Nathan Poole and Lynette D’Amico are both graduates of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. They are also both authors of recently published novellas that were in competition with one another for the Quarterly West 2014 Novella Prize. Nathan’s novella, Pathkiller As the Holy Ghost won the contest, and has been published by Quarterly West. Lynette’s novella, Road Trip, was first runner-up and was recently published by Twelve Winters Press. Nathan and Lynette discussed the freedoms and limitations granted by the novella, the resonances of place and history in fiction, and being emerging writers at ages 30 and 60.
Lynette D’Amico: Was it an intentional decision to write a novella? Did you feel pressure to pare down or scale up? Did you choose the form or did the form choose the work?
Nathan Poole: My intention was to write a novel, but this was before I knew what novels were. Novels are like charitable giving, I’ve found; you’re not supposed to let your right hand know what your left is doing. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was trying to write a novel the way I’d been writing stories, one-handed, without any premeditation. I’ve been told good novels are written through a hemispheric consciousness: part of you is engineering, thinking ahead, ruminating about structure, plot, causality, while another part of you is being a stubborn artist, writing blind, discovering everything as you go. Occasionally you let the two come together to talk things through . . . but I wasn’t doing that. This is what happens when you don’t do that.
Don’t you find that novellas have this in common, a certain freedom and limitation of scale? I mean, how high can you build a wall without scaffolding? Not that high, and the wall looks a little wonky the taller it gets, a little handmade, and you’re having to climb on it as you build, but there’s no other way. That’s the beauty of a novella, right?
So Pathkiller became a novella by default? I think the limitation of scale, as you say, exerts a higher expectation from novellas. Even though the novella has a wide and varied history — Heart of Darkness, Stephen King’s The Body, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, The Death of Ivan Illyich, The Awakening by Kate Chopin — it does seem to be making something of comeback in recent years. Did you use any particular novella as a model for any aspect of Pathkiller? What writers did you look to when you were writing Pathkiller?
I was working with Shann Ray as a mentor while serving as the Milton Fellow at Seattle Pacific University. We studied Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams together as I was working on this novella. I would flatter myself to think that some of Ray and Johnson’s style influenced this book.
I can see the influence of Johnson in your evocation of the setting of Pathkiller — the Mississippi River, the border between Missouri and Tennessee, the Illinois railroad, Memphis, Augusta, Atlanta. The setting is so specific and so connected to what I read as your theme of lost and found: lost as in cast off from home and family, separated from the familiar, and found as in Hugh finding himself in work, marriage, a reconciliation with his past. How much, if any, of the setting of Pathkiller, is imagined? How important is it to you to get the setting right in your work? How does setting enhance or direct theme in your work?
This book tracks the coming together of my grandparents, in an imaginative way. It is a version of their stories. Their lives have always seemed mythic to me. I know these places personally — Georgia and Appalachia specifically — but it’s what I don’t know that has always kept me interested as a person, and a writer. I don’t know how they saw the landscape, and that made those more panoramic moments of the book seem to hinge on something crucial for me. I believe agricultural land — the settings for the scenes that take place in Georgia — and wilderness — the setting for the Appalachian scenes — are full of psychosomatic strength, they want to exert a spiritual force on us, and I write to find out how the characters understood, or translated, that force.
So it’s my turn now and I want to start by saying that this is a very weird, sensual, and absolutely engrossing book you’ve made. I’ve never read anything like it. I set it down after my first reading and walked outside and I had the same sensation I always have when I go to the movies mid-day and am shocked when the movie ends to find the world still there somehow, the sun still up. It was that kind of plunge into another world.
I wanted to first ask you about the book’s suggestive imagery, which is one of the ways I like to talk about symbols. I also wanted to start with this great quote from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners but all my books are in boxes from a recent move and so I’m left with only my memory. The quote is a response to a question about a story of hers — also, very weird — called “Good Country People” in which the protagonist, Hulga, has a wooden leg. The critics were of course wondering what the leg symbolized — Hulga’s stiff soul perhaps, her hollowness, etc. — and O’Connor said something snarky, something like, “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, that’s fine, you can say that, but just remember that it’s a wooden leg first.” I admire that in your book there are many moments in which mystery seems to adhere to something that also has a literal role in the story, moments in which both the plot, the details, and the more numinous elements of story, things like theme and symbol, are fused together. For instance, near the very end of the story, we have this sentence, isolated on the page by white space: “The glass shattered in every window.” This is of course describing something completely literal and central to the plot, a car accident, but in its isolation and repetition, it suggests meaning that lies outside of the literal. It represents the narrator’s life. Does this kind of imagery develop as you finalize a story, or is it something you discover early on, in those first few drafts?
I love Flannery O’Connor’s snarkiness! I think she also said in regard to fiction writing, details accumulate meaning from the action of the story itself. My writing isn’t plot driven; I like connecting threads and “making meaning.” My thinking is more associative — a window is to a car crash as glass is to vision as seeing is to blankness. Everything happens in revision for me. Generating material is really a slog. The revision process is where the fun happens. You’re exactly right about the line in Road Trip. My intention was to have it resonate through the story, but I only realized that intention in later drafts.
I’ve often heard the first person point of view spoken of as the most intimate, or fluid way of story telling, but in Road Trip, the first person narrator is a disruptive force, fragmenting the story the way someone might smash a mirror or attenuating time to remind us that we must always encounter the narrator if we want to get the story out of her. I’m thinking of the repetition of the narrator’s phrase, “I’m going to slow it all down here so you can see it” as an example of what I mean. What was it like living and writing from this narrator’s point of view? Is the first person a point of view you often work in as a writer?
Myra Stark, the first person narrator, is attempting to connect her family history with her personal history and to explain or rationalize choices she’s made and not made in her life, but she can’t be trusted. I wasn’t really looking to nail down a version of Myra’s truth; I wanted to hear what she had to say. To keep myself interested enough to keep writing this story, and what I hope will keep readers interested enough to keep reading, is that Myra is a little slippery, a little evasive. What is she really talking about? I’ll also say, as I’m sure you know, that the process of revision builds distance between the first person narrator and author — or it does for me. What can feel excruciating at first draft — all these dead people! — in revision becomes an absorbing technical challenge.
When I’m casting about to launch a new thing, I start with a voice or an image and write from there. If a voice comes to me in first person, I’ll start in first person although I’ll often shift point of view in later drafts. I am a little shy about first person because my intent in my work is to subsume myself; I don’t want to be visible, I don’t want a reader to confuse the narrator with me, the author. It’s easier to distance myself from a character if I’m not writing in first person.
You use lots of black and white photos in this book. Sometimes the photos seem closely related to the narrative and at other times they create a kind of counterpoint. Why did you decide to include those photos, where did they come from, and what guided you as you spliced them into the body of the text?
I used a few photos originally as a way to enter the story. A book of photographs by William G. Gabler of abandoned Midwestern farmplaces was one of the inspirations for Road Trip. The book is called The Death of the Dream and two of the photographs from that book appear in Road Trip. I came across another book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which is a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The photographs are paired with news reports of suicides and murder, infant death, crime, mental illness, and business failure. The images cast a spell.
I used images from both books to set the scene, so to speak, for the story. When I saw the image of the mannequin in the window of a hat shop in Black River Falls, I wrote the scene of the character Carmella shaping a butterhead girl/man with a mustache based on that image. The photos in the book are not necessarily specific to the time period of the Starks’ story line, but I was more interested in conveying atmosphere than hyperrealism. In an early conversation with my publisher, Twelve Winters Press, we talked about adding photos to the manuscript and I immediately thought of the images I had been using to generate the story. I tracked down William Gabler and acquired permission to use two of his photos in the book. The rest of the photos are from the Wisconsin Historical Society, which I visited when I was at the University of Wisconson-Madison as a guest lecturer.
Your book has the unsettling juxtaposition of details I experience more often in dreams than in life. I mean, I think we have all had those dreams, when memory and perception are no longer bound by the partitions of space and time. It’s a free for all when that happens, a delicious amalgamation, and at other times, a manic nightmare. This paragraph near the book’s close, for instance:
“The beat-to-hell Bronco pushed the bones along the asphalt. The bones of dead babies and horses, dead motorcycles and barn swallows, teeth and dirty dishes, tighty whiteys, a pillow with gunpowder burns, empty beer cans, tequila bottles, and Cool Whip containers, the empty chair, elephant bones, a 1984 Plymouth Turismo . . .”
It goes on from there, and acts as a dream like summary of the story itself. What inspired you to move towards a character so completely that we enter their fragmented pyche through the prose? Was it another writer, your own experiences . . . what got you so interested in perception and distortion?
This is such an interesting question and perhaps reveals a little bit about the difference in how we approach our work, or maybe a difference in the language we use to talk about writing. My intention for the paragraph you cite is dream summary, but it’s not at all about character to me — it’s about image. It’s a compilation of some of the most loaded images in the story. When I was working with Toni Nelson, she told me that every long piece needs an opening that tells the story you’re going to tell. Instead of telling the story I was going to tell at the beginning of Road Trip, I did it at the end. Or something like that.
Both our novellas evoke a time and a way of life that is past — in Pathkiller it’s the East South Central and South Atlantic regions of the 30s and 40s; in Road Trip, it’s rural Minnesota from the 1890s to the 1980s. What draws me to write the past, is to wallow in the nostalgic, it’s a version of “ruin porn,” the expression given to photos of ravaged landscapes and abandoned warehouses. Intellectually, I know that nostalgia is such a limited way of telling a story. It suggests a notion of narrative that is limited in time and place, and assumes a kind of shortsightedness and universality of experience and history that is troubling to me. Emotionally, however, I am a sucker for the silvered fence post, the rusted pump. I think of the difference between my parents’ version of their idyllic childhoods in an Italian-American ethnic neighborhood and the neo-realist films of Roberto Rossellini that depict a much harsher version of post-WWII Italy. The tension between those two versions of the same story is what I seek to achieve in my own work.
What is the appeal of writing history for you? What are the pitfalls?
I think nostalgia, or romanticism, is the risk you take when you want to get at something meaningful, something anagogical. The photographer Sally Mann once said that “Southern artists are like certain mountain religious folk, who in their devotions subject themselves to snakebites that would kill or disable anyone else. What snake venom is to them, romanticism is to the Southern artist: a terrible risk, and a ticket to transcendence.”
I think the goal is to enter into history through the influence of the writer’s process so completely that you pass through nostalgia into something much more complicated, something timeless, weird, and recognizable. But you have to pass through it, not out of it. If you try to escape the danger of sentimentality you will divest yourself of its power. Try to imagine Hopper’s famous “Summer Interior 1909” without those basic risks at play: a woman is reclining beside a bed in something white. Hugely romantic premise, right? A huge risk. And yet, her head is tilted downward, in way that we can recognize as being beyond the scope of nostalgia, and the crudeness of the yellow strokes on the window make it seem like the artist scared himself with the encounter and just wanted to get the painting over with. We have to have both here.
I so agree and so well said — moving through nostalgia, from essentialism to something else.
The nature of suffering seems to be a key theme for both of us in our work. For the characters of Myra and Pinkie in Road Trip, things happen — sad or hard things —death and broken relationships, car crashes and hauntings. There is no safe rest stop along the way, which is why it’s better to stay on the road, to keep moving. The novella’s refrain is “One day him, the next day her. Everyday, somebody. Someday, everybody.”
The story of Job seems to be reflected in Pathkiller. Can you speak to the nature of suffering in Pathkiller — is there redemption for Hugh, for his sister, Edith?
I’m guess I’m inclined to say that this is anthropological. I really want to address and uphold in fiction the idea that human suffering is inherently meaningful. I think this is why the aesthetic idea of pathos arises so readily from our earliest stories, stories like Job, ancient presentations that contain such a great deal of dramatic irony — often in its tragic mode, as opposed to the comedic — and the thing I want to remember here about irony is that it contains more meaning than can be spoken directly, not less. As when a mother says to her child, “Run out into the street again and I’ll kill you.” She means something, something about how she suffers that the words cannot transmit without entering into a verbal discrepancy. And so, like that mother, I think it’s important as writers that we not treat suffering as something arbitrary, or coincidental. As in, “oh universe, you win.” I think it’s important that we never shrug our shoulders at it, you know?
Something I’ve been thinking about along the same lines these days is that when I scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook I’m seeing black men shot in the back over and over, black woman brutalized; an endless feed of essentialized comments expressing our civilized outrage and sorrow. What is our responsibility as artists to what we read, what we write, to what we make in this age of brutality? What are our complicities in reproducing violence in our art? In, as you say, treating suffering as arbitrary? Great point.
This is a sexy book you’ve written . . . I mean, let’s be honest. Sexy stuff is happening. But the characters seem to have an extremely ambivalent relationship to sex, they want it, but they don’t want to be controlled or destroyed by it. One story within the larger frame of the story — the story of Carmella — even seems to be a fable-like cautionary tale about sexual repression. Does this reading seem fair to you?
Don’t most people at one time or another have an ambivalent relationship to sex? The sex stuff was one way for me to make clear that the story is queer — and not just because there’s some girl-on-girl action — but queer. I mean that Pinkie is a girl who thinks of herself as manly, but she’s so queer it puts her not only on the outside of the straight world, but on the outside of the everyday queers. She is doomed. Pinkie never has a chance. How does anybody survive (in this story)? By assimilating, by becoming unqueer, by driving away from the past and all the dead bodies.
You’ve published your first two books — your collection of short stories Father Brother Keeper and the novella back to back at age 30. I’m publishing my first book at age 60. Let’s talk about the differences in being emerging writers at our different places in life.
Part of me wants to avoid this question and say that I don’t feel young and that I never have. Is that a sign of youth? It probably is. The most frustrating thing about trying to write in my late twenties and early thirties has been trying to figure out what it means to be a person, preferably one that can feed and house itself while I’m writing. In some ways that makes the conflicts that surface in fiction hit close to home, a little too close at times. Are not most characters in short stories on the verge of unraveling their lives, or on the verge of something — I often feel like I’m right there with them. The problem is that you can’t be, right? Not if you want to write about them. You need some amount of stability, you need to know where your next meal is going to come from. I don’t always know that. I live in the light of my ever-impending unemployment, contract to contract, or semester to semester.
I definitely feel some urgency to make up for lost time, to maintain momentum, but I also think I’m just lucky to be doing what I had dreamed of doing but wasn’t doing for so long, while I was making a living, being responsible to family, crashing and burning through my life. Every day I feel privileged to be writing, thinking about writing, reading, in conversation with other writers. This is the best time of my life.
Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. His was the recipient of the 2012 Narrative prize and his work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Image Journal, The Chattahoochee Review, The Four Way Review, Nat. Brut. Quarterly, and other journals. He currently teaches at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, NC.
Lynette D’Amico‘s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Ocean State Review and at Brevity and Slag Glass City. Her novella Road Trip, recently published by Twelve Winters Press, was short-listed for the Paris Literary Prize, the centerpiece of a collection that was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, and the first runner-up of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. A former advertising copywriter, Lynette is currently content editor for the online theater journal HowlRound. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.