What am I working on?
The novel I’m currently writing is, at its core, a tussle between mother and daughter. I see them locked in prideful conflict, wrestling with what they’ve inherited, how far from their origins they’re willing to stray, and what forgiveness ought to look like. I’ll go light on the plot details just now, as I’m in full-bore composing mode (aiming to have it in shareable form by year’s end). Things can change quickly once the characters really let you in. That said, I’ll share that the book takes place in the late 80’s, set largely on a South Georgia catfish farm and in the Smokies of East Tennessee.
Among the swirl of things that currently appear in the book: naturally-occurring salt licks, solar eclipses, neglected orchards, blasphemy, your first microwave oven, homemade halter tops, Pigeon Forge pancake houses, catfish harvesting, what comes after you torch your life, scar tissue troubles, Minor Prophets, bobcats, and Purple Rain.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This looks to be a question about point of view. I tend to write stories that concern southerners making mischief under the nose of religion or the natural world, or both. I always want the voice to take on some flavor of the characters’ physicality, to build tension and conflict through that physicality.
Asked to draw distinctions between my work and others I’ve read, I would say that I never want my stories to read like intellectual exercises or demonstrations of the author’s cleverness. That bores me. Obediently cool fiction bores me. I want readers to develop loyalty to my characters, which is a visceral process, not an intellectual one. I agree with Flannery O’Connor that we convince through the senses.
Furthermore, I try to account for the life of the spirit in my fiction—for the possibilities of transcendence. But I want to achieve that through the physical world. For now, anyway, I’m only intrigued by writing fiction set in our world, rather than ventures into magical realism. Our actual world is wondrous and terrifying enough.
I’m still working to uncover whatever may be unique to my voice. That’s a life’s work.
Why do I write what I do?
I write the stories that show up at my kitchen door. What I mean is that the origins are not always clear and not always my business.
I have an ornery streak, to be sure. That part of my nature informs the work. I want stories that have some fight in them, that will misbehave a bit. For me, this is how the surprises are shaken loose. I don’t trust that I have a real draft until it’s got at least one good surprise—some element that jostles my approach.
Sometimes my nature gets into conflict with the fiction’s nature. So I try to keep a healthy respect for the works themselves. I try to shift the emphasis away from me and my bullish ego, so that I can see what the materials need. When I remember that I’m not the point, then the stories energize me. The privilege of spending time with this fiction is reason enough to keep writing it.
As to why I write at all (as opposed to, say, doctoring or competitive bass fishing), I don’t have a true answer, or even a noble-sounding pretentious answer. (I still tried coming up with one. Trust me, it was insufferable.) Writing is my most natural activity, and I cannot imagine myself otherwise. The Why is bigger than my ability to perceive it.
How does my writing process work?
Speaking of perceiving, one of my biggest concerns as a writer is figuring out how to stay open and receptive. A crucial aspect of the work is keeping my imagination alert. I always want to be willing to enlarge or redefine my vision, to be more awake to possibilities. That’s the long-haul process.
I’ve kept a journal for most of my life—sifting and shaping observations into sentences is now second nature. The journals also taught me to prioritize making time for the writing. Internalizing those matters long ago has made the discipline easier. I didn’t start the journal for those purposes (I suspect that, back then, I was preserving a space where my imagination wouldn’t get evicted once the social pressures of adolescence kicked in). But that training was invaluable and continues to be so.
Now, to take the piss out of my high-mindedness self. (See? Ornery.) At the desk, what I trust is good old fashioned trial and error, emphasis on the “error.” I find I get the best results when I’m the most willing to fail. I make a lot of notes, fill a lot of yellow legal pad pages, hoist it all up into a messy typed draft, and then revise, over and over. It’s an unruly process, but when it’s cooking, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do.