Sunday, June 2, 2013

Among Those Characters: Gary Guinn

My great-great-grandfather, a second lieutenant in the 1st Kentucky Mounted Rifles, CSA, brought his family to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas following the Civil War. His solemn photograph, taken in his later years, hangs at the head of a family collage on the dining room wall. But even in the old man, without the uniform, with his stark face and white beard, you cannot miss the Confederate officer. The long thread of history that precedes him—the Protestant Rebellion in England, the Plantation of Ulster in Northern Ireland, the long struggle with poverty ending in the potato famine and the long voyage to the hard scrabble of a new start in Appalachia—is of little consequence compared to that moment when the young second lieutenant rode away from his Kentucky home. Or so it seems to me as I look at the photo. His shadow lies over my sense of family, even though all the other photos hanging on that dining room wall are cast in a very different shadow, the shadow of the Ozark Mountains. There is the second lieutenant’s son, my great-grandfather, who developed a process for melding metal that made him a blacksmith of some renown in the region, and who ended his days in the state hospital for the insane. And below him, there is his son, my grandfather, who built up a mercantile business, lost it in the Depression, and became an alcoholic.
On various branches of the family tree hang distillers, horse traders, thieves, preachers, and teachers. Especially teachers. In the first half of the twentieth century, my father’s generation—the Guinns, the Faubuses, the Bucks, and the Gages—was fertile ground for teachers, men and women who, in the 1920s and 1930s taught in one room or two room schoolhouses in small rural communities like Delaney or Crosses or Greasy Creek, after finishing their own high school education at the county seat in Huntsville. They were readers, all of them, and it surely must have been they who turned me and my cousins to books and gave us a love of language. The thick hillbilly accent of the rural Ozarks prior to World War II, the language of the novels of the late Donald Harrington, was mostly absent in my family. I cannot remember an aunt, uncle, or cousin who sounded as if he or she was raised in rural Arkansas. A product of the Great Depression, they had recognized the value of speaking and writing well and had cultivated the skills thoroughly. When they left the hills for the economic opportunities of the larger towns and cities, they became businessmen, bankers, and even a governor of the state.
And they were storytellers. At family reunions, over a plate of fried chicken, they became animated: the six hungry boys of the Delaney basketball team on mules, returning from a game on the other side of the mountain, fed cracklings and cornbread by a family of strangers along the way who were slaughtering hogs; the shell shocked veteran of World War I, putting his big Radiola Grand, powered by a car battery, on the front porch and playing it so loud every evening that the road crew from Fayetteville, camping down by the White River, poked a screwdriver through the speaker; the philanderer whose wife locked him in the outhouse and left him there all night to stall an escapade; the local bootlegger, shot in the leg, fed by a committee of local women while he lay recuperating in the local jail, and the fear and trembling of my aunt Lake, ten years old, who was sent all alone to carry his lunch to him. The dirt basketball court on the Delaney square, the cannery whistle that called people to seasonal work, the train that came down the Frisco line from Fayetteville in the morning on its way to Pettigrew and returned in the afternoon, the swimming hole at the old mill dam, the swinging bridge. Story after story. The little hamlets that populated the White River in the early twentieth century are almost as real to me as my memory of my home town when I was a child. If writing is a process of self-discovery, then my writing has been an attempt to find myself in those places, among those characters.
Robert K. Gilmore says in the preface to his book Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions that the people of the Ozarks have always had a strong sense of belonging to a particular place. They are suspicious of strangers, fiercely independent, and cherishers of solitude. The land of the Ozarks, “the hills, the gullies, the hardwood, the rivers, the small communities,” has formed the character of the people who live here. And it forms the characters in my work. When Sherwood Anderson advised William Faulkner to go back to Mississippi and write about that little patch of ground Faulkner knew so well, Anderson understood the power that a place can have over a writer’s imagination. The Ozarks are that for me—a patch of ground and the characters who are grown from it.
I’m a little embarrassed to confess that, having grown up in this fertile story-telling ground, I did not know, as so many writers seem to have known, at the age of six, or eight, or ten, that I would become a writer, and that the desire to write burned in me from that early age. I do, in fact, remember, after having seen the movie Bambi, at about the age of ten, sitting down that very evening and writing a long tale about a young deer, a story that was, I’m sure, to my parents indistinguishable from the movie. And that was the extent of my burning passion to write at that age. More like a little spark than a burning flame. The truth is that I was, as my uncle used to say, a lost ball in high weeds for most of my youth. Like many other young men, I began writing poetry in college—vague, romantic, anti-war, anti-social. It was terrible poetry, but it felt good to write it and to share the praise of other dreamy young men and women who were also writing bad poetry. The compulsion to write fiction didn’t strike me until I had been teaching literature in a small college for several years. I was immersing myself and my students in the usual suspects from Southern literature—Faulkner, O’Connor, and their progeny—when the long recessive family story-telling gene began to reassert itself. Early on, I leaned a bit too heavily on the great-great-grandfather, and I will always be thankful to Alan Cheuse, who in a writing workshop at Peugeot Sound advised me to put the old soldier on the closet shelf, and let all of that material be a hidden reservoir to the real stories that would come. There is, after all, in most of our lives, plenty of material. For me, the alcoholics, the quiet women who end their lives with pistols, the disappointed ambitions, the unfaithful husbands, the jealousy, the bitterness. And, of course, the few grand successes and the many simple, long lives of work and pleasure.
I frequently discover stories in small-town or area newspapers. I’m not likely to find high crimes and felonies there as much as the petty thefts and audacious accidents that are part of most of our lives. A story about a pickup truck crashing into a small country church, reported a few years ago in the local county paper, gave me the idea for a story titled “The Scar” that ultimately found its way into the Editions Bibliotekos anthology Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt. The obituary section of the local paper is a treasure of names that seem to carry a heavy weight of story.
For most of my adult life, I have been deeply involved in theater, both acting and directing. As an actor, “creating” a character from the script of a play has always come naturally to me, developing a personality with a particular voice and way of moving, a strong yearning. I have often thought that acting was that other career that I might have pursued, that other road I might have taken. Some writers have discovered that acting is a first cousin to creating fictional characters. Charles Dickens, as a young man, considered a career in acting. Throughout his career, he acted in and directed a traveling troupe that raised money for the families of stricken writers and that once played before the Queen. When he gave public readings, he acted the characters so powerfully—Bill Sykes killing Nancy in Oliver Twist—that women in the audience fainted. My fiction typically begins with a character—a face, a voice, an attitude to life. When I write that character into a piece of fiction, sitting at my desk, I “get into character,” as I do when acting, so I can feel and think like the character. I have been somewhat surprised to find that some of my best characters are women, though I have never played a female role on stage.
A good friend and fiction writer, Roger Hart, once told a room full of students that he thought of story ideas as pictures that hung a little crooked on the wall. Something is not quite right, is a little crooked. It suggests a setting and a few characters, and the story becomes an exploration of what that dislocated something is and how the characters find their way through it. I like that image of the crooked picture. Desire is at the heart of all tension. Characters yearn for something. If the yearning is wrongly placed or frustrated—sometimes even when it is satisfied—the result is pain. Most people will do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. I have to wonder what good happiness and success in fiction are if they do not spring from suffering and failure. And what good are suffering and failure if they do not offer a chance of redemption? All of my stories look for that redemption. It can be hard to come by in this world, and it doesn’t always look like happiness. But the world being a place that is both awful and beautiful, redemption must always be a possibility, whether or not it is realized in the story. When I discovered the work of Lewis Nordan, I felt a shock of recognition and a refreshing sense of something new and true and wonderful. After reading his novel Sharpshooter Blues, I spent the following year reading all the fiction he had published. His is a violent, magico-realist world populated by weird and wonderful characters looking for love in all the wrong ways. But it’s a redemptive world for all that.
The only kind of fiction I’m interested in writing is realism. I admire genre fiction, such as science fiction or fantasy, when it is well written, but I have little interest in writing it myself. I admire genre fiction that uses the tools of realism, when it does so in a literary way, as is often the case in crime fiction or western fiction. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a favorite summer read. A few years ago I began reading the Belgian crime fiction writer George Simenon, both his Maigret detective series and his roman durs, the hard novels that are a match for Camus and Sartre in tone and style. McMurtry and Simenon are writers who have transcended their genre. Over the past few months I have begun to read Scandinavian crime fiction, writers such as Kerstin Ekman, Arnold Indridison, and Lars Kepler, but especially the Swedish writer Hakan Nesser, whose Inspector VanVeeteren reminds me of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Scandinavian writers are highly influenced by their environment—long periods of dark, cold, and wet, opposed by short bursts of summer. Place is an abiding power in their work. Darkness pervades their treatment of humanity in the same way it pervades Camus and Sartre, and the better writers among them seem to be influenced by the mid-20th century existentialists.
Influence for a writer is a sticky question. When I’m asked which writers influenced me, I hesitate. Everything a writer reads influences how he/she writes. But the question of discernible influence gets at a complex issue. Having a PhD in 19th-century British literature and being steeped in that period, I struggled, when I began to write fiction, to silence those ponderous Romantic and Victorian voices and find the contemporary voices that ultimately reproduced themselves in my fiction. Out with Dickens (though surely not quite totally absolutely) and out with Thomas Hardy, and in with Louise Erdrich, Lewis Nordan, and Cormac McCarthy.  I would like to claim kinship with Faulkner and O’Connor, and any writer raised in the South could make that claim, but in fact, those writers, whom Lewis Nordan calls “the family,” are surely the outer verge of style for contemporary writers, are in fact, as they are called, the “gothic” of southern style. I admire the minimalism of Raymond Carver, and I love the rich, layered prose of James Joyce. But exactly how have these very different styles affected my work?
I confess to being one of those writers who struggle to establish a disciplined schedule of writing. I’ve always been able to blame my teaching, scholarly work, raising kids. But I’m running out of excuses. Charles Dickens sat down at his desk at 9:00 in the morning and worked until 2:00 in the afternoon, regardless of whether he wrote one page or twenty. Writing fiction does take a block of time, enough time for the writer to move himself or herself into the world of the work, to crack open the characters’ hearts again. It takes time to step out of the real world and into the fictive. So creating some kind of schedule that allows you to do that becomes a fundamental decision about whether you are able to write or not. I tend to be streaky—when a story is working, I ignore other things and stay with the story.
A colleague of mine at the university teases me for being old fashion in my writing method. I write with a pen on a lined pad of paper until I have finished a chapter or a story, revising whenever I start a new writing session. Then the chapter/story is transferred to the word processor, and revised again. I tend to do a lot of revising as I go, until the story or novel is complete, at which time I look at the bigger structural revision questions. At that point, the word processor is a great help, especially in the ability to move material around and to save deleted material unchanged or simply delete it altogether. In the initial writing of the piece, I like the feel of the pen on the paper. My colleague laughs when I say it, but I have a heightened sense of physicality in the writing, a sense of carving the images and lines out of nothing onto a piece of highly processed wood. I like that feeling, and I go so far as to believe it makes me more physical, more concrete, in my writing. I’m an Episcopalian, and so I have no problem at all with that idea. Episcopalians are very incarnational in their view of the world. We bring our physical bodies into our worship—kneeling, bowing, crossing ourselves, focusing on the Eucharist, the body and the blood.
I am currently trying to finish the revisions on the second novel of a projected Ozark trilogy. The first novel was set at the beginning of the 20th century, this second during the Depression era, and the third will be set in the late 20th century. Daniel Woodrell’s highly successful novel Winter’s Bone, and the movie made from it, project the dark side of life in the Ozarks, a vision of meth labs and gratuitous violence, but that subculture is not representative of the broader life in the region. The southern Ozarks are populated mostly by hard working rural and small town people, whose lives are governed largely by the forces of nature and of social and religious strictures. Their roots go back through Appalachia to Good King Billy, William of Orange, and his Protestant army. And overwhelmingly Protestant they remain. Their religious sentiment still runs deep, with their sense of moral rectitude. My family has been shaped through five generations by this ethos. My writing abrades constantly against it, like a knife blade against the whetstone. With deep religious sentiment and a strong sense of moral rectitude come the potential for both great love and terrible abuse, both grace and judgment, gentleness and violence, sacrifice and manipulation. These are the poles between which my characters move and between which I seek to place myself and my work.
In spite of writing so much bad poetry in college, I never gave up writing it. It still excites me, as one poet has put it, to write a novel in a few lines. I spend part of my writing time on poetry. I love the poetry of William Stafford, his Buddhist view of the simplicity of life. The intensity of poetic language, and its concreteness, make the reading and writing of poetry a good exercise for a fiction writer. The caveat there for me is that I have to be careful of getting bogged down in beautiful language and stifling the plot.
As I think about what I really want to communicate in my work, I remember a course I taught in Modernist literature a couple of years ago. Our only texts were Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses. One of my objectives was for the students to see that what seems to be darkness can sometimes be light. Another objective was that students understand that great literature creates highly complex characters who can be both despicable and sympathetic. Enter Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses. Working slowly through that difficult text, most of the students came to see that we are all Leopold Bloom, all outcasts, all keeping a tight lid on our deepest self, all noble in the little ways that make us human. Leopold Bloom is Everyman/woman. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the character Satan, when asked about Hell, says, “Where e’er I go is Hell, myself am Hell.” After teaching Ulysses, that line became for me, “Where e’er I go is Bloom, myself am Bloom.” The great humanistic objective of great literature, after all, is to communicate vividly our common humanity. I hope my own work does that.

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Copyright©2013 by Gary Guinn