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If All 2009: Conversation with Tony Earley

tony-earley3Conversation with Tony Earley

W&B: When did you start writing and in what form did you first work? What writers served as your earliest influences?

Earley: I decided I wanted to be a writer at age seven. I suppose that I started writing seriously in college, where I was the tortured campus poet. (I found out when I graduated that there’s not a big demand for those.) I’ve been most influenced by the writers of American modernism who wrote in the period between the two World Wars, [Ernest] Hemingway in particular.

W&B: You have said that Willa Cather is one of your favorite writers and refer to her as having “a huge heart.” What in Cather’s narratives or writing style do you admire, what gives her such heart?

Earley: Cather isn’t afraid of admitting that she actually has emotions. Many contemporary writers adapt sort of an ironic narrative distance that precludes authorial feeling. I’m particularly taken with the way Cather links the way a character feels with that character’s perception of landscape. That’s probably the biggest lesson I took from her to Jim the Boy.

W&B: Your own writing style has been compared to that of a variety of authors ranging from Hemingway to William Faulkner to E.B. White. How do you respond to those comparisons?

Earley: I say, “Thank you, very much,” and try not to take it too seriously. When I write “Hills Like White Elephants” or Absalom, Absalom or Charlotte’s Web, I’ll let you know.

W&B: Do you see your work as in the tradition of other Southern writers? How would you characterize that designation?

Earley: I’m a writer who happens to be from the South. I really don’t want to be put into a box with other writers, particularly when I have nothing in common with them except maybe a spoken accent and a love of fried foods. I want my own box.

W&B: Most of your stories take place in North Carolina, where you grew up. How many of your stories stem from actual places you know and/or from real events?

Earley: The landscape in my work almost always looks suspiciously like the part of North Carolina where I grew up. Very few of the events I write about happened in my own life, but I have lifted a few things from my family.

W&B: How much research about the era and locale did you do before (or during) the writing of Jim the Boy?

Earley: Very little. When I was a kid both sets of my grandparents still lived on the farms where they had always lived, and in most substantive ways their lives hadn’t changed appreciably from what they were during the Great Depression. They still had outhouses and milk cows. I like to say that I got to see the tail end of the Great Depression in rural western North Carolina in the 1960s.

W&B: Did any of your own specific childhood experiences or emotions come into play in the creation of Jim’s character?

Earley: Jim and I probably share the same optimistic, romantic view of the world. We were both good kids who wanted everybody to be happy. However, I made Jim the handsomest, fastest kid and the best baseball player in his class. I wasn’t any of those things, but I thought, why not? It’s my book.

W&B: Who or what were your (non-literary) influences as a boy?

Earley: My elementary and junior high school teachers, who took an interest in me and gave me the belief that I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough, and my maternal grandmother, who was the best human being I’ve ever known. She wouldn’t say an unkind word about anybody, under any circumstances. I named my daughter, Clara, after her.

W&B: It is a bit unusual for writers to work in both short and full-length fiction and nonfiction. Looking at your bibliography chronologically, it seems that you go back and forth, publishing a book in one genre and then another. Do you find the need to move from one to the other and back again or do you work in various genres simultaneously?

Earley: It all feels kind of the same to me. It’s all storytelling. I guess I’m a novelist now, though, because it’s the first thing I’ve done twice.

W&B: If it is all about the storytelling, are there differences in writing short stories and long-form fiction?

Earley: The gratification arrives much more quickly with short stories. When I write short stories I only have to hate myself for a few weeks at a time. With novels, that same feeling lasts for years.

W&B: Can you discuss the process of writing creative nonfiction? How do truth and fiction come together for you in this genre?

Earley: Most of the nonfiction I’ve written used fictional constructs. I could have changed everybody’s name and called them short stories. I find it helpful to remember that when I recount a conversation I had years ago, what I’m really doing is writing dialogue between characters. Memory itself is an act of creation.

W&B: Speaking of the creative process, Jim the Boy is very much a novel of external place and of landscape, as well as of the internal. What importance does the setting have in the narrative for you?

Earley: For whatever reason, I can’t write about people unless I can see where they are. I actually have visual memories, particularly from Jim the Boy, of places that do not exist in the real world.

W&B: What draws you to explore the dynamics specific to smaller communities? Do any of your towns exist in the real world?

Earley: The phrase “Write what you know” got to be a cliché for a reason. Small-town western North Carolina is the place I know best, and it’s still the only place I feel absolutely at home.

W&B: You often write about farmers and those who live close to the land and you do have familial roots in farming culture. What particular aspects of this way of life appeal to you?

Earley: Again, it’s what I know, although I suppose there is one degree of separation there. I didn’t grow up on a working farm, but both of my parents did. I always thought that their lives, and the lives of my grandparents, were much more interesting than my own. Farmers and farmers’ wives, out of necessity, know how to do so many different things that I don’t know how to do. I still call up my father and ask him questions like What does a sweet potato vine smell like?, Did a 1935 Ford have turn signals?

W&B: Many readers and critics have referred to Jim the Boy as being set in a “simpler” time. How would you define the setting of the novel and what complexities do you try to tease out from it?

Earley: There’s never been a simple time. People have always been complicated. For that reason I find nostalgia, for lack of a better word, despicable. I hear people talk about how wonderful the 1950s were, and maybe they were—but only if you weren’t, for example, a black person trying to vote in Mississippi. I think we have an unfortunate tendency to attach cultural generalizations to individual memories of happiness. Good fiction needs to be smarter than that.

W&B: One reviewer wrote that Jim the Boy was written with “expert and irony-free minimalism.” Is your language (at least your sentence structure) intentionally clear and rather simple in order to reflect the tone of the narrative?

Earley: I love the artistic challenge of doing something difficult without appearing to. One phrase I hear about my work that bothers me a little is “deceptively simple.” I prefer to think of it as deceptively complex.

W&B: You have said that you can’t write anything until you come up with a metaphor. How did this process work with Jim the Boy?

Earley: Did I say that? I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I discover metaphors as I go along. The funny thing is that the subconscious part of my brain often makes those kinds of connections before the conscious part gets the news. I’ll make a metaphor without even being aware that I was doing it. I have a lot of “Huh. Did I do that?” moments.

W&B: You use letters to highlight certain plot points and emotional elements in Jim the Boy. How did you decide on this specific literary device as the means to convey this information?

Earley: I was limited in that the narrative strategy I chose for the book didn’t allow for a lot of back story or exposition. The letters were a way of getting around that. Sometimes I think I was cheating a little bit.

W&B: The novel begins with a charitable letter to a man who has been less than charitable. While it serves to inform readers of a motivating event that occurred before the start of the novel, it also alerts us to the moral and emotional issues at stake. At what point did this opening come to you as the best way to start the reader on their journey?

Earley: I wrote all the letters late in the process, after I had identified the issues that needed exposition the book’s form wouldn’t allow me to add. Once I decided to write about the death of Jim’s father in a letter, the tone of the letter became simply a matter of character. In that family, Uncle Zeno is the one who would have written the letter, and charitably is the only way he would have written it.

W&B: How much consideration do you give to the names of your characters? Jim’s family name, “Glass,” seems rather symbolic.

Earley: It was symbolic in “Story of Pictures,” the first story I wrote about Jim and his family. After that I was just stuck with it. If I had it to do over again, I would give him a name more readily identifiable as Scots-Irish. I have a phone book from my home county in North Carolina that I use to look for last names. Just thumbing through it makes me homesick.

W&B: As you just mentioned, Jim Glass first appeared in three short stories included in your 1994 collection Here We Are in Paradise. Had you planned all along to write a novel centered on Jim?

Earley: Nope. Once I wrote “Story of Pictures” I thought I was done. The whole thing has been a pleasant surprise.

W&B: In those first stories Jim served as a first-person narrator but Jim the Boy is written using third-person narration. What led you to change the perspective in that way? How do you see Jim differently using each perspective?

Earley: I hardly ever write in first-person anymore. It seems artificial and false to me in ways that third-person doesn’t. Now I’m suspicious of any first-person story in which a character sees himself or herself accurately. Also, Jim the Boy was pretty consciously modeled on Charlotte’s Web, which is a third-person book.

W&B: You appropriated the title Jim the Boy from a book published in 1952 (also by an author from North Carolina, Jim Washburn). What was that book about and why did this title strike you as the perfect one for your story?

Earley: The original Jim the Boy was a rather ribald account of Jim Washburn’s young manhood. The title stuck with me because I had already written three stories about Jim. Without that title, and without Charlotte’s Web, I doubt I ever would have written Jim the Boy.

W&B: Why is it important to the narrative that Jim grows up without his biological father?

Earley: The dead or absent parent has always been a powerful archetype in literature. Jim’s father dead, because Jim can only imagine him, is much more interesting than he would have been alive.

W&B: Some readers have noted the lack of adult female characters—except for his mother—in Jim’s world. Is this story in any way a response—like the recent spate of nonfiction titles such as Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood—to the specific challenges of raising boys in our culture?

Earley: Nope. Mama was simply the only woman to figure in that particular story. The Blue Star has a lot more female characters.

W&B: How important was storytelling when you were growing up? Have you appropriated any of your family stories for your fiction?

Earley: I grew up in a family of storytellers. It was hard to get a word in edgewise during Sunday dinner at my grandmother Ledbetter’s. I feel very fortunate that from the time I first became conscious of language it was narrative language.

W&B: Now that you have a child of your own, what place does storytelling have in your life as a father?

Earley: Clara already asks us to tell her stories about when her mother and I were little, and if we ever tried putting her to bed without first reading her a story, I think her head would explode. We adopted her as an infant in China, and as soon as she was able to talk, she began making up stories about how she came to be in our family. In her stories, she’s usually a small animal we find sleeping in the forest and take home with us. I think she senses that she’s lived through some sort of immense trauma or unhappiness, and she’s made up a positive, loving narrative to overcome it. It’s been wonderful, and occasionally heartbreaking, to watch, and it’s absolutely renewed my faith in the power of stories.

W&B: Speaking of childhood, are there birthday celebrations in your youth that are particularly memorable? Do you remember your 10th birthday, for example, which is the event in Jim’s life where the book begins?

Earley: I honestly can’t recall any event from any birthday. I have a pleasant memory of Jim’s though. In a lot of ways I’ve written the childhood I wish I’d had.

W&B: Jim learns several moral lessons throughout the course of the book, from his experience lying to his Uncle Zeno to his friendship with Penn. Did you plan to explore these particular lessons or did they unfold naturally as the novel progressed?

Earley: I had ideas for plot. The “teachable moments” were the uncles’ ideas.

W&B: How did you decide on using polio as a point of conflict in the story?

Earley: That was another thing, the polio scares and resulting quarantines, that happened in my parents’ early lives that I found particularly interesting. Polio and mad dogs—all kids, at least in that part of the world, were taught to be afraid of them.

W&B: Has your experience as a reporter and newspaper editor affected your writing style, or how you approach your fiction or nonfiction writing? What is the difference between the immediacy of newspaper reporting and the more extended process of writing fiction? How do these means of telling stories differ?

Earley: I probably learned the same lessons that newspaper writers have always learned: simplicity, clarity, the power of the declarative sentence. Ironically, I’ve come to believe that fiction, at least good fiction, is more honest than journalism. As a reporter, I learned that, under the guise of journalistic objectivity, I could make the subject of a story look however I wanted him or her to look. Those same devices, that kind of narrative dishonesty and manipulation, simply don’t work in fiction. In terms of writing, I like the time that fiction affords me to work on the prose to the extent that I want to. That’s a luxury reporters with daily deadlines simply don’t have.

W&B: Does your history of reporting or your publication of nonfiction essays translate to more extensive “truth telling” in your fiction than might be true of other novelists?

Earley: I may not always be a perfectly honest human being, but I like to think I’m a scrupulously honest fiction writer.

W&B: Musician Paul Burch wrote an album of songs based on the characters in Jim the Boy. How did this come about and what has been the response?

Earley: At the time I was writing Jim the Boy, Paul worked at Vanderbilt, and the genesis of his project was when I asked him to play a few Jimmy Rodgers or Carter Family songs before a reading I had coming up. A few days after I asked him, he said, “Hey, would you mind if I wrote something?” I think the album is wonderful. I had the great pleasure of hearing characters I made up say things I didn’t write. They never seemed more alive to me.

W&B: Along with the success of the interpretation of Jim the Boy into musical form, some scenes in Jim the Boy are quite cinematic. Of particular note is the courting scene of Jim’s mother by Whitey Whiteside, which seems even to have a camera position chosen already. Have the film rights to the book been optioned? Do you think a film could do the story justice?

Earley: Hallmark bought the rights and commissioned two screenplays (including one by Larry McMurtry) but then decided not to make it. The rights have reverted back to me. I would worry about whether or not a movie did it justice only if I was involved in writing it. (Which I wouldn’t do; I’m not a collaborative person by nature.) I wish George Clooney would make it. The small movies he does make me think he would really understand the material. And it would just be cool to see Uncle Zeno played by George Clooney. And I need a new car.

W&B: You have noted that writing the last line of Jim the Boy was a relief for you. Did you know how the novel was going to end and it was just a matter of getting there?

Earley: I told my wife months in advance what the last lines of the book were going to be. She said it was too sentimental and I would never pull it off. I’m still waiting for her to apologize.

W&B: You now teach creative writing at Vanderbilt University. What is your strategy for teaching writing? To what extent do you believe good writing can be taught?

Earley: I can teach students how writing works, but only God can make a writer.

W&B: How does teaching feed your writing practice or vice versa?

Earley: A good student story excites me, makes me want to go write something of my own. And as a result of teaching, I’m now much more conscious of what I believe about writing. Before I became a teacher everything I did was intuitive. I never had any reason to articulate any of it.

W&B: How important is reading to your writing/creative practice?

Earley: That’s one of the downsides to being a professor. When I read for a living, I don’t always want to go home and read something else. I’d rather go see a movie.

W&B: Many readers were delighted when The Blue Star was published in 2008. Did you have a sequel in mind when you were writing Jim the Boy or did you have trouble letting Jim go?

Earley: It feels more like Jim didn’t let me go. There’s at least one more Jim book to come. They’ll let me know when they’re ready. Uncle Zeno will probably write me a letter.