Southern author, Scott Gould, talks to me about writing and his latest novel, Whereabouts…
You returned to the town of Kinsgtree, SC but moved from a first-person, point-of-view adult narrator reflecting back on his childhood to a young, female third-person point of view. Why not a first-person point of view? Also, did you find it more difficult to write from a female perspective verses a male?
To be honest, I shifted to a third-person point of view as an exercise for myself. I’ve always been most comfortable writing in first person. That’s always my go-to, especially in short fiction. But I remember thinking I needed to get out of my comfort zone a little and try something that made me squirm in the chair a little. Squirming is good for writers, right? Plus, third person gives you a little more latitude with delivering information, although this point of view is so limited through Missy Belue, it’s almost a substitute first-person. But the fact of the matter is, I decided to do it because I wanted to be a little uncomfortable. And as far as using a female protagonist…well, that was a conscious decision for my daughters, who were very young at the time I started the book. I wanted to write a story for them with a strong, independent female character, so it just seemed natural to filter the story through Missy’s eyes. During all the versions of the novel, I worried constantly if I was being true to her character, if I was making her believable. A great deal of the revision process revolved around being true to Missy. (Was I being true as a male writer interpreting her.) And I still worry about it. I guess it was a little bit of a risk, writing a female protagonist. Maybe I set myself up for some criticism, but, I mean, I think I made the decision to have a female protagonist for all the right reasons.
There’s something reminiscent of a fairy tale in Whereabouts. It reminded me of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears. Missy tries out men (not in a slutty way!) like Goldie Locks tries out porridge, chairs and beds. She tries Skyles, then Hassan, but unlike Goldie Locks who eventually finds the perfect fit, Missy rejects the third option and chooses independence. Did you have the fairy tale method in mind when you wrote Whereabouts?
I never really thought about Whereabouts in terms of a fairy tale, but now that you’ve told me this, Dawn, I am going to steal this idea and use it whenever possible. (Do I owe you money?) For me, I was just following the tried-and-true advice my old teacher, William Price Fox, gave me. Dig a decent hole and toss your character in. Let her try to crawl out. When she gets close to the surface, bang her on the head with the shovel and knock her back in the hole. Repeat process. Okay, maybe Bill was too graphic back during those days, but the point is valid. I wanted to keep throwing roadblocks in Missy’s way…and all the roadblocks happened to be the men she encountered on her journey. Missy Belue has an emotional destination. She wants to find an antidote to the boredom and unhappiness and restlessness in her life. On the way to this destination, she faces roadblocks. She keeps getting thrown back down in the hole. (As an aside, if you haven’t read William Price Fox’s stories and novels, you should. Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright is wonderful book I go back to time and again.)
South American short-story writer, novelist, journalist, Gabriel García Márquez, said in his prologue to Twelve Pilgrims:
…The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing…and if the rest of one’s life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a [short] story has no beginning, no end. Either it works or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t…toss the story in the wastebasket.
Do you agree with Márquez? I noticed in the Acknowledgements Whereabouts developed from a short story titled, “Sort of a Prophet.” Did you find it harder to move from short stories to a novel?
Oh lord, who am I to dispute Marquez? I mean, I agree with parts of what he says here, especially about the common intensity between a short story and the beginning of a novel. But I’ve found (and I ain’t no expert, trust me) that beginning a novel requires the establishment of a voice that the reader can live with for tens of thousands of words, a voice that seems to suggest, “Settle in. We’re going on a trip. It’s going to take a while. Just hang with me.” On the other hand, a short story, in my experience, requires a bit more of a desperate quality in the narrative voice. If I had to put a sound on it, the storytelling voice would be a little more pitched, maybe in a higher key, a voice that suggests, “I gotta tell you this story before it gets away, before I forget it.” Oddly, Whereabouts had its beginnings in a story that I placed in the middle of the novel. I decided to write what got Missy to that particular short story, and then write what happened to her afterward. It was almost like the short story (“Sort of a Prophet”) was the peak of a tall hill. And the novel is the process of getting Missy up the slope to the top, then follow her down the backside of the hill. I’m not sure that metaphor makes sense. Hell, I’m not sure it’s even a metaphor.
I kept wondering if the encyclopedia salesman was a younger Skyles, especially when Missy chose an encyclopedia starting with the letter “S.” That remained a bit of a mystery, but some of his characteristics fit and then some not so much. Was it Skyles? Or will you reveal this tidbit?
I wasn’t really thinking about Skyles when I wrote the encyclopedia salesman’s character. What I was thinking about was the time when I was in the seventh grade and I almost knocked my front teeth out, diving at the Kingstree Moose Lodge pool one July. I had to eat through a squeeze bottle for weeks and be careful with my teeth, and stay at home alone during the day while my parents were at work. (I don’t know where my sister was. Maybe off with relatives or something. Or locked in the attic.) Anyway, I’m hanging out bored at home, with orders not to answer the door, and this college-aged encyclopedia salesman shows up, and he’s sweating and nervous. I knew I shouldn’t ask him inside, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go outside and shoot some basketball. Plus, we already had encyclopedias. I hadn’t been allowed to do anything for days. (My mother was trying desperately to preserve my front teeth.) So I end up in the back yard, shooting hoops with a sweaty encyclopedia salesman, and I’m being real careful to keep my loose front teeth out of the way of the rebounds. My parents were not happy with me. Now, combine that with the fact that my father still has that set of World Book Encyclopedias from the late sixties, and the biggest one is the ‘S’ volume. I just kind put those things together to try and set up the idea of Missy Belue wanting to keep moving, just like the sharks she reads about in the ‘S’ volume. (That volume is sitting right here, on my table.) Skyles? Man, he is something altogether different. He should probably have his own entry in the ‘S’ volume. But I can’t see him ever selling encyclopedias. Or sweating.
Sorry–’m such nerd–but I always try and hunt down the literal meaning of character names. Mona was a bit a whiner or moaner, so I thought her name was fitting. What about the name Skyles? Was that a play on the word “skyless” and yes, I Goggled it! It’s Lithuanian for “holes.”
I love the process of coming up with characters’ names. To be honest, most of the time, I go with the best sounds. I’m really attracted to rhythmic names that make some noise. I had a friend in elementary school named Freddie Belue, and I always thought his last name was so cool, almost like you put an odd, extra syllable in the word “blue.” And I thought, Yeah, Missy spends a lot of this novel being blue. That works. Mona was named for the reason you mentioned. Lots of whining and complaining and worrying in her character. With Skyles, I wanted something that seemed a little mysterious and unique. (But I like your idea better. Lithuanian for holes. You sure I shouldn’t pay you something?) And Asa, of course, is sort of an ass most of the time, so I went with that. I never know if I get the names right or not. It’s something I always look back on and go, “Damn, that doesn’t work.” But maybe these will hold up. Ask me in six months. I’ll probably wanna change Missy to Abigail or something.
I compared Virgil’s The Aeneid to Whereabouts because it seemed to me that the allusion foreshadowed Missy’s journey? Was that your intention or did the allusion stop with Asa Floyd guiding the grief-stricken through their personal hell? It was a hilarious allusion, by the way.
Virgil’s Aeneid…I love this question. Okay, so I didn’t go as far down the Virgil rabbit hole as you did. When Asa says, “In this hell you’ve been thrust, I am your…Virgil,” I was thinking about Dante’s Inferno, and how Virgil was Dante’s guide through the circles of hell. (Also, I wanted a set-up for the punch line, when Mona says, “Thank you so much, Virgil.”) But now that you’ve mentioned it, there is sort of a parallel between Aeneas’s wanderings and Missy’s. I might steal that too. (I swear, I should probably pay you.) But to be honest, I was only thinking of Virgil and how he led Dante through all those circles. That’s part of my problem—I only know a little bit of a lot of things. Gets me into trouble sometimes, especially at cocktail parties with English department faculty.
There were two items that suggested to me, or at least left the door open for a series with Missy Belue. Who was in the casket at the last funeral?! Why did Missy end up where she did at the end? Can we expect more from Missy Belue, meaning can we look forward to reading more Kingstree based stories and characters?
I have not really thought about taking on Missy Belue again, but that’s not to say that couldn’t happen. You know, I ended the story at the place where I thought the circle closed. And I wanted to end with Missy in a place that she had earned, that she could claim as her own. A few days ago, I did a book club discussion with some folks in Chicago, and they sort of hammered me about the ending. (Actually, they hammered me pretty hard. Felt like I was defending a dissertation.) They thought I’d left Missy in a bad place, with few decent options and only hardship ahead. I disagreed, and we had a nice, adult-like discussion about gender and agency and the like. But in retrospect, the interesting thing for me is that they were already writing the next chapter in her story. And the next chapter had some trouble in it. They wanted more, maybe. So perhaps Missy’s story should go on. Maybe I’ll go read The Iliad and get me some inspiration.
TO PURCHASE WHEREABOUTS: Support Independent Book stores and shop Bear Book Market . Whereabouts is also available via Amazon. I also highly recommend his book, Strangers to Temptation, a collection of linked narratives also based in Kingstree, SC. If you enjoyed Whereabouts, you’ll love Strangers to Temptation.
MORE ABOUT SCOTT: Scott Gould is the author of the novels Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles (forthcoming from University of North Georgia Press), the story collections Strangers to Temptation and Idiot Men (forthcoming from Springer Mountain Press) and the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly. He is a two-time winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship in Prose, as well as a winner of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.