Clyde Edgerton’s bestselling books include Raney, Walking across Egypt, The Floatplane Notebooks, Killer Diller, In Memory of Junior, Redeye, and Lunch at the Piccadilly, all from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Five of his novels have been named New York Times Notable Books. He lectures widely on writing and is also a songwriter and musician. He lives with his wife and their sons in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he is a professor in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina. His latest book is a nonfiction work about flying airplanes, Solo. He was interviewed by Daren Dean.
Image: Harold Bloom says one of the reasons we read is that in our daily lives we cannot know enough people as intimately as we need to. In fiction, we connect intimately with characters. On the other hand, I recently had a student almost gleefully tell me that she had never read a book. What would you say about the value of reading literature for the nonreader? Why do you think some people don’t place any importance on reading?
Clyde Edgerton: I’ve never been a big reader of fiction. Though I’ve read more fiction than most people, I think I read less than most writers. And I don’t push students to read everything. Rather than constantly seeking out new materials (and feeling guilty otherwise), I think a young writer will get more out of picking a few favorite novels and stories and, after rereading them for enjoyment, studying them passionately for how they handle the world.
Reading Twain, Crane, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, Faulkner, and others has brought me great satisfaction and inspiration, but I also draw from being in places where odd things happen. For example, a few years ago I was on an island where a man who’d recently had a stroke was caught in a half-submerged truck. He couldn’t get out, and a wrecker had to be ferried from the mainland to pull the truck from the water before the man could get free. I got a story from that.
I also think that some nonliterary people are reading all the time: reading how you look at them, reading what people are saying to and about them, reading a spouse’s body language, reading how the water is rippling above a school of finger mullet. There’s too much going on to miss out on some of it just because you’re feeling obliged to be literary, to sit on your arse seeing how many books you can read so you can talk or write about them. And which is more interesting—reading about a cat eating a bird, or seeing it?
Image: You grew up in the rural south, where most of your fiction takes place. Would you care to talk a little about your upbringing?
CE: I was raised in a 1950s fundamentalist Baptist church. Those who’ve been there understand. Many of the adults seemed to treat me as one of their own, as a nephew, perhaps, and that was an especially positive part. There were church camping trips with the Royal Ambassadors, who are sort of like the Boy Scouts. (The girls’ group was called the Girls’ Auxiliary, an interesting word choice.) Church members did not drink alcohol openly, though many smoked cigarettes, there was no public profanity, and among children at least there seemed to be a belief that if a person drank or cursed he or she was bound for eternal damnation. There was no doubting this. It was as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. Quarterlies published by the Southern Baptist Convention formed the foundation for Sunday school lessons, and they presented a narrow and harsh interpretation of the Bible. The emphasis was not so much on what to do in this world of ours as what not to do. There was talk of love, but that was trumped by fear. This general philosophy was illustrated by my mother taking me to Central Prison in Raleigh in the late forties to see what I thought was the electric chair. (I’ve since learned that it was the gas chamber chair, which is a load off my mind.) Luckily for me, my mother was in some senses very tolerant and wanted me to see and experience the world.
Image: Clearly you’ve continued to grapple with that fundamentalist tradition in your writing. What is it that draws you back? Why not just leave it all behind, as many have?
CE: Early in my life I was a fundamentalist in the bad sense. There are some fundamentalists who try to not judge all nonfundamentalists as hell-bound, but I wasn’t one of them. As a child I found a security in my church that I still feel—especially when listening to many of the old hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Just as I Am.” Those hymns take me back to a time in my consciousness when spiritual and ethical matters were important, simple, clear, and preordained. As a writer, I hope that I’m able to draw from the self I was then.
When I first left home at age eighteen, I was able to give up parts of my fundamentalist leanings. Later, I attended an Episcopal church for a few years, and now I find myself staying home from church, wondering and doubting and not believing in a supreme being that can be understood by humans. As I lose one type of faith, I’ve gained a belief in the human need for a religion that gives us a reason for doing good to one another. However, religions that aren’t fundamentalist often seem to me to lack a kind of passion that I see as essential to a fulfilling life.
Today my relationship to my upbringing is a kind of regretful appreciation: I’m glad I had it, and I’m glad I lost it. Fundamentalism is so human; I’ll never understand it in any clinical way.
Image: I have always been impressed with the way you treat people, including people you don’t know well. You seem able to approach them without tension or anxiety, and to treat them with a great deal of respect and empathy. To what can you attribute this? To your religious beliefs, or something else?
CE: I think what comes across to you as my empathy might be my habit of observing people—or my attempts to observe people—rather than seeking conclusions about their characters. That can be good or bad depending on my relationship with the person. As a white, male, protestant professor and writer, I’ve usually been in a position that makes it easier for me to be empathetic than it is for over 50 percent of the population. In other words, I’m lucky—so far. Maybe something of this attitude is in some way related to what remains of my religious beliefs.
Image: You mentioned reading Welty, O’Connor, Twain, and others. What other writers do you look to for inspiration?
CE: As well as the writers I mentioned, I look to Lewis Nordan, Larry Brown, Mark Richard, Cormac McCarthy, Turgenev in Fathers and Sons (for his use of dialogue), Chekhov (for his refusal to take sides in his short stories, and for what he says about writing, and for his notebooks), Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (especially on the need to embrace uncertainty).
For adjunct inspiration I’ve also recently read Bloom, Marcus J. Borg and Richard Elliott Friedman, as well as a bit of John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty) and Wittgenstein (The Blue and Brown Notebooks).
My focus is relatively narrow, in terms of fiction I enjoy. It’s mostly southern. In my early thirties I discovered Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. (Most of my adult life until then had been spent flying airplanes and studying teaching methods and educational sociology.) Reading them, I realized that rather than invent stories from my imagination alone, I could remake my own extended family and life experience into stories. I practically memorized Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”—in part because I was in some readers’ theater productions of it, playing several different parts, including Mama, and also because the story seemed to be made of my own private language. I’d never heard Welty read, nor seen her, until May 14, 1978, when I turned on PBS and there she stood behind a podium, reading “Why I Live at the P.O.” I was mesmerized. When she finished, I went to my journal and wrote, “Tomorrow I will start writing fiction seriously.” This was when I was thirty-three.
Image: Welty wrote in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” that “the zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done fiction much good.” In your own writing do you ever consider theme as a message to the reader?
CE: I think Miss Welty is right (for me), and I do my best to not consider theme as a message to the reader. Otherwise, my fiction is likely to fail. If I ever find myself trying to deliver messages consistently, I’ll need to consider essay-writing or preaching as a career—or hobby—so that purpose and form are more likely to be aligned. Having said this, I believe some writers are able to write successful fiction that grows from their zeal to reform. But more of this kind of fiction fails than succeeds, I’d guess.
Image: I’ve always wanted to ask you how Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood struck you when you first read it. What do you think O’Connor was getting at when she wrote about the “Church without Christ”?
CE: I think the “Church without Christ” concept was a consequence of O’Connor’s devotion to Catholicism. Beyond that, it’s too dee
p for me. I’ll say this, though: I think O’Connor liked for her characters to have been struck by Jesus, better negatively than not at all.
When I first read Wise Blood, I was in love with O’Connor’s sentences, paragraphs, descriptions, and dialogue. I was seeing and hearing people in literature who I already knew in life. I loved that part of it, and I guess that love didn’t allow room for much of an effort to connect with her on a religious plane, the way she apparently hoped a reader might. I’m just now reading her again and am fascinated by her loops in time within a short narrative or scene—that is, her going back and catching up with something that just happened, her shifting point of view, her ability to speak as both herself and a character.
It occurred to me recently while studying her technique that O’Connor took Jesus and Christianity more seriously than anything, and her problem, perhaps even to anger, was others not taking Jesus seriously. Her favor went to those who did, regardless of their behavior. Hazel Motes took Jesus seriously enough to name his own church the Church without Christ. A person’s acknowledgment of Jesus was crucial to O’Connor. Her passion for this underwrote her fiction, and it somehow kept her clear of the ideological, sentimental bog that many so-called Christian writers get caught up in. Perhaps this is because for O’Connor, Christ is disruptive. It’s noteworthy that Christ, like the Pole in “The Displaced Person” and the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” threw things off balance.
Somehow I’ve always been too delighted in the surfaces of her stories to wrestle much with their theological significance. Louis Rubin wrote an essay called something like “‘The Artificial Nigger’ Read as Fiction Rather Than Theology”—and that’s one way to read her.
Image: You seem to find less resonance with O’Connor’s theology than with her craft. Are there other writers who you find more of an affinity with on matters of the spirit?
CE: Having just come off a heavy dose of Harold Bloom (I just read Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine), I guess I’d have to answer Cervantes, Welty, Twain, and Voltaire (in Candide).
Image: What do you think of the misconception that you are a kind of folksy, humorous southern writer? The humor is certainly there in your work, but you also write about desperately serious things: war, drifters, people facing death—and always with a moral compass.
CE: A few reviewers have noted “folksy” or “quirky” characters. But I still remember a time when I wished that any reviewer would say anything about my writing at all, so I try not to look horses in the mouth, gift or not. Or at least I pretend I try not to.
The “folksy” and “quirky” descriptions usually come from reviewers outside the South, because at times they seem to see southerners as belonging to one of three categories: 1) the violent white men; 2) the “smile while stabbing you in the back while serving a casserole” white women; and 3) the folksy, quirky people.
Image: Silas House once told me that someone at a reading asked him if they ever got the internet in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. He had to explain that they starting using the internet at the same time as everyone else. Where does this stereotype of southern backwardness come from, and do you think the South is truly evolving?
CE: As with most stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth there that is easily exploited, and sometimes it’s fun to do that. The agrarian cultural base of the South makes it an easy target. The city cousin and country cousin will always make fun of each other, like monkeys jumping up and down, grinning and pointing fingers—except the country cousin is often having too much fun outdoors to worry about pinhead uppity intellectuals who wear turtlenecks and with their lips near the rims of their wineglasses spout off about Wittgenstein and red states while standing perfectly still. Most stereotypes help the people who perpetuate them to feel a little taller, a little smarter, a little better about themselves. I’m feeling a little better now. Plus, when did they get the internet in the Appalachian Mountains?
Image: Are southern writers the best ones out there? What makes them so good?
CE: Southern writers are best. Roy Blount Jr. recently said at a book conference in North Carolina that the literature of the South remains distinct because “the South gave the Enlightenment a pass,” and that while other Americans worship reason and wrestle with doubt, “Southerners believe in something whether it’s stupid or not.” He added, less critically, that southern writers are generally less concerned with making a point than with crafting stories about people, rich in voice, texture, and language. The nature of daily life in the South from the Civil War up into the 1950s or later has supported a preponderance of told stories. On the other hand, southern writing can be awful, worse than the worst of New York writing, in that overly abstract but well-written material is better than overly cute, poorly written material.
As far as what makes the best writing, all writing ends up in the head of the reader, and since a reader reads with his own experience, observation, and imagination as tools, we must leave it at that, though I believe we can find a few general criteria. For literary criticism that’s helpful to writers, I lean toward the New Critics of the forties and fifties, who discussed structure and organization of the written piece rather than societal and cultural problems. I’m speaking in general terms. Many recent critics and their big and little followers are scrambling for ways to lift society and are thus following their muses—as are most writers, I suppose.
As for my own literary preferences, I was brought up in a family that almost worshipped ancestors, avoided discussing most abstractions, and talked a lot about cooking, eating, relatives, neighbors, farming, weather, and animals. This wasn’t necessarily an insular upbringing—it was the norm for most of the human race over the last several hundred thousand years—and this environment supports stories about human relationships. I guess I favor writing about universal truths that lie under the surface of the life I knew as a child. I would assume that most people who have a clear and commanding and pleasant upbringing in a specific culture would lean toward literature originating in that culture.
Image: You mentioned the late novelist and short-story writer Larry Brown, who I believe was a friend of yours. How did you first meet? What is his greatest contribution to southern writing?
CE: Larry and I first met at a book event in Atlanta. We were staying in the same hotel. A little while after dinner, he called me from his room and asked how to get the red blinking light on his phone to go out. He was so authentic in so many ways. He could make your heart ache. And he was very funny, and loyal, and tolerant. The last time I saw him, he took me to his pond, removed the top to a garbage pail, scooped up some dog food pellets, and threw them in the water. “Watch this,” he said. Within five minutes the water was boiling with catfish eating the dog food. I didn’t know whether to laugh or not. Larry was standing there expressionless. Finally he looked at me, straight faced, and mumbled, “It took me about two weeks to find a dog food that would float.”
His contributions to southern writing, in my view, include the authenticity of his stories, the feeling that you are with his people as they live; the almost unconscious sense in the reader of characters being loved by the writer, unobtrusively; the immediacy of character emotions; the combination of humor and darkness; the sense of forgiveness between writer and character; and the thickness of emotion lying beneath the sparseness of some of the short stories.
Image: You also mentioned reading Bloom. Do you read much criticism? What do you think of the state of book criticism today?
CE: I get several criticism journals, all about southern writing: Southern Quarterly and Southern Literary Review, for example. I think criticism of fiction is fascinating. It allows me to get into the heads of these readers who call themselves critics. I like to see what these (usually) well-read people are making out of a story. In the last twenty years, much criticism has gotten into the hands of social reformers, and that makes it no less interesting to read, but for the purpose of helping writers, as I mentioned earlier, I always fall back on the New Critics—specifically Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, more specifically The Scope of Fiction, which was made for the classroom from Understanding Fiction. It seems terribly outdated to some grad students, but that’s usually because the student already has an apparent knowledge of the fundamentals of story writing, or else is infatuated with experimental writing of one sort or another.
Image: You have said you find short stories difficult to write. What makes them such a challenge? Is it the required compression of events or fashioning a story of one emotional cloth?
CE: Short stories are usually difficult for me to write in part because I tend to wander when I write, and it seems easier sometimes to go ahead and spend a few years writing a novel than to work my butt off over a few months hammering and chiseling out a short story—one that in my view needs to shine brightly, but never quite does. You ask if the difficulty comes from required compression or fashioning from one emotional cloth. At least both, I think. One reason I enjoy reading tight, full, explosive short stories is because they feel out of my reach. I keep going back every few years to the short story form, hoping to start getting it right consistently.
I do recall reading that Faulkner said a novel was easier to write than a short story—which was easier than a poem. That’s true for me, though certainly not for other writers.
Image: You have the ability to create a novel out of a short story or a short narrative. I remember you said your idea for the opening of Where Trouble Sleeps was a paragraph you wrote into other novels, but every time you had to take it out. “Changing Names” is another story that we see later on in a novel. Is this usually the way you begin your novels, with a single scene?
CE: I do tend to write in scenes, initially. I will start with a short story—one I may know is not right yet, because it’s more of a scene or an incident than a story—then add scenes and sentences, watching it grow, because I see potential in my continued work with the characters and their situations. I start many short stories that die, and finish only a few that don’t turn into novels. I don’t think I so much create a novel out of a short story; rather the short story is the first step. I read a critical piece in the 2003 issue of the North Carolina Literary Review suggesting that a novel originating in a short story is bad—simply because it started with a short story. Such a stance seems shortsighted to me, because it assumes, on the basis of only the initial stages, an understanding of an entire process of composing a novel. Often a short story simply opens a vein. Or it ends up in the middle or end or out of the novel. Judging from his essay this teacher and critic is advising students to abandon novels that began as short stories. Thank goodness he didn’t teach O’Connor or Faulkner—or a host of other novelists.
All of my novels except one started as a short story or a combination of several short stories. The exception, Killer Diller, started with a setting—a halfway house beside a diet center across from a church. The potential was too rich to desert. I immediately felt that some characters from a former novel needed to be there, and I suddenly saw the form and content of the novel in front of me.
Josephine Humphreys once defined the novel as “a series of scenes with meaning.” I may have it wrong, but I hope that’s what she said. It reflects how I think of structure while I’m writing early drafts of a novel. Then I try to begin understanding what the novel is about. Writing early drafts is how I prepare for detailed composing, whereas other novelists spend that early time on planning in order to avoid writing a bunch of drafts. No beginning novelist should automatically exclude either approach, or any other approach. In my view, teachers who tell young writers to do so may delay good novels, or worse.
About the scene I kept trying to use: I had an image of a six-year-old boy sitting on the steps of a grocery store, looking across the street at men standing around a filling station drinking beer. The boy thought they were all going to hell, but in spite of that pretended to drink beer himself as he watched. This happened to me, and it seemed personally important for reasons having to do with God and hell and my family, so I kept trying to fit it into a story or novel, but it would never adhere. Eventually I started a book with that paragraph and the book turned into Where Trouble Sleeps, and finally the paragraph ended up somewhere other than in the beginning of the book.
When I first finished Raney, it was only a hundred pages and my distant cousin Sylvia Wilkerson, a fine novelist and the only writer I knew at the time, said, “It’s not long enough. Double the length. Write more scenes with those aunts.” So I did that during the following year.
While you rewrite, you’re trying to figure out what the story is about so you can revise artfully—and that’s where Josephine Humphreys’ “meaning” comes in.
Image: You seem to like using things that actually happened as springboards into scenes. How does that work and why is it so effective?
CE: For me that’s what fiction writing is about in the main: translating, rather than inventing, though plenty of inventing is involved. For me fiction is creative translating. In many cases the real thing provides only the structure for the made-up event. I’ve also found that it helps me to put made-up events in real settings.
My characters usually reach through windows in that wall that separates them from real people, and from those real people, me included, they grab little habits or pieces of personality. As this happens, they begin to acquire their own characters and motivations. And if I’m lucky, what I’m writing about is all the time becoming clearer.
Image: How do you view the controversy that surrounded your portrayal of Baptists in Raney and “Debra’s Flap and Snap”? Do you think of yourself as a controversial writer?
CE: The controversy surrounding Raney was like two ships passing in a dark hurricane. In 1985, administrators at the Baptist school where I was teaching called me on the carpet because of the novel. They found it offensive (in ways that seemed odd to me) and attempted to withhold my teaching contract until I answered the question: how does the book further the purpose of Campbell University? At the time, the controversy didn’t seem have much importance outside of that school. I was one of the few people surprised, because I’d gone to college in Chapel Hill and had certain expectations about academic freedom. Back then I thought the fundamentalist movement would be happy to stay out of politics. But in 2006, in light of the intense desire of some people to unite church and state, that controversy seems more significant.
I don’t think of myself as controversial, and I don’t think I’m considered controversial in general, though Raney, Walking across Egypt, and The Floatplane Notebooks have been banned in some schools.
At least one relative has read “Debra’s Flap and Snap” and said the sex stuff was gratuitous. Some of my students thought it was sexist, some didn’t. There was controversy in 2000 about whether or not Seattle Pacific University should accept Image journal, where the story was first published, as part of their school. In the campus newspaper some writers quoted from “Debra’s Flap and Snap” in order to show Image’s lack of suitability for a Christian school. I can’t remember the sentence exactly, but the quoted part had the words “masturbated,” “his thing,” and “fourteen-year-old girl” in it, and some of the folks at Seattle Pacific were thrown off balance by that and worried about the propriety of a journal that would publish such awful stuff. These folks didn’t prevail. I hear that the journal now thrives there.
There’s certainly a mindset out there that while cold-blooded murder in fiction is fine, and that stories about fraud, deceit, beheading, maiming, and arrogance are all okay (after all, those things are all in the Bible), that good stories had better not talk about touching your thing (disremember Onan), because that kind of real-life sin needs to be kept hidden away. Never mind the redemption that might be involved, maybe even in some readers.
Image: You teach at University of North Carolina at Wilmington in the creative writing program. What is the value of an MFA?
CE: An MFA is like a mirror. When a born writer looks in, a born writer looks out, and when a scribbler looks in, a scribbler looks out. The born writers learn a few shortcuts that save them a few years in finding the characters and situations they were born to write about, and a few shortcuts that help them write better prose and poetry earlier in their careers than they would otherwise. And an MFA may aid in getting a teaching job.
Image: The fact that you have an advanced degree in English education sets you apart from many professors in writing programs. How does it make you a better or more prepared teacher? Things I’ve read about you seem to downplay your education—nobody calls you Dr. Edgerton. Why is that?
CE: “Dr. Edgerton” would create the kind of barriers I generally don’t like. I think what I learned getting my English education degree would help me in a secondary classroom where curiosity is not assumed, but less so with graduate students where curiosity is normally present. I may do a few things differently than other writing teachers. I may use readers’ theater and film a bit more than others in workshop instruction, and I try consciously to teach about teaching (since many MFA students will become teachers) and help students get their heads around this definition of teaching: “Teaching is the act of inducing students to behave in ways assumed to lead to learning.”
Image: Your new book, Solo, deals in part with your experiences being a pilot in Southeast Asia. How did you view that war then, and how do you now?
CE: I view that war as a mistake growing from a paranoia about the spread of communism—a paranoia that granted a kind of release from international responsibility—and that also grew from a confused and mistaken belief that people always have stronger attachments to their nation-states than to their tribes or ethnic groups. These mistakes were similar in Vietnam and Iraq. Another parallel between the wars is the U.S. arrogance of power.
Back when I was flying missions over Laos I was only beginning to realize that. I saw the war as an adventure, and I rationalized that by flying I was perhaps saving the lives of friends in South Vietnam.
The war in Southeast Asia has followed me around like a dark cloud, and I tried at some length in the last part of Solo to deal with the emotional conflict that can result from a lust for adventure and a consequent taking of innocent life. It’s a conflict that more and more soldiers are likely to encounter as we have reason and means—through film and the internet and other media, when they’re free of censoring political pressure—to understand more about how we as humans are like each other in our hopes and fears and desires. If we’re able as a culture to spread messages that go beyond the marketplace, beneath the marketplace, and above the marketplace, into the realm of human needs that aren’t material, then we’ll be able to have fruitful exchange with tolerant world religions, and people of those religions will be more likely to embrace our nation.
Image: What’s your writing schedule like?
CE: Right now it’s a schedule of fits and starts, because I’m regularly involved in the joys and difficulties of, with my wife, raising our two young boys. But my writing schedule will soon smooth out into something resembling a couple or three hours on most mornings. That’s what works best for me.
Image: I know you play guitar and banjo. Do you play any other instruments? How did you get interested in music? Who are you listening to now?
CE: I also play piano, but can’t do much beyond fairly decent blues in C or G. If I could play like anybody, it would be Dr. John—or, when I’m really ambitious, Oscar Peterson. I got interested in music because my mother would lie with me on a blanket under the stars on summer nights when I was around five years old and say, “Just think, when you’re seven you’ll be able to start taking piano lessons. It will be wonderful.” I had every reason to believe she was telling the truth. Later, she calmly accepted the fact that I wanted to stop taking music lessons, and she never complained that my talent and musical interests were narrow, moving through Dixieland and blues to rhythm and blues, and some jazz, though I’m confident that she had hopes I’d be a concert pianist. I like Randy Newman, some Lyle Lovett and some Tom Waits, Delbert McClinton, and most of Ry Cooder’s music. And Ray Charles from the early days. To the extent my talent allows, they and Dr. John and Professor Longhair are my influences. I like James Brown, especially his Live at the Apollo 1962.
Now I’m listening to Mike Craver. He’s written about twenty new songs for a musical version of Lunch at the Piccadilly, which is just getting up and running. I’m also listening to Pinetop Perkins, Taj Mahal, and Midtown Dickens, my daughter’s band. I’m fortunate in that I’ve gotten to jam with musicians I greatly admire: Mike Craver, Jim Watson, the late Tommy Thompson, Jack King, and Matt Kendrick—all from North Carolina.
Image: What’s next for you?
CE: I’ve been working with Mike Craver for the last year or so on a musical play, Lunch at the Piccadilly, inspired by the novel, but quite different. The play has now had a successful run, and Mike and I and the director, Steve Umberger, are hoping to send it on tour in the next year or so. It’s been great working with a real musician on the musical. We had so much fun we may adapt another novel, maybe Where Trouble Sleeps.
I’ve started a novel about a boy playing in a garage band in the 1960s, and I’ve started a nonfiction book about the Raney controversy. I’m also writing a short story as requested by Tom Franklin and William Gay that in some way relates to Flannery O’Connor. They are proposing an anthology by contemporary writers. I hope their project works out.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.