In an exploration of how place, setting, and location inform our writing, we travel around the United States, from the Deep South with National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison and award winning novelist Josh Weil and then up to New York City with New York Times Bestselling writer Tom Barbash before heading west to California with all three. There’s also a surprise reading from Pam Houston’s forthcoming memoir, working title The Ranch: A Love Story.
• Josh Weil - http://www.joshweil.com
• Dorothy Allison - http://www.dorothyallison.net/
• Tom Barbash - Tom's Facebook
• Pam Houston - http://pamhouston.net
• Season One Partner, Writing By Writers - http://writingxwriters.org
• Produced & Hosted By: Ben Hess - http://ben-hess.com
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, I’m your host, aspiring novelist, filmmaker, and Southerner Ben Hess.
Dorothy Allison: The South is my nation. I tell people that the three things that are most telling about me is I’m Southerner. I was raised poor. And I'm a lesbian. And if you do not understand those three things you don't understand me and my work.
Ben: This is THE podcast with insights on the craft and community of writing from leading published authors of our day including National Book Award finalist Dorothy Allison Today’s episode is #6 Location, Location, Location and presented in partnership with literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. If you want to hone your craft, why not sign up for a 2016 workshop in Boulder, Colorado or Methow Valley Washington? And do it TODAY! Simply visit writingxwriters.org for all the details.
Alright adjust those ear buds, turn up the car radio and buckle those seat belts as we’re about to travel around the country:
- from Appalachia to California with Josh Weil, the Sue Kaufman Prize winner for First Fiction,
- from the deep south up to New York with Dorothy Allison
- and from New York City to upstate New York to Marin County, California with New York Times bestselling writer Tom Barbash.
And there might just be a surprise reading at the end of the episode from the Queen of Frequent Flier Miles herself, award winning writer and teacher Pam Houston, so stay tuned ...
Ben: I sat down with novelist Josh Weil in Tomales Bay, California and talked about his recent novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection New Valley. Thinking about New Valley and Appalachia and both your origin and story setting - if you had been brought up here, in Marin County or some other part of the U.S. do you think you could have written that kind of story or do you feel like the location of youth and upbringing really informed that early writing especially?
Josh Weil: By that kind of story, do you mean something set in Appalachia? Or..
Ben: That and the despair, the loneliness, the relationships. [Laughter]
Josh: I think the despair, loneliness and relationships is all me so I think I would I have written that. It would have been a very different story set in Marin then it would be set in Appalachia. The location is very important to me I find that I need to have my hands firmly around the physical world of where I'm writing in order to get the story to feel real for me and Appalachia in particular, I didn't grow up there, I was born there and moved away when I was very young - um and didn't get back until I was 19 and my dad and brother and I built a cabin on some land that my dad had down there and then that became really, for my young adult life, the closest thing I had to home. I spent a lot of time there a lot of time alone down there, writing down there um and getting to know the community.
Ben: Dorothy Allison grew up immersed in the life and community of the rural south she’s depicted so eloquently. We chatted after breakfast in a dining hall after breakfast in Tomales Bay, California …. Did you write Bastard Out of Carolina while living in New York. Or where were you living at that time?
Dorothy: I started the manuscript the became Bastard Out of Carolina ... I think I wrote some of the earliest pieces when I lived in Tallahassee Florida. But I moved north .. I always tell people I moved north one woman at a time, one city at a time, and I relocated slowly up the East Coast. So that the decade that it took me to write Bastard was a decade in which I was moving north. I finished it. I actually didn't finish it until I moved to San Francisco. I left New York for San Francisco. And I left in part to become a real writer, to stop working constantly at so many one jobs to make money but also I had been a feminist activist and I was so engaged in political activism that it was very hard to steal time to write. So I moved to San Francisco to be poor and finish a book. And I did, too.
Ben: Sure did. Finished a book that became a National Book Award finalist and launched a career! I love this testament to persistence - a decade to write the novel - and determination to carve out a life where she could focus on her writing. Tom Barbash author of the award winning collection, Stay Up with Me, the novel The Last Good Chance, and the nonfiction bestseller On Top of the World did the same when starting his career …
Tom Barbash: I began in nonfiction but what I like to say about it is that when I was a reporter my job I was in Upstate New York and I was stationed in Oswego County, I worked for the Syracuse Post Standard and my job everyday with to look for stories and my second part of my job was go out and listen to people and who different whose lives are different and I've been a city kid, I grew up in New York City & I was living in a rural county. And it seems, I didn't know it at the time, but it was a perfect education for a fiction writer. I needed to listen well ….
Ben: Have you noticed how rarely we actively listen? It’s something I pay close attention to as both a video producer and also doing these interviews. Like Tom, I think it informs writing tremendously: character’s speech patterns, traits, and their frame on the world. Here’s more from Tom:
Tom: I needed a ferret out stories and it was great and I got a lot of my first short stories and I got my first novel out of that experience or I drew on those as I begin to write fiction. Um and made the transition I started to be really interested in the way other people thought and spoke and beginning that if that notion of with stories of writing from another perspective, A perspective that was different than mine and find that I could do it was very exciting to me and I did that, you know, in a few feature articles and then then I started to realize that that I want to write stories and um anyway and I started to.
Ben: Living in New York, is that a recommended rite of passage for a writer, aspiring writer, aspiring artist to kind of get that off your bucket list and get it out of your system or is it you know it is a something you would go back to if you do it all over again?
Dorothy: I think it's pitifully hard these days. New York City real estate is the most expensive in the world. But I do think that the productive thing is to actually go into a territory or landscape that is alien from your place of birth. Because then you look back. And the narratives that you will form. Some ways it becomes romantic. A lot a lot of my thinking about the South has a tendency to move toward the romantic. It's just good that I'm such a pragmatic realist. Otherwise I'd write tripe. All the time. But you need. You need to see it from the outside to see it at all and that does help moving to an urban center after growing up in the rural south is very productive.
Ben: Speaking of the rural south, here’s Josh Weil:
Josh: My best friend was a guy who is now dead but he was in his 80s uh lived kind of a few hills over and I'd walk down and visit him -bring some fresh asparagus and he'd give me some moonshine ...
Ben: To be clear Josh was in his 20s at the time … and asparagus for moonshine … LOVE this!
Josh: We'd hang out and uh just talking with him I became uh I really fell in love with that part of the world. maybe it's because I was born there there is something that speaks to me about it so so that the novella, my first book, grew very clearly grew out of that place and uh in fact, I'm thinking about writing something that is set back there again and I've been living out in California for 3 years and I feel so disconnected from it that although I have a 6-month old baby uh and luckily my wife is very generous and understanding uh we're trying to figure out ways for me to get back there even just for a couple weeks at a time. So I can reconnect with the place in order to write about it.
Ben: Quick pause to say. I’m Ben Hess, this is Story Geometry, today’s theme is Location, Location, Location. After the break you’ll hear more from Dorothy Allison about her Southern heritage, her new novel, and a reading from Pam Houston so stay tuned.
Story Geometry’s partner Writing By Writers is kicking 2016 off with more workshops and conferences in Colorado, Washington state, and California. Currently scheduled faculty include science and adventure writer Craig Childs, Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, novelist and poet Ron Carlson, novelist and memoirist Andre Dubus III, and novelist and anti-memoirist Lidia Yukanavnitch. How to signup, you ask? Simply visit writing x writers .org.
Ben: We’re back talking Location, Location, Location, and here’s more from my chat with Dorothy Allison on her Southern roots …
Ben: You've now made a life out here in California but you're still considered a Southern writer. And that is inherent in all of your work or most of your work and I just wanted to have you speak a little bit about the South and what that's meant.
Dorothy: it's very but it's very hard to claim respect. And in some way claiming respect as a Southerner is the hardest ... You know we are disreputable people. Now there are days when I claim that disrepute. And I'm proud of it. [LAUGHTER]
Ben: Well I remember too, makin’ the conscious effort to dampen down my accent. Because because that stigma of that accent means uneducated, that accent means you don't have the intellect. And there are some wonderful thinkers of course from the south who talk with that thick drawl. But I say I remember specifically thinkin’, I better neutralize and keep it out of my speech.
Dorothy: You learn that very quickly. Although I also learned the opposite. Particularly when I moved to New York. I learned that if I get really [07:58] Southern on them I could get a whole lot of sympathy and assistance and get lost on the subway system. And somebody for help and if I tried to talk like a New Yorker, they’re like “get away from me bitch.” But if I was like “yeah y'all can help me please.” Ooh a misplaced Southerner. And there is in this country along with the concept that southerners are stupid. There is a kind of romance about the South and southerners that you can use to your advantage when you're a young woman in New York City. I recommend it. Especially if you’re stopped by policeman.
Ben: Yes! There you go ... NYC words of wisdom from Dorothy. Tom Barbash grew up in the City before moving upstate to start his career. I'm just wondering about setting and location and how likewise that impacts the kind of style of a piece.
Tom: Yeah yeah I would say that my New York City Stories tend to be different than my Upstate New York stories -- different pace, different in vocabulary a little bit, so yeah I think I think setting weighs to go into style as well I would say. And then what I was saying before about the collaboration with your character and and style is that the stories that deviate … they’re not experimental but they're slightly different form. Like I have a second person story and a epistolary story and those needed to be told that way because of the characters are things that and that's that was my sense that I was trying to do. What I like about experimentation is when it grows out of character and I think it does that way rather than saying I'm going to write this particular type of [10:45] experimental story regardless of the character.I don’t think ... some characters may reject that idea.
Ben: You grew up in New York City and then lived in Upstate and worked in Upstate and then fast forward to being in the Bay Area and beautiful Marin County, I'm wondering. What's your perspective on having lived in both and the energy of both and how that informs your writing?
Tom: I think they're both great places to be a writer and it is a very good nurturing writing community here and New York, you know, would be an amazing and exciting place to be as a writer. I think the finances in New York -- actually I would say that -- and it's very expensive to live here too. so in some ways you know, you have a writer like Jess Walter, who's made his life in Spokane Washington ...
Ben: Just to confirm - Walter wrote the recent award winning novel Beautiful Ruins, another to add to your list if you haven’t read it …
Tom: … he's got this great situation where it's inexpensive, he doesn't have to teach,. These are the best places to be if you want something exciting happening every night you know because there's almost always something kinda cool going on in the literary world and people always move through on book tour and I get to see everybody and I run a reading series at my college and I bring great people in all the time but for getting your work done there are plenty of places and cheaper places and are probably better.
Ben: We’ve talked about Dorothy’s distance from the south to inform Bastard Out of Carolina - her upcoming novel is set in Manhattan, and I asked her why New York City:
Dorothy: I was seriously ill two years ago. And at one of the lowest points in the illness when I really I thought I was dying, I was only semi-conscious and moving back and forth from being aware to being in a dream state. And while in a dream state I started dreaming about walking in Manhattan where I lived for some years when I was young and the dream was so intense so visceral … I had lost seventy pounds in four months …
Ben: That’s incredible. And in while you're going through these thoughts and thinking about Manhattan, that became the kernel of the novel.
Dorothy: Yes. Not only does become the kernel of the novel. It became the place that I went for comfort. When you're in that much pain and that weak it's just so wonderful to go into a dream state. That is deeply satisfying. The odd thing is that it wasn't that specific. Except that I was walking in Manhattan. And I couldn't walk. And I was walking in the Manhattan of my youth. Not today’s Manhattan. Not in the high real estate market New York City now but in the early 70s. In fact the manuscript I'm working on the working title is nineteen seventy one. Because she goes back nineteen seventy one ..
Ben: Mark those calendars, Dorothy says ...
Dorothy: My agent, editor, and I pretty much agree the novel will be out in two years.
Ben: And for another auditory sneak peek, Pam Houston says her writing is almost always begins in landscape, and here she is reading an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, working title The Ranch: A Love Story, about life on her 100 acre ranch at 9000 feet in Colorado. And the William Pam refers to is one of her beloved Wolfhounds.
Pam Houston: The other thing I thought I’d do real quick is read a little, just a couple of paragraphs to get a feel of the memoir, and what I’m talking about is actually depression. And it’s cure at the ranch is the context of this ..
Time to move. On this point, all selves are in agreement. Put the smart wool on, lace your boots, don your barn coat. Cut the apples, cut the carrots, feed the equines from your hands. Cut the string that holds the bale of grass hay together, two flakes for the mini-donkeys, six for the horses, everything that is left for the sheep. Top off the horse water, top off the sheep water, double check the heaters in the troughs. Listen to the reassuring thump of cold boots soles on frozen ground, the comforting crunch of equine teeth grinding hay, the other-worldy woosh of wing beats overhead-- the bald eagle who winters upriver, back after his one-year hiatus.
The forecast is calling for wind and possibly snow tonight but right now it is perfectly still and almost 20, too warm for my heavy barn coat. The creek at this time of year, with all the freezing and unfreezing is an ice sculpture, the willows that line it pencil drawings, the mountaintop beyond it already feet deep in snow.
The puppy is charging and leaping to see above what’s left of the tall grass while William, the three- year-old patrols the perimeter. From here I can see Middle Creek Road, Lime Creek Road, as well as the state highway across the river, and though this represents some fairly large percentage of all the roads in Mineral County, for the hour we’ll be walking not one car will come by.
Out here, on this acreage, I’ve learned not only to hear my own voice, but to recognize what makes my heart leap up and then go towards it: the snowshoe hare—half way through his bi-annual color change that William scares up along the back fence, his big white feet flashing as his still tawny body gains distance. A coyote, sitting, dignified and still as a church 200 yards across the pasture watching us make our way to the wetland, and then the flash, when William sees him, and he sees that William sees him, his total evaporation into thin air, like a ghost dog, come from some other plane of being.
These are the things that have always healed me, it just took me half a lifetime to really trust them, to understand how infallible they are. Moving through space, preferably outdoor space, preferably outdoor space that maintains some semblance of nature, if not this nature, some other nature. When I’m happy it’s a carnival out here and when I am sad it to almost too beautiful to bear—but not quite—it is definitely too beautiful to contemplate leaving. I climb the hill where the homesteader Robert Pinkley—the first man to build a cabin on this land--is buried, and I know well that when I claimed this 120 acres it also claimed me. We are each other’s mutual saviors. Thank you.
Warm thanks to Dorothy Allison, Josh Weil, Tom Barbash, and for sharing thoughts on location and place that informs their amazing writing and to Pam Houston for sharing an excerpt from her upcoming memoir.
I produced and edited today’s episode, won’t you say hi on Twitter or Instagram @BenHess. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin and the opening track was from The Responders featuring poet, writer, and teacher Greg Glazner on guitar and vocals.
Be sure to rate and review Story Geometry in iTunes -- we need more reviews and ratings, please do this for us - send feedback via StoryGeometry.org, and sign up for future Writing By Writers events and conferences at Writing X Writers .org.
Thanks for listening.