Recent Posts

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writer Spotlight: Charles Dodd White

The region dubbed "Appalachia" is huge, covering portions of 13 different Southern and Eastern states, and yet the term itself calls to mind a series of distinct images: moonshine, feuding clans, homemade whiskey stills, and soul-crushing poverty and ignorance. Yet, while all of these images are correct insofar as any stereotype is partially correct, these are not at all the whole picture.

Here is where Charles Dodd White comes in. A brilliant writer from Asheville, NC, Mr. White portrays Appalachia in all her flawed glory, never shying away from the dark and sinister ("Confederates"), but certainly not dwelling exclusively on it. There is hope in his stories, and beauty, and bone-deep intelligence that doesn't come only from letters and mathematics, but also from the earth and mountains and from sitting alone in the woods long enough that you hear yourself echoing in the wind. Mr. White is an accomplished short story writer, whose works have been published in literary magazines like PANK, WORD RIOT, and Night Train. His ear for language and inuitive grasp of the nuances within silence make him the perfect literary representative for a region that is both mystifying, misunderstood, and utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

I asked Mr. White a few questions about his past, his work, and the publishing industry. There are links to his website and some of his published works in the body of the interview. Enjoy!

Tres Crow: So, in reading your bio on your website, I realized we have Atlanta in common. I live here currently, and you were born here. How long did you live here? What was the city like when you were here? Have you been back much, and if so, what are your thoughts on what it’s become?

Charles Dodd White: I grew up on the south side of town in an area called East Point. It was fairly depressed economically when I grew up there in the eighties and early nineties, with a lot of the attendant problems of violence, racial discord and the drug and alcohol abuse you might imagine. I undestand it still is. It was odd growing up in such an urban environment on one hand and then driving only an hour south of town on the weekends to deer and turkey hunt for most of the year. I definitely got my wires crossed a few times. A good example is when I took a loaded pistol to school, not to brandish, but simply because I knew I was being picked up by my uncle to go directly to the deer camp on a Friday afternoon. I didn't want to go into the woods unprepared. I think I was eleven at the time. Needless to say, probably not the wisest decision of my youth. I really don't go back anymore because any family I have still living there is too distant to mention. Cities are cities. The American versions become somewhat unpleasant when they reach a certain size. I did live illegally in Toronto for a year and found it a much more agreeable than anything in the States. It's shocking to see how much more support other countries give to their writers and artists. People actually do care about culture in other parts of the world.

TC: Who are your literary heroes? Past, present?

CDW: I really hang my hat on Nathaniel Hawthorne. My entire idea of what Literature is changed when I took a course on him in an aborted PhD program down in a little east Texas college. The prof, Derek Royal, opened up the idea of the American Romance to me in a way that rekindled my interest in serious lit. Also, there's the usual culprits for a Southern boy. William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, Harry Crews and most recently Barry Hannah. Also, I've always admired Philip Roth and Toni Morrison. And Virginia Woolf—man could she write a sentence. I would be lying if I ignored Johnny Cash. His song “I Hung My Head” played constantly while I was writing my novel.

TC: One thing that I’m really coming to realize as I do more of these writer spotlights is that good writers don’t seem to just be writing anymore. They all seem to be doing all sorts of varied activities relating to the craft. You are no exception to this rule. Tell us a bit about the different projects you are currently working on and how they inform, if at all, your writing?

CDW: Well, there ain't a fortune in belles lettres. I do teach as an adjunct at a couple of colleges in the area to pay the rent. It's bone-crushing work in the main, as you end up devoting so many hours for such meager pay, but it is nice to spend your days talking about writing and lit. I find it's an excellent way to review the fundamentals and seek inspiration from well-worn sources. For example, I'm working on a story right now that bears a prounced influence from Poe's “Cask of Amontillado.” That's the kind of influence so cliched that it wouldn't seem fresh to me unless I had just spent an evening rereading it for class. So, I like that I can keep a continually renewed perspective on the foundational texts of our canon.

Also, editing an anthology is a chance for me to temporarily step in and assemble the kind of book I would love to read. It is exciting to see the great talent in this country at this time. However, I'm thankful I'm only an occassional editor, as the energy and time demands are extreme. My fellow Appalachian friends/writers/editors Sheldon Lee Compton and Jarrid Deaton are far more impressive in this regard, as they both turn out first-rate stories while co-editing the journal Wrong Tree Review. Same can be said of Rusty Barnes, a fellow who runs not one but two amazing online mags, Night Train and Fried Chicken and Coffee.

TC: What I really liked about your writing is that you not only have a stylistic continuity to your writing, but you also have a thematic continuity. You say on your website, as almost a mission statement, that you focus your writing on, and are most interested in, depicting the people and places that make up the idea of “Appalachia”. All of the stories I read of yours stay true to this thematic mission. What is it about Appalachia that draws you in? When did your interest in the area begin?

CDW: I've lived here in Western North Carolina off and on for a span of 16 years. I feel like it's my adopted home, a place to set my compass. I am interested in a more rural setting because I easily tire of the urbane cleverness I see in so much contemporary fiction. Stories that do not deal with the heart of human pain and triumph bore and offend me. They're noncommital, banal and cowardly. They're exactly the reason literature has no direct bearing on the contemporary American culture. Dealing with the nature of fate and death against the backdrop of the natural world is always going to resonate with readers. Arch tales of missing percolaters will not.

TC: I really loved “Hawkins’ Boy”. From the first sentence I was drawn into the story, and the entire story is enjoyable throughout, but it’s the ending that really got to me. I need to state for the record that I was very concerned when Hawkins grabs his gun and heads to the ball field. I was certain you were going to have him kill himself, and I thought that that would be a massively unsatisfying end, as well as a betrayal of the readers’ confidence. What you did instead, though, was devastating, and understated, and perfect in so many ways. Was there ever a point that you considered killing Hawkins, or did you know what you were going to do the whole time?

I also found Hawkins’ house and the town at the foot of the mountains so evocative. It perfectly captured a vision of Appalachia that I’ve carried around with myself for nearly a decade. This sort of time-capsule pride and sadness and disjointed blending of old and new that creates something entirely unique. Did you have a specific town in mind in that story, or is it more of an amalgamation?

Some additional questions about the story, random: Is Hawkins’ boy symbolic of…what? I have to think a body that won’t stay buried is symbolic of something, but I’m curious what your take on that is. Is the ending a reconciliation of Hawkins’ failures as a husband, or is it a giving up? Is it a happy ending or a sad one?

CDW: Well, Hawkins is a funny bird. I had a very clear idea of him from the beginning, and I was aware of him most as an absence, a kind of glaucoma stricken eye looking in on the story. There was a great deal of obscuration going on with how he saw himself and what he loved. The story was always about a failed sensitivity, a mesmerism with a stoic view of life that simply did not work anymore, if it ever did. But I never considered killing him, though it was written to lead the reader in that direction. I see his final act as a weird effort at redemption. By doing what he does, he tries to come back to what matters most.

The town of Sylva carries the name of a real town in Western North Carolina, but in the story it exists in a fictional county called Sanction (my other stories and my novel occur there as well). It's a bit of an overlay between the real and surreal, and I have a very particular view of it that has more to do with my idea of the area than its actuality.

Man, symbols. I want to argue the reader is better at answering this question than the writer, but if you were to press me I would say it largely concerned the reemergence of the past, the inescapability of trespass. The loss of a child is itself a grief that can never be truly comprehended. As for the ending, I don't necessarily see it as negative. Hawkins survives in his own way on his own terms, and a profound transformation has occurred. But then again, writers tend to be forgiving of their creations.

TC: Now, you have a novel called
Lambs of Men coming out in November. Tell me a bit about that? What is it about? How long did you work on it? What has your publishing experience been like? Is the Hiram from this book the same from your short story “Killer”? If so, is “Killer” necessary reading to understand Hiram in Lambs of Men? Did the story come first, and then the novel or was it vice versa, concurrent?

CDW: Lambs of Men was one hell of a gift. I've never enjoyed working on something as much as it. The story itself is about a WWI Marine Corps vet who comes home to Western North Carolina as a recruiter and gets dragged into a manhunt as part of an ad hoc posse. He also has to come to terms with his father, a taciturn drunk wrestling with his own ghosts. “Killer” was originally written as a prologue section that I later cut, and the Hiram and Sloane of that story are the father and son of the novel, though from more than a decade before the action of the novel. I think it'll probably end up in the story collection I'm currently finishing, but I don't see it as essential to the novel at all, which is why it got chopped.

Most of the book was drafted very quickly, about 6-7 months from start to good working draft. Another 4-5 months of tweaking saw it through until it was being submitted. It's a very structure aware book, so once I figured out the structure, it was simply a matter of chiseling it down to the correct symmetry.

TC: I want to talk to you a little bit about “Confederates” and I need to preface this by saying that I really enjoyed the story, and it is one of the stories that has most stuck with me. But I also found it a little difficult because I wanted to reconcile the shoot-out that ends the story with the “confederates” with the flat tire. I was trying to see how they are connected and what you are saying about southern culture. It seems to me that the story was passing judgment on both: the modern southern men who pretend to fight in some playground version of the Civil War, but who can’t even change their own tire; and Charlie, who retires to a commune and fights against the government (which he lost a leg protecting). And in the middle there is the narrator who seems to respect neither party, yet seems helpless to stop Charlie and ambivalent to the “confederates”. Regardless the picture of southern culture presented in this story is at best fractured, and at worst hopelessly lost. Was this the point of the story? Or is there something else I’m missing? Is it possible to be southern and not have to reconcile with the confederate past, either by rejecting it, or buying into it? I’ve been in the south for almost five years (I moved from Michigan) and it seems that the confederate history is an elephant in the psyches of southern men especially. It is something that has to be wrestled with. Is this story your answer? When’s the sequel about the commune Charlie moved to gonna come out ;-) (Seriosuly, though. If there is any author I would fully expect to be able to write about the militia movement in an impartial and empathetic manner, it would be you)?

CDW: I really like your reading of the story. Yes, I see the south as a hectic and unstrung nightmare at times, especially when it comes to dealing with our history. As someone who served in the military, albeit in peacetime, I always viewed the Civil War-philia practiced by a certain kind of Southern suburbanite as silly, effete and dangerous. For me Charlie is equally troubled, though. I grew around a group of men that weren't that different from him in many respects, and their politics, racism and general rage at the world were terrifying. I do see both the fake “confederates” and the real revolutionaries like Charlie as two sides of the same coin. One is simply more socially acceptable, but that's because of our country's obsession with class. Men like Charlie are victims of their own delusions, but their error is seen as criminal whereas the boys who dress up on the weekends and pop powder charges at one another get to claim they're doing a favor to history, as if history ever needed any favors from the living.

I can only speak to my own experience with the nature of growing up where I did, and I know many others might find it unusual. But for me the Civil War was a constant presence. Probably because my uncle was a war buff and a Vietnam vet. My father, though I never was around him, was a Korean War vet, and both of them were Marines. So the idea of a military heritage, going back to the Civil War, was impressed on me very early. In Lambs of Men, the center of the novel is a pair of contrasting stories set during the Civil War, one told by the father and the other by the son. Each of the stories is loosely based on true stories of my family that served, some in the Confederacy and others as war resisters and outliers.

I am actually working on a story about men very similar to Charlie who make their living stealing scrap metal from a military firing range, but I'm afraid Charlie Jobe is permanently retired from my fiction.

TC: Tell me a bit about your writing style? Do you write quickly or slowly? How do you go about getting published? Are there any resources you use that might be helpful to writers starting out who wish to a.) get better and b.) get published?

CDW: I think my work is fairly aware of language, and I chose my words and syntax very carefully. However, you also have to be open to an intuitive presence in your work or it will become habitual and mechanized. I am a slower writer than the average, I believe. If I'm working on a novel, I'm happy with 500 good words per day. Stories are a little slower. 250-300 per day is a success.

Worrying about getting better will greatly help the problem of getting published. Too many writers rush themselves and end up publishing work they will live to regret. Lord knows, this is true of me. But the best advice is the simplest: read seriously and write each word like it costs you money.

TC: Your website says you are working on another novel. Can you tell my readers a bit about that project, or is it too new to really let out of the bag just yet?

CDW: The new novel is set during the late '20s in Western North Carolina and details a minor moonshine war. Working title is Smokevine. I'm really excited about it, but most of my work right now is devoted to finishing my collection of stories.

TC: You are still accepting submissions for a short story collection you are editing called From Hill to Holler about Appalachia. How is the editing process going? Do you have many slots left to fill in the book? What are you looking for for this book? How can writers submit to the project if they have something they think would work? Any plans to edit future editions?

CDW: Yes, we still have a few slots left, though we already have a number filled, both by established and emerging writers. Already, we have stories by Ron Rash, Chris Offutt, Crystal Wilkinson and several others. We're looking for works that embody the real tough hide of Appalachia today. There's a link to a full set of guidelines on my website For now, this is a one shot deal, but you never know what the future might hold.


Rusty said...

Great interview. I learned a couple things about Mr. White.

Tres Crow said...

Charles is a phenomenal writer. It was a blast getting to interview him. Thanks for visiting.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.