“The high points and the imperfections”: An interview with Wesley Browne, author of Hillbilly Hustle

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Wesley Browne talks with Sarah Munroe, WVU Press’s marketing manager and acquisitions editor, about his new novel Hillbilly Hustle, now available on our site.

SM: By only reading a synopsis and your brief biography, it’s immediately clear that you are 1. very busy, and 2. at least in some ways “writing what you know.” How did you come to the idea of the novel (I assume you are not selling weed out of your pizza shop, but perhaps you’re a poker player?), and how did you translate aspects of your life, people, and places onto the page? (And if you are a poker player, what’s your tell?)

WB: My family co-owns Apollo Pizza in Richmond, Kentucky. Under previous ownership you could buy marijuana there. It was kind of an open secret in town. The local police told stories about it, but they never went out of their way to bust it. It struck me that as a novel premise there was a lot I could do with it. I took a novel class with Amy Greene at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop and started developing the idea there. Nothing about the marijuana operation at the fictional Porthos Pizza in the novel is drawn from real life except the use of “spinach special” as code for a pot order, and the location of the shop, which is on South Second Street in Richmond, just like Apollo.

I didn’t conceive of the poker scenes right away, but that was also drawn from real life. At one time I played Texas Hold Em at least once a week in local games or at casinos, and I played online all the time. I was much better in live games than online, take from that what you will. I played in the World Series of Poker back in 2007 and made it into the money. You can look it up, but if you do, you have to search the name “Wesley Browe” because they misspelled my last name in the records. Anyway, there was a game I used to play in Big Hill, which is right near the Madison and Jackson County line in rural Madison County. One time there was a fellow there from Jackson County who tried to get me to come to a game “above the pool hall” in McKee. As he was leaving he gave me some real specific instructions about the when and the where and I was inclined to go. A friend of mine from Berea who was at the game pulled me aside after he left and said, “Don’t go to that game. You’ll either get cheated or you’ll get robbed.” I didn’t go, but the idea of that game stayed in my imagination, obviously, and it worked really well to set up the story in Hillbilly Hustle.

The fact that I’ve practiced law for twenty years, much of it criminal law, is evident in the book. The same is true of being in the pizza business for the last eight years. I drew from experiences, and interactions, and people I’ve met in my daily life. I very specifically didn’t pattern any speaking character after anyone from real life, but I bet the number of people I met along the way who inspired aspects of characters and scenes numbers in the hundreds. In this way, even though the story isn’t true, I tried to make it genuine.

One hard and fast rule in poker is to never tell another player his tell if you figure it out. For that reason, I don’t know my own tell. I wish I did because I’d try to get rid of it.

SM: In the preface to Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians, Dr. Judy Prozzillo Byers, then director of the West Virginia Folklife Center, recounts Gainer’s talks when they traveled to speak about their work. She says of Gainer: “He didn’t miss any opportunity to denounce the negative stereotyping that clouded the traditional beauty of his mountain state. ‘Don’t let anyone ever call you a Hillbilly,’ he warned his audiences. ‘A Hillbilly is a mountain goat. We are Mountaineers!'” The term “hillbilly” carries certain, often disparaging, connotations in West Virginia, Appalachia, and parts of the South—why did you choose that for your title? What does “hillbilly” mean to you and which of the characters would you describe that way?

WB: I thought hard about whether to use that word in the title. It was in some ways a thorny choice. Especially in light of Hillbilly Elegy, a book I cannot abide. My friend and at one time writing teacher, Silas House, has for as long as I’ve known him embraced the word “hillbilly,” as do many of our contemporaries in Kentucky, many of whom I consulted to vet the title. A lot of younger people self-identify as hillbillies and take pride in it. I know that’s a turn from an older way of thinking. That’s one reason I ran it by Gurney Norman. I wasn’t sure how he’d come down on it, but he said he thought it was great title.

I think in the end it comes down to intent, and although it’s a very different book, I used it as a sort of counter to the broad brush, simplistic notions of Hillbilly Elegy. That author used the examples of a handful of people he knew to cast an entire region and people in one negative light, when in fact, Appalachia is incredibly varied in its citizenry. Something he might know if he had ever actually lived here. The vast majority of people I know in Kentucky and Appalachia are thoughtful, hardworking, and industrious. They’re a bunch of hustlers. They bust ass. That describes most of the characters in Hillbilly Hustle. A real key to selling the intent of the title was the book cover, and I thought WVU Press’s designer, Than Saffel, absolutely nailed it. His cover conveys the swagger and exuberance I intended.

One person I rely on for advice is my friend Denton Loving, who’s an outstanding writer, and who I sometimes jokingly refer to as my “life coach” because he gives me so much good counsel. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially said that the audience for the book would understand the intent as positive, but if anyone did get upset and made noise it would only draw more attention to the book. I’m personally hoping a lot of those people will buy up copies to burn. I might need that to get to a second printing.

Who is and isn’t a hillbilly in the novel is open to interpretation, I suppose. There are people outside this region who would probably say everybody, because they don’t know Louisville from Pikeville, Louisa from Paducah. Probably the most on-point example in the book is Burl Spoon, the marijuana-cultivating, business-empire-owning antagonist. He also happens to be the smartest and most successful character in the book, whatever you might think of his methods. I think just about all the characters would welcome the designation, even Darla, who happens to be from Pittsburgh, but that’s Appalachia for those who don’t know.

SM: Knox, the main character and pizza shop owner, gets into some trouble dealing weed as a way to get out of other money trouble. How should readers understand the outcome and what it says about larger societal issues?

WB: The outcome amounts to two things: “you can break the rules if you have enough power/money to get away with it,” and “evil prospers while good just gets by.” I guess either way, it does feel a bit like the way of things right now. The moral arc is supposed to bend toward justice though, right? Here’s hoping that’s true.

SM: And I suppose on a related note, it seems like you’re very involved in your Richmond, Kentucky, community—why is that important to you and how does that relate to the novel and your work as a writer?

WB: A lot of the people I admire try to make the places they live better. You do it for your kids and family, sure, but it should be for more than just them. It’s hard to prosper in a place where other people aren’t. It just makes good sense to work on your collective nest.

It came naturally to me to write about Richmond, Madison County, and nearby counties, including both the high points and the imperfections. Anything interesting is made so in part by its flaws, no? My wife and I have led our entire adult lives here. We love where we live. It’s colorful, and idiosyncratic, and full of characters. It’s beautiful, too. It’s also simultaneously not exceptionally diverse, but also more diverse than folks from elsewhere believe, which is something I strove to portray in Hillbilly Hustle.

It’s a matter of preference for authors, but I preferred to write about real places in Hillbilly Hustle. Although the speaking characters are all pure fiction and several of the key locations are fictionalized as well, I mostly used real businesses and places. It made the story feel more genuine to me. In a few instances, cameo characters who pass through scenes bear striking resemblances to folks people around here might recognize. All that made made my writing feel true, and hopefully readers will feel that same thing.

SM: If you could be one character from the book, who would it be and why?

WB: I can eliminate all the guys right off the bat. The more virtuous ones are all a mess, and the prosperous ones are each bound for damnation. That leaves the women. Darla’s a huge talent and she ends up in a pretty great city, but her choice of companions is real suspect. Tori’s got youth and potential on her side, as well as a sunnier outlook. Once she gets her braces off and decides what she wants to do with her life, her trajectory’s unlimited. I guess I’d have to go with Tori.

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