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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
You Only Get Letters from Jail – An Interview
Alan Heathcock: First, I just want to congratulate you on You Only Get Letters from Jail. It’s an amazing and impressive work of art, one that really hit me where I live. That said, it’s almost odd to congratulate you on the book, in the sense that you seem to be rooting through some intense stuff. It’s like saying, “Congratulations that you’re still standing after that fistfight.” In the very first question of the very first interview I gave for my book, the interviewer asked me why I write such “dark” stories. It threw me for a loop. I didn’t realize I was writing “dark” stories. I guess I understood that I was looking at some tough stuff–some of my most intense preoccupations as a human–but the word “dark” seemed wrong somehow. It took me a while to figure out how to talk about my work in terms that folks who hadn’t lived my life could understand. I feel a kinship with your stories, and yet I hesitate to label them with any particular temperament, so instead I’m going to ask how you see them. Which is another way of asking, in a general sense, why you chose to write these stories as opposed to writing romance stories or thrillers or quirky stories about talking toasters or any other type of story?
Jodi Angel: I think I realized at about the same time that my mother did that I was never going to write stories about kittens and rainbows. I mean, maybe I would, but the kittens would be abandoned in a woodpile and found too late, and the rainbows would be the hallucinatory visuals experienced by teenage boys chugging cough syrup that they ripped off from Elmore Pharmacy in some small mill-working town in California. I don’t really intend to write those kinds of stories, if that makes sense, but when I start to think about a story, and I get a line or two forming in my head, I step immediately into a character and I hear that character’s voice, and that character oftentimes sees the world in a way that I don’t tend to notice. That character isn’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth, and some people might define that certain kind of truth as dark, but one person’s darkness is another person’s light, and for many of my characters, they don’t know the difference. I like characters who exist somewhere out on the fringe of things, and I set my stories in small Northern California towns, and when you exist on the fringe of a small town, you make your own kind of entertainment. These are characters who don’t flinch over the sight of blood, and the worst thing that I could ever do to them is force them to conform to something tidy and mundane and commonplace. To make these characters do nice things with nice people and have nice thoughts would mean that they would die on the page, and I like them too much to sentence them to that kind of gentle and acceptable death. I like my characters to know that they can take on the plot like a knife fight and I am simply going to report the mess–not clean it up for them.
AH: I totally love that you say, “That character isn’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth.” In a way, maybe our characters allow us to be brave through them. In other words, I work very hard to remove Alan Heathcock from the mix. It’s not easy, either. But I agree that what I’m pursuing is to have a character so free from me that they can speak that truth. I certainly recognize that in your work, too. So let’s talk about character a bit, because yours are so compelling. Despite the varied circumstances of the characters in this collection, all of the stories could be read from the perspective of just one boy. There is an urgency, a desperation, they all share that seems to be part and parcel for their age group. What about this period in a boy’s life interests you?
JA: I have to say that it’s a little bit complicated for me to understand not just that age group, but a teenage boy’s life is almost impossible because it’s twice as removed for me. I didn’t grow up around men or boys. My stepfather died when I was nine, my biological father moved away, I was raised by a single mother, and I have two younger sisters. Boys were strange and fascinating things to us girls. I think I like writing from the point of view of boys because I have to stretch my imagination–I have to completely inhabit a gender that I am unfamiliar with, and it creates this duality that is freeing and limiting at the same time–I have to be conscious of gender, so there’s a limitation, but I can allow my teenage boy narrators to do anything, and that is freedom. I think that a seventeen-year-old boy is at a golden point in life–hell, any seventeen-year-old is–it’s the threshold between adulthood and adolescence; it’s a place where the proverbial rubber meets the road. You can’t go backwards and stay a kid, and you don’t know shit about being an adult except from all of these distorted messages of expectations. When you’re seventeen, you can do anything because you’re young enough to get away with it and old enough to know the best kind of trouble. I think that’s what I like most about that age in a teenage boy’s life. There’s all kinds of trouble.
AH: Speaking of trouble, does place also act as a kind of “trouble” in your work? Many of the stories take place in a rural setting where the characters are isolated. How does this place influence the young men in your stories? Is this place a part of you and your upbringing?
JA: I think a sense of place is fundamental in short stories, and I have always admired the great writers who make setting as essential as character. Your stories are very much bound by place, and Donald Ray Pollock keeps his stories anchored to place, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and . . . I could go on and on. I think that where stories take place sort of governs the participants and influences the direction of the plot. Stories are populated by people, and these people are a product of their environments. When I first wanted to become a short story writer, I was knee-deep in reading Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and they were all about place in their stories–small town, rural, blue collar. I think I identified with those stories so much because I grew up in exactly that kind of town–Northern California, small, isolated, rural, blue collar. When I was a kid, everybody’s dad worked at one of the sawmills. We went to company picnics where there were horseshoe tournaments–tournaments–I mean, if your dad carries his own set of competition horseshoes, you might be a redneck—that’s pretty much how I see it. I think that kids who grow up in those kinds of towns, where you are raised on back roads and farmland and one main street passes through the center, are inspired by an entirely different form of entertainment. There’s a lot of drinking and guns and fast driving and violence. You grow up differently than kids who are raised in urban environments–your parents are different, you are raised differently. These are people who won’t keep a dog unless it serves a purpose. There are no “pets.” You might name a lamb you raise, but it’s still getting butchered later in the year. You learn very quickly not to get attached to anything at all. And I grew up in a time when kids were forced to grow up quickly–you didn’t have a choice. My parents worked, we kids were alone a lot, and we got bored. If we wanted something to do, then we had to come up with the idea ourselves and figure out how to make it happen and handle the details on our own–my mom wasn’t going to leave work and drop us off at the mall to hang out for the afternoon. We didn’t have a mall. We did things like ride motorcycles and make traps to catch bats on summer evenings. We set things on fire and cut things with knives. We had very little parental supervision, and I think that’s what bubbles to the surface in my stories–that whole life that is based on kids who make their own kinds of fun without the benefit of parental supervision or the constraints of urban society—and in my stories it is often summer and blistering hot and there is no scheduled demand of school, and no structure, and there’s a lot of boredom, and kids in those situations are going to do the first bad ideas that come to them. I think I try to create characters who exist in those kinds of settings because they live in a world full of possibility and when you get two or three teenagers together under those circumstances, it always leads to the best kinds of trouble–and even when it doesn’t, they can always make something up.
AH: You come from a small town of horseshoes and fast cars and boredom. How did stories come into your life? And, even more importantly, when did the impulse to put pen to paper enter your world? Was writing an impulse to stave off boredom? An escape? To make sense of the world around you? Can you recall the first story you wrote and why you wrote it?
JA: I was a voracious reader, and that was probably my first form of escapism that was socially acceptable. I used to read in the car, in the grocery store, during classes, during recess, late at night. I was always into survival stories–those Julie of the Wolves/Island of the Blue Dolphins kind of tales, and dog stories, and I started reading Stephen King when I was in the sixth grade, and a group of us were passing around a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, so I was probably all kinds of screwed up. I started writing stories when I was in the seventh grade, though it was probably even before that, because I distinctly remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Purdy, telling me that I was going to grow up to be a writer. But what happened in seventh grade is that in English we actually studied the elements of a short story–character, plot, setting–and we were given the assignment to write a story. My poor teacher didn’t know what kind of monster he unleashed with that assignment. I wrote a thirty-page epic about a boy who lives with his grandfather in the mountains, first-person POV, and the grandfather dies suddenly (and tragically, I’m sure), and the boy has to survive on what little food is left as the first snowfalls come. I wrote it longhand and handed it in in sections. My teacher loved it and made some poor eighth-grade girl type it up so he could put it in the school magazine, which was nothing more than a xeroxed set of typed-up things stapled together. That was my first real published piece, and from then on, I was hooked to the rush I got when I was writing. I wrote stories because I loved the way they made me feel, and I suppose that when I scrape away all of the other things that try to infringe on the writing process–like pressure, and the end product, and my lack of confidence, and deadlines, and perfectionism, and all those other impediments to producing a good story–when I get past all of those things, it still comes down to the fact that I like the way that writing makes me feel. I like getting lost in a story and falling down into that rabbit hole where time stops and I am living and breathing in that fictional world and nothing else matters. That’s why I started writing as a kid–for that feeling and afterward being able to say, ”Damn, I really wrote that.”
AH: Let me ask you a question I was asked the other day. I was talking with this guy who’s a doctor, highly educated, who’s now trying to write a book. He asked a question I thought was pretty simple, but pretty interesting, especially at this point in my career: “How do you know when you’re successful?” He then explained that it must be difficult as an artist to know both when you’ve created art that matters and if/when validation means your art is relevant beyond yourself. He compared it to being a doctor, because as a doctor he knows he’s succeeded if the patient gets better, and if, over time, he’s won the trust of his patients, then he feels he’s succeeded. I gave him an answer on the spot, but I’ve found myself dwelling on the question. How do you know when you’ve succeeded? Can you give any specific examples as to when you knew you’d done something special, when, in a metaphoric sense, the patient got better?
JA: How do I define success for myself, or how do I know when I have succeeded? That’s an extremely difficult concept to articulate. I believe in the wise advice that, when writing, never look for validation beyond yourself, and success implies a sense of validation–that I have done something that is valuable and worthy and true, and the one who ultimately has to provide that validation is me. The idea of success suggests a multitude of things–money, recognition, praise, popularity. Success is synonymous with accomplishment, but how do we measure accomplishment in something built on creativity? Sales numbers? Advances? Reviews? None of those things have ever instilled in me a feeling of success. I write short stories–they are often overlooked, make small money, win sporadic hard-fought praise, but it never changes the way that I feel about writing them. I feel successful when I put that last word down on the page and I know that I nailed the ending, took a journey, embodied a character. Success happens when I feel good about what I wrote, and I know that I couldn’t do it any better than what I just did, and I know that I have reached out and offered to meet the reader halfway. And every time a reader says, ”Damn, I still can’t stop thinking about your story,” I know I have succeeded beyond my expectations. I don’t get the tangible result of saving a person’s life, like a doctor, or winning an important trial, like a lawyer, but I have the intangible possibility of putting someone into another person’s existence and changing how a person sees the world for a little while, and if I accomplish that, that’s truly success.
AH: Let’s end this conversation with some speed-round questions. Folks surely do love speed-round questions! Here’s goes:
1. Name three books that were influential to you finding your voice as a writer.
Rock Springs by Richard Ford. At the Jim Bridger by Ron Carlson. Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston. One to grow on: She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. BONUS point: Everything Raymond Carver ever wrote.
2. If you could own one car, what kind of car would it be?
All my life I wanted a muscle car. I don’t know why, other than even as a kid, I knew cool when I saw it. Earlier this year I finally got a muscle car, so now I own the dream: a 1969 Chevy Nova. I bought a “project car,” from out of state, thinking I could handle the “fine-tuning” it needed. I had the car shipped, drove it less than a day, and it blew up. The end. If I were writing that story, it would pretty much end there, but since this is life, I threw down the money to replace the engine, and my partner in crime and I have systematically replaced the cooling system, carburetor, wheels, tires, etc. And now we have a car with over 400 horsepower and you can hear it coming from blocks away. That’s pretty much the best kind of car to own.
3. You’re cruising around in this car, what tunes are playing on the stereo?
It’s summer, and summer says Rush. Play some Rush. And some Ramones, and the White Stripes. Anything fast, that sounds better loud, and preferably was released before 1990. And when it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.
4. If you could practice one art that wasn’t writing, what would it be?
I wish I could play the drums. I always wanted to be in a band, but I can’t sing, and I’m left-handed and not creative enough to teach myself how to play a guitar, so maybe I could just sit at the back of the stage and hit something really hard.
5. What advice would you give to someone just getting their feet wet in this crazy world of writing?
Don’t be afraid to tell your own truths. People are going to try to tell you what is “acceptable” material and what is “okay” to talk about, and all around you these disguised rules will be reinforced by people who seem to matter–reviewers, editors, agents–but the moment you change what or how you write in order to please somebody else, be accepted, get popular, you stop being a writer. You become something more like a copy machine, and the world is full of copy machines, and nobody really likes them. Be a writer. Be fearless.
Jodi Angel’s first collection of short stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, One Story, Byliner and the Sycamore Review, among other publications and anthologies. Her stories have received several Pushcart Prize nominations and she was selected for Special Mention in 2007. Most recently her story “A Good Deuce” was noted as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Stories 2012. She grew up in a small town in Northern California—in a family of girls.
Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals. VOLT, a collection of stories, was a “Best Book 2011″ selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ,Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.