Rusty Barnes grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his B.A. from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his M.F.A. from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in over a hundred fifty journals and anthologies. After editing fiction for the Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) and Zoetrope All-Story Extra, he co-founded Night Train, a literary journal which has been featured in the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and on National Public Radio. Sunnyoutside Press published a collection of his flash fiction, Breaking it Down, in November 2007. MiPOesias published his poetry chapbook Redneck Poems and Broke. Sunnyoutside published his collection of traditional fiction, Mostly Redneck in August 2011.
BG: As fiction wrters, I think we are better able to seperate the author from the narrator, but for the common reader, the distinction is a little harder to make, especally with a collecton like this, where the setting and the characters and the voice and the intimate details and understanding of Appalachian life are so strong and distinctive its easy to assume these stories have a hint of autobiography in them. So what's the deal, how much of Rusty Barnes, the man, the author, can we find in the pages of Mostly Redneck?
RB: I think I'm going to steal something I once heard?/saw? Steve Almond say. All the stories are emotionally autobiographical. Which is to say, some stories are really close to my life and others are complete fictions and still others are somewhere in the middle. I usually don't use many words writing but I spend a lot of psychic energy reliving parts of my life (a lot of it my childhood) in order to find the point of the story or poem I'm working on or an image that fits in.
BG: I hear a lot of poets talk about channeling that psychic level of energy and refocusing it into their poetry and I've been talked through the process so I think I understand it, but with fiction, could you describe a little bit about what that process might look like, what shape it might take? Talk me through the process of channeling that psychic energy and transforming it into a narrative / story?
RB: Material I write about--poetry or fiction--comes about via one line I've imagined first, which I build or subtract from; or the material comes from an image. In either case, I spend some time--usually not very much time, I'm a purely instinctual writer--cogitating over what I've done and syncing it into my flow of chi. Are you still listening? Good, because that last sentence was mostly horseshit.
I turn the images or sentences over in my mind and in a matter of seconds, usually, I have a character who I think is interesting, someone I can see having a future. In my mind their past is already set and I'm ready to go forward and give them a life from what I have. The process takes a lot of psychic energy to write about, as the subjects are often family secrets or things that could be family secrets, or things that will be family secrets, or based on people who hate me or love me or both. There's at least one person in the world who both loves and hates me. This process is also blessed by everything I've experienced, a subject both very limited and more expansive than I'll ever probably confirm through my writing.
I am a sensitive new age guy in some way--don't laugh--and when I feel the 'flow' I roll with it, and I manufacture flow by the mystic process of my-ass-in-chair. Creation is a dark process for me, though, and I take it that isn't so for everybody, and that's cool; I don't purge emotion through writing, but it takes pieces of me I'd rather not have taken. On the other hand, I believe flow is everywhere, like the Force, and when I need it I need it and I will pull, rip, rend, teethe on, cower before, and threaten various entities to get it. I will ignore phones, I will ignore everything that doesn't draw breath in order to find flow for myself. If I ever needed to, I would Darth Maul your ass in a heartbeat, chase you down and risk being bifurcated to get it. But I will have flow.
As well, I don't revise often (I go with the flow, I tell ya) though I have in the past, fanatically, done up to twenty drafts per story. I mellowed that shit out when I had kids. I don't have time for it. Unless the story needs it, and then away I go. Anyway--to your point. Psychic energy involves taking my past or your past or someone's past and rolling it around in my mind for ballast--the stuff that keeps me upside right and afloat. I will never ever lack for thingsto write about. All I need is flow and time. If you think I'm kidding, I have often taken a lazy Sunday away from my kids and wife and written a short-short for every hour of the day, nine-to-nine. And trust me, my kids survived, were fed, played, did their schoolwork, and my wife ended the day still married to me. And all those stories were published somewhere or other, as is. I can't do that every day, but I can do it. If I'm not writing, I'm not blocked, I'm just not writing, and I treat it that way. On some other day the flow will come and I'll drop ten thousand words and be an extra-blessed guy.
BG: How much energy / inspiration / influence do you draw from the Appalachian region itself? It seems that this particular part of the country creates some pretty distinct writers with pretty distinct voices, especially in this age of contemporary fiction and its focus on language and style over traditional story elements, ie plot, structure, story arc, etc. But you, Mr. Barnes, are a master storyteller in the more traditional sense. Would you say that's more because of the influence of the south and the Appalachian region with it's thick history of folk narratives or would you attribute your style to your own creative mind and the way it works naturally?
Also, do you believe what I said is true, that contemporary fiction has gone the way of style and language over story and plot?
RB: My influences as a writer are all realist, minimalist writers, it's true. It's also true I didn't find people who resembled the ones I grew up with and around until I had read my way through a large swath of Southern writers who eventually led me to more regional writers and Appalachia in particular. I grew up a good deal north of what we could call cultural Appalachia, which is mostly Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania and a few other states. I grew up with many of the same Appalachian traditions: strong, long ties with place/locale; an emphasis on religion and its place in the community, large, tightly knit families; even an emphasis on traditional, often gospel or otherwise churched music, though that tradition has fallen by the wayside a bit in my generation, the idea of it is still strong. And what I write about is obviously colored by these traditions, even if it's not immediately evident in the prose. There's been a Barnes of my line in the north-central PA Bradford and Tioga counties since the late 18th century,and 90% of my family live within 20 miles of where I grew up.
As far as the influence on what I write, I immediately reach for those (not necessarily Appalachian) writers I've always read for pleasure: Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Ed Falco, Andre Dubus, Richard Ford. I'd like to write the kind of stories they produced. I can't say though, that they're direct influences inasmuch as they're nearly silent buddies I consult with in my head. Larry Brown was not a great prose stylist, but he found a niche for himself as a solid attention-getting storyteller. I write with his sense of story in mind (load characters down with trouble and see what they might do) and my own sense of rhythm, I hope.
In a recent review of Mostly Redneck in the Brooklyn Rail, Nicolle Elizabeth made an interesting distinction between the work I published for years in Night Train, and my own stories. She characterized the writing in NT as much more ethereal, and that's true enough. I read a great deal, and my net is wide when editing, but I have no interest, really, in writing ethereal or experimental stories. I respect the writing I see in many cases, and even more often the writers, the ideas behind what experimental/ethereal writers are doing, but it's not me. My aesthetic in poetry is much more wide open, for some reason. I read almost nothing but experimental or avant poets, but my work hasn't taken on that particular flavor yet.
The internet loves flash fiction and style and language and flair and pretty things to look at, and so do I, to an extent. I want a meaty story when I read traditional short fiction or novels, though. I don't think defining this pomo age and the processes of writers as an either/or situation works. There's a still-subtle trend--considering publishing in general and not just internet stories--toward shorter work and denser writing, maybe but I don't think we're at the crux of some important change in the way we view narrative, as some people think. Some writers press ahead of their time and some establish a status quo, and that's the way it's always been, it seems to me. Jesus. I don't know if any of that answers the question. Sorry.
BG: What do you say to the folks who think realism is dated or boring or dead?
RB: Those folks can just fuck off.
BG: I noticed you didn't list Breece D'J Pancake as one of your influences. Considering Pancake is perhaps the poster child for Appalachian storytelling, how often do you hear the comparisons and what do you think of them? I wasn't necessarily reminded of Pancake as I read Mostly Redneck, but I read a recent review written by Nick Ripatrazone, featured in Storyquarterly 43, and he made the comparison more than once. He said of Mostly Redneck,"... this is not simply a one-note book about the rural poor. Appalachian literature, though, has never really fallen into that trap... Pancake built his Appalachia through concrete details of the setting and the feeling, as in 'Trilobites' that his typical character 'was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave.' Pancake used that firm sense of place to add gravity to the minutia of his characters' lives. Barnes is able to accomplish much the same in his fiction." How do you feel about Ripatrazone's assessment?
RB: It's hard to say I don't like the comparison: it's a formative book for a number of Appalachian folks, including me. I do feel the need to push back at it a little. His shit is dark dark dark. While I'm not Mr. Sunshine and flowers for everybody, my work is fairly dark too, though not without hope. What I wish, though, is that the reading people do would encompass a larger spectrum of Appalachian literature, so they'd have some other comparisons at hand besides Breece Pancake, good as he is. There's Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, Chris Offutt and journals like Appalachian Heritage and online scenes like Still and Fiddleblack, and publishers like Motes Books and Bottom Dog Press who are all publishing good work. Nikki Finney is the founder of the Affrilachian poets, there's Frank X. Walker and a ton of of other writers who represent a great deal more diversity than Appalachia is ever given credit for. So I don't mind, is the answer, I just wish reviewers would/could cast their net a little wider.
As for the second part of the question, place is very important to me. I need to get the details right, and I fuss like hell when I make a mistake, especially as what I write about represents a great deal more to me than just fiction. It's people, my people, I want to represent, so if I fuck something basic up it's a double whammy. I'm in an odd position as a writer who claims Appalachian roots, when the image most people take of the area does not include me and mine up there where I was born, in the very northern tip of Appalachia. Most of the literature from and about the region comes from what's typically known as cultural Appalachia: eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, southwestern PA. So I feel a little internal pressure to outdo myself so me and mine might be included in descriptions of Appalachian writers. No one in the, uh, "Appalachian mainstream" has ever treated me badly or pooh-poohed my claim--quite the opposite--but I really want to knock everyone's ass out one of these days.
And then there's the question of locale for me in another sense. I'm up here in Revere MA, expatriated, so to speak, from my PA roots. In one sense, I'm just another PA native who left for greener pastures, a victim of brain drain, that phenomenon by which the forces that propel a lower-middle class kid like me into college and graduate school and parts unknown means I'll probably never live on the home turf again.. I don't work a day job anymore, but for ten or twelve years I pursued the life of the writer as I knew it, and teaching opportunities in my hometown were few and far between. I can think of maybe six colleges within a reasonable commute,whereas in the Boston area there's more like sixty-five. So the choice was obvious, but a larger part of me regrets that as the thing I'll have to carry with me till I die. I left the place, left the family, and didn't come back.
BG: In addition to your Appalachian heritage and your own love for language and writing and literature, how has your experience studying creative writing at a university affected / influenced / inspired / shaped your writing?
RB: That's hard to say. Mostly I didn't have close friends at first so I spent my entire first semester trying desperately to pass my 19th century novel course and reading like fury to try to catch up to contemporary literature. Me, my guitar, and my Tandy computer using WordPerfect. Everything I wrote that first semester ended up in my thesis, though, and I read something like 300 books. My guitar playing never improved, though.
Grad school was good in that I met some people who are still my friends eighteen years later, and I made enough connections with faculty whose confidence in me helped enormously as I suffered through being violated in workshops. Christopher Tilghman and DeWitt Henry were particularly helpful, as was Christopher Keane's advice about novel-writing, which only sunk in after I left the program.
BG: So you don't think anything you learned in a Creative Writing class helped strengthen or improve your writing in any way? What was the novel-writing advice from Keane?
RB: What I heard in class--mostly--was that my stuff wasn't ready yet for publication. I learned from another professor, Eileen Pollack, the utility of a really thorough review, even though I didn't write them well at the time. I heard show don't tell/never start a story with dialogue. Stuff like that. I think I had to unlearn a lot in order to get to a comfort zone with my subject matter. I heard a lot about endings in grad school, and I listened, but ultimately, I liked the way I ended stories. Epiphany doesn't come for many people or many characters, so it never made sense to have the story blow up into seriousness or some ponderous lesson learned.
The novel advice from Keane via Harry Crews was simply to keep at it. I'd bet more than half the people writing in graduate school, probably more, give writing up within ten years after grad school, because they have no audience and little familial/other writer support,and their spouses or significant others don't understand. The world doesn't want writers or artists, and the schools who train artists never mention how hard it is just to keep going. The world wants you not to fuck around with art; the world wants you to toddle along and not think about the things that make good fiction, for example. They train you away from conflict and into mild or middle of the road views on everything,which doesn't make for good fiction. Harry Crews just died, so I've been rereading him lately, and one of the things he said that stays with me is that he did not admire fiction or writers with no edges. The people who make change in the world or who make art that succeeds have edges, and those edges enter the world and alter it. I'm not saying it as well or succinctly as he did, and wouldn't suggest that anyone travel as far as he did to find the edges or make the edges, but the statement rings true for me nonetheless.
BG: Thanks a lot for your time and for a great interview. Now's your chance to leave us with a final thought. If there's one (or maybe a few) thing(s) you want readers to come away with after reading Mostly Redneck, what is it?
RB: I want them to come away with a woody, even the women. I want them all het up and bothered and wanting to read my next book.