April 2011

Weston Cutter

features

An Interview with Alan Heathcock

In November, I got an advance of a book titled Volt, and I was alone that night, and I remember starting the book, having a beer, sitting on the couch; this must all have been maybe 8 or 9 at night. I don't really remember how the rest of the night worked, because the story that starts that incredible book -- “The Staying Freight” -- so knocked me sideways I didn't totally recover. What happened -- and, I'd guess, what'll happen to anyone who cracks Alan Heathcock's shockingly thick and empathetic and charged debut -- is that, on finishing "The Staying Freight," it just occurred to me that no other story I could participate in that night would come close to what I'd read. No Hulu'd show, no Netflixed oldie: nothing would come close to packing the wallop I'd just encountered.

The whole of Volt feels similar to this: the reader's presented with stories so vivid and full and internally logic-following that the book feels less like something one reads than something you simply come up against and experience, as a reader. In great and amazing ways, Heathcock's stories feel ageless, narratives that've been discovered rather than slaved over and crafted. The workshop word for this aspect is that the stories read as inevitable, and, sure, there's that, but what it feels like, as a reader, to come up against stories like these is: they feel complete.

There's much to say about this book -- how it's as beautiful and knuckled as anything you'll read for months, how there's brutality but also astonishing light (and maybe even there's such light because of the otherwise darkness) -- but, for now, read what's been said elsewhere. Here, now, is what Alan Heathcock himself had to say in response to two separate sets of emailed questions. Here, now, is an absolute master answering questions about one of the best first books in recent memory.


I met you recently in DC, at AWP -- "met" might be a bit formal -- you were walking through the bookfair and I stopped you -- and you were, hands-down, the best-dressed man in a very large room. You didn't, though, seem like you were "dressing up" -- it seemed like you were used to wearing a vest and saddle shoes (or, at least, wingtips -- I can't remember) as a daily uniform, not as an exception. This may be an odd way to get into talking about your writing, but I'm curious about the sartorial side of things, given it's clearly something you've put thought into (if it matters: your stories, for all their power, are also really elegantly, tastefully done -- the stories are lusciously well-crafted, and [in all good ways] the events and plots don't threaten to overwhelm the structures. Maybe that doesn't make sense, but it's basically that there's a real gorgeous formality to the stories, a simultaneous respect for both the story/character/event at work, and for the medium through which the message is being sent. Maybe it's a leap to assume your clothing decisions have anything to do with that, but why not at least ask).

Thank you -- that's very kind. All that you're speaking of has something to do with aesthetic, which is not something I've chosen so much as accepted. Why are we drawn to certain things, certain clothes, certain prose, certain stories? I've been forced to think about all this now that the book is out and people want explanations (ha). It's a tricky question to answer, like asking why your favorite color is red, or why you prefer gin to vodka. That said, there are certain things that I accept as being a part of who I am, an aesthetic that I embrace. For the clothes, my grandfather was an oil field worker who also always wore a hat and tie. He had a leather tie and wore it every day. I don't think I ever saw him without a tie. That's not to say he was stuffy. He prided himself on common sense, on being a salt of the earth kind of guy. My father was the same way. He coached baseball for a long time and every team he ever coached was highly successful. He would actually, literally, teach his players how they were to wear their uniform. It was not a control issue with him. Like my grandfather, he understood the power of aesthetic. When my dad made players wear their hat straight, to have their pants at a certain level against their stirrup socks, they suddenly took themselves seriously, and the moment they took themselves seriously others did as well. Both my grandfather and father were highly respected men. I find my style being something that's just in the blood. Several years ago, when I tried on my first fedora hat it just seemed to make sense -- it wasn't something I chose as much as accepted. The same way that when I read Hemingway and Faulkner and and Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, their words just made sense to me, the way they sounded, what they meant, the images they created. I didn't choose to like them, but merely accepted that, for whatever reasons, I was drawn to their work.  

To draw this back to the end of your question, I think as a writer I work long and hard to find the stories and words to convey those stories that make sense to me at the genetic level, that seem as if they've originated from the same innate place that made my grandfather look in the mirror and decide he needed to wear a tie and hat. Admittedly, my aesthetic, both in clothes and prose, is a bit old fashioned. That said, I had a friend tell me that my stories were so earnest, so old fashioned, that they've come around to feeling completely new and original. That's my hope at least, because writing any other way would be me trying to be something that I'm not.

I just read that self-interview you did at The Nervous Breakdown, and I don't want to ask the same questions as the ones you've already been asked, but: what writers/musicians/filmmakers/actors have contributed in some useful way to your writing? This is the "influence" question stretched wide as possible, given all terrain. Anything that's you find yourself having writing with/through -- any other thing you take to the table and process through -- I'd be interested.

I'll just say that there's Cormac McCarthy at the top, and then everything else is a distant second. If I named my top ten favorite books, his titles would dominate the list. Beyond him, I'm heavily influenced by film. I think I'm supposed to apologize for that, but I don't. I've kept a movie log for the past fifteen years and, as of today, have watched 3060 films. There are a few filmmakers who've influenced my writing more than most books, and would slide onto the influences list right behind McCarthy. Ingmar Bergman is a huge influence. I know that sounds pretentious, but I'm just trying to be honest here. His films are thrilling in the way they look (the stark beauty), but also because he is absolutely unsparing. His characters are profoundly real and raw and filled with genuine joy and genuine despair. There's a scene in his film Virgin Spring, where the actor Max Von Sydow is preparing himself to confront two men he knows murdered his daughter. He goes out to this young tree to get some branches for a ritual (preparing himself for battle), but is so overcome by grief and anger that he attacks the tree, takes the whole tree to the ground. I remember watching that scene and just trembling. I couldn't stop thinking about it. It's as much a real experience in my life as things that have actually happened to me. After watching the scene, I paused the movie, grabbed a sheet a paper, and immediately began to write the scene as if it were fiction. How could I capture such fury, such pain, such beauty, in the written word? On a regular basis I challenge myself to take a great scene from a film and write it out as fiction. It's a part of my process now. In this manner, I've transcribed Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson, both Kurosawas, to name a few of my favorites. The life of a writer, at least the way I live, is the fervid and ongoing search for new influences. I'm constantly chasing the dragon of the likewise high I got from seeing Max Von Sydow throttle a little tree.

Also: why fiction, and why short stories, specifically? I'm interested in this because 1) your writing's thick and lush enough to give away that you're obviously able to go for poetry, and 2) it seems like someone as interested as you are in film would maybe be drawn toward novels (though I have a hard time thinking of "The Staying Freight" as somehow a short story -- that thing's all life and huge-stretching; if it's not turned into a film, all filmmakers should be fired).

Fiction is a way I can look at the real things that scare and confound me, while in a way that's bearable. That's the purpose of art, to create an artifice that allows us to see ourselves clearer (for me to see myself clearer). The stories chose their own size. I don't get caught up on how long something is supposed to be or not be. It is what it is. I've been on some short story panels and almost everything anyone says about what makes a story a story and a novel a novel sounds wrong to me. They say things like, "You can't do X with a short story..." or "Really, with a novel you can spend more time on Y..." or "Editors look for manuscripts to be 7,500 words or less..." It just doesn't make sense to me. I think only about how I can most potently tell a story. The Road is 200 pages and one of the most powerful books I've ever read. Hemingway's "Indian Camp," at four pages, had a similar impact on my worldview. I could write for a long time on this topic, and would be proving the same point over and over: impact and potency are not determined by quantity of pages. So I felt fiction was better than poetry simply because I'm interested in telling a story. I'm interested in the written word as opposed to film because as a writer I don't have to work with and rely upon others. The stories came out as short stories because that was their temperament. The book I'm working on now wants to be longer, and so it will be -- if that means it's 125 pages or 600 is yet to be determined. And, as a final note, I would LOVE to see "The Staying Freight" as a film. I would also love to see "Peacekeeper" and "The Daughter" as films. It would be thrilling to see any of my stories become films, though I probably wouldn't want to have anything to do with the productions. But I would get my bucket of popcorn and a soda and watch with my biggest smile.

Where is Krafton, for you? I read that thing in Boise Weekly, and it seems one of your goals is for Krafton to remain slippery, everywhere-able, and that's fine, but I'm from the Midwest, too, and I'm (maybe unreasonably) drawn to fictitious Midwestern towns (plus you're from Chicago -- my wife's from Chicago -- and unless I'm hugely mistaken, folks don't shake Chicago, no matter where else they go [that's probably true of all everywheres, but seems especially true for Chicago -- I live in rural Iowa at present, and I can't imagine someone, say, identifying as being from Sioux City, forever, the way I say I'm from St. Paul, or my wife from Chicago]). I guess this is just a huge, general question about place -- how's a Chicago life leavened now by years in Idaho look and feel? Maybe this is just impossible. Scratch it if necessary.

You're right in that Chicago never leaves you. I will never be from anywhere else. I've tried hard to pick up some Idaho skills, but I flounder. We've already talked about aesthetic and clothing, and I just can't see myself in North Face gear. I wear the same Stacy Adams shoes that the guys wore back home, wear my ties and hats and go about my business as a Chicago boy in Idaho. People are cool with that. Really, if I suddenly started wearing a fleece vest and sandals people would freak out, wouldn't recognize me. All that said, who I am expands itself out to all the places I've been. I've lived in or around rural communities my whole life, from the small towns that surround Chicago, to the small towns in which my mother and father were raised, to towns in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Idaho, South Dakota, Vermont, where I've spent significant time. My extended family are largely from small towns, and the ethic that comes with those places are a part of me. Where is Krafton to me? It started off as based off the small town of Lynnville, Indiana, where my mother grew up. But I found it too limiting to stick to the rules and temperament of a real place, so I began to add touches from many different place, Chicago included. Now Krafton doesn't represent a place so much as a people, a worldview. I'm keeping the place slippery simply because I'm not interested in making a statement about place. If I said that these stories were in Illinois or Texas or North Carolina people would immediately reduce them down to what they know about those places, would adhere whatever right or wrong ideas they had about that region. In a way, my work is more expansive because I never say where we are, allowing the reader to settle in and only worry about the complexities of the people and their stories.

I'm really curious -- in that Boise Weekly thing, you mention how Volt is an examination of "the quintessential American problems of war and grief, the nature of peace." There's maybe no real way to ask this, but here goes: there's some other huge American stuff -- love stories spring immediately to mind -- that doesn't much get touched (or at least not overtly, not in the ways some other things get touched) in Volt. That's not a knock or dig at all. I guess maybe this question's mildly impossible, but it's got something to do not with darkness, necessarily (that self-interview thing you did, where you mentioned people thinking the stories all dark -- I suppose they are, thinking about them, but they felt swellingly gorgeous to me, not light or dark), but with shadow and light -- how you use the shadow of something, the undoing or flipside of something, to examine and consider it. Go with this however you'd like.

I think we're back to aesthetic. Being able to say what my preoccupations were while writing this book is easy. Certain things had happened in my life, things I'd experienced (the great Midwest flood of 1992, a girl murdered in Waseca, Minnesota, a place I often visited) that had a deep impact on my worldview. I've used writing as a way to investigate those things. Add to it the impact of 9-11, the Iraq War, a struggling economy, a country desperately divided by politics, and love stories didn't seem as relevant to me. I will admit, though, that I tried to write a love story. I wrote one for my wife. The story just wasn't very good. I tried hard, I swear. It's not that I don't know about love. I intensely love my wife, love my three kids. I believe in the enduring might of love. All that good noise. Maybe it's just that I don't have as many questions about how to love, or how love feels. Saying I write as a means to understand something, then love is simply a question I don't need answered (or have already answered -- thankfully). I could go story by story through Volt and explain why I was preoccupied with that specific story. That's not to say that I always found answers to my questions. But I tried my best to glean any insights I could, to find any scrap of light in the darkness, often finding certain questions were unanswerable, and sometimes finding answers that shook me deeper than the questions themselves.

You mentioned your writing being earnest/old-fashioned. At the risk of asking a really boring, not-direct, theoretical question, here goes: I really, really like some of the powerhouse metafiction/postmodern folks (Wallace, Danielewski, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson)… actually, maybe there's no convenient cup into which to pour all those people. Regardless: my tastes run to the non-stoically new-fashioned as much as they run to writing like yours -- earnest, direct, so sincere and capital-T True they're impossible to treat as jokes.

I feel like this question can easily just be tacked under aesthetic again, and that's fine, but I'm really interested in writers whose work doesn't, in the face of omnipresent casual irony and the fact that satire's right there in even the lowest levels of the food chain, shy away from treating Big Issues. Writers whose work doesn't playfully doubt itself, or turn to the reader and admit fear (and therefore attempt to, from the reader, elicit some sympathy) -- whose work is in all ways akin to trees or weather: aspects to be confronted and/or dealt with. I don't even know if this makes more sense than trying to cleverly say How can/do you write what you write in the style you do given the present moment in culture, and does that ever get to you, but have at it, if you're interested.

I've had some really great conversations with some pretty smart folks about the idea of being fashionable in fiction -- meaning, that there's a certain fashion you should or shouldn't abide at any given time. Where I stand is very simple: I don't write for any reader or any market, and I don't worry about it because history has always shown that a certain kind of book -- a book that earnestly takes on big issues -- will always have relevance. Beyond that, it's very simple to point out that we live in extraordinary times, times of war and strife and poverty (these words can be interpreted in metaphorical ways, too), and somebody has to look directly at this stuff. For whatever reason, my aesthetic has delivered me into this earnest investigation of things in a voice devoid of irony. Finally, I've never in my life ever fit in anywhere, while never being an outcast anywhere, either. I have a lifetime of experiences that have aided my confidence in not having to abide anyone else's aesthetic but my own.

I've never done anything like the I-say-a-word-you-say-what-it-makes-you-think-of thing in an interview before (I know there's a word for that thing, but I'm blanking on it at present- -- word associations? That seems too easy), but I'm curious to make as much space and use of your love of movies as possible. So, maybe, if you're at all interested, and if it's not too stupid, what films (and why, if you're interested) should be watched in conjunction with the following scenarios:

After a Sunday afternoon's been spent de-pooping the yard from dog waste that's accumulated all winter (this one, admittedly, is high on my list at present).

Into Great Silence, a documentary about these monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery, all who've taken a vow of silence. When I'm pissed I like watching monks.

For someone who says s/he doesn't really like recent movies, but then, after seeing There Will Be Blood, suddenly goes: oh, well, maybe I do like some stuff.

White Ribbon. This film by Michael Haneke is timeless drama, beautifully filmed and written and acted. Powerful stuff. And it's in black and white, so...

For someone convinced that G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a good movie (if you haven't seen that one -- I haven't -- substitute another thin but blastful popcorn film -- Transformers 2'd be a good substitute, but that's almost schtick).

Restrepo, a documentary by journalist Sebastian Junger, about his year being embedded with the Second Platoon in Afghanistan. It's intense and real. REAL. Any schmucko who liked G.I. Joe needs a massive dose of the reals!

A stuffy mildly-pedantic/autodidact friend's coming over and you want to watch an easy funny movie but don't want to appear stupid or as if you've got bad taste.

Diner. A Barry Levinson classic. Smart but funny. If I ever write a comedy (which I probably won't), it would have to be something akin to Diner.

The best movie about the mail, or writing instruments, or words in transit of any sort.

The Eclipse, an Irish film by playwright Connor McPherson. It's all about writers and words and is also a great psychological-thriller-type movie about loss and living with the ghosts of grief.

A friend from someplace other than the Midwest says s/he just doesn't get the Midwest, what it's about, anything. I know there's a huge scope to what Midwesternism is, so maybe you can have up to three for this one, if you want -- three movies which one could show to a non-native what the Midwest is/feels/lives like.

Fargo, for the sensibility and covering Minnesota. Bubble, for the basic Midwest rural industrial thing. Thief, for Chicago.

Who's your favorite young female actor at present? Why?

Michelle Williams. I remember her from the Dawson's Creek days, and I must say that I held that against her for years, found it hard to take her serious as a film actress. But beyond being beautiful, she has an intelligence she brings to the screen which is second to none compared to others of her generation. Blue Valentine, and Wendy and Lucy, are a couple of my favorites. I'll add that Natalie Portman was pretty incredible in Black Swan.

What movie (or five) do you feel have been unjustly slept on or ignored, either recently or in the past however long?

I could name just about every foreign film I've ever watched, but here's a few of my recent favorites: The Headless Woman, The Hidden Blade, Revanche, Retribution, Noise, Timecrimes, the Pusher series, I Am Love.

What director's work are you most excited by when a new film's announced -- and if it's Malick, can you please explain the appeal? I feel like I'm stupid for not liking him.

I do like Malick, for the same reason I like watching monks when I'm pissed. That said, here's a list of directors, currently working, who I greatly admire: Paul Thomas Anderson, Ken Loach, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Dardene Brothers, the Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Paul Greengrass, and Nicolas Winding Refn.

Given that you write Serious stuff, and seem drawn to that sort of work, are you a big fan of movies which are ridiculous, either intentionally or otherwise? Stuff that's comically bad, for instance (The Room would be a fine example, tho I've never seen the thing)?

Three words: Trailer. Park. Boys.

Also: your dad coached baseball? That's so badass. I'm a huge Twins fan (I've already gotten over the good chance you're a Sox fan). Did you ever play? Are you big into sports still, or were you ever?

Baseball was a big part of our family. My dad played for the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Browns, and had us playing and loving sports at an early age. Like him, I was a pitcher, and played all throughout school. I also played basketball and golf. My knees are shot now (two torn ACLs), but I'm still a huge sports fan, and love my Boise State Broncos, Iowa Hawkeyes, Chicago Bears and Bulls and both Cubs and Sox (though my heart leans to the south side). I think the idea of sports, a place where you're tested under competition, under scrutiny, helped prepare me for being a writer, of preparing well and pushing myself to my limits. In other words, that ethic comes from my father, and was instilled in me largely through athletics.

You mentioned on that self-interview thing that your son's a jazz singer. I'm curious about your taste in music, simply because 1) you talk about a neighbor from your youth being a rapper, yet also 2) it's pretty easy to imagine you liking the sort of music one might imagine goes with McCarthy's stories (spare, mostly acoustic music). How's music work in your life/work, if it's an interest and thrill? Do you make soundtracks for stories, or for certain books? Do you listen to music when you write?

Music is very important to my family, and coming from Chicago and its rich musical history, I've always been surrounded by music of all styles and sensibilities. I need quiet when I work, but I know I sometimes bring songs (soundtracks) into the stories with me. I'm very proud of my kid being as talented a singer as he is, and that he chose to sing jazz, one of the most challenging of disciplines, makes me feel like we've raised him well. Though he had to give up baseball for music (which hurt a little -- he goes to a private arts school and has five hours of music a day, leaving no time for sports), it's really great that I get to go to a jazz club once a week to hear him perform. As an artist, I greatly appreciate the craftwork he puts into his music, and I find a great deal of overlap in my writing and his singing, which is cool. We have great conversations about what it means to be an artist.

This might be super ridiculous, but you mentioned watching films and taking a scene and turning it into fiction, that that's part of your process. I guess this is two part: 1) have any of those exercises ended up, in any shape, being part of any of your stories, and 2) do you fundamentally see your stories, then? It's one of the big thrills of Volt -- so much is so gorgeously rendered, visual and visceral and great. You don't need to totally expose everything about your process or anything, but I'm fascinated by how your stories come, given that 1) you're so taken by visuals, yet 2) you're obviously so clearly taken by big ideological/moral issues.

Again, I try to always write from the place of full empathy, actually becoming the character -- seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, thinking and feeling the ways they do. What I like about using film as a training method is that it's all external, all outside of the character. The actors and directors work really hard to try and influence a viewer toward empathy without ever allowing us to actually BE the character -- since the film has not yet been put into words, let alone been taken into empathy, I find it really edifying to think through how I would translate different scenes into words. I'm sure bits of many of my favorite films have made it into my work. In fact, the scene from Bergman's Virgin Spring found its way into my story "The Staying Freight." All this said, I don't see myself as a visual writer in the sense that I'm interested in photography, or in the way that film is obviously visual. I'm purely an empathic writer, trying to translate everything though the experience of being the character. It's just that vision dominates the human experience to the point that if I want to accurately describe the sensory experiences of my characters, that will naturally be highlighted by the sense of sight. Beyond that, I do understand the power of a visual, and if my character has to see something, I make sure they see something that's going to pay off in creating the right aesthetic and meaning for the moment/story. There we are, back to aesthetic, always back to aesthetic...