Alan Heathcock: ‘I’m first just writing for myself.”

Alan Heathcock’s aptly titled story collection, VOLT, open with a fast, brutal scene: An unbearably painful accident, told in terse, beautiful language, sets the reader off into the powerhouse opening story, “The Staying Freight.” It’s not always easy to read this and what follows – and yet it’s hard not to. The flood of positive responses to VOLT, ranging from the New York Times to NPR to the hallowed halls of Bark, is a testament to the finesse and skill Heathcock brings to bear.

Alan Heathcock

Heathcock, who teaches writing atBoiseState, said he wrote VOLT over 12 years. He answered these questions by e-mail earlier this month.

How long have you been working on the stories in VOLT, and for how long have you had in mind the connections of place and characters of Krafton? Did you start with the notion of writing stories about this place, or did that unity emerge as you wrote the stories?

I started writing about the town of Krafton way back in the late nineties, just because I was drawn to the landscape—I’ve always found something mysterious and curious about rural landscapes, the crops and woods and openness. I quickly discovered the dramatic advantages to working within this setting, the isolation of characters forcing them into a kind of contemplation that allowed me to investigate certain themes. The unity of which you speak is, I think, in part due to the themes investigated within the place. The stories come back, again and again, to look at the invasive nature of violence and the tenuous nature of peace, of how community—both secular and religious–enable or disable these things. Because I kept hitting on questions of justice and faith I found the two main characters, Sheriff Helen Farraley and Pastor Vernon Hamby, kept appearing.

At some point, just for the sake of verisimilitude, I had to take an accounting of who ran what stores in town, where everyone lived, what crops were in what fields, and so forth. As a practical matter, once the place became fully realized in my imagination I found the people became more real, too.  Once I reached that point, had created a place and people as real in my imagination as Chicago (where I grew up) or Boise, Idaho (where I now live and call home), I saw no reason to write about anywhere else, or about any other characters. Finally, as I wanted to write a book about America, and not just about Indiana or Idaho or Minnesota, I never say in the book where Krafton is located. The homogeneity of rural America works in my favor here, as reviewers/readers from the west, Midwest, High Plains, south, and northeast, have all at some point claimed Krafton as their own. And, of course, they’re all right.

What’s the life cycle of a typical story for you? How does it move from first idea to final version, and how long does that usually take, and how winding a path is it?

It varied from story to story. The shortest amount of time it took to write one of the stories in VOLT, from start to finish, was probably around a year, while the longest took five or six years. I worked on the book for over a dozen years, and my process has drastically changed over that time. Ten years ago, when I strongly believed I must write a certain number of words every day just to earn my keep, I would pick a character, have a vague understanding of their situation, and then just follow them around, hoping that cool things happened. Often they didn’t. Eventually, I would have to gather up all that wandering and figure out if I had anything of value. Many times I’d come away empty-handed.  In fact, five of the stories in VOLT came from the rubble of two novels I was writing about Krafton, which ultimately failed because I followed the characters and their wending stories into an abyss of nothingness. So not quite empty-handed, but I had to work hard to salvage stories from the scraps of the failed novels. I’m also aware that the rubble-stories worked out well for me, while still realizing I maybe needed to work smarter, better.

Now I’m much more deliberate. I try to understand what I’m writing before I begin. I realize for many writers this would mean death to creativity, and stand for some sense their imaginative freedom being diminished. I don’t see it that way. Instead of typing out what’s in my mind’s eye, I follow the characters, in their storylines, in my imagination, seeing where they go. If I find they’ve gotten somewhere of value, then I task myself to going to the keyboard and finding the words to accurately depict the precise and meaningful truths I’ve already imagined. It’s the difference between improvisation and acting. I’m more of an actor now, my words being the expressions and mannerisms to communicate the content of the performance I know I must give to properly imbue the reader with empathy. My days are filled with me trying, as much as I can, to work things right in my imagination before I set to writing a word. To do this correctly, it takes time. Or it takes me time. I take notes, draw pictures, watch movies, read other books, go have a particular experience, all to help my imagination find its way wholly into a moment’s truth. I used to always wish I could write faster. Now I embrace the process, and only concentrate on writing things of value (and not writing just for the sake of some silly notion that I must write a certain number of words a day to quality for my author card). I produce fewer words these days, though more that matter.

I understand that Krafton is not based on any particular place, but I’m wondering – as a native of Idaho – what you think living in Boise has done for your writing. Has Idaho added any particular elements to Krafton?

Not particularlyBoise, as it’s a bigger town and pretty cosmopolitan when compared to Krafton, butIdahohas helped me understand a new depth of isolation, for both good and bad, and an openness that’s both peaceful and profound. Years ago, I was working on the story “The Staying Freight” when I went backpacking in the Frank Church Wilderness area. In that story, after my main character accidentally kills his own son in a farming accident, he goes through a terrible transformation, turning into a man-creature who has, in ways both literal and metaphoric, separated himself from the civilized world. I was struggling to capture the insights of grief I needed for that story to become relevant, but then, high up on a big outcropping of rock, overlooking a pristine mountain lake, I felt more alone than I ever had before. I could scream and nobody would hear me. I could flail and wail and howl at the sky, and it wouldn’t mean a thing to anyone but myself. I then understood this man’s problem wasn’t that his wife and the community wouldn’t forgive him, but that despite all his flailing and wailing he couldn’t move away from himself, couldn’t forgive himself.  I sat on that rock crying, staring down over the lake, all alone, and thought about the nature of forgiveness. For me, for my story, it was a profound moment, and one I don’t think I could’ve had back in Chicago (or hadn’t yet had, at least). This is just one of many anecdotes I could tell, but my point is that Idaho is built for contemplation. If you want to remember what it means to be human, as a pioneer really knew what it meant to be human, in ways that are different from the misunderstandings we often embrace because of the easy lives we largely take for granted, then drive an hour in any direction out of Boise, and out there you’ll find the truth.

I’ve read that film is an important influence for you. Are there any movies whose narrative style has affected the way you tell stories?

Film has had a huge influence on my writing, not just in narrative style, and films like Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Polanski’s Knife In the Water, Tender Mercies and The White Ribbon and There Will Be Blood, to name a few, are as important to me as an artist as most books. But to answer your specific question, there was one film that directly influenced the narrative style of one of my stories. I was working on the story “Peacekeeper”, which has a series of events made up of three different narrative threads from three different time periods. At first, I had it all written out chronologically, like three chapters, each chapter with its own rise and fall. But I was troubled by having three different climaxes in three different parts of the story. I didn’t feel as if the narrative was accumulating urgency, but simply peaking and plummeting, peaking and plummeting…  Then I saw the Christopher Nolan film Following, which follows several different narrative threads, jumping from scene to scene to scene, out of chronological time, each from a different time period within the story, mixing past and present, and accumulating a momentum toward the revelation of all these seemingly disparate pieces coming together. As soon as I saw that film, I knew I would employ that non-linear form of storytelling, and though it took some negotiation to get it right, I was pleased with the result. I solved the problem of how to have these big events, from different times within the story, all three climaxes, all peaking at the story’s end. In short, I take film seriously. Every film, like every book, like every play and TV show and painting and opera and ballet, I try and learn something, if possible, about the execution of the art and craft of storytelling.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpUSZH9tEJs&feature=player_embedded

It seems rare that a good movie is made of a good novel. Do you have any novel-movie pairs that you like – cases where both are successful?

There are a lot of the classic obvious ones like To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath, Truman Capote’s and Richard Brooks’ versions of In Cold Blood, The Innocents matched with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the Peter Brook version of the William Golding novel, Lord of the Flies.  Several plays made into films: Equus, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Crucible, to name a few.  Several films and books associated with Larry McMurtry (Hud, The Last Pictureshow, Lonesome Dove). The John Boorman film of the James Dickey novel, Deliverance.  Here’s a few that might be a step or two off the beaten path: Woman in the Dunes, book by Kobo Abe, film by Hiroshi Teshigahara; Black Robe, book by Brian Moore, film by Bruce Beresford, Winter’s Bone, book by Daniel Woodrell, film by Debra Granik, and The Butcher Boy, book by Patrick McCabe, film by Neil Jordan.

I’ve seen that you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s, and his work and your work are both described sometimes in terms of “darkness” – though it isn’t merely dark or without hope, necessarily. What is the artistic purpose of closely considering violence or death or grief, or any of the other varieties of harrowing human experiences? Why do you think you find yourself interested in these experiences, artistically?

I find myself drawn to these subjects artistically because they are my greatest preoccupations as a human being. They are my greatest preoccupations because of things I’ve seen, things in which I’ve been in close proximity, stories told, family history, genetics, personal neurosis, and a whole laundry list of specifics that would need to either be sorted out in therapy or addressed in art. I’ve chosen the latter. When I write, I’m first just writing for myself. There are questions I need answered. Things I need to face. Or, maybe in more accurate terms, I can say that writing stories, searching for answers, digging out insights from the muck of my own fears and confusions, gives me, in a small way, a sense of control over a world that often feels unhinged. The highest purpose of art, as I understand and practice art, is to allow us to look at ourselves in a way that’s bearable. Art is reality put into a package, an order, even if the art itself is a perfect representation of the chaos that is violence and fear and greed and all the other evils that seem to confound and plague the human kind. When I peer into the darkness, I’m not some teenager snickering while burning up his sister’s dolls and listening to Megadeth. I take this stuff seriously. The only assurance I can give is that I’m not writing about tragedy and grief to entertain you, or myself.  If and when I peer into the darkness, my greatest hope is that I find some glimmer of light. Truly. Writing is an act of hope. Regardless, I see my job as to only capture, via the written word, precisely what I see, and nothing more, and nothing less.  Because I know anything more or less won’t matter, the way Chicken Soup For the Soul doesn’t matter because it’s snake oil, because it does nothing for the soul.  Here’s what I know: when I’m lying in bed at night and I can’t sleep, and the ghouls of harrow come to feast on my spirit, the only way to stave them off is with the truth. To write is to arm myself against ghouls. How do I know I’ve been honest? That I’ve looked, unflinching, and captured truth? I’m very proud to say that I sleep well these days.

Here’s a McCarthy geek question: You once said you consider The Road a perfect book. I like that book, but I love Blood Meridian, and the two works seem like poles of McCarthy’s style in a certain way – running the gamut from his most terse to his most expansive, in terms of prose style, and in terms of how much hope he allows into these worlds. I’d love to hear your thoughts along this line – why might you prefer The Road, if you do, and how to you feel about McCarthy’s other work?

I love all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, and depending on the day or month or what I had for dinner, I may say Blood Meridian was his greatest novel, or Child of God, or The Crossing or Outer Dark or The Road.  I believe, for me, The Road is a perfect book because the substance and style are in concert in perfect execution. It’s a book that made perfect sense to me, made me see the world differently and clearer, made me imagine things I’d never seen or touched, with great depth, and touched me with the intensity of actual experience. I believe Blood Meridian is also a perfect book, for the same reasons, though with different specifics. Just so it doesn’t sound like I’m being too generous, I could, if I wanted, which I don’t, go into greater academic justification for my beliefs. I just find that stuff kind of boring. Really, and not to be snotty, I don’t sit around dwelling on these things. Folks have these discussions at cocktail parties about which book is his best and worst and why and…  These discussions get all heated and crazy.  When I say something like, “I don’t really have a favorite”, folks get pissy. “But you must decide!” they demand. I also realize that this interview is supposed to be, in a way, a virtual cocktail party, and I’m being a lousy guest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally stoked when I hear a group of people talking as passionately about books as folks back in Chicago talk about sports. As for McCarthy, what’s important to me is that I’ve found an author who seems to share my preoccupations, and whose aesthetic makes sense to my intellect and imagination, and who has created a language that has helped me face themes in my own writing, and whose books both challenge and inspire me into ambition. I read his work and think that I can and must do better. All of his work does that for me. So why the hell would I care to choose one book over another? To me, it’s like asking which food group I prefer, and if an August peach is really better than fresh loaf of bread. I love both, and I can go to the store and get both, and therefore see no sense in discussing the merits of one over the other.

Are there any authors for whom you have undergone an absolute about-face – from hating to liking, or vice versa – when re-reading them years later?

In a couple of weeks I’m set to visit Montana, and though this may get me in trouble I used to really love A River Runs Through It, which on a recent read didn’t hold up as well (except for the last couple of pages, which still hold a great deal of beauty). James Joyce was tough for me as a younger man, but now The Dubliners is a book I read again and again. While not a complete about-face, I now clearly see that Stephen King is very talented in certain limited but important ways, and very flawed in others. I always thought of The Exorcist as a cheap-thrill book, and yet found it pretty amazing on a recent read. I think there are a lot of writers I’ve had to get a bit older, and a bit more mature, to appreciate, writers like William Maxwell and Peter Taylor and Walker Percy, while others have lost their youthful charm. Probably the biggest about-face, which I’m guessing isn’t uncommon, is that I found Shakespeare hard to stomach back in college, but now find his work endlessly inspiring and powerful. I’m working on a novel right now, about war and politics and human suffering, and I’m coming to Shakespeare’s plays like I’m a starving man and Shakespeare is the feast.

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Here’s an early Halloween treat: Heathcock’s NPR essay on the ghost stories of Algernon Blackwood.

To read past interviews in this series, go here.

6 Comments

  • Seth Marlin says:

    Heathcock taught me a great deal of what I know about writing — or rather, taught me what I still DON’T know. This post made my morning.

  • Nancy Strickland Hawkins says:

    “Writing is an act of hope.” How true. But the hope is often imbued with terror.

    • Nancy!!

      Ain’t you the lucky one. What’s inside must come out. It’s all the more hopeful to stare in the muck with the idea that something of value might come of it! Hope all is well!!

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I like this, because it rejects a kind of oversimplified conventional wisdom about measuring work: “Ten years ago, when I strongly believed I must write a certain number of words every day just to earn my keep, I would pick a character, have a vague understanding of their situation, and then just follow them around, hoping that cool things happened. Often they didn’t.”

    Cool interview.

  • Ester Dossett says:

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