Review by Review by John MacLean
Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating…
Interview by Interview conducted with William Hastings
Tell us about your background. You grew up in the South, went into the Army, became a writer. How did you go from one to the other? Why?
I was born in Millport, Alabama, in my grandparents' house, and we lived in and around Millport until I was seven, when we moved to Mississippi. In those days my father worked on a channelization project for the WPA and sharecropped (cotton). A year or so before we moved to Mississippi, he got a job on the assembly line at Beneke Corporation in Columbus. Beneke made toilet seats in those days and, so far as I know, still does.
The last place we lived in Alabama, a couple of miles west of Millport, was a little house beside a black family. Daddy sharecropped with the black man. I have lots of memories from that year or so that we lived there: picking cotton, playing in the cotton trailer with the black kids, playing in a huge barn across the street. Mother had a big garden out back, and Daddy killed a hog there one winter, filling the smokehouse with ham and sausage and bacon. We did not have indoor plumbing, so we lugged water in from the well behind the house and used an outhouse. I took my baths in a big washtub.
My grandfather, who was a farmer early on but became a carpenter, built three houses on Sand Road, about five miles from Columbus: one for himself and my grandmother and one on either side for his sons, my Uncle Dwight and Daddy. The houses were small, but reasonably comfortable, though for many years none of them had indoor plumbing. We all had outhouses, which, thanks to Daddy and Beneke rejects, had some of the finest seats in the county.
I grew up poor, though we never went hungry. We always had a huge summer garden, and Mother canned all our surplus to eat throughout the fallow months. Daddy got most of our beef and pork from some black fellow he knew over in Alabama. We hunted quite a bit and supplemented our meat supply with rabbits and squirrels. We ate lots of mayonnaise sandwiches and beans and cornbread, the meat typically reserved for the weekends, when Mother would fix a roast or fried chicken. We raised our own chickens, so we always had eggs and chickens to eat, and we kept a milk cow for our dairy needs.
Mother made our butter in a big old brown ceramic churn. We bought very little at the store.
I was pretty much a loner, spending most of my time down on the Luxapalila River, which ran a mile or so from the house. All that time in isolation probably help develop my imagination. I didn't particularly mind going to school—at least I got to pee in a real commode there--but I absolutely hated having to go to church on Wednesday nights and Sundays mornings and nights.
My father was fundamentally an asshole, and he had absolutely no patience with me. He whipped me with a belt on a fairly regular basis, and once I thought he was going to kill me when he beat me with a piece of stove wood. The only positive things I can recall learning from him was how to maintain a car and how to shoot and hunt.
In those days the government had a program whereby college-bound lads could serve six months of active duty with the Army, six in the National Guard, and two in the Army Reserve and thereby satisfy their military obligation. There was no war going on at the time, and there wasn't much likelihood that I would be drafted, but I saw the Army as a way to earn a little money for college and to get out from under Daddy's dominion.
The Sunday after my high school graduation, I was on the way to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, where I spent the next half a year. We trained with RA (Regular Army) recruits in both basic and advanced infantry.
I didn't mind the Army at all. I was making a little money, I ate better than I ever had, and I had access to a typewriter. On the weekends, when other hardlegs were off in Columbia or visiting their families, I was reading and writing. I wrote quite a number of stories those days, mostly tales about my childhood. I would have the barracks to myself for the most part, so I could concentrate on my work without many distractions. I got a few essays out of my Army career. One that I really enjoyed writing is called "Crows." It's about the time I loaded our battalion cannon with a shell packed with birdshot and killed a bunch of crows in a pine tree across the street from it.
After Ft. Jackson, I took a degree in English at Mississippi State University and taught for six years in the public school system in and around Columbus, earning an MA during that period. I earned my PhD in the Center for Writers at Southern Mississippi and then took the job at Sam Houston State University, where I still teach
In another interview you were described as someone who enjoys doing his own carpentry and electrical work. Do you find that the thought processes required for that type of work influence or affect your writing?
Since I was a kid, I have had a fascination for things mechanical, and I am never so at peace with the world than when I am doing things with my hands. When I was only twelve or thirteen, I was taking apart broken lawnmowers and clocks and fixing them whenever I could. I worked on a carpentry crew when I was an undergraduate at Mississippi, doing everything from framing to roofing—whatever needed to be done, I was in on it. We would move onto a new slab on a given morning and by sundown have a house built and "blacked in," which means that the outside was done except for brick veneer and shingles on the roof; we'd shingle the roof the next day. There's a lot of satisfaction involved in being able to do that sort of thing. Later on, I learned how to plumb and wire houses.
In graduate school in the Center for Writers at Southern Mississippi, I worked with a handyman who took on any job that came his way. We leveled houses, built carports, rebuilt automobile engines, laid in sprinkler systems, built fences—hell, we'd do jobs that other people turned down.
All that experience working with my hands gave me a tremendous knowledge base for fiction later on. I don't have to wonder how a carpenter or electrician or plumber acts and talks: I have been one. I still do most of my plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and mechanical work, as time permits.
I'm very familiar with almost any kind of firearm you can name, and I shoot all the ones I own. I have lots of firearms in my stories and essays, and my references to them are right on because I write about only the guns I know well. I frequently find egregious errors in the fiction of writers who simply must have guns in their stories but they are too lazy to bother to familiarize themselves with them. Jeez, I remember reading a Joyce Carol Oates story once in which some character referred to her stainless steel Glock. Glock never made a stainless steel pistol. A writer I know emailed me the other day asking whether I could help him with a story in which a Colt 1911 was referenced a few times. He wanted to get it right. If you want to use a firearm in a story and do not have the time (or inclination) to research it, ask someone who knows about it to help you.
I learned to fly at thirteen, and I went on to earn a license. When I was in graduate school at Southern Mississippi, I operated a small air charter service. I'd fly students home on weekends and breaks, then go back and pick them up. I charged them only for the fuel. I was after building hours, after the experience. My flying experience has worked its way into quite a number of my essays especially.
I think that any prospective author should experience the world as fully as he can and thereby provide himself with the knowledge base necessary to writer authoritatively about the worlds his characters function in.
The bottom line: Learn all you can about the world your characters live in, and steer clear of writing about worlds you do not know.
Sounds like you are fairly self-sufficient. Any advice for young people on this?
When you grow up the way I did, you learn early on the pleasures of self-sufficiency. For many years—before both my parents worked and brought more money into the budget and before the spread of supermarkets made prepackaged foods so readily accessible—I daresay my family could easily have lived with nothing from the outside for at least a year. We had our own chickens and milk cow. We had a large garden throughout the growing season, and Mother canned (and later on froze) all the surplus from that garden. We saved our own seeds from every year's crops. My father and I hunted and brought in squirrels and rabbits to supplement our regular diet. A shallow well--first equipped with a spool and bucket, then with a hand pump, and finally with an electric pump--provided us with all the water we needed for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and clothes, and watering the garden. We had shotguns, rifles, and pistols, with plenty of spare ammo for all of them. We would have missed some of the accustomed things from the store, but we would have gotten by just fine. That was the way of life for many of the families I knew back then.
Today we are so damned spoiled by the conveniences of our world that I wonder how many families would be able to make it two weeks—much less a few months or a year—without leaving their property. Lots of the folks out in the country could, in time, though many people with plenty of room for a garden and time to keep one up just don't want to fool with one. In a matter of months, they could be raising a good bit of their food, but the big problem is how do they sustain themselves until they can establish a garden and start raising some animals for slaughter?
Given the proliferation of supermarkets across the country, it's hard to imagine having to live off your own resources for any length of time. Occasionally we get little reality checks when a hurricane roars through and the electric grid goes down for a few days, but we tend to forget just as soon as we've picked up the limbs from the yard and cut up a couple of downed trees. Those are good times to study the potential for long-term disaster, though, as you observe how fast the shelves empty in the stores. Think what it would be like if the grid didn't come back up for weeks or months. You can live without electricity, but it's hard to live without some of the conveniences that electricity provides.
When Hurricane Ike came through Galveston a few years ago and roared up I-45, we were without power for four days. It was a hassle having to hook up my big generator, which runs even our central system, and keep it fueled, but it was only a minor nuisance. The worst part was having to drive over to College Station (seventy miles or so) to buy fuel after I'd used up my reserve, since the local stations had no electricity to pump what gas they had their tanks. Our one big supermarket, a Kroger, closed for a day, but then let people in in small groups—they had to pay with cash or checks.
But for the fuel runs, we could have made it right here for several months. Now I have doubled my fuel stores, but I've also added a smaller generator to run the shop. I could go well over a week with what fuel I have on hand.
It amazes me that people can rationalize buying property and health and life insurance policies, when chances are that they will rarely need to file claims on any of them, but they can't see the wisdom in putting a few hundred bucks into preparing their families for natural and manmade disasters. For an initial capital outlay of less than a thousand bucks, you could stash enough toilet paper, paper towels, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, canned goods, condiments, and bulk foods like rice, beans, and flour to last your family for three or four months. Boxes and boxes of plain old salt, now dirt-cheap, but in hard times a very valuable commodity. And arguing that you don't have space to store such goods is absurd: closets, trunk of the car, under the bed . . . . You make room.
And unlike other forms of insurance premiums, you get all this back. You use off the front and rotate your stock. Furthermore, if you keep an eye out for bargains, you can stock up on most of these items when they are on sale, which ultimately is a better investment than you'd ever find for your money anywhere else. For example, this past summer I caught the big twenty-roll packs of Cottonelle toilet tissue on sale at Kroger for half price, and I loaded up. I bought all of it that the Willis Kroger had and then drove down to Conroe and cleaned out the North Conroe Kroger. I bought something like forty packs, 800 rolls. (You always leave a couple of packs so that people won't think you're a hog.) I stashed them in my shop on shelves that I built just for that purpose. I saved $8.50 on each one of those twenty-roll packs. That's $340. Tell me that's not a good return on my money. And, more importantly, I provided my family with enough toilet paper for probably two years. It's well packaged, too, so if you keep it dry, it'll last for years. As I run across sales of Cottonelle in the coming months and years, I'll replenish my stock from the back.
I did the same thing with Brawny paper towels. I caught those things on sale at Kroger for roughly half price and bought fory six-packs, enough to last us at least two years, I figure. I bought a big case of those heavy-duty blue shop paper towels the same way.
When I catch rice or beans or flour on sale, I buy the largest bags I can find, break them down into smaller batches, then vacuum-seal them and stash them for future use. I buy Spam by the case when I find it on sale; the same with tuna and sardines. Canned vegetables, ketchup, salt, sugar, honey, mustard, mayonnaise, pepper—same thing. I often buy cases of Spam, tuna, and sardines from Amazon without having to pay shipping or a sales tax. Stash'm, then use off the front and restock from the back. And say what you will about Spam: If the time ever comes that we have to live off our stockpiled food, that fat, protein, and sodium will be most welcome.
We keep enough food on hand to sustain ourselves for probably up to a year. And that doesn't count the garden. I grow tomatoes, potatoes, squash, beans, peppers, etc. during the spring and summer and lettuce, spinach, and broccoli during the cool months. We haven't bought spinach or lettuce for a couple of months now. I have a little John Deere three-cylinder diesel tractor with front-end loader and rotary tiller and plows, and getting a new garden plot ready is a breeze. Put landscape mix or mulch in the front-end loader and move it around as I need it. We also have a substantial orchard coming along: pears, peaches, plums, apricots, apples, cherries.
Medical supplies, dental floss, aspirin, alcohol (both kinds)—got'm covered.
Firewood, propane tanks, cigarette lighters (by the case)—covered.
Yeah, all this takes time and a bit of money, but I think it's important to be prepared to be as close to self-sustaining as possible. I don't play golf or tennis or poker: Being prepared is my game. I do love to shoot, but I welded up a bullet trap to use in the back yard, so I don't even leave the place to do that.
Water? I have a 350-foot well out back. I can run the pump off a generator, or I can pull the pump and pipe and use a well bucket fashioned from a piece of three-inch-diameter pipe with a valve at the end and haul water up by hand. To provide for emergency backup water, I installed a 1200-gallon water tank on stilts at a sufficient height that it serves the kitchen and bathrooms by gravity feed. This summer I'm going to put in catch tanks for my gutters, providing us with even more reserve. Water's no problem.
I have guns on hand with plenty of ammo for self defense and hunting, all stashed in secure places around the place. Since I have worked at just about every kind of manual job there is, I have accumulated a hell of a lot of tools, enough to allow me to take on almost any chore that comes up. Even when I was hired as a tenure-track professor at SHSU, I continued to work with my hands. My wife and I bought an old stone house not far from the university, and I rewired and replumbed it, put new roofs on part of the main house and carriage house, and did all sorts of structural improvements on it. We also bought and fixed up two rental houses. When we ran shy of money, I'd take on any kind of manual work that came along, from teaching in the prison system to mowing an industrial park with my tractor to building carports for people. During all that time I rarely rented and never borrowed tools: I bought what I needed, and I have kept just about every one of them. I have a metal-working lathe/drill press, three kinds of welding machines, table saw, radial arm saw, chop saw, power hack saw, etc., and every kind of hand tool you can name. Hell, they don't go bad, and I'll have them when I need them.
Rick Bass wrote a chilling piece called "After the Revolution," which appeared in Idaho Review a year or so ago, and it should be required reading for all Americans. In the essay or story or whatever it is, Rick lays out how the world can reverse itself on us in short order, and those who do not know how to survive will find themselves in a hell of a pickle in a heartbeat.
The bottom line here is that it is downright foolish to assume that life in this country is going to continue forever as it always has. There are simply too many threats out there that can severely disrupt our lives in a matter of seconds. We insure ourselves against a host of threats that are far less likely to materialize than, say, economic collapse or terrorist attack or EMP or all sorts of natural disasters that could disrupt our lives for a very long time, so how much sense does it make not to insure ourselves against those threats? If nothing happens, great, and you still have your premiums on hand to use as you wish.
You write in multiple genres. Which was your first love? When did you start writing in the others? How do you see writing in multiple genres affecting your work in each genre?
Well, I grew up in a family that had nothing to do with books except the Bible. There was a copy of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe and a Dick Tracy book. I literally wore them out. Our county library was a long haul for me on foot or on a bicycle, so I elected to steal books from there instead of checking one out. I could take my time reading it and build up my library. I also stole an occasional book out of the school library, but the librarians there intimidated me terribly. I suppose I should leave all this out, but that's the way it was. I don't think I'll get in trouble at this great distance. There's that statue of lamentations that a student of mine once wrote about.
So reading, which is so critical to anyone hoping to be a writer, was sketchy for me, at best. I enjoyed the literature I read in my classes at school, and I often thought about how cool it would be to have someone reading my work one day.
My writing life began, oddly enough in the place I hated most: church. I grew up in an Assembly of God church just outside Columbus, and the services were bitchingly long, especially those on Sunday morning and Sunday night. I would get so damned bored that I constantly got into trouble. I would play with beetles that managed to get in. I would flick birdshot into the Venetian blinds (no stained glass there, nosiree) or beehive hairdos. I would get caught carving on one of the benches with my pocketknife. After a host of good beatings with Daddy's belt and a long sentence that I served sitting between them, I turned my negative energies into something more positive.
I discovered that memorizing lyrics from the thick Broadman Hymnal, which I suppose most protestant churches used in those days, would cause the time to just zip by. I literally memorized the words of every song in that book. Then I tried my hand at writing poems, using the hymn beat, and it worked. It worked so well that in time I could rattle off a poem on almost any subject at the fall of a dime, using that trusted old hymn beat. (There for a while I spoke in iambic tetrameter.) The reason I use the dime analogy is that when kids at school discovered my talent, they would come to me when they had poems due in an English class and ask me to write one for them. That I could do and did, usually for a dime. In short, I was a professional poem at twelve or thirteen.
Another thing I did to avoid boredom was to diagram sentences from the Old Testament. Anyone familiar with that text knows how convoluted some of those sentences can be. It was one more step in my growing fascination with language.
My fondness for fiction began right there in church too. I got so damned tired of hearing the same old Bible stories told the same way by the same person that I found myself agonizing over them. We got the same Easter story and the same Christmas story, never told any differently. I kept wanting just two wise men to show up one Christmas, or three really stupid guys on camels, or three dwarfs on jackasses. Any kind of change in characters. And another thing bothered me about that story: What kind of gifts were those to bring to a baby boy? Frankincense and myrrh? I had to go to a dictionary in the library at school to find out what they were, because the preachers sure as hell didn't know. They might have been some kind of potent moonshine or dope or baby powder, for all they knew. Some kind of gum or resin used in perfumes and incense is what it was. Now I could see bringing gum, maybe, but that gum would be pretty stale by the time Jesus had teeth and could chew it, but what in the world would a child do with a few bags of frankincense and myrrh? I couldn't see any kinds of games Jesus could have played with that stuff, and he could get sick sucking on it. What the hell was he going to do with gold, gnaw on it? Why not a silver or gold rattle or a teething ring made out of some of that aromatic gum? These things really troubled me back then.
Now, I could really get into some of the miracles and plagues, the grasshoppers and frogs and such, and lots of the people in the Bible intrigued me. When Noah came into the picture, I always listened intently, because I could dig the story of some guy building a big boat and loading it up with all kinds of animals, two by two, but even that story stayed the same and had lots of loose ends. I wanted to know how Noah chose those particular animals–the couples, you know--and let the rest drown. Lottery? The preachers said that God told him which ones to let come up the plank, but that was fuzzy logic to me. That just shifted the burden to God. How did He choose those particular ones? And why the hell didn't Noah stomp the two fire ants and swat the two mosquitoes and stop those pests right there?
And why did Noah's family get to hog the boat? What about all the people that didn't get a ticket to go. You ain't a Noah, you don't goah. That kinda thing. Were they swimming around, clawing at the sides of the ark, begging to be pulled on board, like the folks trying to drag themselves into the lifeboats of the TITANIC? Did Noah'nem just laugh at'm or beat'm back into the water with two-by-fours (or whatever the equivalent would be in cubits) or pour hot oil on'm? There was absolutely nothing about all the rest of the people and animals, like they just didn't count.
In one of my stories, the people trying to get on the ark actually did take it over. Then they threw Noah and his family overboard and had a grand old cruise, roasting up every kind of exotic meat on deck that you can imagine, throwing bones over the rail. I felt kinda sorry for the animals that were eaten, but nobody made'm get on that boat.
And the Jonah story always hooked me too, because I never ceased to marvel at how somebody could get swallered (as it was pronounced in my family) by a whale and get upchucked alive and pretty much in one piece–the gastric juices didn't even eat his eyebrows off or anything. I wondered whether Jonah had nightmares about his trip and what he thought about while he was in the belly of that whale with all kinds of dead fish and shrimp and krill–whatever the hell that is–and stuff and how anybody could go near him for the smell when he got picked up. If it had been me in there, I would have taken out my pocketknife and done some pretty heavy damage before he threw me up or crapped me into the sea. I mean, if you're likely to end up a whale turd by morning anyway, you might as well make the big bastard pay a price for it.
And Job … Mercy, you talk about getting the short end of the stick! I really suffered for that guy. Big-time loser there. Real Hardluck Huck. Couldn't do a damned thing right, or if he did, God scrambled it up and it turned out wrong. I remember getting a paddling once from one of the coaches in junior high, and I kept saying to myself, "Job had it worse. Job had it worse. Job had it . . . ." You get the point.
But the person who really aroused my sympathy was Lot's wife, who got turned into a pillar of salt for just looking back at the town where she'd been living, where she raised her kids. Any woman would have done that. And she didn't even have a name, that I know of. Hell, I just turned Lot into a pillar of salt. I figured that God wouldn't mind, so long as somebody got His point, whatever it was. I remember suggesting to Mother that I rename him Morton, but she didn't think that was funny.
And that's another thing that troubled me no end: Why didn't Noah and Jonah and Job and Lot have two names, like ordinary people? Were those first names or last? See what I mean? That is a problem . . . .
After that early flurry of literature, I stayed largely out of the game until I was introduced to modern poetry in graduate school at Mississippi State. It was a bitch of a job breaking myself from that hymn beat, but eventually I managed it. After that I started writing serious poetry. When I got going in the Center for Writers, Southern Mississippi, I got truly serious in the genre and started publishing a few pieces along: That just added to the fever.
Sometime in the 80s, after I had settled in nicely at Sam Houston State, I bought a piece of property just outside Huntsville and started running a little cattle operation. During that period I started trying my hand at dramatic poems, and they came quiet easily to me. I discovered that it didn't take a whole lot of work to transform a dramatic poem into familiar essay or a short story, and that's exactly what I started doing.
I had already been writing a weekly newspaper column for several years before I bought that place, and I took lots of those pieces and shaped them into familiar essays.
Though I kept writing poetry, my passion for the familiar essay and short story demanded that I give those genres equal time. So I would write poems for awhile, then switch to the familiar essay, then to fiction. It seemed that I always had something going on in my head that I could write about, so I just selected the form that seemed most suitable at the moment.
Just as poems can become short stories, so can short stories become novels, albeit the labor is much more involved in its intensity and duration. Out of a short story I started about this guy who has sexual fantasies about his wife came the novel Pompeii Man; out of a story in my first book of stories came the novel Castle in the Gloom.
These days I feel equally comfortable working on a column, a familiar essay, a short story, or a novel, and I tend to be moving along several in each discipline at any given time. I have several poems underway, dozens of essays, a handful of stories, and three novels. I work on one thing until I lose enthusiasm for it, then move to another. One thing I have discovered: If you don't really feel a passion for what you are working on, lay it aside for a bit and work on something that you do have a passion for. I want a little fever in everything I write.
What have been the formative reading experiences for you? In fiction? In poetry?
In fiction, the strongest influences on my work have been Twain, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Welty, and Flannery O'Connor. To my way of thinking, we've never had a finer short story writer than Flannery O'Connor; when a reviewer compares my work to hers, I am truly flattered. I did my MA thesis on Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy, and I read everything that he ever wrote. I still go back and read his work occasionally.
In poetry, Frost, John Crowe Ransom, Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robinson Jeffers—hell, all the greats poets of the past century. You'll notice that there's not a woman among them. Here's something else to note: The female fiction writers I mention almost never put themselves in their fiction; American female poets seem incapable of keeping themselves out of their poetry.
A writer who has been a tremendous influence on me in fiction, poetry, and the essay is George Garrett, one of the finest writers this country has ever produced. If he had been willing to play the game and suck up to the right people, he would be ranked at the very top of pack in Southern and American literature. George excelled in every genre he ever took pen to: novel, short story, poetry, drama, essay. This man was phenomenal in both quality and quantity, and I just hope that someday he will be given the recognition he deserves
You are both a teacher and an editor. How does your work in each area influence your writing?
As a teacher, my reading--in both preparing to be a teacher and then functioning as one-- introduced me to the essential literature of the past, a sprawling corpus that any serious writer needs to be familiar with. I will spend the rest of my life with echoes of the old masters hammering in my head--images, lines, settings, characters—and I daresay that almost anything I write will be influenced to one degree or another by my immersion in their work. Just this past week, for a group in Houston I wrote a poem based on a painting for an event sponsored by the group, and when I had finished it and read it over carefully, I recognized an influence by Robinson Jeffers, a poet I have long admired. If it were possible for me to discern and highlight bits and pieces in my work of the work of the masters, I'm certain that I would be astonished at the frequency with which those influences manifest themselves. I don't mean stealing lines or images. It can be anything: a certain rhythm, a tone, a word here or there, a similar image. I just think that the more you study the dance moves of the masters, the greater the likelihood that you might yourself learn to dance.
As an editor, I am exposed to writing that is going on now. These people are my contemporaries, and from them I can learn in myriad ways. I learn from their successes and their failings. Indeed, one who edits is likely to be more demanding of his own work.
As an educator and writer, what are your hopes for American literature in the near future? In the distant future?
If all the agenda-laden publishers and editors and critics and professors would simply get the hell out of the way and let literature assume its own dynamics and direction, our literature should care of itself, as it always has. Time usually winnows out the weak and illuminates the strong. We have a lot of wonderful discoveries waiting out there. The great and lasting writers are among us, but someone has to recognize and promote them after discrediting the presumptive heirs who clamor to hang on. Given the power of the electronic marketplace to govern the direction of all things, I am not terribly hopeful for our literary future.
You run The Texas Review. What are your feelings about the world of contemporary literary magazines? Sometimes, after reading them, I am left with the feeling that too many graduate students are writing short fiction for a publishing credit and not for the art or passion of it. When you sit down to create an issue of TTR what are you looking for? What is an ideal issue for you?
The only thing I am looking for when I start fleshing out a new issue is quality of the material. I am almost never interested in any sort of theme, and I have no prejudices so far as subject matter is concerned. I have been fortunate over the years to have had very competent editors helping me. For many years George Garrett was my Fiction Editor and Robert Phillips was my Poetry Editor. These guys steered a lot of fine manuscripts my way. Today Eric Miles Williamson serves as my Fiction Editor, and he has rounded up some truly impressive stories for me. Roger Jones (Texas State University) is my Poetry Editor, and he has an exceptionally fine eye for good poetry.
As more and more of our long-standing journals fold or go digital, the quality of the manuscripts coming our way is likely to improve. It's like what happened to university presses when the New York houses started closing their doors to literary fiction: We found ourselves with manuscripts that a few years before would have made with a commercial press.
One way that I keep the quality of our work high is by using stories or poems or segments of novels from books that have won our most recent international press competitions.
On one hand I would characterize your writing as Southern, or as being from a regional school of writing. That, of course also does you a disservice, since it ghettoizes you and your stories, while being set in the South, are about things far greater than just the land. I'd like you to discuss the importance of regional literature in America and its relation to short fiction. I'm thinking of Frank O'Connor's ideas concerning the short form's ability to deal with "submerged population groups." How does a regional literature relate to that? Are we in danger of losing a regional literature as the world becomes rapidly more homogenized?
No, I don't think that we are in any danger of losing that splendid "thing" we call regional literature, and I believe that the short story is likely to be the genre that will continue to keep it alive. Much—perhaps most--short fiction is anecdotal in nature, and therefore fairly short, and anecdotal literature is typically very much focused more on character than plot. Minor characters who might be lost in the shuffle of a novel are likely to achieve more stage presence in a short story. The stage is smaller, the range of action more limited, but they are much more in evidence.
The short stories of Faulkner, O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Welty, it seems to me, introduced us to a hell of a lot more memorable characters than their novels did—the operative word there is memorable.
Short fiction is a world in which those "submerged population groups" are likely to be given a lot more prime-time exposure.
One of the things that strikes me about your fiction is the way the characters rise off the page. Some writers force you into the work, where you have to burrow in and absorb, but your stories rise toward the writer, alive and moving. Beyond that, many of your characters are, for lack of a better term, rednecks. You write of them with great humor (a Twain influence?) but never once do they appear as caricatures or as if you mock them. How difficult is this to achieve, that balance of dead seriousness and humor? Is this the difficulty in writing about the people you do while presenting them to an audience that might not be as familiar with them as you are?
I recall Flannery O'Connor, a most remarkable short story writer, saying once that one needs to use humor in the most serious of fiction. It is a leavening agent. The thing is that most people are the funniest when they don't know that they are: in what they say, in what they do. I will occasionally pull off a story that has very little humor in it, but it's only because I wasn't lucky enough to wedge some humor in there. If you write about real-life characters of the socio-economic-educational background of most of mine, the humor will take care of itself. These are the people I grew up with, and humor was one of the few elements in their lives that made those lives bearable—and it didn't cost a red cent.
I think that if you give your characters the attributes they need to become real in your fiction, they will be as real to your readers as they are to you. You obviously need to know your audience well enough to anticipate what they need for your fiction to come alive fully for them. The language and trappings of people in this country differ region to region, but the essential nature of them does not. The movies and television have so familiarized us with the language and customs of different regions that most of us—whether we can write authoritatively about them or not—can understand what the characters are saying or doing and why. After Faulkner, O'Connor, and Welty introduced the world to Southern characters as marvelously as they did, I feel quite certain that if I dress mine out properly, any reader can understand them.
As an essayist what are your views on the form? The form seems to have radically changed as of late, becoming more of a pseudo-memoir than the rigorous philosophical pursuit it once was. We seem to have moved far away from Montaigne and E.B. White. Why?
I wouldn't say that the form has changed a great deal: It's just that more and more people are writing essays, especially the memoir. This is a natural result of an educational system that teaches that we are all geniuses in one way or another, all very special, and that no person's story is more or less important than anyone else's. Due to the proliferation of little magazines and independent presses, growth of the self-publishing industry, and unlimited access to the Internet and its myriad means of self-expression, anyone who wants to can crank out an essay or a book of essays without much, if any, editorial assessment.
It is true that, unless one has led a very unusual life, one person's story is just as important as anyone else's. Media darlings just naturally have an edge, of course, and almost anything they write will be snatched up, whether it's decent literature or not. What makes the difference is the way that that story is written. I'd rather read a well-written essay on some ordinary person's life than a poorly written essay about some celebrity.
As far as scholarly essays go, I fear that our literary critics these days are too often afraid to approach the work of living authors, preferring to continue to labor away in the same old mines, going deeper and deeper and farther afield, hoping that they will discover something in the work of the masters that no one else has found. They continue to try to explain in a new way something that has already been explained, completely ignoring one of the fundamental purposes of good literary criticism: introducing the works of new writers. In some respects, the book reviewer performs a greater service for literature than mainstream literary criticism does. (But, of course, a book review does not have the same heft on annual faculty activity reports as a scholarly essay.)
There is a music to your poetry (something that also plays out in your prose). What are you listening to? How do you see music working its way into your work?
If music is working its way into my poetry, I doubt that it's anything I've listened to lately. I generally listen to Country/Western, and I certainly don't see any influence there. I do not doubt that the rhythms of those old hymns whose lyrics I memorized in church worm their way in. They are still in my head, for sure, and every once in a while I will find myself singing one while I'm working away in the garden or the shop.
It seems to me that one of the elements missing most frequently in poetry these days is the music that well-wrought language is capable of. I want my poetry to sound good on the tongue. I don't mean that it has to be heavily metered, metronomic, but it should be inherently more rhythmical than prose. Consider these lines from the beginning of Eliot's "Journey of the Magi":
A cold coming we had of it,?Just the worst time of year?For a journey, and such a long journey:?The ways deep, the weather sharp,?The very dead of winter.
That is sheer music, though the passage does not scan like the lines of a song, and there's no rhyme. It is a grand combination of alliteration, consonance, spondees, repetition. Eliot whittled it down to precisely the words he wanted in the best order he could place them in. You could structure those opening lines a dozen different ways and get the meaning across, but I defy you to make the passage sound more beautiful.
Poetry, then, should be that grand combination of sound and sense, the two working together to make the language memorable.
What I enjoy most about your poetry is the way it operates on multiple levels at once. It, unlike other contemporary poets, does not try to be obscure, yet it would be completely at home being discussed in a classroom. It is accessible and at the same time gives plenty to the reader to think through. Can you discuss this? Is this what you are trying to do? What are your thoughts on the willful obscurity of many modern poets?
Robert Frost once said that the kind of poem he hated most was one that looked as if the poet had finished it and stood back and said, "There—let me see you understand that!" There seems to be an abiding notion out there, among our younger poets especially, that a contemporary poem should be difficult to understand. Like it's a riddle. It's almost as if they are taking Emerson's old notion that to be great is to be misunderstood and contorting it to read: "To be misunderstood is to be great." Hell, any kid in high school can write a poem that nobody can understand.
Frost himself knew that if he ever intended to be recognized and appreciated fully by both the general reader and the critic, he had to write his poems so that they could function on two levels. They had to be accessible to the general reader—or at least enjoyable—so that whether that reader understood everything he was up to or not, at least the experience of reading that poem would be pleasurable. Without that general readership, he would never achieve that widespread popularity and adulation that he thrived on. Did he achieve that goal? You bet he did. Anyone can read a frost poem and enjoy the imagery, rhythms, language, and characters, whether or not that reader can "figger out the theme."
Frost likewise knew that if he intended to be recognized in the academic world—the world of prizes and reading/workshop fees and the use of his poetry in university textbooks—his poems had to have sufficient depth to intrigue literary scholars. So he would tease and intrigue, sometimes going so far as to agree to one critic's interpretation on one campus and with another critic's opposite interpretation on another campus. He wanted the Nobel Prize so bad that he could literally taste it.
Soooo, I try to entertain the reader's senses at one level and tease his mind a little at another. Whether he understands the poem fully or not is of far less concern to me than his enjoying the poem. I don't want him to say, "I didn't understand this poem, and I did not enjoy not understanding it."
A bit of advice to the young poet: Keep self out--self-awareness, self-discovery, self-pity, self-loathing. Try to write most poems in third-person, and when you do write in first-person, focus on other characters in the poem, on the setting. When the poet bogs down deep in self, obscurity is so much more likely than when he keeps the focus on the setting and other characters and actions in the poem. In Frost's poems, for example, self is keep in check as he keeps the readers aimed at a stone wall, birch trees, the winter woods, his horse, apples, a fork in the road.
Most of our young poets have a hard time grasping the importance of the objective correlative, to use Eliot's term. They want to internalize in their poetry. What you too often get is cerebral effluvia: a nebulous mass of feeling and emotion. Soul vomit, as I sometimes describe it to my students. It's only when you apply to this amorphous mess the objective elements of art that you get the total effect of a good poem. Some of our contemporary poets have a hard time accepting the notion that all creative writing is a two-stage enterprise: In the first stage—the impulsive, spontaneous stage—you just want to get something on the page; in the second stage—the restrained, systematic stage—you shape the material into an art form. First, the heat and the passion of the Romantic mind, then the objective, calculated shaping of the Classical mind. Wordsworth had the formula for good poetry: the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, yes. This is the first stage. Recollected in tranquility. This is the second stage. Too many of our poets want to stop at the first stage.
You are a master of the narrative poem. Could you elaborate on the relationship between the narrative poem and the short story? Also, do you think your love of the narrative poem comes out of growing up in a region known for its storytelling, not to mention what you've talked about with regards to your youthful church experiences?
I certainly never thought of myself as a master of the narrative poem, but I do love the form. I don't think I had ever written one until the early 80s, when I bought a piece of property outside Huntsville and started a little cattle operation. I did some serious gardening out there too. I even started a small fruit tree nursery, where my wife and I budded and grafted peach, plum, pear, and apple trees for sale. Had catfish ponds that I stocked. Had a decent truck for the first time and a full-size tractor with plenty of equipment. Took out my first farm loan. I had lots of learning to do, though, so I read everything I could get my hands on about ranching and gardening and fruit-tree culture. One thing I learned early on was that a cattle operation is a truly fine way of losing money.
For some reason, this very real, literally down-to-earth world that I found myself swept up in began manifesting itself in dramatic poetry. I wrote fairly long narrative poems about couples' relationships on a farm/ranch, about dealing with the day-by-day activities around the place, about coming to terms with extremes of weather, etc.
One day while I was putting the finishing touches on a dramatic poem called "Teaching Her About Catfish," about the time I tried to teach my young wife, a former student, the difference between a male and female catfish and screwed up, I realized that I didn't need to do much to turn that sucker into a short short story. Work on the setting a bit, flesh out the characters, add a bit more dialog, and . . . hey, y'all, we got ourselves a story!
I don't have an exact figure here, but I imagine that at least eight of my shorter stories began as dramatic poems.
As for whether my Southern background influenced my fondness for narrative poetry, I can't say, but I can say that I have always been drawn to the tale-spinning inclination of Southerners.
Describe a writing day for you. Where do you work? Do you type or write by hand?
I don't have a typical writing day. I write when the spirit moves me. I am fortunate that the spirit is almost always with me. At any given time I will have dozens of writing projects underway. I have six unfinished novels in various stages of completion. Probably a dozen stories. Dozens of essays. A handful of poems. A cookbook. When I'm trying to decide what to work on, I'll scroll through these projects; if one beckons me, I'm on it.
Since I write a weekly newspaper column (Ruffin-It), I'm always looking around for something to write about. My wife and I went to New Orleans right after Christmas last year, so right now I'm writing pieces about some of the fantastic places to eat in the Big Easy. I might write about fire ants next week or a new kind of pistol I've tried out.
These column pieces often evolve into familiar essays and sometimes become imbedded in stories or novels. Sometimes I'll even give them a poetic treatment.
I can say with total conviction that I have never suffered writer's block, the blank-page tremors. If I did, hell, I'd just run out to the nearest Walmart. I've have never been in one that I didn't come out with something new to write about, even if I had to make up the story. It's like a trip to the zoo, except that Walmartians come in a greater range of shapes and sizes and sounds. Oh, a tip: Never try to feed one.
You write now with as much vigor, force, compassion and insight as you did in your early years. In fact, in many ways I would argue that you're writing now with even more force and passion. Am I wrong? What do you think of this?
I think that I am writing with the same passion now that I wrote with thirty years ago. One of the reasons is that I am equally comfortable with poetry, fiction, or nonfiction prose, so if the spirit is not moving me in one genre, I just swith to another. And I think that my newspaper column is largely responsible for that continued passion: When you write a column a week, you've got to be on your toes for story ideas. Luckily, I'm interested in almost everything, from the most mundane to the most academic, so finding something stimulating enough to write about is no big deal. I keep files of ideas and bits and pieces of stories, poems, or essays, and I scroll through them periodically to see what I warm up to.
We haven't seen too many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and writing about their experiences, especially in fiction in poetry (Brian Turner being the notable exception). Is it still too early for this? Or, why do you think there aren't so many veterans writing about this?
My take on this is likely to offend some veterans and active soldiers out there, but you asked. In our major wars subsequent to Iraq and Afghanistan—WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam--a large percentage of the soldiers were drafted. They were not career soldiers. And among those drafted were a lot of college-educated or college-bound kids who could and did write. The officers, likewise, were usually better educated, or at least more apt to have been exposed more to extensive reading and writing than the ones today. These soldiers, from grunt to general, were not products of the world of texting and email and relying on the wisdom of blogs. At their technical best, they might use a typewriter.
It is therefore not at all surprising that the volume of literature emanating from our recent veterans and active soldiers is paltry in comparison. Most folks, alas, do not consider blogs serious literature.
Another thing to point out is that the war correspondents in earlier wars were largely journalists, newspaper people, who were already writers; and given the fact that a great many of our finest writers of the last century came from the ranks of journalists—Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Steinbeck, for example--it is not surprising that there would be a good deal of literature coming out of those wars. Our correspondents today do their reporting with microphones and cameras.
Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor is the only book I've read about our more recent conflicts. It's not great literature, but it's a gripping read.
If you were to design a single year college level course in literature (without worrying about superiors, only your audience), what would you teach and why?
When you say "single year," I'm going to assume a two-semester course. First of all, I would prepare a highly selective reading list that would include a sampling of the best fiction, poetry, nonfiction prose, and drama that this country has ever produced, with no concern whatsoever for sociological, political, psychological, economic, or historical issues whatsoever. No focus on gender or racial issues or multiculturalism in general. This would be a course in the appreciation of literature for what it is: the finest written expression of the human mind. For the sake of simple logistics, I'd consider only American writers for this course.
For fiction, the list would include the following:
The Collected Stories of Mark Twain
The Collected Stories of William Faulkner
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works
Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café (the story collection)
George Garrett's An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition
Since the focus on this course would be on learning to appreciate good writing, and since the short story gives students a package small enough to consider in toto, I have left novels for another course. Whereas it is true that one who masters the short story cannot necessarily excel with the novel—O'Connor, Porter, and Welty serving as good examples—the principles of good prose are the same; hence, studying a good sample of stories from these sources will introduce the reader to the very best fiction this country has produced. A bit heavy on Southerners? Yep. For good reason.
For poetry, I'd simply prepare copies of some of the best poem by the following poets:
E. E. Cummings (properly capitalized)
W. S. Merwin
John Crowe Ransom
Edwin Arlington Robinson
William Carlos Williams
I know that there are poets on this list that others might regard as totally inconsequential in the grand poetic scheme of things, but each makes a contribution in terms of style, subject matter, or theme. Not many women there, you say? Hey, it's my class, remember, and my list. And in case you've forgotten, look at my fiction list. Why Gwendolyn Brooks? Because unlike most black poets writing about their world, she does not allow anger and frustration with injustice to overwhelm her art.
For nonfiction prose I'd include sample essays by the following:
Ralph Waldo Emerson
H. L. Mencken
Henry David Thoreau
My drama list would include a piece by each of the following:
I'd probably play hell ever trying to get a course like this in the curriculum; but if I had the chance, those are the writers I would definitely include.
I've gathered a room full of Wobblies. You've got the podium. What do you want to say?
I am grateful for the opportunity to say much of what I've said here. It is not often that a writer is allowed to express himself/herself without fear of censure. Life is good, as the poet Robinson Jeffers observed, whether it be "stubbornly long or suddenly a mortal splendor," and one person's story is just as important as anyone else's. What matters most is whether it is told well. So tell your story, and tell it well.
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