blade. And as soon as I turned, there she was, coming on out. I guess she’d gotten off work early or something. And she goes, “Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me?” because I guess she could tell I was drunk. So I tried to walk up the side of this hill, which is next to the hospital where she works, and as she drove off I fell down the hill because you know it was a Friday evening, and the grass was sort of wet. And the interview happened before that.

I would elaborate on it. Man, how can I say this without sounding like an asshole? I guess that… and I think I’ve said this before. I don’t know, man. How can I?

JC: Just sound like an asshole. Go for it.

SM: Well, I’ll get there in a second. You can count on it. But let me give you a little parable first.

There’s a filmmaker I love, Alejandro Jodorowski. When he made Santa Sangre, he took his kid to this strip club. The kid was like twelve years old and he said, “Mom’s gonna get mad.” And Jodorowski said, “It’s life, it’s life, you love this. It is the stink of life!” So he takes him to the club, and what Jodorowski didn’t understand was, it was a sex club. The woman wasn’t stripping on stage, she was having sex with this guy on stage. And the kid was fascinated by it, and his father was repulsed by it. He leaves the club frightened and horrified that he himself has witnessed these events that he set in motion. And of course at the end he has to give the kid money not to tell his mother that his father took him to a sex club where he watched two people copulating. So I guess anytime you say something like that, or try to do something like that, there’s always the opposite of it that twists back and bites you on the ass.

What I meant was it needs to be stripped back a little bit. I think there’s something bloated right now about American prose. I think with technology, language can compete with the image once again, where it couldn’t compete with the image in the 1960s and 1970s or even beforehand. I mean, you don’t get much better than Charlie Chaplin, even if you’re a real deal writer. And hopefully it has that feel to it, where there’s a quickness to it. I think people are trying too hard. That’s what I’m getting at. People are trying way too hard.

And not to say that there’s not a depth to my writing, because there is a depth to it, but it’s just right on your shoulder. I heard that on an episode of Oprah one time. Somebody, I think it was Sharon Stone, was talking about Death being right there on your shoulder, just constantly there. I guess the things that make you you, the stories that you tell, are always right there, right in front of you. I don’t mean the shit that’s in front of your eyes. Whatever makes you you is right there in your hands and your elbows and the backs of your knees. If you can tap into that, then there really is a depth to it, and that two minutes has as much complexity and contradictions and all the great things that make life life. Sometimes the two minutes thirty pop song gets really boring, too.

JC: Part of what’s appealing about your stories is not just the brevity, but the intense energy going through the whole thing and how it feels like it could fall apart at any moment.

SM: Relationships are that way. You hope there’s an intensity there, that you’re risking something with another person rather than some la de da sort of thing that a lot of people have. Or maybe even it feels crazy.

I don’t know if this is part of the answer. Maybe it is. We’ll see.

You know that surrealist Marcel Duchamp? My girlfriend was reading this to me from a Wikipedia article. I like Duchamp and I didn’t know this story. He brought home a geometry textbook, and he hung it out his third-story apartment window, so that he could teach the elements—like the wind and the sunlight—the fucking facts of life. So I think if you could dangle that geometry textbook out the window and teach something to the rain, then you’re probably okay.

JC: How do you feel about St. Francis preaching to the birds?

SM: Ah, see I think that’s wonderful. Francis is the only Catholic I think I like. Wait, that’s not true. I like tons of Catholics. They’re some of the craziest. Talk about a great faith. Catholicism. If you can kill that many people, and also convert that many people, and also help create western civilization. Wow. That’s something else.

JC: The Catholics will be there for you. I mean, they won’t give you condoms, but they’re on the front lines, taking care of your babies.

SM: The new pope – Francis, right? – is walking through the favelas, a day or two ago,  without the Pope Mobile, among a bunch of poor people, among a bunch of drug addicts. Yet at the same time, you have all these backwards ideas about things. That’s the reason why to be religious: to hate something. Or to think about one thing in a progressive way and be three thousand years backwards in something else.


JC: I think a lot of it – the hate stuff – is wanting to be a part of team, you know? I understand that. I like a lot of teams.

SM: I will tell you a part of Hill William. I once drank a whole container of grape juice when I was twelve. We were Church of Christ, and I seriously thought if I could drink that much grape juice I wouldn’t have to come to church for a year. I could get all my communions taken care of in an hour and a half. But if you drink that much grape juice you’re just going to get horrible bowel problems, you’re not going to get out of anything.

JC: Church of Christ is no music, right? No instruments, just singing?

SM: Yeah, it’s all acapella. It’s not even like sacred harp singing. What’s wonderful is when you get a full building together at a Church of Christ, it’s almost like Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. You feel the movement of the song but there’s this counterbeat that’s also happening, and some voices are catching up to other voices, and then the other voices are already ahead, and then you have the echoes bouncing around the room.

JC: And the tempos are slow as hell, right? Supposed to be slower than a heartbeat?

SM: Yeah, there’s this song we always sang for communion called “He Arose.” And it’s slow as can be. Want me to do it for you?

[sings] “Low in the grave, Jesus my Savoir—now people are falling asleep—he tore the bars away. Jesus my Lord.” Then it stops and it goes all jaunty, [starts sings again] “Up from the grave He rose!” Then it goes lightspeed. It’s like a weird accumulation of songs that don’t even go together.

JC: What do you think about Jesus? You into that guy?

SM: Oh god, I don’t even know. In some ways I am. I have a good joke.

Okay, so Jesus is on the cross and Peter’s down there. Well, Peter’s already taken off by that point, so the joke makes no sense, but for the sake of the joke let’s just say that Peter’s there. So Jesus is on the cross and he looks out and he says, “Peter come here. Come here my son.” So Peter crawls up, and the centurions beat the shit out of Peter and he crawls back into the crowd. And then like ten minutes later Jesus says, “Seriously Peter, I really need to talk to you. I have a few things that we need to discuss.” So Peter comes back up, he wipes the blood from his face, he’s like “Yes, Lord, yes, what is it?” And the centurions chop off Peter’s arms and throw him back to the crowd. Hell, why don’t we chop off his legs too just to make the joke go quicker? Jesus says one last time, “Peter please, please come up here. I have something to tell you.” And Peter crawls up using his chin to push his body up to the cross, and he says, “Yes, Lord, yes what is it?” And Jesus goes, “Peter, I can see your house from up here.”

It’s not even a funny joke. But that feels like religion to me. That feels like Jesus to me. But I guess that’s why he’s so fascinating. Like he’s angry, and he throws fits, and talk about mother issues, whew. We could go on and on.

I think I like Jesus better as a comedian. If you interpret some of those lines, like “I build my church and Peter is the rock.” Even the whole, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Like if that’s a joke, then he’s more like Coyote, the American Indian trickster god, or Zarathustra, or something like that.

I love Jesus though, too. Don’t get me wrong.

JC: Yeah, guess that was a weird question. Always wanted to ask you that, reading your stuff. Sorry. Just figured, if you’re from the South, like me, church put some kind of a permanent dent in your personality.

SM: Yeah, but what people don’t get is this: my dad’s a song leader at our church. Like if I were to go to church tomorrow, I know I would openly be emotional about those traditions and those people I grew up with. People who were fucking old when I was ten years old, and they’re ten years older and look just the same. I think that is what that stuff’s about. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why you can’t kill religion if you try to chop off its head with a shovel. There’s nothing worse than an atheist, nothing worse than that, militant atheism. That bores the hell out of me. It bores the hell out of me as much as the whole right wing Christian Right bullshit. Or even your basic everyday normal so-called Christianity.

JC: I have noticed a tendency of Christians to pray loudly in coffee shops.

SM: Then they didn’t even read the book. You’re supposed to go to pray in the closet. That’s the act itself. It’s supposed to be very humble. It’s not a show. But with all religion, it is the opiate. What we don’t want to admit about ourselves is that we want to worship stuff, maybe more so than we want to be worshipped ourselves. We want to bow down before whatever sort of idol, whether it’s Wal-Mart or a Big Mac. And I love that stuff. I would bow down before a Big Mac right now.

JC: Big Macs are so fucking good.

SM: You could have a Christian experience with a Big Mac, for sure.

JC: Were you ever in a band or anything like that?

SM: Yeah, me and Chris Oxley are in a band called the Holler Boys. We played the Empty Glass in Charleston. That’s where Hasil Adkins – you ever heard of Hasil Adkins? – always played. He got run over by a four-wheeler. That’s how he died: under mysterious circumstances. I think if you get run over by a four-wheeler it’s already mysterious circumstances. But maybe not in Boone County. And then we played at Square Books in Oxford two years, and made it a part of the reading.

JC: There’s a lot of music in your work, and you use a lot of musical metaphors and examples when you talk about writing, so I wondered about that.

SM: I think it’s the same thing. You ever heard that record label From Dust To Digital? They put out that Goodbye, Babylon compilation a few years ago.


JC: That’s the one with the cotton in it. Fucking rules.

SM: Yeah, yeah! And they include the sermons alongside the songs themselves, because they’re just as musical. You know there’s nothing more musical than the goddamn human voice, your mommy singing you a lullaby to get you to sleep, or hell, just talking to you.

JC: Remember that one sermon on there, “Black Diamond Express to Hell”? It’s got all that good rhythm.

SM: Yeah, yeah. I know that one.

JC: Shit, I interrupted you. That’s like the one thing I’m not supposed to do.

SM: No, nah, man it’s okay.

JC: Goddammit.

SM: It’s okay.

JC: Next question I guess. You have said before that you work really hard to make your stories sound conversational, and it pisses you off when people act like you just shit them out. I was talking about this recently to a writer who is much older, and better, and smarter than me, and he said you can’t do that in writing, the spontaneous thing. That you’re supposed to revise and revise and revise in writing. How do you keep your energy, the whole reckless rock and roll thing that you have in your stories?

SM: See, I would disagree with the revise, revise, revise thing. Barry Hannah, right? He’s one of your Mississippi greats. He said if you start on a short story and it’s not working and you keep revising it, you’re fucking wasting your time. It’s a stupid ass short story. What are you doing? I think people work way too much from the time they draft a story to the time they publish it. They should probably work a hell of a lot more on their life leading up to when they sit down to draft the story and then maybe the story would have a little bit more energy to it.

I think modernism has kind of sucked the life out of most literature that I’ve come across. A lot of it sounds like it was recorded at MCA or Mercury in 1983 and has that cocaine sound to production, where the life is gone. They don’t accept the echo. They don’t understand that kind of Sam Phillips idea where you have to let the Devil in the room with you. Or you fail. And the mistake is probably going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the revision that you’ve come up with. A lot of the people now that are doing this alt lit or indie lit or whatever term is given to it, I think that mistake is being accepted more.

I was listening to Lou Reed’s demos from Transformer today. And I like a lot of the demos almost better than the album, even though I love the album. We don’t have that in literature. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard, there’s a YouTube clip of all of John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” demos. A lot of stuff not even included on the anthology series. So it’s twelve minutes of him just fucking up a song. The excitement is in, oh fuck he found it! He went there and got that chord! He found it! Isn’t that fascinating! We sit around tables and take potshots at one another when we present our demos to each other, without realizing how beautiful and magical they are. Then we decide to bring in the backup singers and the Eddie Van Halen guitar – not that I don’t love Eddie Van Halen like the next redneck– and take all the weirdness out of it.

I mean, you listen to people talk about writing and it’s like they’re talking about their jobs or something.  I have a theory – we can go back to the Catholic Church on this one – you know, it’s the reason why the Reformation happened. You had your first son that you give the property to, you have your second son that you send off to law school, and then what do you do with the third son, who just likes to get drunk and fuck? Well, you make him a priest. And he could care less about Jesus or the Church, right? That’s kind of how I feel when I run across folks that – you know, they’ll even bring up their CV for you. You know, this crap that doesn’t even matter.

There’s this great book that the University of Alabama Press released a couple of years ago about Billy Sherrill and George Jones and the making of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It’s a book written entirely about the making of that song. And in that, one of their major problems is that Jones was in the middle of cocaine psychosis – he was simply taking cocaine in order to continue to drink around the clock – and he had decided that he was a duck. I swear to god, you can look this up. And he called him Doodiddle Duck and he sounded like Donald Duck. Jones wanted to release all of his songs from that point on in the voice of that duck. Supposedly there’s footage of him and Waylon Jennings on a Ralph Emory local Nashville show where Jennings is fucking with him and Jones starts talking like Doodiddle Duck. That sounds amazing. I want to hear “He Stopped Loving Her Today” from the voice of Doodiddle Duck. I mean the voice we have is perfect, but it would be nice to amp up the weirdness.

This is my problem with these—I don’t know, we call them “diploma mills”—and they always hate when you talk about them. I don’t know, they probably do some people a world of good, and god bless them. Some of my favorite writers have done those. I think it would be much better if somebody learned how to be a chemist and started to write, or if someone learned how to be an architect and then decided to write. I could go on and on and on. Because then it’s going to be something that is a little bit more “you.” And I know, the whole postmodern “who is you?” Well fuck I know who I am. You don’t tell me who you is. That’s me. I know what makes me up. It’s about forty different messed up things. I’m in touch with them enough. I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about there.

JC: You were ripping on MFA programs.

SM: Hell, I love MFA programs. I do think they are an excuse to meet people who have interests like your own and hook up with them. Most of the time in college you’re hooking up with people who don’t have common interest. Also you have the added bonus that you can psychologically attack the person in class.

JC: I hate workshops. Sorry, I interrupted you again.

SM: Don’t worry about it. I agree with you completely. This is my thing, this is the story I wanted to tell to explain this. You hear all these people that say, “I needed to make connections” or “I needed to find other people doing what I did.” There’s this story about John Cassevetes – it’s not about him, it’s about one of his producer friends – and this kid got up and he was real nervous, and he said, “Hello, Mr. So and So, would you tell me what John Cassevetes did to become the person he became and the artist he became?” The producer friend said – and of course, this was years after Cassavetes’ death – “First off, John Cassavetes wouldn’t stand up and ask a fucking question like that. He would just go and be John Cassavetes.” And I think if you go and be who you are and I go be who I am, whatever the hell that means, then we’ll all just be a lot better off. With everything.

JC: When I was growing up and wanting to be a writer and hang out with cool writer guys, they would always tell me, “You need to go out and kill something with your bare hands. You need to go hunt.” Well, I never killed anything in my whole life. My grandfather owned a restaurant and my dad works at a bank, the fuck do I know about hunting? And then I went on and asked somebody else and they said, “You need to learn all your words and be real smart. Read all this theory and get smart, and that’s how you do it.” But then I read all that stuff, and it was cool, but I didn’t get any better. It didn’t help me tell a story.

SM: Exactly. What I’m saying is, you said the man told you to go and kill something with your bare hands?  Your dad was a banker. It was right there in front of you. That man killed shit every day, right? In the life of a banker, whether or not this person gets a loan or that person. They lose their fucking house. He killed stuff on a daily basis. So it’s there, it’s always right there in front of you. You just have to pick it up and go with it.

Come back soon to read the second part of this sweet, sweet interview.


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Mostly Scary: An Interview with Mary Miller

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Mary Miller is a writer from Mississippi. She wrote the compact ass-pocket-sized masterpiece Big World, a collection of short stories that manage to be both hard-boiled and domestic, currently in its third pressing. Her novel The Last Days of California is forthcoming on Liveright Publishing, a Norton imprint. In due time Mary will take over the world. But first she let me ask her questions about books and stuff. Here goes.

Jimmy Cajoleas: You’ve said before that your first short story collection, Big World, was based in part on personal experiences. Does your new novel The Last Days of California differ from this?

Mary Miller: The Last Days of California is similar to Big World in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of its female narrator and her inner life. The narrator, Jess, is fifteen. She’s jealous of her prettier sister and doesn’t know how to be herself, or what that would even look like. Her identity has always been tied to her religion, and when that starts to fall apart, she doesn’t have any concept of who she is. In other ways, The Last Days of California is a stretch for me. I didn’t know anything about the rapture when I began writing, or Protestantism, and I’d never been to Arizona or New Mexico. I guess these are more surface issues, though, things I could research. Places I could get in my car and go see.marymiller

JC: Big World has all these gorgeous jabbing sentences, mostly on the shorter side. How has your writing style changed in the last five years since it was published? How has writing a novel affected your style?

MM: Thank you for saying that. When I reread Big World now, I don’t know how I was able to fit so much into a sentence. I was writing a lot of flash fiction at the time, I guess, and with really short stuff, you have to get in and out quickly while still affecting the reader on an emotional level. Writing longer stories changed my prose. And then writing a novel changed it more. Because the stories in Big World are pretty short, and the book is short, I got away with prose that would feel stilted and choppy in a longer work. The stories in Big World are also pretty plotless; they couldn’t carry more than what’s in them. I know this first-hand, after trying to turn both “Leak” and “Pearl” into novels.

JC: What did the experience of trying to expand “Leak” and “Pearl” teach you about plot? How did you learn to write more plot-oriented stories? What sort of sacrifices did you have to make in terms of language and style?

MM: More than anything, I’ve learned how much space a story needs. In “Leak,” the major action (the narrator’s mother’s death) has occurred off-page. It’s an episodic story about a girl’s life with her father that begins and ends with a water-stained ceiling–it’s not a story that needs 70k words in order to be told. The same thing goes for “Pearl.” The narrator is getting a divorce and has had to move back home with her parents. This action takes place before the narrative begins. Now it’s just about this new life she finds herself in, answering telephones at a law office and making mistakes with men and generally being a wreck. All of this is well conveyed in three thousand words.

I don’t know anything about plot except that stuff needs to happen. There has to be change, tension. There has to be something at stake. I sound like a fiction workshop right now, but it’s true. Shit has to happen. People have to want to turn pages, and no matter how beautiful the writing is, they’re not going to turn pages for that alone.

I don’t feel like I’ve made any sacrifices in terms of language and style while writing longer stories and novels. I still care about each sentence. I’ll spend a lot of time on one sentence, making sure it’s exactly like I want it. I guess my paragraphs are longer. That’s about it.

One more thing: the only way I was able to complete The Last Days of California was by having a very structured timeline. The novel takes place over four days so time is very compressed. It’s also a road trip novel so I had to constantly be moving them along, getting them from Point A to Point B. This made it a lot more manageable. I have no idea how people write novels that take place over decades or generations. This just seems insane to me. It makes my head spin right off.

JC: My students always love Big World, particularly the younger women. One student told me that she even made her boyfriend read it, so he could “better understand” her. Why do you think the stories connect so well?

MM: I love this! It makes me so happy. I’m also sure her boyfriend was horrified. I think the best stories in Big World are pretty brave and unflinching, though I didn’t think about this as I was writing them. The characters are isolated and insecure and the people in their lives don’t understand them. They often date certain men in the hopes that these men will be able to change them—make them happier and more fun-loving, make them like themselves more—and they’re disappointed in these men when they’re unable to do that for them, and they’re disappointed in themselves for being unable to be the people they want to be. The stories in Big World were some of the first short stories I wrote, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was just writing things that I wanted to read. I was also trying to impress myself. Trying to impress yourself isn’t something I’d recommend.

JC: How do you write kids so well?

MM: I try to write young characters the same way I write adults. For me, the key to writing children is to not treat them like children. Also, both of these narrators, in “Leak” and “Aunt Jemima,” are old enough to have experienced the shortcomings of their worlds and the people around them. In a lot of ways, they aren’t kids anymore. They’re just smaller and more oppressed.

JC: What was your own experience with religion growing up? How did that influence the religious content of the novel?

MM: I grew up Catholic in a place where there weren’t very many Catholics. I mean, there were some, but central Mississippi is not a Catholic place—it’s Protestant. And many of these Protestants don’t even believe that Catholics are Christians. I remember helping a student with an essay once and his whole argument was based on the premise that Catholics weren’t Christians.

Growing up, my mother taught us that Catholicism was the “one true religion.” There was a lot of fear of the body and sex. We didn’t know any openly gay people. So I know what fundamentalism looks like, but Protestantism was wholly unfamiliar territory. I had never heard of the rapture growing up. We didn’t proselytize. We wore blue jeans to church on Saturday afternoons whereas our Protestant counterpoints wore suits and dresses.

(Note: my parents are awesome and have changed with the times, and thanks to four artistic children.)

JC: You’ve mentioned before that Willy Vlautin is a writer you admire. What is it about his work that resonates with you? Has he influenced you at all?

MM: I remember picking up The Motel Life when I worked at a bookstore in Nashville (a one-year stint post-divorce and pre-graduate school). When the store was empty, I’d browse the fiction shelves to see which covers stood out to me. I picked this one up, opened it at random, and was immediately hooked by Vlautin’s prose. It’s so readable and fun and smart; he makes writing look very easy. I was drawn to his characters, as well—decent people who would get themselves into bad situations that just got worse and worse.

He’s also unafraid to write unlikeable types—racist assholes, for example—which most people don’t write about for fear that these characters will reflect negatively upon themselves. I could go on and on.My favorite of his books is Northline, which was published with its own soundtrack. As for whether he’s influenced me, I’m sure he has, but I couldn’t say exactly how. If he had to give advice, though, I would think it might be this: don’t worry about seeming smart; implicate yourself; love your characters but don’t protect them from their mistakes. This last one is particularly difficult. Writers often want to save their characters, as if by saving them, we might also save/redeem ourselves.

JC: Have you had any mentors in the writing world? Have you learned more from other writers or just from being out on your own, doing the damn thing?

MM: I’ve learned a lot from my professors, particularly Frederick Barthelme, Steven Barthelme, Edward Carey, and Elizabeth McCracken. Edward Carey encouraged me to revise and write about different characters and situations. He made me believe that I wasn’t a one-trick pony. Elizabeth McCracken said such amazing things in workshop that my peers and I would sit with our notebooks ready to jot things down. I remember telling Frederick Barthelme that a story could be about anything and he said, “Is that your aesthetic position?” and I found that it was. The Barthelmes were my first writing teachers—I must have taken three workshops from each of them. They were very generous with their time and I knew that their doors were always open. Frederick Barthelme is also one of my favorite writers. It’s pretty awesome to sit in a classroom with someone you admire so much, to watch him drink Diet Coke and laugh.

JC: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a book based on Typhoid Mary. Can you tell us a little about it? What was the research like? What are the difficulties of writing from someone else’s real life?

MM: The new novel is inspired by the story of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. I became interested in her after listening to a podcast about her life. The idea of a healthy person (but a carrier of a communicable disease) being isolated on an island for years, kept apart from her friends and loved ones, intrigued me. Mary Mallon could see New York from her little cabin, but she couldn’t go there. She spent her time writing letters to an old lover and various members of the government trying to obtain her release.

In my story, there are nine healthy carriers isolated on an island. It focuses on the relationship between two of these women, who live much of their lives in a fantasy world they create based on The Wizard of Oz books (thanks to L. Frank Baum’s poor financial situation, he wrote a lot of them). Or maybe this isn’t what it’s about. I don’t have a draft yet. I have no idea what will happen, which is exciting and scary but mostly scary.

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