I came across Ted Solotaroff's essay "Writing into the Cold" way back in my grad days at Warren Wilson College. It was of course news that I didn't want to hear, truths I didn't want to believe – that there are not shortcuts in writing, and that the path I had chosen was not an expressway into any fame or applause. It takes much of a lifetime to even hope for a little mastery in making fiction. And Solotaroff's timetable was eerily accurate for me. Twenty years almost from graduating from Warren Wilson and publishing my first novel.
But I've come to treasure all that time – the reward has been in the writing itself, word after word, page after page, day by day. It does change you.
"The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist."
-- Theodore Solotaroff, "Writing into the Cold"
Blogger extraordinaire Michele Tracy Berger has a wonderful site "The Practice of Creativity" with nice tips on leading the artist's life. I'm honored that she asked me a few questions about my novel "The Half-Life of Home" and writing in general.
What’s your best writing tip?
Play hard in the dark. Remember the primal exhilaration of running free through woods and fields on a moonlit night, feeling a howl coming up your throat? Good. Write like that. We are the boy who cried Wolf.
Remember that writing fiction is not a rational activity at this stage of Late Capitalism and celebrity culture. Very few people will listen, but I can’t think of a more serious game.
Can you name the moment that you felt you were really a fiction writer and did it come before or after publication?
Sorry. In some ways, I’m still waiting for that feeling, that moment of “I’ve arrived, I’ve made it into the published author’s club, someone’s going to give me the secret handshake now.”
Ain’t going to happen. If you keep writing, you keep failing. As Beckett said, fail better.
You have to remember the advice Rilke gave his young poet friend who kept pestering him about publications, which are the right magazines, what’s the right agent, etc. Quit asking those questions. Those aren’t the most important ones. Learn to interrogate your dreams rather than your ambitions.
What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see?
Glamor is a word better associated with films. Writers, I don’t think, are performers in that sense. The life of a writer is not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s extraordinary to meet and talk with readers who love good fiction, but the real payoff is on the page: repeatedly sitting down and putting one word after another into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books until you simulate the real world. You get to meet both your best and worst selves on that page if you persist.
How has your career as a journalist supported your work as a creative writer?
Well, it’s certainly paid for the groceries and light bill along the way, and for that I’m most grateful to be among that dwindling tribe of American journalists. It’s also taught me to be continually curious, which of course helps when you’re researching facts that often seem surreal or imagining fictions that seem real. Journalists work hard to grasp and say things very quickly. Novelists have to work equally hard to say what can only be said slowly, now the passage of time shapes character.
Read more at Michele's blog http://micheleberger.wordpress.com/
James Dickey, author and actor
Faulkner was talking of the South of course when he wrote “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” Hell, the dead don’t stay buried in these parts, not even if you try to drown them.
I was reminded of that the other night, flicking through the HD hinterlands of TV cable when I came across John Boormann’s 1972 thriller “Deliverance.” Even if you never saw the Burt Reynolds-Jon Voight movie, you’ve heard the iconic soundtrack music, “Dueling Banjos” originally written by Arthur Smith (though he had to sue to get his name recognized, but that’s a whole ‘nother tale.)
Poet turned novelist James Dickey did no favors to Appalachian natives in his bestseller with its depiction of “the Country of Nine-Fingered Men,” a dark land of sadistic hillbillies eager to sodomize Atlanta suburbanites out for a weekend adventure. Dickey tapped into a deep distrust and terror of residents living in the shadows of mountains. The Other is the toothless man living in the holler with an outhouse and a still up on the ridge. Decades after that movie was filmed in Rabun County, Ga., and over in Sylva, N.C. you still see the bumper stickers “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”
But the scene that lingered for me showed graves being dug up on the banks of the river slowly flooding to form a reservoir to power Atlanta’s urban sprawl. That scene was actually filmed, not in Georgia, but in South Carolina at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery which now lies 130 feet beneath Lake Jocasse.
We’ve been relocating cemeteries forever in these parts. Folks over in Swain County still grow furious over the “Road to Nowhere” promised by the government, but which never materialized after Lake Fontana flooded their small towns and family farms in the 1940s. The story was repeated across the Southern Appalachians where the TVA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built hundreds of dams, dislocating plenty of families and often covered the graves of their ancestors with waters much more than five fathoms deep.
So it comes as no surprise how often floods and forgotten graves show up in Southern fiction. The theme runs like a dark current through the reigning Appalachian master Ron Rash’s work, from his first novel, “One foot in Eden” and “Saints by the River” also based around Lake Jocasse in South Carolina, and in his current novel, “The Cove” where a TVA surveyor goes missing in a haunted holler slated for a lake.
Those lakes were built to provide electricity to growing cities and their suburbs whether in Charlotte or Greenville, S.C., or down to Atlanta, but the progress of rural electrification or air conditioning never comes without its own cost when we drown the last wilderness and pieces of our past.
An image of a relocated cemetery haunted my imagination and inspired me to write my novel “The Half-Life of Home,” I saw in my mind’s eye a picture of men digging up a graveyard, coffins swinging up into the air in an artificial resurrection.
The thirst for electricity, for suburban power was the culprit here, but not in hydroelectric dam, but in a nuclear repository. Since dams sprang up across the South, we’ve also added the strange cones and domes of nuclear plants across the region, with their irradiating wastes with deadly half-lives spanning millennia.
A remote cove in my neck of the woods actually came under consideration in the late 1980s as a potential radioactive reservation where East Coast’s stores of spent nuclear rods could be buried for ten thousand years. As a cub reporter I covered those heated public meetings where I heard a white-haired native warn that the region had already seen two forced migrations: the Trail of Tears and the TVA removals. The feds would be chasing other folks off their homesteads in the name once again of national progress.
Fortunately, that mad scientist-hatched idea died. We still have nuclear waste to contend with, but at least we’re not burying it in my backyard. Yet the seed was planted in my imagination. Men in moon suits digging up generations of graves. What if… what if?
Jesus said let the dead bury the dead, but it seems like the Southern writer’s morbid duty or at least his inclination is to keep pawing away at what’s been covered over, conveniently forgotten. We can’t let the bones rest, the skeletons in the closet. We are always like Hamlet hopping down in the hole, eyeing Yorick’s skull raised in our palm for the audience’s appreciation.
And in that sense, Faulkner was right. We breathe life into the past, put flesh on fossils, when we blow away the dirt of the grave or dive deep into the dark waters covering the beds of lakes and forgotten farms. Literature is too often about seemingly unbearable loss, but writing is a way of making sure nothing is ever forgotten.
Happy New Year! No hangover this morning. The collards are on the stove along with the hopping john for good luck. The football is about to begin along with a new calendar, counting off the handful of days until my novel is officially out.
I was honored when my pal Nan Cuba, author of the fine upcoming novel BODY AND BREAD invited me to join a blog chain THE NEXT BIG THING - a series of self-interviews by/with authors about what they’ve been working on.
Thanks, Nan, and I’m looking forward to seeing your novel coming this May.
So here’s what happened when I sat down with myself and asked a few probing questions to which I fortunately knew the answers:
Question: Let’s start with the obvious. What’s the name of your book?
Answer: THE HALF-LIFE OF HOME
Q: Can you give me the one-sentence synopsis?
A: Finding your family or losing the land: Royce Wilder, a real estate appraiser, and Kyle McRae, a homeless man, face those hard choices in unearthing long-buried secrets in the mountain community of Beaverdam, N.C.
Q: Sounds intriguing. Where did the idea for the book come from?
A: I had an image in mind that haunted me. Men in white spacesuits moving across a mountain. They were workers in HazMat suits shielded against radioactive materials, excavating a cemetery on a hillside, digging up the graves of long lost generations, removing them from their land. I had to write a book to find out what happened.
Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: Literary fiction with a contemporary Southern Appalachian setting, but the book should appeal to any reader who likes a well-made story about ordinary folk facing extraordinary challenges.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Place is character in fiction, I had the good fortune to once hear Eudora Welty say that during a reading in Asheville, and that’s proven true in my own writing.
For me, the primal heart of my fiction revolves around the mountain farm my grandparents owned in Watauga County near the N.C.-Tennessee line. The farmhouse and barn and outbuildings, the wooden bridge over the creek, the outcroppings and hemlocks up on the two opposing mountains, the Frozenhead and the Buckeye, all those things spoke to me as a young boy visiting on weekends. That land has since passed out of my family with the death of my grandmother, but it informs my dreams and my fiction.
Q: Who’s publishing your book?
A: Casperian Books out of Sacramento, Calif., is an independent publisher founded by Lily Richards, who still sees a place for finely crafted fiction in various genres in today’s fragmenting publishing scene. While too many books are being rushed out without oversight, Lily put HALF-LIFE OF HOME through its paces with some great suggestions and a close line-by-line edit. I couldn’t be prouder of the work she put into the production of my second novel.
Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A: I started this book the day after I graduated from Warren Wilson College with an MFA in creative writing way back in January 1989. After spending so much time focused on writing short stories for workshops and answering to supervisors, I was determined to write a novel all by my lonesome. How lonely it could be I was soon to discover. It probably took me about six months to write a 400-page first draft and I still remember that sense of exhilaration: “I’ve written what looks like a novel.” But that was only the beginning. It took several more drafts before I talked an agent into taking a look around 1992. She sent it back with the suggestion to cut it by 100 pages. I did. She took it on and shopped it around New York. Eighteen houses all told took a pass and the agent cut me loose.
I went on and wrote another novel and then a third, “Cow Across America.” Then hiking one day up in the mountains north of Asheville, I came across what needed to be done with that first novel. I can still remember the bend of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where the Muse suddenly whispered the solution. In the original book, the main character, Royce Wilder came across as an immature man, still acting out against his parents even as a grown man. I decided to split his character into two, a fretting father and an adolescent son in rebellion. Adding 14-year-old Dean changed all the family dynamics and the basic plot line.
Perseverance is what I’ve found really matters in a quarter century of making books. If a writer takes care of the writing, the publishing takes care of itself. “Cow Across America” won the Novello Literary Award from the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library and was published in 2009. Casperian Books took on “The Half-Life of Home” back in February of last year. The novel officially hits the shelves on April Fools Day (no fooling.)
Q: What other books would you compare this story to?
A: Wendell Berry’s “A Place on Earth.” Fred Chappell’s marvelous series of novels starting with “I am One of You Forever.” John Ehle’s neglected masterpiece “Last One Home.” Gail Godwin’s “Father Melancholy’s Daughter.”
Q: What about a movie? Which actors would you choose to play your characters?
A: It’s hard to put faces on characters who seem real but are in the end made up of words on the page. If I were a Hollywood casting director, I’d say Bill Murray possesses the wryness and interior self-doubt to play Royce. Joaquin Phoenix (Anyone see “The Master”?) has the angular angst necessary for the part of the homeless man, Kyle. I can see Allison Janney (remember her from The West Wing?) as Eva, Royce’s unhappy wife. One of my favorite all-time actors Robert Duvall as the aging uncle, Dallas Rominger. And if we’re going big-budget, why not Meryl Streep in makeup as the “witch woman” Wanda McRae.
Q: What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
A: Literature is about loss, summoning up a time and a place in words that will last beyond the lifetimes of our loved ones and the places they lived. Mountaineers have been forced off their land since the Cherokees were herded along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders were forced out by the fed- eral government in the 1930s to make way for hydroelectric dams. After the war, they left their farms to find jobs in Piedmont cotton mills or car factories up north. As a cub reporter in the ’80s, I covered hearings where federal bureaucrats earnestly debated turning remote mountain coves into a national nuclear repository. That image haunted me: what if radioactivity leaking out of these ancient mountains forced people off their land?
Read Nan Cuba’s self-interview about BODY AND BREAD here.
Passing the baton, I’ve tagged a couple of writers who you should check out:
Marjorie Hudson is the author of ACCIDENTAL BIRDS OF THE CAROLINAS, a fine collection of short stories that was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Michael Jarmer is the author of MONSTER LOVE, a contemporary twist on Mary Shelley Wollenstone’s classic “Frankenstein.”
MaryJo Moore is a fine Native American writer and editor living here in Asheville. Her latest volume of wisdom is BEAR QUOTES.
You might also be interested in these writers who I know are part of the NEXT BIG THING chain.
Joe Schuster, whose book, THE MIGHT HAVE BEEN is a terrific baseball novel with a compelling human story.
Christine Hale, an Asheville memoirist and novelist whose guest blog will appear Jan. 5 here:
Happy New Year and happy reading in 2013.
The winter solstice seems appropriate a time to be starting a new blog. Tomorrow there's a sliver more daylight as we head into a new year and the launch of my second novel The Half Life of Home, (Coming courtesy of the fine folks at Casperian Books.) But I'm staking out my corner of the cyberspace to let readers know about upcoming events and share some thoughts.
Putting a new book out into the world is always a lark and an adventure. At these moments, I go back to one of my favorite writers - James Salter - and his thoughts from his memoir Burning the Days:
"When was I happiest, the happiest in my life? Difficult to say. Skipping the obvious, perhaps setting off on a journey, or returning from one. In my thirties, probably, and at scattered other times, among them the weightless days before a book was published and occasionally when writing it. It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled. Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough."
It's also nice to start a fresh page or a new blog with a bit of good news.
The good folks at The New Southerner have just put up an excerpt from the novel The Half-Life of Home as part of their 2012 literary contest. Thanks to Bobbi Buchanan and the final fiction judge Silas House for the honor. Check out the handsome online magazine at www.newsoutherner.com. I'll be in Louisville, Ky, for a reading Jan 12 with the other contest winners. Looking forward to a drive into the Bluegrass State.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.