What themes do you want to explore with your writing?
Recently—and I am working on a novel now that is along these thematic lines—my writing has focused on creating families from kind of broken people. And I don’t mean necessarily blood-relation families, but people who have this loneliness from whatever background they have, and have through whatever drama kind of got pieced together with other people who are also looking for fulfillment. In “Least Resistance,” the boy, a young mechanic, is kind of looking for a father figure and isn’t even really sure of his own motives. And he ends up sleeping with the guy’s wife, not in an Oedipal kind of way, but in a way that he’s trying to create a family from this really awkward situation that he’s created for himself. I find a lot of satisfaction in looking for ways to help my characters connect that often require a lot of conflict to get there—there’s a lot of pain that leads them to realize who the people are in their lives that matter, and who is going to be their new family. So my characters will be in a family situation in the beginning and realize how toxic that is to them and how it’s tearing down their personality in other ways and realize, sometimes in unexpected places, that they’ve found the people that need to be their new family. And sometimes it’s going from a blood family to people that aren’t related to them.
If you were not a writer what would you be?
If I wasn’t a writer I would probably be an auto mechanic. Which is the topic of my story. I was a mechanic after high school for four or five years in Waterbury, Connecticut, and just recently I have gone back to those times in my fiction. Going back to that world and understanding the person I was then—more than I did when I was living the experience— has been really eye opening for me. And just appreciating the sincerity of the friends I had back then and the visceral job of working on cars and feeling these hot engines and listening to them and understanding what’s going on in the cylinders and down the carburetor and all that. It just gives me some nostalgia to have that job again. So I think that’s the closest to what I would do. “Least Resistance” is loosely based on a shop I worked at.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing?
When I finally went to college I thought I wanted to be a cop. I went in for a criminal justice degree and took my first creative-writing class from a teacher named Jeffrey Greene. He just had a couple big nonfiction books out—he lives in Paris now—and he liked my work, and I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t read really anything or done any writing at all, and he really encouraged me to keep at it. So that influenced me to think that I could be a creator of characters.
But then around the same time, I happened just accidently upon Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, and that just changed me forever. I can’t think of a book that had any more influence on me than that did. And then I got into the gritty realists—writers like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie—and I really got involved in what you could do with fairly plain language but good characterization. I think that was a huge inspiration to me in writing my early stories: I would write, and then I would get stuck, and I would pick up one of these books and I would page through it and I would feel myself revitalizing and I would be able to jump back in and find my voice again.
And then, as I got more involved in writing, I started comparing the voices of some of the more flashy authors, some of the people that, in my view, had large vocabularies and interesting ways of saying things but didn’t really have the characters. And I think that gave me an opinion of what writing should be that I still maintain and that I still teach—the ways that tricks can deflate after a while. Once you understand the writing tricks you have to ask: are there solid people here, are there interesting situations? And then I will read a book that has both, that combines phenomenal language, like some of Barry Hannah’s work, but has really fascinating three-dimensional characters. I just reread Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow, and I thought it was just a beautiful book that does both.
What are the most overrated books, in your opinion?
I hate to insult anyone. But I will pick on some authors who would never, ever be damaged by me not liking them. A lot of Updike’s books I feel fall flat for me, and he is a wizard of the language. But a lot of his books don’t have the—I guess the sincerity that I see in people who maybe don’t have his vocabulary. I just got done with Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and though there were some beautiful moments in that book, a lot of it felt like it should have been edited down, like this book could have been a lot shorter. And it was kind of Philip Roth knowing that he has a great voice and toning it down didn’t really occur to him.
What are a few books that are meaningful to you that you feel don’t get enough attention?
There are books that you will see in M.F.A. programs where you can mention the name and everyone knows it and everyone’s read it and you get out of M.F.A. circles and no one’s ever hear of them. And one of them is Rock Springs, I feel like people who aren’t writers don’t know that book. Some easy ones are Denis Johnson's Jesus’ Son. I have turned a lot of people on to that. It’s such a thin book. But people that aren’t literary people don’t know it. And his novel Angels is a gorgeous book. Well, he just won the National Book Award, so hopefully he is getting more recognition.
Tobias Wolff's This Boy’s Life. That is a pretty popular book that I think is easy to turn people on to, because once you get into it you’re just wowed by how perceptive he is, and the things that he knows about people is just fascinating.
I have been teaching my class Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. That was a popular book so I guess that’s not a well-kept secret, but it’s a gorgeous book that I think came right in time for bringing back this realist idea of what you can do with characters rather than what you can do with language, and that really did it in an extreme but beautiful way.
Of course, I could never, ever recommend Huck Finn enough. I could read that over and over, it’s just incredible. But I don’t need to sell that one.
Do you have any rituals when you write?
I write in the morning—we just had another baby, so morning is a little bit of quiet time. I like being up early in the morning and my head is clear. I make a pot of yerba mate, I sit down, and I start writing. Oftentimes, lately, I will do a kind of brainstorming technique where I will sit down and start writing without any punctuation. This is something I actually teach to my students as well, and it really does work to get your mind opened up. And I will be thinking about one tension that I would like the day’s writing to get at, to kind of unearth in one of my characters, and I will throw out all these strange scenarios for about five minutes, like somebody walks in on his girlfriend cheating on him, or whatever. I find the hardest part of writing is really getting into it—you know, if you give yourself a three-hour stretch to write, you can sit there and maybe get a half hour out of that after your mind gets all cleared out. I find these brainstorming things lately have been helping me get to the writing space sooner, because especially now with the kids, I don’t really get the writing time I used to have.
What book is most essential to you?
Rock Springs and Jesus’ Son. I can read those over and over again and always get something new out of them. I love Rick Bass’s first collection, The Watch. That is one of those books that really floors me with the perception. He creates just a whole psychology of looking at the world that really I haven’t seen repeated by other authors. I have seen other people try to do it; some southern writers have tried to do that. I really like John Casey’s Spartina. I have read that a couple of times and that’s one of those books that I keep getting a lot out of.
What children’s book would you still pick up?
I was reading Harry Potter. There was this kid that I used to know who got into a bad car wreck and he had some brain damage and I used to sit with him and he would always want to read Harry Potter and I really got into those books. I was fascinated by the literary value they have, which I think is wonderful because hopefully we are starting up a new generation of people who are going to be interested in actually reading literature again.
Right now with my own kids we are into, like, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? And Sara Boyton, her books are fascinating. They’re these little rhyme stories and a lot of them are counting stories, but they’re really incredible. All these hippos come to somebody's house and have a party. It’s kind of a fun time. Of course I would recommend as soon as kids can read chapter books getting into Huck Finn. I can’t say enough about that book.
What is the first thing that you wrote that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
When I took my first creative writing class with Jeff Greene. I think the first success I had with writing was actually in poetry, and I remember because I just found this old poem that I wrote in his class 10 or 12 years ago that was actually not a bad poem. And I remember when I turned it in that he loved it, he was just so ecstatic about the poem. I didn’t realize what I had done, I didn’t realize what was good about it, I didn’t know enough about it. I am sure I was just copying some poetic voice that we were reading in our anthology. But I do remember that when I heard that, I felt like, Wow, this is something you might actually be good at. I hadn’t been much of an academic, and the only thing that I really felt I was good at was being a mechanic. And then when I got to college, of course I tried really hard and I got good grades, but really it was because I was working all the time studying and I had a lot of motivation because I already really knew what life was like if you didn’t have a college degree. But that was the first time when I felt like maybe this is an ability, maybe this is a talent that I have rather than just something that you study and you do the work and you get a good grade. I thought, Maybe there is something in here that he didn’t teach me that I already kind of have going for me.