This spring West Virginia University Press will publish Mark Powell’s novel Lioness and Charles Dodd White’s essay collection A Year without Months. The two authors agreed to chat on our blog about writing and region.
Mark: We’ve been friends for a long time, and in what is most definitely a happy accident, we have books coming out at the same time. How did that happen?
Charles: I think we both pay attention to books about the region that stand out, so it’s natural we would pay attention to WVU Press. The books have been getting attention by the writers community for a long time, so it’s always been one of those places I’ve wanted to connect with.
Lioness is being described as an eco-thriller. How would you define a book like that and what goals did you have for it, aesthetically, politically, and otherwise?
Mark: The writer Bob Shacochis said once that he writes entertainment for people who are paying attention. I’ve always tried to work in a similar vein, writing novels that are (hopefully) exciting while also being engaged with the political moment. There’s plenty we should be paying attention to, but climate change is surely at the top of the list.
You wrote A Year Without Months over a number of years. What was it like revisiting work that spans nearly a decade?
Charles: It can be kind of bracing to look back at something you’ve written in the past and see how much distance has interposed between Then and Now. There was certainly a sense of that in this book. Though most of the essays were written over a single year, it required me to go back and retouch some of those earlier pieces so that there was a fundamental coherence that you have to have if you want the book to work as a whole.
Your novels (all of which I’ve profoundly enjoyed) are admittedly darker in nature. What is it about stories like this that motivates your interest as a writer?
Mark: I think it goes back to that Chekhovian dictum that the job of the writer isn’t to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly. If we aren’t trying to engage the world and all its problems then what’s the point?
One of the essays in your book, “Why I Don’t Hunt Anymore,” struck an online nerve. That essay ran well before January 6th and now feels frighteningly prescient. So too does your last novel How Fire Runs. You wrote in the essay, “large groups of young and middle-aged white men [are] convinced they are under assault by a culture shift they want to stop.” You seem to be in touch with the zeitgeist, at least as it manifests itself in the rural South.
Charles: It seems like everyone today has an opinion about the South and Appalachia. There’s a guy running for the senate in Ohio that a lot of people pay attention to, but I’m wary of anyone who prognosticates. If I’ve managed to strike a nerve, it’s because I live in and care about the place. I think empathy and wisdom are bound to go hand in hand.
Over the years, we’ve often talked about a certain depiction of the South and Appalachia among contemporary writers, something I’d refer to as “Heehaw Gothic” and what might more broadly be called poverty porn. Put simply, this would be fiction that plays up the most lurid elements of Southern stereotypes in pursuit of a kind of caricature that verges on minstrel show. Conversely, your fiction moves in a strikingly different direction, providing a richly textured and complicated view of Appalachia. Can you elaborate on the ethics behind this part of your work?
Mark: The things that makes the South in general and Appalachia in particular interesting to me are the contrasts, the way one world rams up against another. I’ve got a granny on Facebook, a friend who lives in a shack but rents out luxury tiny homes on AirBnB. Isn’t that a richer world than one depicted as either wholly depraved or wholly sentimentalized? There’s a complexity to the region that too often isn’t acknowledged—though you do an amazing job of depicting such in your novel A Shelter of Others. Regarding the ethics of writing stereotypes, I would argue that the failure to see each other honestly goes to the root of a lot of the problems in our country.
So many of these essays, perhaps all of them in some manner, are about your family. In “Groupings” you write, “the men of my family, the distinct personalities who have made me who I am, were found parts jammed into rough agreement.” What was it like writing about what are often difficult relationships? I imagine it must have been both therapeutic and exhausting.
Charles: When you settle down to write memoir, I think the therapeutic part needs to be already something you’ve dealt with. Writing about subjects like suicide, estrangement, and substance abuse aren’t things that you can figure out on the fly. A good memoirist might be writing about what’s most personal to them, but they must remember that the writing is intended for a broader audience. All the tools of the trade need to be used with precision so that the readers know they’re in the hands of a capable storyteller, and you can’t be faithful to that goal if you’re still in the midst of wrestling with demons.
You’ve been the recipient of not one, but two, Fulbright Scholarships and have traveled extensively. Can you discuss how these international experiences have shaped your worldview and development as a fiction writer?
Mark: You’ve done a lot of traveling yourself. Travel wakes you up. It also gives you perspective and a powerful sense to the limits of what you can know. It’s a curb on hubris, at least for me. What did Flaubert say? “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” It’s also one of life’s great pleasures.
All of your previous work has been fiction. What was it like shifting to nonfiction? What was the impetus?
Charles: I like having the challenge. I’ve called this book a “fragmented memoir” because I use the essay form as a way of accessing this very personal and particular part of myself. Having the essay as a means of expression has allowed me the chance to think on the page in a way that’s different and, I believe, more elegant than I do in my fiction. It’s exciting to be this many years into a writing career and discover something that makes you sit up in you chair and say, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. I never thought I could pull off something quite like that.”
Lioness is your seventh novel. Have you found that novel writing has gotten easier with time or harder?
Mark: Both, I think. I have a clearer idea of now of what I’m after, a better sense of control in my work, but I also have way more responsibilities than I had when I started writing twenty-something years ago.
We’ve spent a great deal of time together paddling and hiking. Lately, we’ve been trail running. There is a long venerable tradition of writers who run. There’s some obvious reasons why here: solitude, getting out of one’s head and into the woods. But I’m wondering what it gives you?
Charles: I’ve been thinking a lot about trailing running as an act of meditation. I like what Thich Nhat Hanh said about walking and meditation, which is to view each step taken as an act of arrival. This is a profound lesson and practicing something like that while gripped by the inevitable physical challenge of a trail run helps drive me deeper within myself. I also like the idea of developing a new passion in middle-age. It’s exciting to fail in ways I could have never anticipated.
In the wake of Covid and the political fallout that has hampered our responses to it, many people have seen our response as indicative of how America will react or fail to react to the obvious environmental monolith of our time—climate change. Do you have an opinion on this? As a preemptive follow up: Does climate fiction have a role in shaping these conversations?
Mark: Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, but I find myself perfectly capable of living in the tension of being rationally pessimistic and simultaneously irrationally hopeful. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. For all our collective talk, I’m not sure we as a society realize how much is at stake right now. Not just action on climate change but the rise of autocracy, the loss of privacy, the loss of any sense of being embodied in the physical world. My rational side is always quoting Leonard Cohen, “everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.” Writing Lioness I sometimes felt like a little like that Simpsons meme, old man shakes fist at cloud. But most of the time I’m just irrationally happy to be alive, to be with my family and my friends, to be running in the woods or floating down a river or reading a good book. I do think fiction has a tremendous role to play in the world—where else do we still have these sort of morally serious conversations?—but if all it does is keep me sane, I’ll take it.
Charles: I think of you as a serious novelist who is trying to say something important. As that kind of writer, what does success mean for you?
Mark: I think success is being a small part in a larger conversation. I’m not sure the conversation will matter ultimately. But it would be nice if somewhere in the future a reader finished one of my books and thought “that guy, maybe he didn’t sell a lot of books, but he sure as hell wasn’t asleep at the wheel.”
Finally, I have a cameo in one of your essays, and while my son comes off well there’s an ugly rumor I’m a bit flat and boring. Surely this can’t be true?
Charles: Alas, a memoirist’s ultimate goal is to tell the Truth.