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In my first question to Alan Heathcock, the author of the forthcoming short-story collection Volt, I used the word “muck” to describe the messes into which he flings his characters.
Popular word, “muck.” Turns out that Publishers Weekly used it, too, in a starred review of Volt:
Heathcock’s impressive debut collection pursues modern American prairie characters through some serious Old Testament muck. If it’s not flood or fire ravishing the village of Krafton, then it’s fratricide, pedocide, or just plain ol’ stranger killing.
Volt comes out March 1st, from Graywolf Press. Heathcock, who lives in Boise, Idaho, and teaches creative writing at Boise State, was kind enough to field a few questions with thoughtful, incisive answers. Enjoy!
The stories in Volt send their characters into some pretty serious muck. What is it about harrowing adversity that is attractive to you as a writer?
The appeal is two-fold. First, I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” which has kinship to a method actor. I try to become the character in full, think what they think, feel what they feel. The process of writing then becomes an exploration of imagination, intellect, and emotion for me, and putting the characters through the muck is confronting the things that scare and confound me the most. The process of writing has great value to me. It’s not entertainment, but something deeper. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s as honest an answer as I can give. Second, harrowing adversity simply makes for good compelling drama. Shaekspeare and Cormac McCarthy, two huge influences, put their peeps through deep, deep, DEEP, muck—I, for one, thank them for that.
One of the things that struck me in the stories is the sense of time. You provide small clues about the general era of each story, but most any of them could be dropped into any modern decade. Was that intentional?
It was intentional. I was trying to let the stories be as timeless as possible, not having the baggage of a certain period adhere itself to the stories. For instance, if a story is clearly set in World War II a contemporary reader might slap everything they’ve ever read/viewed/heard about that era, changing/warping the intended meaning of the story. I set the stories in a hard “now” time, while leaving the general sense of time open enough so that each story delivers the reader into as pure a thematic reading as possible.
Aside from that, I’m also proposing the simple truth that history repeats itself, that the pains of war and crime and grief must be felt again and again and again. In that respect, time period has no bearing on the truths of humanity.
I read an essay in which you wrote that your stories help you figure out the world around you. What did you mean by that?
Things have happened in my proximity that deeply altered my ability to understand the moral truths I’d been taught in school/church/home. For example, I used to visit a small town in Minnesota named Waseca. I had friends who lived there. It was a lovely little town, nice Main Street, beautiful lakes, kind people. In winter, I went ice fishing, which I loved. In summer, we’d take long walks down these country roads, looking out over the still fields, listening to the locust drone. Then, in 1999, a twelve-year old girl came home from school to find a man robbing her house. The man raped and killed the girl, and her parents found her dead body in the house. I visited Waseca about a month after this happened, and the town had changed. My friends, who used to leave their doors unlocked, now locked their doors and kept a rifle by their bed. Waseca felt changed, the air and water were changed. It touched everything. I couldn’t shake the desire to have Waseca returned to what it was, and wondered what could possibly be done to restore the peace. So…I wrote the story “Peacekeeper” as a means of unpacking some of my questions, a bit of grief, too, trying to see if I could find any answers and heel the troubled mind. Again and again I find myself drawn to questions that plague me, and use story writing as a means to root out any possibly insight that might settle my equilibrium just a bit.
The Volt stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton. Did you model it after any actual place? What does Krafton look like in your head?
Krafton started out as modeled after the small town where my mother grew up: Lynnville, Indiana. But I felt confined by having to abide their grid of streets and knobs and flora and fauna, so I started borrowing from places I’d been in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kentucky, South Dakota, Idaho… My goal with Krafton was always to just let it be a small American town. I’ve found, via the early reviews, that depending on the reader they place Krafton in different regions (the west, Midwest, great plains, southeast), which is fine with me. So it’s Krafton, America, which enables the commentary to not be bound by region, while adhering itself to whatever region the reader supplies.
Volt is your first book. Are you planning to write a novel-length book, or are short stories where it’s at for you?
I’m working on a novel now, though I’ll keep writing stories. My original idea for these Krafton stories was to write a comprehensive moral history of a town, a collection of 30 or 40 stories covering a town from its founding to its present. VOLT is like volume one of four in a series I hope to eventually complete.
You’re a Chicago guy who’s teaching creative writing at Boise State University. How have you taken to living in the West?
It was quite a transition. The west is vast. VAST. Time and distance are very different in the west. The people aren’t as direct as they are in Chicago. But I’ve grown to completely love the west. Boise, Idaho, is an absolutely amazing place to live. It’s growing like crazy and crackling with energy. In a small way, being part of the growth in Boise connects me with what the pioneers who founded the west must’ve felt, the feeling of being able to effect a place, to put your mark on a land and culture. And the west has some of the world’s most stunning landscape. Idaho is a wonderland of beauty, and beauty hardly touched when compared to everything back east. I’m loyal by nature, but I sincerely love the west, and I’m extremely proud to be a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho, and Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise. And everybody back in Chicago hits me up for Boise State football t-shirts and hats—ha. Go Broncos!
Let’s talk process: When do you write? How do you balance it against work, being a husband, being a dad?
We (my family and I) treat my writing like it’s my full-time job, which it is. It teach one or two nights a week at Boise State, and other than preparing to teach I’m working on my writing Monday through Friday, from the moment I get my three kids off to school to the moment they get home. It helps that I don’t have any hobbies (ha). I read, write, watch movies, follow my kids around to all their activities, sneak in a date night with my wife every now and again, and that keeps my life full and productive.
I grew up in a working class area in south Chicago, and I often think of my friends back home who are pipefitters or police officers or office stiffs, who have to go to a job every day, week after week. With them in mind, it’s easy for me to stay disciplined to doing my work—if ever I have the urge to put my feet up on the desk, I just think of them looking in on me, totally disgusted by how soft I’ve become, and that stokes me to get back at it.
What are some of the books that influenced you? Who or what lit your literary fuse and made you want to become a writer?
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Taking Care by Joy Williams, Upon the Sweeping Flood by Joyce Carol Oates, Emergency by Denis Johnson, the stories of John Cheever, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt, to name a few. But, really, for me, there’s Cormac McCarthy and then all the rest. McCarthy’s books were a revelation to me, were everything in style and story I ever wanted. My top ten books would be dominated by his titles. His novel The Road is the one of a few books I consider to be perfect.
Your publisher, Graywolf Press, has released some great story collections — yours, Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy, Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy, among others. How was the publication experience for you?
Graywolf Press is the best publisher out there. Period. I could throw numbers at you to prove it, but if you talk to any author in the wolf-pack, they’ll echo my sentiment. The editors are extremely talented, the sales and promotions crew thorough and dedicated and charismatic. I hear authors published on other presses complain about not being a part of the process, or having quibbles about their book cover or lack of promotions or not being able to get answers from their publisher about this or that. I’ve really felt that with each step Graywolf has included me in the process, cherished my input, given me their best guidance, and championed my book in the marketplace, all with grace and great effect. My book is succeeding both critically and commercially in ways I hadn’t imagined, and I credit Graywolf for enabling that to happen.
As someone who nurtures young writers, what are you seeing from the next generation of storytellers?
I occasionally hear someone lament the lack of imagination coming out of writing programs, but I don’t see it in my classes. I have youngsters writing stories from a myriad of styles and genres, with great variances in thematic content, all with powerful execution. These young writers have grown up with great access to information, have been barraged with stories from around the world, and have been reared in a great time of war and turmoil. They’re filled with stories, brimming with great thoughts and intense emotions. It’s an amazing thing to witness as young writers find their voices and use drama to express their passions in the written word. Time will tell, but I think we’ll see some truly great books in the next ten years or so.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Learn your craft to the point you understand the values of quality. Then look inward, and be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, you will stop imitating others and become original.
At this point, thirty-six days from the release of The Summer Son, the low-level eagerness that I’ve been dealing with for months has been superseded by full-on anxiety. I’m ready to see the book. I’m ready for more people to read it. And — I think — I’m ready to hear what people think of it, good or bad.
It’s nice, then, to have some small developments to mark the way to January 25th. The latest: The final cover is complete, finished with a flourish by a wonderful blurb from Jonathan Evison, whose wonderful second novel, West of Here, drops on February 15th.
And here’s the obligatory commercial: The Summer Son remains available for pre-order at Amazon.com. It is nicely discounted at $9.49. Click here if you’d like to check it out.
Gold Under Ice, Carol Buchanan’s follow-up to her Spur Award-winning debut, God’s Thunderbolt, is now available on Amazon.com. In a state brimming with literary talent, Carol is one of the most graceful writers we have. Her debut gave readers a fascinating piece of fiction set during Montana’s Vigilante period and a new hero in Dan Stark. Dan is back again, this time facing trouble back home in New York.
Carol announces the book’s arrival here.
From the back cover:
Money. Greenbacks vs. gold. The Lincoln administration prints greenbacks to pay the Union armies, and in the Gold Room off Wall Street traders pit the greenback against the gold Double Eagle. By January 1864, the greenback loses nearly half its value. An angry President Lincoln wishes gold traders – traitors all – were “shot in the head.”
Far to the west, in Alder Gulch, Montana Territory, millions in gold lie under the ice of Alder Creek. Gold-seekers pray for spring. When the ice breaks, Daniel Stark rescues a man hurled into the frigid water, only to learn that his autocratic grandfather sent the man to bring him back with gold to pay his family’s debt.
But Dan does not have enough gold to rescue the family from their financial burden. If he joins the gold traders, he could make enough to pay the debt and secure his family’s future. Or lose everything and be branded a traitor to the Union.
On a related note, I’m pleased to be able to announce that my new venture, Missouri Breaks Press, is the publisher for Gold Under Ice. Carol’s lovely book is the imprint’s first title, and I couldn’t be more proud. I launched this boutique publishing house because I wanted an outlet to work with projects and people that interest me. Carol qualifies on both counts. We both know all too well how perilous and uncertain publishing is right now, and we both know there’s never been a better time to swim through the currents of indie publishing.
Make no mistake: This is Carol’s book. I say that not to distance myself from the project but rather to ensure that I don’t take any undue credit for it. She pushed God’s Thunderbolt to its position as a regional and national success, and she’ll do the same for Gold Under Ice. I’m providing some editorial support and some cheerleading, and together we’ll see what that amounts to. I can’t think of a book I’d rather see as the initial Missouri Breaks release.
The idea came to me when I was considering the short story. This ditty may be nothing more than a manifestation of my mind’s odd need to make comparisons, no matter how absurd. But bear with me for a moment:
When I ask you to think about John McEnroe (let’s assume here that you have at least a mild acquaintance with professional tennis), you no doubt picture him as a singles player: three Wimbledon titles, four U.S. Opens, showdowns with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and a predilection for berating chair umpires. And why wouldn’t you remember him that way? That’s what made him famous.
Similarly, if I ask you to think about Stephen King, the novels come to mind: Carrie, The Stand, Christine, Misery, Cujo, Pet Sematary — on and on (the guy is ridiculously prolific, so I’m not naming them all). Again, perfectly natural. The novels made the man famous.
But here’s the thing about John McEnroe: For all his wondrous talents as a singles player, he may be the greatest doubles player ever. During his heyday, in the ’80s, the best doubles team in the world was McEnroe and whomever he deigned to play with (Peter Fleming mostly). The guy was ranked No. 1 in doubles for 257 weeks, a record. He’s so good at it that he won a doubles title in 2006, at the age of 47.
So it is with Stephen King. The novels made him famous and fabulously wealthy, but his prolific writing of short stories and their unflagging excellence make him as good as we’ve seen at the form. Check out the list, and if you have a spare weekend, grab a collection (I’m partial to Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, but that’s just me) and disappear inside it. You won’t be sorry.