Interview with Jacob White, author of “Being Dead in South Carolina”
October 22, 2013 3 Comments
Leapfrog Press intern Sarah Rocco was able to get an inside look at author Jacob White’s new book Being Dead in South Carolina, a collection of fictional short stories. Highlighting various lifestyles in the modern South, these stories are perceptive and touching. They bring into focus the change between new and old stories, the change of people over time, and recognizing as well as righting personal disconnection. His book is currently undergoing production and will be available in December.
SR: I noticed the dialect/style of your narrative varies quite a bit. How often did you pull from your own childhood/hometown for inspirations or settings?
JW: Often. But then the second I pull from it, it’s turned to something else, some other place, like the dream-reversed image of the street you grew up on: it’s utterly alien now, its mystery renewed. It took me a while to open myself to the mystery implicit in my imperfect renderings of these places; I fought my inaccuracy at first and tried this Proustian nonsense of recovery (nonsense only if you’re not a Proust). Then, exhausted, I realized I had dune-buggy privileges in these misshapen settings I was creating and went tearing off through the tree-line in search of something new.
This is sort of the case with the dialect too. The dialects where I come from fill your head like whiskey. (My friend had a dangerous older cousin who always hung out on my friend’s dock shirtless, pulling in catfish without a license, wiry and leathered and not part of anything resembling society. Someone told him Wildlife & Game would putter on by soon so he’d best let off fishing. “I’ll tell that old boy he can go to hell.” The strange emphasis of go was riveting. He was scary as hell. He told me I had a funny accent and asked where I was from. I was from two miles away.) But once I start writing a voice, it’s another rhythm that takes hold, a rhythm that is part auditory but part visual, too, inextricable from the words and syntax on the page. In fact, reading this “visual sound” on the page by other strong voice writers is almost always more potent for me than actually hearing the spoken dialect, even if it lacks the churning linguistic complexity and mud of oral utterance.
SR: Throughout your narratives, you reference and explore many innate human emotions such as hope, despair, stubbornness. Would you say this collection is an exploration of those human emotions, or do you view it another way?
JW: I believe that the only emotion that I am consciously honed in on is confusion. Although now I am confused as to if confusion is even an emotion. But confusion is the engine. It is this confusion that makes us feel most alone, and that, because it can never be named, causes so much pain. You wake up each day and don’t know what the hell you are doing, and even if you learn to improvise, some sadness or loneliness will accrue over time and eventually deform you. Then, when the stalk has grown long enough, the slightest breeze can crease it so that it won’t ever stand up straight again. Somewhere Philip Roth says something like, No man understands the misfortune inherent in life until it is too late, and this is the misfortune of all men. In these stories I like to pick up when it’s too late, then try, as we all must, to go from there.
SR: Was there an overall thread or message you attempted to convey throughout the stories, or was each its own exploration?
JW: Each was its own exploration. I can think of no thread or message to any of it. Losing the thread is perhaps the message. I think I was just trying to get to places where I could surprise myself, or end up in one of those transportingly strange Eudora Welty-scapes. Other times, it feels like enough to just send through a happy little charge of voltage.
SR: (Wolf Among Wolves) This story is told almost backwards; the ending is given within the first few paragraphs yet remains unconfirmed until the very end, instilling within the reader a sense of hope and caution as we decipher the validity of the opening paragraphs. What was your purpose for arranging/writing the story this way?
JW: I think this is a story where I found a more authoritative voice. I didn’t set out to do this, it just happened, perhaps as a result of the uncharacteristic setting (upstate New York). It’s the close-held voice one needs to make it through those long heavy Finger Lake winters. Morons like Dayton from the title story wouldn’t make it to January in that climate.
At the same time, I think I was thinking about the power that can come from a sincere, temperate, balanced, unstraining first-person voice. This is something Walker Percy and Richard Ford can do: They strike, in the narrow vein of their finest work, a limpid and cool sensibility that attempts honestly and patiently to know itself. The movements of such a voice are careful enough not to stir up the bottom-mud and cloud the water, so that the inquiry is carried out within a rare clarity.
This kind of voice is also capable of producing a low and far-reaching tonal frequency that can be, with accumulation, quite affecting.
The narrator of “Wolf Among Wolves” is no Binx Bolling or Frank Bascombe (maybe he’s closer to the moony lug in “Rock Springs”), but he was comfortable to spend time with. I would want someone like him in my life. I placed him in a situation that demands immense silence and sobriety within the mind, and this silence, this winter stillness, creates some space for a different tonal and emotional experience.
SR: Do you have a favorite story? Do you have a least favorite story? Why?
JW: The collection’s coda might be “Episode Before Putting On Pants,” even though it barely, or hardly, merits the designation of “story”–it’s simply a burst of inner-racket that I was glad to get out and even gladder to see hit the page with the same bite and rhythm with which it had been eating me up inside. It is from a period in my life that I think is common for men in their early thirties, when they look back suddenly and realize that they have been a boob. So that their adulthood may commence, they set about to eradicate the boob, only to discover that this inner boob exists within a much larger boob, an endless boob, and that the more they set out to eradicate the boob, the more subsumed by it they become and the angrier they get. This is what that is.
Also, my mother is in this story and this story alone, even though her death is the lake that surrounds all of this.
I do have a least favorite. I won’t tell you what it is.
SR: Why did you decide to arrange the collection in the way you did?
JW: I tried to balance out the bluster and the narrative, the comedic and the elegiac, so that these things would not cancel out one another’s resonance–but also, too, so they would jangle together enough to create a little discord. My favorite story collections are devoid of “unifying themes” and tend to be uneven, unpredictable.
Also, I thought it right to begin with an overturned car. The collection ends with two crazy dudes racing hot-rod boats up and down the lake. That seems right, too, but for private reasons having to do with my love of this lake, which is so far gone now to pollution and development that it might as well have been a dream. That final story is an elegy for a place that has slipped away, beyond the reach even of the fake place in my story, withdrawn to some dignified stillness at the bottom of somewhere.
SR: (Unvanquished by the Dusk) I saw this story as a testament to the perseverance and stubbornness of humans, as well as the struggle for past and present to coexist. What was your inspiration fro such a detailed and gritty journey?
JW: Indignity is a distinctly Southern art. It waits there at the core of all comedy. It waits at the core of our lives. Any truth about ourselves is bound to be an indignity. Dignity is no less a romance than chivalry. But the tug between this comic impulse and the romantic is a common confusion in the South, and this story is my attempt to indulge both.
One cannot claim indignity a distinctly Southern art without sounding a little romantic and daft. The more self-effacing a Southerner is, the more unctuously we feel his pride, even if the self-effacement is genuine and the pride non-existent. It’s a vestigial thing and we can’t shake it.
I wrote the romantically titled “Unvanquished by the Dusk” shortly after moving up north for my first time, to upstate New York, having lived in South Carolina for the previous twenty-five years. Up there I met for the first time my grandfather. He was 96 and still climbed up on his roof every winter to shovel off snow. He had been a golf pro, a fired gym teacher, and a pugilist, but when I knew him he was a gun collector. He had for most of his life, it seems, collected and restored antique guns, working for the last thirty years of his life on a multi-volume tome for the Kentucky Rifle Association on the history of gun-making in Revolutionary War-period New York State, handwritten installments of which he occasionally mailed me between two pieces of cardboard wrapped in a perfect envelope fashioned out of a paper grocery bag. These installments he selected and sent for no discernible reason, except that usually they contained an amusing anecdote about Indians. They all contained meticulous and precise pencil drawings, their shadings as rich and smooth as lead itself. He was a flinty but charming man, with a high brisk voice and a laugh like sandpaper. My father is a gentler man overall, compulsively comedic, and his laugh is more like a good heavy cleaver dicing up Boston butt on a soft oak chopping board inside someone’s hard kitchen. My father, too, was an accomplished golfer but also a devoted one, to the exclusion of other hobbies, despite a vestigial handiness and artisanship. But at fifty he began to lose feeling in his legs due to neuropathy. Some years later he had to give up golf. And now, as the golfing community he’s lived in for forty years wears well down in its heels, he abides still in a house whose living area and kitchen are on the second floor, accessible by steps he cannot climb so much as crash up, top-heavy on his wasted legs and slamming sacks of groceries off the walls as he gropes for a hold. My father was taken south at seven: My grandmother backed out of my grandfather’s house with the child behind her and a shotgun propped on her hip, pointed presumably at my grandfather. The two men got in touch thirty years later, but when my grandfather died, my father didn’t go to the funeral. None of us did. Now my father is an aging man himself, but the rare one who can participate in the comedy of his own indignity and even ham it up now and then with his precarious staggers. He once showed up at my house on my birthday after driving for six hours, and, attempting to hug me in front of our stoop, stumbled in his plastic foot braces and brought us both down violently into the grass and mud. With not uncommon ludicrousness, he happened to be wearing all white, and even as my brother and l struggled to get this heavy soiled man to his feet he could not stop laughing, even though there was no dignity in sight, not for miles. We were a bit freaked out by the fall, glancing at the windows of neighboring apartments. Each of our lives was in some kind of deep shit. Yet his laughter became an argument for our own. It was not a romantic laughter like in a movie, but the cold wash of water across the rocks. We weren’t fooling anyone, so might as well let off trying to fool ourselves, at least for a little while.
Jacob White lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, son, and dog. He teaches at Ithaca College and is Fiction Editor and Web Editor for Green Mountains Review.