One small town kid to another, I know that writing is not a common occupation when you grow up in a rural place. When did you know that writing was what you wanted to do? Is there anything you’ve learned along the way?
My father was an educator, so books were always important parts of my life, and I inherited my father’s natural curiosity, something that most writers have in spades. As a senior in high school, I read The Sound and the Furyfor the first time. While I missed a lot, I grasped enough to understand that that book was working on a level much deeper and closer to the bone than the horror and sci-fi I’d been reading. In the beginning, I just wanted to write ghost stories. I suppose I still do in some ways. But after reading Faulkner I became entranced, possessed. I’d write a short story every week. And these were no longer stories about vampires and ghouls—these were stories about real people with real problems. They were awful stories, yes, but I was putting in the years of loneliness that it takes to be a writer. Faulkner cultivated in me a love for language and also a desire to pierce the heart of existence. I would simply tell any young writer to not wait for experience or life to happen. Sit in the chair. Be alone. Read. Write. Read again. There is pain and doubt, though those come later. In the beginning, I think you’re unaware that you can fail. I know I was unaware. So I just did it.
You have used the geography and culture of Kentucky as the cornerstone of your writing. Can you talk about your love for Kentucky, and why you’ve chosen not to chase the bright lights of big city life?
Well, Kentucky’s kind of a strange place. We’re a stubborn, no-nonsense kind of people, and we still retain a pioneer’s attitude about the harshness of surviving in a malevolent world. Very few folks have ever had a boot put to their throat, but a good many Kentuckians have, and this makes us interesting. Plus we’re still clinging to our guns and religion, and I’ve always been attracted to both those elements of the culture. Anything that makes folks in Washington or New York nervous is probably full of good energy. That’s my take, anyhow. As far as geography goes, anyone whose been to my part of Western Kentucky knows that it’s been ravaged by the coal industry. So the landscape, in many areas, is uninhabitable. In some ways, this is kind of good. Nothing but scrub cedar and sedge grass will grow there, but at least it won’t be developed into subdivisions. I love that paradox. As far as city life goes, this trend of young folks from the country wanting to hit the pavement is baffling to me. There are plenty of attractions in cities, but there’s also a kind of black melancholy that descends on me if I stay too long in a city. I’m probably not giving cities enough credit and maybe I’ll wind up doing time in one. But I’m fairly comfortable drawing a hard line on this one.
Could you talk about the tone of your work? What about the macabre and grisly attracts you as a writer?
I tend to write about nasty events and murderous behavior in part due to the fact that I grew up in such a stable home. My parents were and are rocks. But when I started attending school I quickly learned that a good many of the kids in my class weren’t faring as well as me when they went home each night. These were kids who might have to fight their dad just to get a spot on the floor to lie down in. It stood in stark contrast to what I’d known. But really, any story worth its salt has to have a strong sense of danger and of consequence. Some writers that I read are beyond my understanding because their characters may be well-drawn and three dimensional, but nothing is being asked of them. Plus, I think it is the duty of the modern writer to confront the existence of evil.
A common construction seems to be playing off the tension of “three’s company.” Usually one character, if not all three, ends up with the short straw. It makes for enthralling reading. Do you consciously triangulate? Why?
No, I’m just trying to construct believable characters and then throw them into desperate situations. Sometimes that comes out in a triumvirate of sorts. I have a story in there called “Things Both Right and Needed” where this fellow is convinced the other two folks in the tale murdered his brother. I guess three people is a manageable number to work with on the page. You can have one fellow and pit his desires against another fellow. Then introduce another element—in the case of the story I was just talking about, it’s a woman—which introduces really a fourth element, the element of sex, which is always replete with trouble. Really, what I’m trying to do is ratchet up the tension. One way to do that is to keep piling on the obstacles my protagonist has to maneuver around in order to get what he or she wants.
When using dialogue, you successfully stay true to the dialect of the region you are writing about. Does this make writing more difficult or do you find it frees you up to paint a richer, more whole picture?
I want my readers to understand that I’m writing about country people, people that may or may not have been to college, who likely don’t use correct grammar but are intelligent and self-sufficient nonetheless. I use the dialect in order to capture these people. I probably wouldn’t write about them if they did speak perfectly. Plus, it’s through incorrect language and sentence constructions that new and vibrant images and tones are born. I overheard a child say once: “And there he come, straight out of the nowhere.” To me, that’s beautiful. That definite article ‘the’ right before ‘nowhere’ alters the meaning of the sentence is such a fascinating way, as if ‘nowhere’ is a specific region where only harridans and strange wizardly folks are known to live. Using such a dialect really doesn’t seem like much of a hindrance to me. The only drawback is that you can overdo it. But, then it’s often hard to say what a reader will find inauthentic. To some people, the world I’m writing about doesn’t exist.
Besides writing and reading, do you have any other hobbies or interests that feed into your writing?
I try to fish a lot. That seems to correspond with writing in that both are acts of faith and can be incredibly disappointing or exhilarating. Writing, like fishing, is an attempt to catch some piece of mystery that tugs at the end of your consciousness. I also adore firearms, though I don’t know if this helps my writing. The gun is a truly magnificent creation, a tool of definite and exact purpose, containing both the elements of control and chaos. I love country music, and that more than anything I’ve mentioned thus far feeds my writing. The narrative technique in those old songs is incredible and they are infused with wit, humor and pathos for the plight of all of us. I admire the simple directness of country music, something I don’t really have in my writing. I’m kind of a thick writer in that I love imagery to the point it often chokes out my narrative.
Many of your characters are eccentric. Is there any particular character fryou most enjoyed writing and, if so, why?
I really enjoyed writing Buzzard, the Christian biker in “The Long Poem Continuous”. He’s a cantankerous fellow who doesn’t have a lot of patience for intellectual grandstanding and educated ignorance. The two poets in the story are clearly people that operate under no code whatsoever. They’re products of a broken system, fools whose only belief is a belief in nothing. What I like about Buzzard is that he is clearly the more virtuous of the three, despite his aliteracy. He’s more virtuous because he has the courage to plunge, literally in this case, into belief.
A resonant debut from an unexpected new voice in southern fiction. This collection reveals hidden dangers in the coyote-infested fields, rusty riverbeds, and abandoned logging trails of Kentucky, where men take too much whiskey and women take too many men.