in conversation with Alex Shephard

In Michael Schaub‘s review of Alan Heathcock’s arresting debut collection of short stories, he wrote, “There’s nothing easy about trying to distill tragedy and pain into the space of one short story. In Volt, Heathcock does it eight times, with a remarkable sense of compassion, and a deeply felt understanding of the mechanics of mourning.” As usual, Schaub is right on the money. Heathcock’s stories, which are set in the fictional town of Krafton and span several decades, subtly explore the legacy of pain, violence, and loss in one community: in Volt, as in life, the effects of one horrific act can reverberate for years.

Many critics have, perhaps justly focused on the violence in these stories — a man runs over his only son with a tractor on the very first page, after all. But what sometimes gets overlooked is their incredible compassion: these are bleak stories, but our unending hope for redemption is the collection’s most prevalent and moving theme. “Once things change, they don’t every change back,” says Winslow, who murdered another man after their trucks met on a one-lane road and then disposed of the body with his teenage son’s help. But that doesn’t stop Heathcock’s characters from hoping, trying, and praying that they do. Heathcock’s prose, moreover, is phenomenal. I hear echoes of Cormac McCarthy (particularly Suttree, McCarthy’s best novel, in my opinion) and the early films of Terrence Mallick in his superb dialogue; and I think it’ll be some time before we’ll see another book with imagery this original, intense, or haunting.

I spoke with Heathcock about the writing process, the “moral history” of Krafton he considered writing, and his use of religious imagery.

How did the book evolve over the 12 years you spent working on it? What’s your attitude towards revision and what’s your revision process like?

Part of writing over a long period of time was developing my own process of KNOWING when something was done.  Isn’t that the million-dollar question?  Is it done?  When is it done?  Is it ever done?

Over the years I’ve heard various writers suggest that a story is never done, and that sending ones work off to be published was just a means of letting go, of moving on.  This never set well with me, mainly because nobody was asking for the work.  Nobody was ever saying, “Al, we really need that story you’ve been working on, will you please hurry up…”  Certainly, nobody was taking it out of my hands.  In other words, it was completely up to me what I put out into the world.  That said, why would I ever release a story into the world that wasn’t completely and indisputably done, wasn’t at its optimal form?

I’m fine with people not liking my work because it’s not their cup of tea.  My stories are thoughtful and intense and not for everybody.  But I couldn’t live with the idea that someone would ever take me to task for not doing my job well, especially when that part is/was wholly in my control.  So…over the years I’ve given intense study to all the books and movies and plays that somehow moved me deeply, trying to decipher if there were any common traits of greatness, traits I could use to help me evaluate quality in my own work.

I’ve come up with five major headings.  1. Empathy: my ability to effectively communicate the humanity of someone who is not me, the intellectual, imaginative, and emotional content of my characters.  2. Authority: my ability to make every verb, noun, sentence, image, bit of dialog, character motivation, plot development, (on and on), worthy of belief.  3. Urgency: my ability to write stories that potently negotiate the distance between want and have, big stories that face the dire questions of humanity.  4. Meaning: my ability to understand, in absolute precision, what I’m trying to communicate, what insights delivered, and to do so with every word, sentence, image, description, bit of dialog, character motivation, plot development—that I’m always telling the story. 5. Originality: my ability to find stories that have originated from me, stories I can tell better than anyone else because of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I know and don’t know, what I have felt, thought, and imagined.

I use the five categories as a means to scrutinize my work in a directed way.  I can write a draft of a story in a month or two.  But it may take several years before I’ve categorically optimized that story.  The hard work of writing is revision.  It’s everything.  I realize this all sounds very mechanical, but I think that’s because I have to explain it quickly and directly here.  The process is, in fact, quite organic, where I allow the story, over time, to find its optimal form in these categories.  Again, it’s up to me when the story is done.  So, I’m very diligent, and very patient, with the work.  If, in any category, the work is not yet up to snuff, I simply keep pushing, keep looking for the image, or bit of insight, or line of dialog, the correct verb, the most eloquent (or natural) turn of phrase.  I never get into a fight with the process.  I abide the process.  Every day I write is invigorating, no matter how tedious the task.  I just ride the process out with the faith that if I see a story to fruition, I’ll be rewarded with the self-assured notion that I’ve done my part as well as possible, which is a powerful calm in the eye of the storm that is having your book, your life’s work, tossed about in the churning sea of readers.

You’re one of the most impressive readers I’ve ever seen — you read “Smoke” as if you were standing in a pulpit, with an arm raised towards the rafters. Where did that voice come from? Can you talk about the tradition of oral storytelling you grew up in?

Thanks for the kind words.  To my knowledge, I’m the first published author in my family.  But I’m not the first, or best, storyteller.  Many of the stories in VOLT were inspired by stories someone in my family (my father, uncle, aunt, grandpa) told me.  One of the great joys of being a writer is that people want to tell you stories.  I’m a passionate consumer of story, and I smile my biggest smile when I can sit around listening to my relatives talk about their lives, tell ghost stories, stories of love and woe and work.  We’re also naturally reverent people, with lots of soldiers and preachers in the lineage, so that must be in the mix.

When I was a younger man, I thought long and hard about becoming a minister.  It would’ve been a disaster had I pursued the calling, because I’m a bit of a rebel, not much of a joiner, and have a tendency toward bluntness and curse words.  In hindsight, I realize that even the consideration of the ministry wasn’t to share scripture, but the desire to tell stories.  Growing up, the pastor of my church was a great storyteller, and that made all the difference.  I saw the power he held over the congregation, people enrapt in his words.

I suppose that’s still vibrating in me.  From a lifetime of listening to my relatives spin yarns, and the influence of my pastor growing up, my style of reading has been shaped.  That’s my best guess, at least.  It’s nothing I think too much about.  I just stand up there in front of the crowd and get it done the best I know how, trying to go all the way in, fearlessly, knowing if I don’t balk I can draw you into full empathy with the character and the inherent power of their stories.

What are the advantages of setting these stories in a fictional town? Are there disadvantages?

The advantage is that I have complete freedom to create what’s needed for drama.  If I need a crop in a certain place, or a cave, or a river, I put one in.  I don’t have to worry about the literal truths of real places.  For example, when I first started writing I would set the stories in a real region, based on the area my mom’s family lived, and would constantly have to refer to a map, or call home, asking, “Now where’s the foundry?  Is it too far from the river?  Is there a road that runs by the quarry?”  Ultimately, I decided to create my own town, to be liberated from reality.  This is, after all, fiction.

I then decided to never really qualify where, exactly, the town was in terms of region.  Reviewers have placed my town, Krafton, in the west, the Midwest, the high plains, the south, all with justifications.  My reasoning for not naming a region was simply because I wasn’t interested in making a commentary about place.  If I said Krafton was in Texas, or Indiana, or Pennsylvania, or Arizona, a reader would apply every right or wrong thing they thought they knew about this place to the story, adhering a secondary level of interpretation I didn’t want.  I just wanted the stories to be about the characters and their lives, so that all the thematic content would come through with greater purity.  That was the idea, and I’m convinced it was the right decision.

The only drawback comes in terms of being able to market the book.  If we could say that this is a “western” book, or a “southern” book, it would make more immediate sense to someone looking for books under those headings.  By making my book difficult to categorize, I’ve given my publisher a tricky job of knowing just how to package the book to booksellers and readers.

Like the Simpsons’ Springfield, people seem to be endlessly fascinating with finding out where Krafton “actually” is. What do you think of this impulse?

I touched on this earlier, but I think the impulse is our desire to place ourselves in the story, to take ownership over the material, to have it be about us.  Again, I’ve found that depending on where the reader is from, they set Krafton in their region.  I’m completely fine with this.  Like the Simpson, the American story is bound by homogeneity—we’re really not as different by region as some folks would like us to believe.  I’ve found small towns from coast to coast have similar sensibilities and aesthetic.  The crops might be different, but the people and their worldview, aren’t too dissimilar.  In terms of storytelling, the commentary in the Simpson’s is just as biting and hilarious if you think Springfield is in Illinois or Maine or Kansas.  I’d like to think the tragedy and insight in VOLT travels well.  So if some region wants to claim Krafton as their own, I give my wholehearted permission.  Really, I feel a special connection with writers I think have written about places I’ve lived–I think they’re, in some way, writing about me, and their stories become a part of who I am.  I am Nelson Algren’s Chicago, Stuart Dybek’s south side.  I am Denis Johnson’s Iowa City.  I am Sherwood Anderson’s Midwest.  Hemingway’s Idaho.  So if you think I’m writing about you that’s because I am.  I’m writing about you and Krafton is that place you know so well.  I swear.  Cross my heart.

Although the stories take place over the course of several decades, there are a number of connections between them — you subtly explore the legacy of tragedy and bereavement through these linkages. How do you think the stories link together? And how would you describe the fictional history of your fictional town? Was it something you labored over?

My original vision for this book was to write the complete moral history of a town, from its founding, on up to today.  The book would contain 30-40 stories, would be comprehensive and have stories about love and hate and justice and faith and family and war and…  I still have that vision, but have come to understand that’s a long-term goal, and may take three or four collections to have the big goal completed.

For VOLT, I decided to just focus on issues of justice and consequences, grief, on the tenuous nature of peace and our moral complicity in a world of violence.  My agent, one of the smartest people I know, gave me the advice (permission) to not try for variety in the macro sense, but to keep rooting around in the same themes, seeing if I might extract greater and more varied insights by keeping the investigation focused.  And, really, the truth is that my preoccupations were always leaning toward this content.  For whatever reason, I’m not good a writing love stories (I tried, I swear).  I’ve lived a life in the proximity of violence and tragedy, and I needed to write this book to make sense of some things for myself.  That’s not to say that I came up with answers, and sometimes the answers I came up with were scarier than the questions, but the process of writing was cathartic, and necessary, for me to live as a happy stable man in a world that has often felt unhinged.  The most honest way to answer your question, though maybe not the simplest, is to say that the stories are linked by my preoccupations with the things that scare and confound me, and was not labor intensive in the sense that I simply followed my curiosities into the content revealed through writing the stories.

A lot of ink has been spilled over how violent and bleak these stories are. Do you see the stories as being particularly violent and bleak or do you think that’s only part of the story?

I was working out at the gym the other day, when an older couple came to use the exercise bikes in front of me.  Both were carrying Steig Larsson novels.  I found that interesting in that Stieg Larsson’s novels are completely brutal, have intense scenes of rape and murder that go way beyond anything I’ve written, and yet the general public doesn’t bat an eye at these books.  I mean, the older woman was literally wearing a sweatshirt with a teddy-bear on the front, and yet here she was, reading an incredibly dark, violent, Swedish novel, out in public, with no shame or second-thought.

So what’s all the hub-bub about my book?  In fact, I have very little violence on the page at all.  Most of what I write about is the after-math of violence and tragedy.  I’m not disputing that my work is dark, and really I don’t even fight it.  Having your work labeled “dark” is good for business—“dark” is easy to market, and in demand.  What I’m trying to get my head around is the profound reaction I’ve heard from some readers.  Here’s a couple thoughts I have.

One: I haven’t yet been normalized.  It’s been made clear to the general public that you can read Stieg Larsson or Stephen King, and this is perfectly acceptable.  You’re not weird.  It’s safe.  In the same way that Salvador Dali prints, as bizarre and disturbing as they are, are plastered all over dorms rooms all across America.  Since I’m new, the truth of what I’m writing hits people by surprise.  I’ve read about when the movie Psycho was released, and how nobody really knew what the movie was about.  Back then, one thing a viewer could count on was that no matter what happened in a movie, no matter how scary, the main character would survive.  So when Hitchcock kills off Janet Leigh’s character an hour into the movie, it knocked folks for a loop.  There are accounts of people fainting in the theater, crying hysterically.  This all seems quaint to us now, as the infamous Bates Motel shower scene has been ingrained into pop-culture and has become normalized.  Anything can become normalized, our eyes adjusting to even the most pitch darkness.  Because this is my debut, I haven’t yet become normalized.  There’s a part of me that hopes I never do, in the same way I wish I could have the experience of watching Psycho like the folks back when it came out, without anything softened, without any indication of what’s to come.

Two: I write from a place of empathy that is the purest trait of literature.  I never for a moment thought of a readership, thought of my work as entertainment.  I was looking directly at things that confounded and scared me, engaging with real and powerful and scary thoughts and emotions.  But isn’t that the purpose of literature, to allow us to look directly at ourselves, but in way that’s bearable?  We live in a tough world, in crazy times, times of war and poverty and anger and resentment.  I swear I’m not trying to be a downer, but at the same time I feel like someone has to look at the world and make sense of some things.

I had a woman come up to me and say something to the effect that the world is filled with so much sadness that writers should just write about happy things, that it was self-indulgent to write about tragedy.  As a person, I’m happy and goofy.  I smile and joke and love my wife and play with my kids and toast to the moonlight with friends.  But that doesn’t mean the other stuff, the injustice, the grief, the tension of war, ugly memories seared to the backsides of my eyelids, the residue of having my peace interrupted on a regular basis, just disappears.  That stuff is real.  It exists.  I chose to show it its due respect.

All this said, I’ve never seen my characters as hopeless, and I’ve never thought of Krafton as this cesspool of violence and despair.  It’s a normal town.  These are normal people.  Put into tough situations, facing morally complex dilemmas, my characters sometimes come away with grace.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say I’ve delivered my characters in to grace whenever grace could be found.  I actively sought out grace, sought out redemption.  But the truth of our world is that grace isn’t always found.  I’m not trying to inspire, but only tell the truth.  Chicken Soup for the Soul is snake oil.  Hollow inspiration might make you smile for a moment, but at night, when you can’t sleep and the ghouls of your mind come to feast on your spirit, they can only be pacified by truth.

After a recent reading, a woman came up and said she’d driven an hour and a half to see me read.  She’d just gone through her own private tragedy, and reading one of my stories, as tough as it was, allowed her to face her own grief, allowed her to weep and begin to heal.  I hadn’t expected this, yet found it incredibly moving.  I’ve never felt my purpose as a writer more fulfilled.  Bolstered, I say darkness be damned, for I’ll peer in without flinching, hoping to find even the slightest glimmers of light.  I’ll write what I see, no more, no less.  That I promise.

Your characters seem to be aware that there’s another through life, but have no idea of how to break-out or reach it. Do you think that captures something about small town America?

Not just small town America, because it happens in neighborhoods in cities, too.  But it certainly is the case in small towns, and I think harkens back to feeling of being stuck and having no options.  Urgency in drama is negotiated by altering the distance between what a character wants and what they have.  If there’s no distance between want and have then a character is happy and contented, which doesn’t make for good drama.  In order for me to heighten the “want” of my characters, I often tap the truth that many people in small towns think that the things they don’t have might just reside somewhere beyond their borders.  That awareness of “another through life” creates distance between want and have and drives the urgency of the story.

A lot of my cousins, who grew up in small towns, love their small towns, still live in their small towns, have an awareness of the life beyond their town, but just don’t want it.  They have what they want in their small towns.  I simply don’t write about them because their stories don’t make for urgent drama, and because, as a writer, I’m not interested in contentedness.

In short, I think the idea of wanting the thing beyond us, that yearning for “another through life”, is alive and well in small towns, but is also alive and well in cities and suburbs, too.  It’s a hallmark of humanity.  I’m completely convinced I could’ve set all these stories in a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, and other than the details being different (warehouses and industrial lots instead of barns and fields), the human drama would feel exactly the same.

A tremendous amount of novels dealing with blue-collar life revolve around violence — recent work by Donald Ray Pollack and Philipp Meyer being two examples. To borrow a question I asked Meyer, Why do you think the connection between violence and blue-collar life is so central to novels (and films, for that matter) about the region?

I’m stating the obvious by simply pointing out that there’s actually more violence in blue-collar communities than in, say, the suburbs on the North Shore of Chicago.  It’s cultural, it’s economic, lots of things, all, I think, having to do with the sense of being stuck without options, oppressed, the idea expressed in the lines you quoted from “Fort Apache” about having your leg caught in a trap, the only way out to chew off your own leg.

If you have money and things are going poorly you might think of a way to leave the bad things behind, get away from them, change your environment, change your job, go back to school, change your house, change, change, change.  You have options.  You’re not stuck.  That’s not to say that even rich folk don’t get stuck, and that violence doesn’t happen in affluent communities, only that the condition of feeling “stuck” is more prevalent in blue-collar neighborhoods. But, certainly, where there isn’t mobility, where there are no good options to change, where folks just have to face their hunger, their shitty job, their cold house, people either give up, or get angry.

Once angry, the rage has to go somewhere.  It often spills out indiscriminately, flailing out into vandalism, bar fights, domestic violence.  Violence leads to violence, and the cycle feeds itself.  Hemingway wrote about this, as did Faulkner, Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Conner—it’s an American standard in literature.  I think this idea is so often expressed in literature and film because it’s a truth that effects a large population, populations in cities and small towns alike, and we don’t quite know what to do about it other than look at it with appalled curiosity.

That said, I’ll clarify that I don’t think of Krafton as a blue collar town, and that most of my characters (the gang in “Fort Apache”, and the Delmore clan, aside) are solidly middle-class church going folks, who are just dealing with grief or confounding instances of having tragedy disrupt the quietude of their otherwise peaceful middle-class existence.  Not blue-collar, yet “stuck” nonetheless.

Unlike a number of those books, however, a number of your stories are somewhat surreal, or perhaps dreamlike. At times, that’s because your imagery is unreal (in the sense that it’s too real) — I’m thinking of the dead dogs in “Volt” and the haunting image at the end of “Furlough.” But the ghost town in “Fort Apache,” in particular, seems at most surreal and at least oft-kilter. Do you think there’s something “unreal” or perhaps “surreal” about your stories?

I went to college in Iowa and drove I-80 to and from Chicago a hundred times or more.  On one drive home, I passed a farmhouse completely engulfed in flames.  No firetrucks.  Just a two-story house with wicked flames licking the blue summer sky.  Not far from that I passed a state-trooper’s squad car.  They were transporting a prisoner, a gaunt older man wearing an orange jumpsuit in the backseat.  The prisoner was striking looking, his nose enormous, his mustache stark white and bushy.  The man looked right at me, lifted his cuffed hands, and gave me the finger.  About an hour later I saw, far in the distance, a semi parked on the side of the road.  As I drove closer, I saw a man, the trucker, out on the grassy median.  Even closer, I saw that the trucker was standing over something.  Then I realized he was holding a saw, and was standing over a dead buck, the deer’s rack huge, and that the trucker was sawing the head off the deer.  I remember getting home, a little rattled, telling my parents about the trip, then thinking, “This must mean something.  It must.”  I couldn’t shake it then, and remember it now, some twenty years later, as if it’d just happened.  To say the least, this was the most memorable drive I’d ever taken, only one of a few I truly recall, and a potent lesson in story writing.  I want to show the reader things they’ve never seen, to wake them from their slumber, to make them feel as I did in the car, like the world was alive with possibility, and that I’d better sit a little straighter, open my eyes a little wider, or I just might miss something.

Perhaps it’s just because Good Friday is fast approaching, but I was struck by how often Christ’s march to Golgotha is brought up — not only do characters talk about it, but they each (forgive me) bear their own crosses or are altered by being forced to bear the crosses of others. Is that a story you were thinking of when you were writing the stories in Volt? What’s your religious background?

I’m fascinated by the story of Christ’s march to the cross, his resurrection, because I find the story told so often to the cliché center, the Bible-school version and not much more.  I just feel there’s more to it than that Christ died for the sins of Christians.  What I find so interesting are some of the human truths involved.  Christ had influenced so many people, had a devoted following, and yet none of them fought for him.  Not really.  I think of how lonesome Jesus must have felt carrying that cross all alone through the streets.  Why had he worked so hard?  Had he not spoken the truth?  Of course, he called out on the cross that God had forsaken him.  And then he went off into the tomb.  In a church I attended for years, every week we read a section of scripture about Christ’s resurrection.  There’s one line that says while in the tomb Jesus descended into Hell to later return to earth.  For me, that was a big realization.  Christ descended into Hell and then came back for the rock to be rolled away.  I find this story to work as a perfect metaphor for how people overcome tragedy.  The loneliness of carrying the cross, the forsaken feeling of being crucified, the time spent in the dark tomb, the descent into Hell, and then the fact that we have to face the sunlight, and get to go live so more.

I used this line of thinking directly in the end of my story “Lazarus”, where I have Vernon Hamby, the town’s pastor, who is mourning the loss of his son (a solider killed in Iraq), counsel a young man from his congregation, who is lost and mourning the death of his mother:

“Every day’s a new batch of crosses,” he finally said.  “All of us taking our turn.”  Vernon watched Dillard until the boy gave him his eyes.  “Christ didn’t just die for our sins, son,” Vernon said.  “Christ taught us how to be crucified.  How to go off into the tomb.  But then, after a while, that rock rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more.”

I just feel this is a profound truth, one not often discussed (not ever in my experience), yet one vitally applicable to the greater human condition.

As for my religious beliefs beyond a literary investigation of Christ’s march to Golgotha, I’ll only say that I grew up going to a church that didn’t ruin me, make me cynical, bitter, or racked with guilt.  For that I’m truly thankful.

“Staying Freight,” is a fucking tour de force. Can you talk about the evolution of that story? How did it begin?

Thank you.  This story was easily the toughest story to write, for many reasons, not the least of which is that the story is about a man who accidentally kills his own son, and I’m a father myself and it was excruciating to put myself through the pain and grief of the character.  But how did it begin?

I remember seeing an interview with a train engineer, who said he’d gone through a nervous breakdown because he’d run someone over with his train.  He said the truth was that even when he saw people pull onto the tracks, the train couldn’t be stopped in time.  He was helpless, had to just stand and watch the impact.  Beyond being awful, it was something I hadn’t thought about before, and struck me as an important metaphor to how many people live: you can see the trouble on the tracks, but can’t stop the train.

I also read in a biography of Harry Houdini how he had an act where he’d allow people to hit him in his gut as hard as they could.  As long as he was ready for it, could brace himself, they’d never hurt him.  Famously, this trick was his demise, and, in a way, my character’s salvation.

Finally, there’s a personal story, the specifics of which I won’t mention other than to say there was an event that rocked our family, and made me need to write “The Staying Freight” to make sense of some things.

The ingredients (so many beyond what I’ve briefly mentioned—a lake covered with fowl, seeing a drunk teen hit by a train and survive, a visit to a turkey farm,…) added up over the course of years.  The story, from start to finish, took six years to write, and a couple hundred drafts.  I was completely obsessed with the character Winslow, and wanted so badly for him to find his way back home.  For the longest time I figured the story would be a tragedy.  For a while I could barely look at it, afraid to face the doom.  It took me a long time to figure out how it would all end.  When I finally found that final scene, the small but powerful bit of grace, I knew it was right because I cried and cried, wiping my tears while typing.  With the final words written I felt a tremendous relief, a heavy yolk taken from around my neck.  Really, I write for myself first, knowing that if I’ve written to the bone and marrow, written to straighten the crooked thing that had wormed itself deep inside me, that it will effect others just as powerfully.  This note of faith is hard to teach—the less I consider a reader, the more I turn inward, the more effective I’ll be in moving a reader.

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