DM: The cicada is such a wonderful working symbol. For me, the cicadas connected the past with the present and exposed the dark secrets in The Cicada Tree. And of course, the muse! What drew you to this incredible creature?
RG: You are spot on. Within the novel, cicadas do represent the bridging of the past to the present. For the novel, I created a cicada mythology, the sense that they consume secrets through the years, later bringing them to the surface to shine light upon them—right wrongs. For me, cicadas also represent reinvention and renewal. I am rather taken by the idea that a person can transform—have second chances.
DM: I specifically heard the voice of Truman Capote in your novel, but will you share your other influences?
RG: Dawn, thank you so much for the comparison to Truman Capote. You are too generous, and I take that as an immense compliment. His debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, is a favorite, and was a bit of a boyhood obsession. Another childhood obsession was Charles Dickens’ character, Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am a disciple of the Brontë sisters. As you know, I reference Charlotte Brontë’s, Jane Eyre in The Cicada Tree. And Anything by Tennessee Williams sets me on fire. On occasion, for a boost of inspiration, I obsessively re-read the prologue to Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours. I also possess a fond affection for Shirley Jackson’s, We Have Always Lived In The Castle. The opening sentence of Robert Goolrick’s, A Reliable Wife, often ticks through my head like an incantation: “It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.” And Pat Conroy. His writing moves me to tears.
DM: The setting is stunning and quintessentially Southern Gothic. Was there a particular location in Georgia you used to base The Cicada Tree on that you’d like to share with the reader?
RG: The Cicada Treetakes place in Southwest Georgia within the fictitious town of Providence. When building the world of my novel, I took inspiration from my hometown, Cairo, Georgia, a place named after the capital of Egypt. Mistletoe, the estate of the wealthy Mayfield family, is also a fictitious place, but the name is taken from an actual plantation close to Cairo, Georgia. My great greatgrandfather once owned a farmthat was sold many years ago and folded into Mistletoe Plantation, so I have a personal connection to Mistletoe.
DM: Music plays a huge role in this book to the extent that the reader can hear it while reading. Will you talk about how music or any other art form helped shape your novel?
RG: Music absolutely plays a significant role in the novel and in my writing process. Lyrically, The Cicada Tree is inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, popularly referred to as Moonlight Sonata. The sonata consists of three movements: Adagio,Allegretto, and Presto. The pacing of the novel is inspired by the tempo of each movement, each movement an act within the novel.
Along with music and art, I draw inspiration from fashion, specifically the designs of Christian Dior which were used to dress Cordelia Mayfield.
DM: The Cicada Tree is a tribute to strong female characters. The male characters aren’t weak but are secondary in my opinion. What inspired you to write about such empowered females?
RG: I grew up surrounded and fascinated by strong Southern women. Always, I have possessed an emotional connection to women much more so than men. When I was a boy, wherever women congregated, I was there listening—the kitchen during family gatherings, eavesdropping on Mama’s garden club shindigs. I have always admired the grace, strength, and resiliency of women. Women possess great gifts, and I let that inspire me with the extraordinary talents I bestowed upon the female characters within the novel.
DM: Although I would classify The Cicada Tree as literary, you did some genre-bending here. How are you promoting it?
RG: When I set out to write the book, I had one goal, to write a novel I would want to read. I knew from the beginning that the novel would be Southern with gothic tendencies and elements of magical realism. What I was surprised to learn is that some consider it historical fiction. When promoting the novel, it will be categorized as Southern fiction, literary fiction, Southern Gothic, and historical.
DM: I appreciate your time answering my questions and wish you the best of luck with your new novel, The Cicada Tree.
RG: Dawn, thank you for being an early reader of my debut novel, and for such an in-depth review of my work. I am grateful for your support. I look forward to seeing you at my book launch on February 26th.
WHERE TO PURCHASE:To purchase your copy of The Cicada Tree, attend the author’s book launch on February 26th, 2022, from 7PM – 9 PM at the Easter Seals Office located at 815 Park North Blvd, Clarkston, GA 30021-1904. Click here to RSVP to: BOOK LAUNCH PARTY: THE CICADA TREEOR Support independent bookstores like one of my favorites, FoxTale Book Shoppe.
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Robert Gwaltney, an author of Southern fiction, resides in Atlanta Georgia, where he is an active member of the local literary community and serves as Fiction Editor for The Blue Mountain Review.The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, is Gwaltney’s debut novel. To learn more about Robert Gwaltney, visit his website at robertlgwaltney.com and follow Robert on FB and IP.
Hordes of nymphs clawed their way free from the deep down, all of them desperate for a place to molt. To every trunk, shrub, and post they clung, hail battered branches drooping from the weight. They clicked and skittered up the house, gambling on bowing shards of paint. No other place to claim, the cicadas relented, glittering beneath the mottled light of a half-woke moon, accumulating quick and dangerous as fast falling snow.
I finally met Robert Gwaltney at a local author’s book signing, but we’d become virtual friends during this never-ending pandemic. Robert is a writer and book advocate like me, so it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. Gwaltney is also the editor for Blue Mountain Review and is highly active in the literary scene promoting authors, helping them get their names out there—something most authors do not enjoy doing themselves. I look forward to seeing the latest book he’s reading as he sets up the scene on his social media pages as one would imagine a display window would appear in the good old days when Rich’s Department Store was thriving in Atlanta. Now he has authored a stunning novel, The Cicada Tree, and though it’s his debut novel it feels more the work of an old soul author.
Dark secrets lurk beneath the town of Providence, secrets of obsessions and betrayal, secrets that must be unearthed. Donaldbain, in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, said, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er the blood, the nearer the bloody.” The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, has its share of Shakespearean betrayals, some perceived, some real, but crueler still for the one who draws the knife, or lights the fire is family in this novel. Analeise Newall, the young protagonist, has set her mind on exposing those secrets—her family and town be damned. Set in segregated 1950’s Georgia, it requires something biblical to unearth these secrets, something like a swarm of cicadas.
Analeise isn’t the easiest protagonist to champion. She’s self-centered, jealous, impetuous, conniving; essentially, she’s the epitome of a girl entering her teenaged years. She’s diametrically the opposite of sweet, naïve, orphaned, Etta Mae. Grace Newall, Analeise’s mother, and Miss Wessie, Etta Mae’s Granny, scrape by as single mothers raising their two girls in the same house and Analiese and Etta Mae act more like sisters. Though the women in the household don’t share the same skin color and outside the home, Miss Wessie and Etta Mae aren’t treated equally, inside the home the relationship is more modern. One thing these two girls do share in common is an innate gift for music; Analeise can play the piano by ear and Etta Mae has an operatic voice. Neither have the formal training the small-town aristocrats—the Mayfields—have. Yet, the Mayfields have more than just talent, money, and stature; they possess the power of enchantment. Reminiscent of the Latin magical realists, the speculative elements in The Cicada Tree are simply part of the everyday and the characters take these unusual abilities and events in stride. Grace, a master seamstress, can read fortunes in her stitching. Her gift isn’t overly explained, other than she received the gift of second sight after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Analiese and Etta Mae’s “power” is untapped, but that all changes when Analeise begins piano lessons and Etta Mae starts voice lessons. It’s enlightening reading about characters whose value is based on talent and artistic expression rather than brute strength or an improbable superpower.
As antagonists, Marlissa Mayfield and her mother, Cordelia Mayfield, meet the mark. You can’t help but admire Cordelia’s impeccable taste, and Gwaltney’s description of the Mayfield’s home, Mistletoe, is captivating. Cordelia has instilled her style into Marlissa, along with wrath, pride, envy—basically, the seven deadly sins. Marlissa has learned from the best, her mother, and is always three steps ahead of Analiese. Bewitched, Analiese walks into Marlissa’s spiderweb again and again. Marlissa, also a talented pianist, isn’t used to competition; she refuses to share the limelight with Analiese. The town’s talent show becomes a battle royale. On the surface, it may appear this is a novel about good versus evil, rich versus poor, but it isn’t as black and white as that because there are flaws on both sides. What’s compelling is watching “good” characters make “bad” decisions. Gwaltney’s characters are multidimensional. His plots and subplots are compelling, pushing the narrative towards an epic conclusion.
In Greek mythology, cicadas were once believed to be humans who so inspired by song, sang all day and night forgetting to eat or drink and eventually dying. The Muses, moved by their dedication to music, turned their spirits into cicadas. The Cicada Tree pays homage to the muse and the love of art, for sure, but symbolically cicadas have deep roots across cultures, religion, and art. This idea that an ugly history has seeped into the earth and now the characters are living above a cursed land, haunted by a past, is a common theme in Southern Gothic literature and is present in Gwaltney’s novel. But cicadas, along with their darker representations, can also bring hope. With all the biblical references in The Cicada Tree, the theme of resurrection is the most predominant, especially at the end. It’s 1956 in the deep South where churches and schools are segregated. Through the power of music, a white and black girl, together, expose not only the sordid past of one powerful family, but the town’s, and society’s as well.
The language in The Cicada Tree is ornate and lush, and reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote. In a largely visual society, it’s refreshing to read a novel where all the senses are explored. Oftentimes, authors neglect these opportunities, leaving it to the poets. Gwaltney’s language is rich in metaphor and simile; the poetic elements are balanced and appropriate, always reminding the reader we are in the South: “Another shower of applause rose up, the sound of sizzling bacon grease,” and, “There was no use in trying to break free, her grip tight as a canning jar lid.” As both protagonist and antagonist are musical rivals, it makes sense that the narrative includes music and loads of sound imagery. Cicadas make their own special music. There are multiple allusions to song titles as well. The Cicada Tree is so rich in sound imagery, you feel as if there’s a symphony around you: “I imagined Miss Wessie’s boom boom hips as I listened to the crinkle of the grocery bags. I hummed the sound of her walk to myself. It calmed me—helped me think through the fear. Boom Boom. Crinkle,” or, “A cluster of lightening bugs flashed in quick succession. I imagined the quick firing of their lights to sound like the ping of quarter notes. A clumsy “Chopsticks” playing in the night.” What is uniquely Gwaltney, is how he merges the senses together, layering his imagery: “Still, I played, hungry for what might come next. For the first time, I taste my own music, swallowing down the sweet peony-flavored notes, the rapid accumulation of saliva clotting and forming a knot in my throat.” Allusions to art, literature, poetry, and music are fitting and add a richer element to the story. These allusions function as stories within stories if the reader chooses to go down that rabbit hole.
I wonder what shelf in the bookstore The Cicada Tree will settle on. It’s definitively Southern Gothic, but Southern Gothic writers tend to walk the line between speculative, horror, literary, magical realism, and popular fiction. And as such, Gwaltney’s genre-bending novel will appeal to a multitude of readers. The speculative elements build tension but also suggest something deeper at hand with the cicadas working as an extended metaphor. Put The Cicada Tree on your 2022 Must Read List. And if Gwaltney’s debut novel is any indication of what’s to come, we’ll be fortunate to be reading his works for years.
Come celebrate The Cicada Tree’s book publication and meet the author, Robert Gwaltney, at his book launch on February 26, 2022, from 7PM – 9 PM at the Easter Seals Office located at 815 Park North Blvd, Clarkston, GA 30021-1904. Click here to RSVP:BOOK LAUNCH PARTY: THE CICADA TREE
WHERE TO PURCHASE:Get your copy of The Cicada Treeand support independent bookstores (like one of my favorites) by ordering online or visiting FoxTale Book Shoppe.
Robert Gwaltney, an author of Southern fiction, resides in Atlanta Georgia, where he is an active member of the local literary community and serves as Fiction Editor for The Blue Mountain Review.The Cicada Tree, published by Moonshine Cove Publishing, is his debut novel. To learn more about Robert Gwaltney, visit his website: robertlgwaltney.com
It may sound like a joke but there’s actually a punchline: Joe Taylor
Mark your calendar! On September 21st at 6:30 PM, Kennesaw State University M.A. in Professional Writing Program presents a Literary Reading and Publication Workshop with Author of Ghostly Demarcations and Livingston Press Director, Joe Taylor.
As for the small press part…on September 22nd at 6:30 PM, Joe’s offering a small press workshop. What is this about? Participants should be prepared to engage in a discussion about the procedures and requirements of small press publication. How long? About an hour and a half for each event.
Where? Kennesaw State University Convocation Building Room 1056 590 Cobb Ave NW Kennesaw, GA 30144.
Yes, this is free! No, you don’t have to sign up.
Quirky, clever, and humorous, with Ghostly Demarcations, Joe Taylor lifts the veil subjecting his protagonist, Galen, to one oddball situation after another with every variant of ghost—haints, poltergeists, revenants. Here’s a sample:
“She’s a good ghost. She’s warning me about—”
“I saw her and that hellhound. Spirits interfering with God’s Providence cannot in any way or form be good.”
A rustling took place. The rose disintegrated into white petals on the sidewalk and slowly fashioned the name, ‘Janet.’
Who is this Joe Taylor character?
Joe Taylor is the Director of Livingston Press at West Alabama. His stories have been published in over 100 literary magazines and he’s had three short story collections published, including Ghostly Demarcations. He’s the author of Pineapple, A Comic Novel in Verse, and Let There Be Lite, OR, How I Came To Know and Love Godel’s Incompleteness Proof. His novel, The Theoretics of Love, is forthcoming. Oldcat & Ms. Puss: A Book of Days for You and Me, was published several years ago by the now defunct Black Belt Press and reviewed in Publishers Weekly. FOLLOW JOE TAYLOR ON HIS AUTHOR WEBSITE OR FACEBOOK. Read an interview Southern Literary Review.
If you a are fan of William Gay, you do not want to miss this post. William Gay’s last posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart, was released by Livingston Press this summer and Signed First Editions are Available on a Limited Basis through Alabama Booksmith. Also, don’t miss my review of Fugitives of the Heart and my Interview with J. Michael White about the novel. Watch the Author Spotlight with Sonny Brewer, J. Michael White, and Jake Reiss where they discuss how the novel came to be. There’s some exciting Upcoming Events as well. Read on!
AVAILABLE ON A LIMITED BASIS, HARDCOVER FIRST EDITION COPIES OF FUGITIVES OF THE HEART SIGNED BY SONNY BREWER AND J. MICHAEL WHITE AT: ALABAMA BOOKSMITH
FUGITIVES OF THE HEART BY WILLIAM GAY, reviewed by Dawn Major
Young protagonist Marian Yates doesn’t have much of a chance with the parents he’s been allotted in life. His dad is killed for poaching and his mom is an ailing prostitute and is anything but maternal. She eventually departs the world, leaving Yates orphaned and homeless in rural Tennessee. Yates is a sneakthief, a scavenger, a wanderer, but he’s also a deep thinker and attuned to nature. He’s more at home in the Harrikin than in a warm bed with a roof over his head. Yates loves Mark Twain’s The Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn, which was Gay’s inspiration for this novel. He spends a short time with the Widow Paiton, who introduces him to Twain. Yates, so compelled by the Twain’s words and the adventures, he sneaks in during the day, devouring chapters that had been denied him at night: he read about “Jim and Huck in the flux on the sun-rimpled Mississippi. He could almost smell the hot torpor of the river, seeing the country sliding past, until he was hopelessly snared by Twain.” These passages truly make you see Yates for the innocent he is, despite being thrown into a den of wolves.
Yates’s prized possession is a pocketknife that his friend Black Crowe helped him acquire from Dow Cook’s general store. This negotiation is the inciting incident. Gay followed Anton Chekhov’s theory—essentially, if you write a gun into the first act of a play, it must be fired in the second act. Of course, in Fugitives of the Heart the gun is replaced with a pocketknife. Yates is in love with a girl out of his league who has a bootlegging granny who despises him. Every day is an adventure from hopping box cars heading to Ackerman’s Field to catch the circus, sneaking under the cover of night to beat up the antagonist, Swain, who’s been visiting his mother’s bed, surviving a road trip with a mad iceman (some will recognize the short story, “The Iceman,” which is part of this novel), to saving Black Crowe from a lynch mob and ultimately facing one of life’s toughest lessons—betrayal. TO READ REVIEW IN ITS ENTIRETY VISIT: SOUTHERN LITERARY REIVEW
DAWN MAJOR INTERVIEWS J. MICHAEL WHITE ABOUT WILLIAM GAY’S FUGITIVES OF THE HEART
DM: Michael, I appreciate you doing this interview about William Gay’s last novel, Fugitives of the Heart. Gay describes this book as “a boy’s coming-of-age in a dying iron ore community of Depression era Tennessee,” and says that he was inspired by Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn. What are a few similarities between Huckleberry Finn and Fugitives of the Heart?
JMW: William was a life-long fan of Mark Twain. When he was a kid, they had a small library in the school and he loved to go there and he once asked the librarian how much she had to pay for the privilege of working in the library! Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were readily accessible to him as a school boy and he devoured them. He loved Huck more than Tom and read both books over and over. They were country kids like himself and the books were set in the country and sparked his imagination like nothing had before. In his career as a writer he wrote a book in every genre that he loved to read so doing a homage to Twain had to be part of his oeuvre. The main character, Marion Yates, like Huck, is in his early teens growing up without either of his parents and no home to call his own. His only friend is a black man everyone called Black Crowe. There are scenes set by the Tennessee River and in the end of the book you end up in a cave. William was not one to copy other writers, but this book echoes Twain in many ways, all done in William’s own unique style. TO READ INTERVIEW IN ITS ENTIRETY VISIT: SOUTHERN LITERARY REVIEW
DM:In my review of your novel, Trout And Other Mythical Beings, I mentioned that Harry was on a mythic quest, that he was a sort of mythic hero. What made you use the mythic quest structure for Trout And Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:I have been interested in myth in general and the heroic quest in particular since I was a child. I have been interested in the heroic quest and medieval storytelling ever since a nun handed me a big book on King Arthur in the third grade. In the ninth grade, I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology with a great deal of fascination, and I assigned it in world literature classes I taught until I found a more detailed book for my classes.
I generally use the word “myth” as a story that explains the nature of the world we live in —or wished we lived in. As Harry Mature knows, myths are often not realistic accounts of every day experience. Myths entertain us with imaginative but unrealistic objects or creatures like a bird reborn in fire or a sword that confers superpowers on the rightful bearer. When I hear people condemn a story or a belief as a “myth,” I chuckle to myself. We all “believe” in myths of one kind of another. Myths can scare us; myths can help us understand things. Ultimately, we think we understand very little outside of our favorite myths. I could easily go on about all of my favorite mythical heroic quests in world literature, but let me focus instead on Harry Mature.
Harry goes on a heroic quest to experience things that have been part of his fantasy world. And he discovers that actual experiences with these things have uncomfortable physical and emotional consequences. Alcohol and tobacco can make you sick. Hunting by yourself can be dangerous and is not like hunting on a television show. Fishing is nothing like reading a book about fishing. Serial online dating comes with consequences and experiences not detailed in the old Penthouse letters or the erotic tales of Anaïs Nin. Grief can be sadness, but more likely it is anger, frustration, and fear. The refuge in being “comfortably numb” is ephemeral and ultimately just a trick of the psyche. You can’t hide from your feelings; they will sneak up on you and bite you in the ass.
Harry wants a number of things, but he needs a friend and sense of who he really is. For far too long, his wife, his child, and his job told him who he was supposed to be. At the end, he still doesn’t know who he is, but he has learned who he isn’t. Along the way, there is a string of mythical beings to consider and abandon: the Hemingway hero who drinks without hangovers, the macho tobacco smoker with no health concerns, the mighty stag memorialized on a wall, the lunker trout (and the naiads who put them on hooks), the hot hook-up (Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck” in Fear of Flying), the Valkyries, and Odin. Defying death, Harry finds escape on his motorcycle, but as we all know, a motorcycle can lead to a very gruesome death on a lonesome highway.
DM: Interesting last name you chose for Harry—Harry Mature. Is it because he’s had to act mature, too mature, and almost dead, all his life or he because rejects maturity for the first time in his life? Will you talk about the name choice?
AWG:When I was a kid, the actor Victor Mature was a popular leading man in the movies—likeSamson and Delilah. So, the last name, “Mature,” has heroic (and erotic) connotations for me. Ultimately, I chose “Harry Mature” because, as the character Karen humorously notes, it sounds like the name of a porn star. Otherwise, I was searching for a name that would make the main character a “type,” in the 17th-century sense. Harry is a type of old man. He is not every old man, but an old man you might meet somewhere. “Mature” is one of the euphemisms marketers use for “old.” Working with the handicaps posed by aging, Harry tests his limits, trying to see what is still left of himself. I once asked a male friend about when male children reach adulthood and start to make sense. He said, “Around age 31.” I asked a female friend the same question, and she said, “Some of them don’t make sense till age 65.”
DM:Talk to me about the cover and how it came to be.
AWG:Intending to order a proof copy early one morning in March, I published the book by accident with a trial cover that was, frankly, pretty stupid. It featured a yellow caution sign warning of a curvy road. A helmeted man on a motorcycle was flying up the curvy road on the sign, and a trout was leaping out of the sign into the clouds. My friend, with marketing advice, hastily made another cover for me with a helmeted man on a motorcycle riding up a stream out of which a trout was leaping. I republished with that cover, but I did not like it. Then I made a black-and-white cover with a muscle-bound woman dressed up like an opera Viking. Someone I know bought a copy with this version of the cover. It occurred to me on a walk that I needed a photo of a woman with a trout. My search on iStock turned up the startling picture of the young woman emerging from the stream with a fish in her mouth. The iconography was perfect. In the novel, Karen says that the trout resort has kids in the river putting fish on hooks for seminar participants. So, the fish and the young woman are mythical beings referred to by the mythical Karen.
DM: I think some of the Harry’s thoughts about Kat and his grandkids are hilarious, but I could imagine some readers taking issue if some of those inner thoughts were taken out of context. Have you had any comments from your readers?
AWG:People who take things out of context and blow them up on social media or news broadcasts are going to do what they are going to do. In every age, Puritans of one kind or another ban works of art and inadvertently make those works more appealing to curious consumers of art. Some of my favorite books have been banned at one time or another.
Harry Mature and his granddaughters illustrate what people in the 1960s called “the generation gap.” Young boomers grew out their hair, experimented with drugs and sex, tried living in communes, protested a war, and had fantasies of changing the world by putting LSD in the water supply (see the movie Wild in the Streets). The intentions of the young boomers were good, but their assumptions about the nature of the world were naive and adolescent. The boomers grew up and became the parents they hated. They worked, they invested, they voted for corrupt politicians, they tried to stop the sale of music celebrating violence and sex, and they fought their own wars. Now the boomers have grandchildren who, to the boomers, look and sound like creatures from outer space, and the grandchildren think their boomer grandparents are ignorant, immoral, capitalist racists. My grandparents regarded me with horror when I was a teenager; I also regarded them with horror. But we all eventually grew out of this phase. Before they died, we ended up being great friends honoring one another.
Harry Mature sees his grandchildren through the lenses of what he reads in the news about college campuses. The granddaughters see him through the lenses of woke-ism, which they have picked up in over-simplified terms from older adolescents. However, when Harry shows up on a motorcycle, they welcome him, because they want to ride on his motorcycle and because they like rebelling against their mother, who thinks her father has lost his mind. Harry and his granddaughters are allies in their efforts to move past Mary’s death.
One of my neighbors, who is retired and has grandchildren, found Harry’s thoughts about his grandchildren and their thoughts about him as the funniest passages in the book. However, I am sure that some young people will find the book disturbing for any number of reasons besides Harry’s inner thoughts. When I was in my early teens, an older friend of our family lost her husband of nearly forty years and started dating shortly thereafter. My parents would twitter with her about her dating adventures with men at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, and I was viscerally repulsed upon learning that old people might actually be having sex. I did not understand at the time how geriatric sex could be possible, much less desirable for anyone, even the participants. But I was a teenager who wanted some green-and-white striped bellbottom pants, a psychedelic VW bug, and a Summer of Love.
DM: What was the inspiration for writing Trout and Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:I can blame neither a muse or any kind of spirit for the book, but one day after a lot of musing about retirement, the indignities of growing old, and the increasing number of deaths among my contemporaries, I hit upon the name “Harry Mature” for the main character and wrote a version of the first paragraph. I sent it to close friends. One wrote back immediately and said he wanted to read that book. Around the same time, he also confessed about how much he wanted to buy an Indian motorcycle. So, buying a motorcycle was added to Harry’s bucket list of “things he needed to do.” The other friend urged me to write the novel in my upcoming retirement.
And that is what I did. I retired on July 1, 2021, and wrote 12-15 pages every week for the next six months. Before starting, I thought about the fantasies that led me to various kinds of dead ends: thinking a motorcycle would be a chick magnet and glamorizing smoking and drinking as a young teenager; extensive reading about and sizeable investments in trout fishing in my early twenties and late fifties; obsessing about deer hunting in my fifties; imagining I could be a kind of Don Juan or Fabio with online dating profiles after divorces. In reality, I saw my friends get injured on motorcycles. I discovered that trout prefer canned corn to artistically tied flies. Deer hunting resulted in a freezer full of sausage that no one but me would eat–and in a messy divorce. Online dating eventually led to a wonderful marriage, but as my wife is fond of saying, she had to “kiss a number of frogs” to find me. (I’ll take the fifth on that claim for myself.) In short, I structured the novel as a series of attempts to realize fantasies. In each case, the reality is a comic version of the fantasy. With that plan, I knew pretty much where I was going with the book on the first day I sat down to write.
DM: What did you enjoy the most about authoring this novel? What were the challenges?
AWG:Ihave written a number of plays, and I have always enjoyed writing dialogue. Once I have a sense of who characters are, it is easy for me to get them to talk. I had the most fun writing about Harry’s encounter with Karen on the fishing trip. She’s annoying, sexy, crude, and energetic. She is attractive and repulsive at the same time. Harry is like one of those reluctant men in the stories of D. H. Lawrence. Forces beyond his control take over
The sections on hunting and fishing were the hardest parts to write. I once taught a course on writing concerned with hunting and fishing, so the bar I set for myself in regard to technical details presented me with challenges. However, the two sections that caused me the most anxiety were the Christmas dinner at Kat’s house and the New Year’s Eve party at Harry’s house. It took me months to figure out what would happen when Harry showed up at Kat’s. Finally, it occurred to me that the granddaughters would soften their attitudes in regard to Harry if he had a motorcycle that their mother hated. The motorcycle would be useful to their teen rebellion against their mother. The problem with the New Year’s Eve party was sustaining the celebratory activities beyond a paragraph. Drunk people are funny and interesting when you yourself are drunk, but they are not all that interesting to write about while you are sober. However, I feel that I succeeded in creating enough intensity in the partying to make Kat’s screeching a very significant moment.
DM:You did a lovely job of balancing comedy and tragedy. Most readers will be laughing throughout Trout And Other Mythical Beings. But there were some moments–the Georgia National Cemetery scene got to me–that hit you in the gut. Did you find it hard to balance those two extremes?
AWG:Not at all. Until that scene, Harry has been so focused on his bucket list that he has avoided dealing with his feelings about his wife’s death. The narration did not detail his experience at the visitation and funeral. He had no experience there that I wanted to report. He was focused on that glass of whiskey waiting for him at home. Harry would not have been able to pay attention to the proceedings. He just wanted a glass of whiskey.
However, Harry can finally face death at The Georgia National Cemetery, a place that can have a powerful effect on visitors. The marble headstones in their neat rows are too numerous to count. Each columbarium holds a staggering number of drawers. Heavy reminders of death surround you there. If you try to read the names and dates of each memorial you pass, you soon feel exhausted. The sameness of the headstones and the niches emphasizes the commonality of everyone: we will all die. All things will pass. The marble will melt in the acidic rain. The woods will someday return to those fields. The mountains will be washed to the sea. In that place, at that time, Harry can cry when his new friend cries. A cleansing occurs. Harry allows a friend into his life. He is ready to face his daughter and his granddaughters as a new person with a new costume and motorcycle, a symbol of his freedom and his acceptance of his own inevitable death.
One way or another, he will have to die. Like the two anti-heroes at the end of Easy Rider, he might fly through the air in a fiery blaze of glory—orjust ride off into a landscape rife with bluebonnets as he goes off into oblivion.
It is fitting that Harry presides as Odin–the one-eyed Norse god who was hanged on the gallows for nine days—at a party called “Valhalla”—”hall of the slaughtered”—while Shield Maidens dance to “The Flight of the Valkyries”—the winged “selectors of the slaughtered.”The dead warriors in Valhalla fight every day and drink every night until the time when the great wolves will eat the sun and the moon and the Frost Giants will come in a boat made of dead men’s fingernails to destroy the gods and men before a new world arises to replace the old.
DM: What are you working on currently? What’s after Trout And Other Mythical Beings?
AWG:My most immediate concern is cleaning up a paper on the children’s mother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I am scheduled to read it at a conference later this month.
One reader of Trout has asked for another encounter between Karen and Harry. For the last week or so, I have been thinking of sending Harry to New Mexico to visit with a much older friend whose partner and wife of fifty years has died and left him enough curiosities to fill a museum—and an urn full of her ashes. The last wish of the deceased was to have her ashes cast to the wind from the top of the hill in Los Angeles with the big HOLLYWOOD sign. With Debbie tied up at work with her new job, Harry is free to offer to take his friend to California with the ashes. Along the way, they could visit with old friends whose once starving commune has become a large profitable marijuana farm tended by old hippies. Harry and his friend could stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and have fear and loathing in Las Vegas and Tijuana before they get to Los Angeles just when the sun comes up on the Santa Monica Boulevard. They’ll discover that the Hollywood hill is protected by fencing and then make a mess of themselves and the ashes by miscalculating the timing of waves along Venice Beach. I think I could start writing in July when I normally hide indoors to avoid the heat.
Beyond that project, I would like to make a collection of my plays. I often think of doing something with my boxes of lyric poetry, but they will probably stay in the attic as a problem for my heirs and assigns.
DM: Thanks so much for spending the time answering my questions and I wish you much success with Trout And Other Mythical Beings as well as your other adventures—I know you have many!
TO PURCHASE TROUT AND OTHER MYTHICAL BEINGS:
Want to meet the author, attend a reading, and hear some banjo playing? You do. You sure do!Here’s your opportunity:Etowah Valley MFA Program Summer Residency Reinhardt University Waleska, GA July 10, 2021, 8:00 pm:Trout and Other Mythical Beings: A Reading from the Arthur Wayne Glowka. Directions
More about Arthur Wayne Glowka:
Arthur Wayne Glowka (born in Weimar, Texas, in 1952) grew up in San Antonio, Texas, in the shadow of the Alamo, and heard heroic tales about its fall from an early age. The Irish nuns who ran his elementary school directed him to books about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and his study of Spanish in high school has led to a lifelong fascination with Latin America and Spain. He studied English at the University of Texas at Austin (B.A., 1973; M.A., 1975), where he fell in love with medieval tales told in their original languages. Before pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Delaware (English, 1980), he spent two years away from formal study to fish and to plunder libraries and used bookstores for books on fishing and a wide variety of other subjects. His scholarly publications have treated metrics, the legendary history of Britain, Geoffrey Chaucer, dialectology, lexicography, and Flannery O’Connor. He has served as an editor for academic journals, most recently James Dickey Review. His creative publications include an epic about the Texas Revolution (The Texiad), a series of medieval romances retold for contemporary readers, plays, and a novel (Trout and Other Mythical Beings). He was Professor of English at Georgia College (1980-2007) and the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Reinhardt University (2007-2020). He retired from teaching and administration in July of 2020—but not from writing, woodworking, music, and hiking.
Join me on March 26th from 1 p.m. to 2.15 p.m. ET for the Lost Southern Voices Festival. I’m presenting last in this panel: Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic. Two William Gay books are up for raffle for local residents. Registration information is below.This event is entirely online, but you do need to register.
About the festival: The festival is for readers and celebrates lost or underappreciated Southern writers’ work. Every year, invited authors and scholars discuss writers whose literary voices no longer receive the attention and reading they deserve. The public, scholars, students, writers, and readers are welcome to join us as we revive these lost voices.
This year, the festival is back with a full virtual festival next week, from Wednesday, March 24, 2021, to Saturday, March 27, 2021! Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is the keynote speaker, and five additional sessions, complete with Q&As and virtual door prizes, are planned. More information on the raffles is below, but know you must provide your address during registration to be entered, and you must be a resident of DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett. The keynote, which is sponsored by Perimeter College’s Department of English, Honors College, and Student Affairs, and is in conjunction with Revival: Lost Southern Voices, does not include a raffle.
Scroll on for the full festival schedule. You can visit the Facebook event here for the registration links, and you’ll find them all below. You must register for each event separately. For the keynote, you will register through Georgia State University’s website. For the rest of the sessions, you will register on Eventbrite. Again, all the links are available here and below. Once you’ve registered for a session, you’ll receive an email with the link to view that presentation.
Join to hear presentations about William Gay, Ella Gertrude, Clanton Thomas, Alice Walker, Padgett Powell, and so many more. On Saturday, March 27th, the entire session devoted to James Baldwin’s work, and while he may not be “lost” in the traditional sense, this panel will explore the many important ways his work is being rediscovered and taught in modern times. You won’t want to miss it.
Wednesday, March 24, 2021 Keynote 1 p.m. ET, WebEx Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. Poet Laureate Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir Register here.
Thursday, March 25, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Art Vs. Artist: Works of Merit and the Controversial Authors Who Wrote Them Moderator: Gina Flowers Chip Bell: Augustus Longstreet, lawyer and writer Janet Williams: Sidney Lanier Melissa Swindell: Harry Stillwell Edwards, novelist and journalist Register here.
Friday, March 26, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Condensed Careers: Poetry, Scandal, and Southern Gothic Moderator: Joe Davich Eli Arnold: Ernest Hartsock, poet Matt Dischinger: Brad Vice, fiction writer Dawn Major: William Gay, fiction writer Register here.
4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Unruly Women in Southern History Moderator: Kari Miller Brenda Bynum: Helen Matthews Lewis, sociologist and historian Caleb Johnson: Kathryn Tucker Windham, folklorist and journalist Carolyn Curry: Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, political figure Register here.
Saturday, March 27, 2021 1 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Reading Baldwin in the Twenty-first Century Moderator: Laura McCarty Tareva Johnson: The Fire Next Time Jamil Zainaldin: “Stranger in the Village” Stephane Dunn: Cinematic Adaptations Register here.
4 p.m. ET, Zoom Webinar Reckoning with the South throughout the Twentieth Century Moderator: Jessica Handler James Stamant: Elizabeth Madox Roberts, novelist Valerie Boyd: Alice Walker, novelist and short story writer Christopher Merkner: Padgett Powell, novelist and short story writer Register here.
About the Raffles: Books will be raffled at the end of sessions 1-5. Trethewey’s Keynote is excluded from raffles. One raffle for a gift card to Revival (a restaurant in Downtown Decatur), at the end of the festival, will include all festival attendees. Books will be raffled off at the end of each session as well, for attendees of that session. There is no cost for entry. Entrants must be 18 years old or older, and provide a home address for receipt of prizes. Due to the pandemic, prizes will be delivered contact-free to the home address provided, or pick-up may be arranged. Entrants must be residents of Georgia, USA, and must reside in DeKalb, Fulton, or Gwinnett counties. Residents of other metro Atlanta counties will be considered on a case by case basis. One entry is permitted per person, per household, each session.
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.
I’m fairly certain George Singleton was a ten-month baby. This isn’t meant to be derogatory. God, I hope not—I was a ten-month baby myself. In the introduction to The October Country by Ray Bradbury, Bradbury says he was a ten-monther, and while in the womb for that extended amount of time, his senses were sharpened; he felt everything, completely aware of everything from the moment he was born. This gave Bradbury an advantage when he later started writing. I’m not going to delve into the science or truth of Bradbury’s statement. My takeaway here is this: to be a good writer you must be an eyewitness, a spectator, pay attention, and you must, must use all your senses. Clearly, Singleton is paying attention with his latest collection of short stories, You Want More, which captures small Southern towns and characters in all their glory. His characters are what us literary types call round, not rotund, by fully fleshed out. They’re beer and bourbon drinking philosophers, grumpy old men with heads in the gutter, scam artists, miscreants, underdogs, and if employed, have odd occupations like prebouncers which I didn’t even know was a career path. They may seem deeply flawed, but there’s always one Shakespearean fool in the story spouting truth, and for all their bad behavior his characters are loveable. His stories guarantee to entertain, but underneath the hilarity there’s satire, there’s irony, and symbolism. Singleton uses every tool from the tool shed, and to do that, you must be paying attention.
I met George at my MFA residency a couple of summers ago. I was driving back from the Dollar General near the campus with a bottle of bleach the salesgirl suggested I use on my poison ivy (another story). It was Georgia, June, and boiling and from my car I saw a man hitting the asphalt with a determined gait clad in a ball cap that should have been put out of its misery years ago. I thought, “That’s George Singleton.” I had a copy of Drowning in Gruel and Staff Pickssitting in my passenger’s seat. I looked on the back of the cover for his headshot and sure enough–George. It looked like he knew where he was going. Thirty minutes later when my roomie and I headed out for the nightly reading, George was still navigating the parking lot, but now appeared pissed. I rolled down the window and said/asked, “You’re George Singleton.” A bunch of expletives about not being able to find the expletive library emerged from his mouth and he jumped in the back of our car. Rather than telling him how much I admired his work or that I am a short story writer myself and because I was nervous, I launched into questions about another author, William Gay, who I knew was friends with George. I said, “I got to pick your brain for some William Gay stories.” I wrote about William Gay for my critical thesis; he was still haunting me, but I wanted to pick George’s brain about his writing, too. It was kind of rude, seeing George was the keynote speaker and looked like he just exited a Temazcal and Mother Earth or the Shaman kicked his ass, but he took it graciously and later that night walked into our dorm room (where the rest of the residents had gathered) with a case of PBR and those stories. I still have one of those PBRs.
If I’m reading a book I plan to write about, I fill the pages with micro-post-it-notes tagging lines I enjoy and larger sticky notes with comments. Later, I’ll read through my notes and it all comes together from there. Pretty common procedure. My notes for You Want More went something like this: A travelling aquarium salesman, forced to attend a motivational conference, hooks up with the speaker’s scar-faced, ex-gangster daughter; A former child-star of a statewide lice documentary returns to his hometown and high school reunion and has an epiphany; Pam, a dog-healer (not a veterinarian, but literally a dog who heals), licks away diseases, illnesses, and infection with her tongue; A Halloween miracle occurs when Jesus Christ and his two thieving companions go trick-or-treating; “The Novels of Raymond Carver” (???? If you don’t get it now, you’ll get the joke when you read the story); Richard Petty, who has written the great American novel, delivers his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, and manages to squeeze in every sponsor. According to Aristotle, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” You see where I’m heading here. Anyone unfamiliar with George’s type of genius–who perchance read my sticky notes–may recommend inpatient therapy. Yet, there’s something grander going on with these quirky stories. “Four-Way Stop” is a masterpiece of balancing comedy and tragedy. In “Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award,” Singleton compares pit-road with the writing industry, which turns out isn’t much of a stretch. And every time I end up in the town of Gruel, like his characters who cannot seem to escape or otherwise get sucked back into Gruel, it’s as if I’m reunited with my own dysfunctional family. There’s Victor Dees, the proprietor of the Army-Navy store. There’s Jeff, the owner/bartender from Roughhouse Billiards. If you are a short story writer, reader, or maybe just want to read literature that won’t induce you to pen a suicide letter, then get a copy of You Want More. Hell, get a copy of all of Singleton’s books. His stories are like the loyal dogs he frequently writes about. They will be waiting for you by the door. If you’re really good, they may fetch you a beer.
Singleton is a first-person point-of-view wonder boy. His third-person point-of-view feels like first-person narration, because it’s just so dang close. There’s even a second-person point-of-view story in You Want More (“What Could’ve Been?”), and that isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. It’s both funny and not so funny when you put it in perspective. Even though his narration is super tight, occasionally the narrator sort of stops and chats about writing. For any other writer this would come off as an intrusion, but it works and for us writerly folks who ponder the same issues it’s a nod to the craft.
Then there are the classic Singletonian lines that every writer wishes they came up with first: “You’ll have twenty lies, all of which you will recycle the rest of your life.” Or, “My team members stared at me as if I piped up about how Jesus was a gay man and couldn’t decide which of the twelve disciples to date.” I’m not giving away anymore Singleton lines for free. Buy your own copy! Buy them all! For what my opinion is worth, Singleton epitomizes what is best in the modern American short story and should be on every syllabus starting in high school. If you’re concerned with language and/or content, I have a friend who teaches “Trombones, Not Magic” from Staff Picks to his AP English high school class. Generally, these are feel-good stories with a moral to the story and it’s never force-fed.
I read an article about how Tennessee photographer, William Eggleston, depicted suburban American life like a John Cheever story. I see both these masters in Singleton’s works. If John Cheever was the “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” then George Singleton is the John Cheever of the small Southern town. But if I had to compare Singleton’s stories to another photographer, it would be Chris Verene, who at a young age started documenting his friends and family from his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Like Verene, Singleton articulates honest stories about the everyday person anyone can understand. His stories remind me of flipping through the family photo album. It feels like home, and yes, we want more.
George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice that includes illustrations by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s,Playboy, One Story, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and has ten stories in the New Stories from the South anthologies. Singleton received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, and he’s a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
I do without a doubt. It’s one of the reasons I related to author Ann Hite’s stories. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Ann Hite’s memoir, Roll The Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse this summer along with her novels, Lowcountry Spirit and The Storycatcher. Ann’s stories are peppered with ghosts and she graciously offered to contribute a personal experience for my October blog. Hope you enjoy it!
1: In the spring of 1969, a young couple placed their one-year-old little girl in their Volkswagen Bug and left their apartment for what one would imagine was an errand. As the driver of the car— I’m not sure if it was the husband or wife—pulled out onto the busy two-lane highway, I always assumed they never saw the eighteen-wheeler barreling over the hill at them. Did they have any premonition of what would happen in the days before? The truck driver did apply his brakes, but the truck didn’t stop. The massive tractor-trailer crushed the Volkswagen, killing the one- year-old girl, who couldn’t even walk on her own yet. The mother and father were transported to the hospital. One died and the other was placed in ICU. The family of the mother came to clear out the second floor two-bedroom apartment not far from the scene of the accident.
2. In the same spring, my mother came home one afternoon and told my brother, Jeff, and I that she had rented a one-bedroom apartment less than a mile from where we lived with my grandmother in her tiny eight-hundred-square-foot house. “We will have to share the one bedroom like here until a two bedroom comes open.” This news was the best ever. The apartment complex had a pool, playgrounds, and kids of all ages. “And we will still be close enough for you two to walk to school. You have to be careful of the highway. It is dangerous. A lot of accidents happen there.” One week before we moved in, mother had brilliant news. A two-bedroom apartment had come available. The items the former tenants left behind in the large room Jeff and I would share were not strange. The light switch cover was a little lamb with a rainbow behind it. “That’s for babies.” Jeff fussed. “It will be fine.” I looked in the closet. Two plastic baby bottles sat on the shelf. “I guess a baby lived in this room.” When I gave the bottles to Mother, a frown formed on her face. She took the bottles and tossed them in the trash can. “Is there anything else?” “No. Just the light switch plate. It is for a baby nursery.” Mother shook her head. “So sad.” “What’s sad?”
“The people that lived here were in a terrible accident. The little girl was killed instantly and one of the parents died at the hospital. I’m not sure which. The other parent wasn’t doing well the last I heard.” The thought of a baby dying made my stomach hurt. The thought that we had gained a bedroom because of this accident washed over me with guilt. But just like any twelve-year-old, I soon put the thoughts aside. For the longest time, when I turned on the light, I thought of the dead little girl, but slowly that attention drifted away too.
3. In the spring of 1971, we had been living in the apartment for two years. I was fourteen and at odds with my mother like most teenagers. I didn’t bring many friends home because I never knew what Mother might do. She was a self-medicating bi-polar, but it would be years before we would get this diagnosis. To me she was just crazy, and I didn’t want my friends to know too much about her. I spent all my free time at other people’s houses. Most weekends, I left on Friday night and didn’t come home until late Sunday evening. Our apartment was located at the very back of the apartment complex. The front of the building faced a large lawn with sidewalks that circled the area. To get to our upstairs apartment, one had to enter an enclosed stairwell through a screen door that slapped shut, warning us someone had entered. Sometime during those spring months, Mother began to complain that “my friends” were trying to scare her. “They run up the stairs and turn the doorknob. When I tell them I’m going to call the police, they go back down.” This happened only on the weekends when I wasn’t home. I racked my brain trying to think of who would do this. One Saturday night—the first I had been home in months—I sat with Mother watching television. The days were getting longer, and it was still daylight at eight. The screen door to the stairwell slapped, and the most horrible stomping moved up the stairs. In my memory, the walls vibrated. Mother and I looked at each other. Someone pushed on the cheap hollow front door. The doorknob turned back and forth as if someone was frantic to come inside. The stomping began again, and the noise moved down the stairs. I jumped to my feet and looked out the big picture window at the front stoop below, convinced I would finally catch whoever was stirring up my mother. The screen door swung open. I pressed my forehead against the glass, straining to see someone, to make sure I got every angle. The door slammed shut. “See. You thought your mother was cray. Who did you see?” “There was no one there.”
“You’re lying. You heard all that. Someone had to be there.” Of course Mother thought I was covering for my friends, and I wished I had been. There was no explanation for what I had heard. How could there have been no one in the stairwell? In the spring of 1973, we moved to a ground floor apartment. Our old apartment had a succession of people move in and out in a span of a year.
4. In the spring of 1979, I was twenty-two and had left my Mother’s home long before. It was a late summer evening when I ran into a friend who had lived in the apartment below us. We talked and the conversation swung around to what happened after we moved from the apartment complex. A single woman who lived in our old upstairs apartment came down to my friend’s door. In her hand she held a small revolver. She told my old neighbor that someone was stomping up the stairs and turning her doorknob, pushing against her door. She was terrified and had called the police. My friend hadn’t heard anything. This conversation convinced me of what I suspected from the night I saw the screen door open and no one emerged. A ghost? But who? Was it the parent that died? Was he or she angry because we were in the apartment? Why did the ghost take two years to begin haunting the place? Many questions with no answers.
5. Around this time of year, I always think of my very real experience. Off and on I’ve researched in the local newspaper archives trying to find something about the small family. Wouldn’t the death of a one-year-old girl in a horrific car accident make the news? If I ever knew the names of these people, they have been lost in my memory. Yet, their story and the haunting have remained with me for thirty-eight years. This is one of the stories that helped me to become a ghost story writer. What’s your story? I’d love to hear it. I think we all have one even if we don’t tell.
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