Writer Tony Earley was born in Texas and grew up in North Carolina and received an MFA at the University of Alabama. He is the author of a short story collection, Here We Are in Paradise, a novel, Jim the Boy, and a collection of essays/autobiographical reflections called Somehow Form A Family. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Oxford-American. Earley was selected for that silly list of best young writers (under 40) by Granta magazine in 1996. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and Dachshunds and teaches at Vanderbilt University. Earley is currently at work on another novel.
Robert Birnbaum: When I spoke to Elizabeth Cox, who teaches at Duke in North Carolina, she told me that when she was offering her first novel to publishers in New York, she was told that would they would publish anything by anyone from North Carolina. There are many fine writers from North Carolina: Reynolds Price, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus. Is there something in North Carolina that lends itself to storytelling and writing?
Tony Earley: I really don’t know why that is, but you really can’t throw a rock in North Carolina without hitting a good writer. Kay Gibbons and Jill McCorkle were both discovered by Lewis Ruben. Lee Smith is the fairy godmother to all of us. And there’s Reynolds Price. I have no idea why that is. It really is remarkable.
RB: Fox Butterfield, a former New York Times reporter, wrote a book Called All God’s Children about a teenage murderer whose lineage could be traced far back into South Carolina colonial times. In that narrative, South Carolina came off as a harsh and belligerent environment. Are there any well-known writers from South Carolina?
TE: Writers from South Carolina? (long pause) Nobody immediately springs to mind.
RB: I am going to transcribe this talk inserting “long pause” just before “nobody immediately comes to mind.”
TE: You are right, nobody jumps to mind. In Jim the Boy, when they are on the way to the ocean and they stop in the middle of the night and Jim says, “Where are we?” And Uncle Al says, “South Carolina — not much to it, huh?” And whenever I read that in North Carolina it gets a huge laugh and when I read it in South Carolina there is a stony silence.
RB: Is there a rivalry between the Carolinas?
TE: Oh yeah.
RB: Certainly between the basketball programs…
TE: It’s not so much in sports. Culturally.
RB: Is it the case that having been designated ‘great young’, ‘rising young’ or whatever it was writer by Granta — having received that accolade — did that break you out of being thought of as a Southern writer?
TE: No, actually, if anything, it heightened it more, because on the Granta list I was the only one. Madison Bell was from Tennessee, but for whatever reason he was never thought of as a Southern writer. So I was the only practicing Southern writer on that list, and a lot was made of that in newspaper articles and all. So I can’t really go anywhere without people asking me about that Southern-writer appellation.
RB: Well, I happen to especially like writing from the South and I am trying to understand why…I love Reynolds Price. The first time I read him I was really moved. And I recently read Elizabeth Cox’s short stories and there is something that really appeals to me, but I can’t readily identify it…
TE: For some reason people want to herd all writers from the South into the same corral. There are vastly different aesthetics. We don’t all belong together. There are some writers I am happy to be in the crowd with and other writers that I would just as soon not be associated with. But ultimately putting that ‘southern’ in front of the word ‘writer,’ it’s limiting: you are a good regional writer.
RB: That’s one effect, that you become ghettoized. I don’t mean it in that way at all.
TE: I understand that. Some people do.
RB: My unexamined premises have to do with storytelling and a humane and courteous and courtly way people deal with each other that seems not to be exhibited in writing from other parts of the country. Except perhaps the Midwest.
TE: The best line I ever heard about the South was from Lee Smith: “We’ll make you a casserole, but we’ll kill you, too.” That about sums it up. I have looked for that universal thing that separates Southern writers and all I could come up with is that storytelling is, or at least was, a significant part of the culture — I’m not so sure it’s as strong as it used to be — that and fundamentalist Christianity.
RB: Reynolds Price said it had to do with black people. Because of the intimate knowledge of Afro-American culture was what he thought made southerners different.
TE: There’s some truth to that. The relationship between the races is so complicated that it’s certainly good grist for art. It’s much more complicated than outsiders give it credit for. Just driving around Boston, signing books, three people in the two days I’ve been here have mentioned racism and “What’s it like living in such a racist place?”
RB: They’re kidding?
TE: I just want to say, “What about Southie?” My school was integrated the year I was in first grade in 1967. It went off without a hitch. Southie wasn’t integrated for a dozen years later…
RB: ’74, ’75…
TE: …and then the whole place blew up. We certainly don’t have any kind of monopoly on racism. Nobody has asked me that question in any other city and this is my 17th city.
RB: You said something that suggested that there was a diminishment of tradition. In one of your essays, you referred to a transitional generation. Why aren’t all generations transitional?
TE: For two hundred years, my family on both sides, farmed small farms in the same place in western North Carolina, and then my parents’ generation was the first generation that was beset by outside media, that was sold this idealized picture of suburban America, through radio, later TV and Life magazine and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. So they both left the farm. But they were still country people in suburban disguises. They didn’t make it that far, as far as leaving the culture that produced them. I’m the first generation — me and my cousins — to kind have been launched out into space, that weren’t born on a farm and didn’t work on a farm as children. So we’re having to figure this out as we go along. I don’t think that my cousins think about it that much. I’m a writer, that’s what I do. That’s what the book [Somehow Form A Family] is about.
RB: I take it that you were profoundly affected by television? That was the diet of your information…
TE: Television was like the fifth member of our family. When my sister and I got home from school at three thirty, we turned on the TV and it stayed on until 10:30 or 11, when everybody went to bed. And so it really was this fifth presence that was there all the time. As I get older, I am realizing that I was less formed by television than I was by family and background. I’ve noticed that I started buying the music that I spent my childhood trying to escape from. Now I love Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. I used to scream any time we’d be in the car and mom would turn on country radio.
RB: Why are you receptive now?
TE: Well, (long pause) I think it’s genetic. I’m genetically predisposed to like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. But I’m more open to…I want to know where I came from because I was a kid, I wasn’t aware there was anything at all remarkable about me or my background. I thought everyone was like me. As I’ve gotten out here I realized everyone is not like me and I’m real interested in the ways that has shaped me. Especially when measured against television and popular culture and college. That sounds kind of navel-gazing, but I really do want to know.
RB: Is your fascination based on a deficit in popular culture? That is, are you rejecting something?
TE: We don’t even have a television anymore, my wife and I. What I’m finding is that all that stuff was really superficial in my case. That I tried hard to make that the real stuff, the same way that my parents did: to buy into this vision of upper middle-class America. I pretty much grew up to be the good Christian boy my momma raised me to be. And I have very thin skin when it comes to issues of class. No matter how nice a hotel they put me in on a book tour, if I get a bad table at a restaurant, I think it’s because of my accent.
RB: You seem alert to and unabashed in pointing out instances where class and money are elements of a story. Tour de Fax was hilarious in pointing out that you were on a plane with 15 varieties of beverages was the result of being with rich people.
TE: All the beverages you want. There again it was something that when I was younger I tried to adopt a guise and I found out now it doesn’t fit.
RB: I share your distance from certain kinds of class aspirations and status. My family came here as immigrants, spoke no English and made their way up the middle class ladder. Material considerations seemed omnipresent.
TE: I don’t think the people look down think about that stuff but the people looking up learn…I was very self-conscious the day I started school that I was somehow different than my classmates and kids who lived in the one housing development we had at the time — Forest Hills.
RB: Sounds like a cemetery…
TE: Or a tennis park. I was very conscious of the fact that I didn’t get invited to parties in Forest Hills. And I would hang around with those kids, those kids were my friends…until the weekend came and they had a party and I then I wouldn’t be invited. I was very conscious of that.
RB: What about the blatant sense of entitlement that everyone seems to have now? Everyone is entitled to a SUV and all the other toys of our culture.
TE: We are bombarded with that, sold that at a very early age. In Italy they save 15% of their income, on average. In America, we save negative 1% of income. Our entire economy is based on people spending more money than they make. I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff lately. I just bought a Saab recently. I’d driven a Honda Civic wagon for fourteen years and put 250,000 miles on it and finally replaced it, and I did a lot of research and bought a car that most met my needs. To be perfectly honest, there are times I feel really self-conscious driving it. I live in a mixed neighborhood. Sort of transitional Victorian in east Nashville. It’s Nashville’s first suburb. I feel very odd driving my car through my neighborhood. I feel like a complete poseur. Simultaneously, I am angry at the poor white people I see who are basically my people — Scotch-Irish, not to far removed from their country background — you see them beatin’ their kids, beatin’ their wives, cops have to come to their house. They throw their garbage out in the yard. Cars with flat tires out in the street. I think, “What is wrong with you? Nobody is making you do that. I’m from basically the same place you are and I’m not beatin’ my wife or throwin’ my garbage out in the yard.” I just completely confused by this whole thing. But once I get my car out of my neighborhood I don’t worry about it. It’s just every time I drive by some poor people I think, “You poseur.”
RB: What the part that makes you feel you’re a poseur? That you have relatively expensive European car?
TE: Yeah. But cars say things. I think that’s the biggest reason people in America buy cars. This SUV craze is extraordinarily ridiculous. I see ’em in Green Hills which is a well to do part of Belle Mead in Nashville. You see Land Rovers with full jungle gear. The rhino guards in front of the grill and the big jumbo racks.
RB: Come on, you know the perils of circular driveways…
TE: You’re right about that sense of entitlement.
RB: Whenever someone I’m asked how I’m doing, I think to myself and occasionally express that living in this country already puts me in a better place materially, than a very large chunk of Earth’s inhabitants…
TE: We’re told if we don’t have a big screen television and an SUV and a cell phone and a palm pilot that we’re not makin’ it. I’ve seen poor kids walkin’ around with fake cell phones. It’s just sad. I don’t want to run the risk of nostalgizing a lifestyle, but it was very different on my father’s farm. They had a 80-acre farm but it wasn’t all arable. Everything had to work for the family to make it through the year and they grew several acres of cotton and they took the money from cotton and bought shoes and clothes and durable goods that they could make or grow themselves. And if something happened to the cotton, there were no shoes. I certainly don’t want to be a poor person living that hand-to-mouth existence. I do think that growing up in that situation where materialism or entitlement isn’t even an option, there’s a lot to be said for that.
RB: In the intro to the book of essays you talked about your difficulty in categorizing these writings, not being comfortable with calling them essays…
TE: You got an idea?
RB: Creative non-fiction works. Personal essay is okay. I drop out the ‘essay’ and assume it’s a writer expanding on some personal concern. As I read you it seemed a seamless transition from Jim the Boy to Somehow Form A Family, clearly I was reading the same person…
TE: People ask me if I have trouble going back and forth. No, it all feels like the same muscles to me. I look for the same things before starting personal essays and starting stories. Which is a reason to write it and a metaphorical structure to attach it to. Then the writing process feels the same. I like to think that when I’m through working people will take the whole pile and look at it and see that it was all of one theme, that I was telling a story about one part of the world and there are a lot of different facets of that story.
RB: Jim the Boy has been referred to as a parable. Is it?
TE: No, I don’t think so.
RB: Do you remember why it was referred to in that way?
TE: The phrase was “pitch perfect parable of childhood.” And probably was used because it was alliterative. I like the phrase but a parable in the biblical sense is a story that gives a lesson. I didn’t set out to write a parable, but I can see how it could be called that.
RB: I wasn’t clear about whether you are a practicing journalist. The around-the-globe Concorde flight was that an assignment or did you conjure that up?
TE: I conjured up the assignment. I heard a radio ad announcing the contest and I thought, “Man, I wish I could get on that plane.” And my next thought was, “I can get on that plane.” So I called up Harper’s and said, “Do you want this [story]?” and they said, “Sure.” So armed with the commission that I solicited, I called up Coors and next thing I knew I was on the plane.
RB: You worked with Colin Harrison at Harper’s. Is there anything to be said about that? Harrison has left to concentrate on his own novels…
TE: He really went to bat for me. Those first few stories, he really fought for me. I’m absolutely convinced that he took years off my career.
RB: You mean ‘added’ years…he gave you more.
TE: He took years of struggle off.
RB: He got you published more quickly than you might have been.
TE: Most definitely. I know he’s done the same thing for other writers. He used to use baseball analogies to tell me where I was in my career. “You’re in the low minors but you show good bat speed. You’ve got to learn how to hit the curve ball….Okay you got a call up. You’ve got to make it stick.”
RB: Where are you going as a writer? You teach at Vanderbilt. Is teaching simply a way to support yourself as a writer while you wait for the Big Break?
TE: I do enjoy teaching, but in my perfect world I would do it more sporadically.
RB: What do you teach?
TE: Undergraduate creative writing.
RB: Is there a program at Vanderbilt?
TE: It’s part of the English major. We have a concentration as the English major.
RB: Are the students coming to you with any thoughts of devoting their lives to writing fiction? Or is it simply an interesting elective?
TE: A small percentage of the kids want to be writers. Maybe three or four out of every class of fifteen. Then there’s a middle group that’s always been kind of interested and then there’s another group looking for some credits and though this would be a fun class to take.
RB: Who do you gear the class to?
TE: I’m actually drawn to those wild-eyed kids that I can tell want desperately to be writers because I can see that’s what I looked like when I walked into a creative writing class. I wind up doing the most with and for those kids. If I get a kid that seems remarkably talented, I make sure to pull him aside and talk to him about what’s possible. Not that anything is assured, ever.
RB: I would think that most teachers of writing would try to discourage their students about fiction as a career path…
TE: I always get excited.
RB: Is there a literary scene in Nashville?
TE: Not so much a literary scene. Sort of an arts scene. There’s not much of a writer’s scene. I have some friends in Nashville who are writers, but we don’t hand together.
RB: Where would you live if you had your choice?
TE: I’d go back home to North Carolina. Back to where my family has lived for the last two hundred years. I feel differently there than I do anywhere else.
RB: Allan Gurganus moved back…
TE: He and Lee Smith are back fence neighbors. And they literally meet at the back fence and talk. That’s a hell of a neighborhood. If there were ever a nuclear strike in Hillsborough, North Carolina, southern literature would be decimated. It would never recover…there are thirty-one writers of various sorts who live there.
RB: Have you plotted out the arc of your writing career?
TE: Um. I would like to be able to write full time as a monetary goal. Artistically, the only goal I have now is to stay at the same level that I’m at. I don’t want to write any bad books. I think that I’ve written some things that are pretty good and I want to stay at that level. The question kind of throws me because I happened to come up with some new goals because I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but the goals I set for myself as a kid, I pretty much knocked them all out by the time I was thirty-nine. I’m havin’ to think about new aspirations.
RB: Are you thinking about different forms? Poetry, drama? Does it matter to you what you write?
TE: I want to keep writing fiction. I like non-fiction a lot. I’m interested in coming up with new forms. I’m most interested in figuring out how to do some thing that no one else has done before. My artistic goal is to write the way Earl Scruggs played the banjo. I want to take the stuff that’s in the air and make something brand new out of it. I want to be experimental and accessible simultaneously. “Prophet from Jupiter” [the short story] and Somehow Form A Family, the essay, are the two things that I’ve done that are completely unique. That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for that I want to do. At the same time I don’t want to become esoteric. I still want to matter to people who just like to read books.
RB: Do you read a lot and see movies?
TE: I see a lot of movies and I read mostly creative non-fiction. Narrative non-fiction. I haven’t read much fiction lately.
RB: An example of narrative non-fiction?
TE: I’ll read anything that’s got the word ‘storm’ in the title. (both laugh) A few months ago I read Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, which I thought was a spectacular book.
RB: Who are some writers you admire?
TE: Willa Cather is one that I come back to the most.
TE: There’s a purity of emotion in Cather. She’s very good at it. At letting the reader know how people feel. Exactly. She’s also lyrical and slightly romantic. I guess I like he because that’s just the kind of stuff I like to do. She’s already done it and done it magnificently in some cases. Hemingway was a big influence. In my moral and ethical concerns and voice I don’t think he’s noticeable, but in a lot of ways I’m a Hemingway modernist. I love what’s in between the lines as much as I love the lines themselves. I love saying things without overtly saying things.
RB: That’s a tough job, saying things without explicitly saying them.
TE: I love that stuff. I was asked a very perceptive question about the chapter about Christmas Eve in Jim the Boy. I’m working the Nativity story pretty hard in that without making a big deal out of it and somebody went through it very carefully and asked me about. After the reading Sara[his wife] asks me about, “Did you really do that on purpose or did you just take credit for it?” That’s the kind of stuff I like. The last chapter of the novel is the mythical journey of the heroes, literally traveling back in time. There’s the ruins and the gong past the monsters, but if you don’t get that it really doesn’t matter because there is plenty of meat on the literal level. But I love that the other stuff is there even if nobody ever sees it. And the fact that it really doesn’t jump out and demand attention, I like that. That’s the way… I teach metaphor a lot in my writing classes and tell them not to put them in the expected places. To not use the rhetorical flourishes that draw attention to them and I tell ’em never to use the dream sequence because every time it’s used in writing it’s guaranteed to be metaphorical.
RB: Is the central thing you teach in writing classes is to not try so hard to be a writer?
TE: That’s what I start with. Because everybody thinks it’s all flourish. I try to beat that out of ’em almost immediately.
RB: What happened to all the good stories?
TE: It’s like expansion in sports. There are more teams than there are good arms. That’s where it becomes apparent. If there were no cable, network TV would be a lot better. There’s just such a demand for so much content…
RB: I wonder if one could argue that there’s always the same amount of good stuff, that it’s a constant. So if there is more narrative art being produced it looks like less good stuff because there is so much bad narrative.
TE: I think that’s true. Every publishing house has to have a list. Yet how many really great books are out there? In lieu of that they still have to have a list.
RB: I guess there was a time that I worried about the state of literature and perhaps its disappearance. Maybe because I was young and needed something to vex myself with. I thought of the images from the Truffaut/Bradbury film, Fahrenheit 451. That literary culture would be small groups of devotees circled around oil-drum fires hiding from the thought police…Finally, I comforted myself by deciding that the place of literature is constant, never big but never to be eradicated. It will always be the same size…
TE: It arises from a basic human need. Without stories…I was at Disney World once waiting for the Magic Carpet Ride — sponsored by Monsanto — and in the background you would hear, “Without chemicals there would be no life.” Well, without stories there would be no life. Because history doesn’t exist until somebody comes back from the war and tells a story about what they saw. We can’t function without telling stories. It’s just mechanically necessary. The high end of that is that there is always going to be art.
RB: You write of a scene where you are seeing your great grandfather and in two or three lines, with great economy, you create an immensely amusing and compelling scene. That did, in fact, happen?
TE: Oh yeah. That did happen but I carried around for twenty years until I found the proper thing for it to be a metaphor for.
RB: You must have told of it?
TE: I don’t think I ever told it out loud because it’s a hard story to find a context for. Once I found the piece for which it would serve as a good metaphor then I used it. What I teach my kids, rather than talk about objective/correlative I talk about the thing and the other thing. The thing is what the story is about, the plot, what happens. The other thing is a thing that looks like the thing but isn’t. It accompanies the thing and comments on it. With that particular story I had another thing and it took me twenty years later and the thing showed up and I was good to go.
RB: What’s next for you?
TE: I have several novel ideas that are fighting for supremacy.
RB: How do they fight?
TE: One will be loudest for a while and I go, “That’s it.”
RB: As they get louder do you start scratching out things?
TE: This is completely inside my head.
RB: No notes. You are waiting for resolution?
TE: I’m waiting for the first sentence. The way the fight will end is that one of the ideas will produce a first sentence and I never write until I have the first sentence and the first sentence never changes.
RB: The writing rituals are fascinating. Isabel Allende says she always starts a book on January 8th…
TE: Whenever I get a first sentence I know that in some place that I don’t completely understand and don’t have full access to a story has created itself and it’s that first sentence which is the physical manifestation of its existence.
RB: Not a title?
TE: No, a first sentence.
RB: And the title?
TE: That depends. Jim the Boy I had a title before I had a book. That’s rare.
RB: Are you a perfectionist?
TE: Yes. I’m really irritated about my new book because it has three mistakes in it. ‘Principle’ is misspelled on the jacket…
RB: Perfection is the enemy of the good…
TE: And then ‘Yaztremski’ is misspelled. Oh I hate that. And then a grammar program probably added a mistake. I never let anything go until I am sure it’s as good as I can make it. I was four and a half years late on my contract to deliver my novel to Little Brown and they would have cancelled it but it wasn’t that big of a contract. They could carry something that small.
RB: Algonquin [publisher of Somehow Form a Family] seems to be the publisher of choice for North Carolinians.
TE: Kai Gibbons started out there. Jill McCorkle is still there. Lee Smith. I’ve always wanted to work with Shannon [Ravanel] so I’m really glad I got to do that. She’s one of my favorite people. She is one of those genteel cultured polite southern ladies who will eviscerate you if she feels that it is necessary. I call her Mother Nature as in “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
RB: Your tour is how many cities?
TE: Thirty three. This is [Boston] seventeen. I had a week off. This has been the Jim the Boy tour and then I have sixteen Algonquin cities.
TE: The Algonquin tour will be a driving tour, I have more responsibility for finding things. As far as going to seventeen cities in a month, Little Brown has made it just about as easy as it can be. I’m surprisingly fresh for being on the road.
RB: Do you write on the road?
TE: No. I actually have to figure out how to write again. It’s been very noisy since Jim the Boy came out. It’s a good kind of noise and it’s what I have always aspired to have. I haven’t figured out how to work in that place. So I have to figure that out.
RB: Is the novel still occupying a lot of space in your life?
TE: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s so much the book as a different persona. I’m busy being what Yeats called the “smiling public man.” Being Tony Earley the writer is completely different from being Tony Earley that writes books. They’re different creatures. One is out soaking up adulation and the other is miserable in a closet somewhere. To be perfectly honest, book touring is a whole lot more fun than book writing. It’s all relative. It’s not like I’m working third shift in the mill. I don’t want to sound disingenuous and whiney. I realize you’ve go to have problems. These are good problems to have, “Oh I’m havin’ trouble writing because there are so many cities on my book tour.” “So what?” It’s not that big a deal.
RB: Well, thank you.
TE: Thank you.