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An Interview With Alan Heathcock, Author of VOLT

Author: Jessica Phillips

(Originally published for WriterHouse blogs )

Alan Heathcock’s new story collection VOLT (Graywolf, 2011) has spread like an electric current to the “Best Book of 2011″ lists of GQ, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and others, and was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His fiction has been published in such magazines and journals as Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. Heathcock has been awarded numerous fellowships and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. Read more about Heathcock at his website.

VOLT, set in the fictional rural town of Krafton, delves deep and unflinchingly into the complex inner lives of the town’s inhabitants.Readers will encounter the mind of an ethically-conflicted sheriff whose “religion is keeping peace,” and run with hell-raising teens rebelling against the real hell of war that the world offers them. VOLT transcends time, place, and at times, even character, as these stories of grieving fathers and troubled daughters reveal life at its most primal and human moments of despair—and redemption.

Q: You have described yourself as an “empathetic writer”—as someone who tries to understand a character through becoming them as much as possible, which translates well into the believability and timelessness of the characters in VOLT. However, it seems like it would be difficult to open yourself up so fully to a character whose personality or situation was particularly repellent to you. Did you experience difficulty in empathizing with any of the characters or situations in VOLT, and how did you respond?

A: I consider what I do as a writer to be much closer to acting than, say, journalism. The job is to create power on the page by connecting a reader with the empathetic truths of the character.It’s not about me. Like an actor, I must give myself over to the character. That’s not to say that it’s always easy. The truth is that once you’ve done enough work for the character to become human then you understand them, and once a character is understood they’re no longer repellent. Getting to that point is tricky. The very first story in the collection is about a man who kills his own son in a farming accident. The story is based on something that happened in my family. I have three kids of my own, and my greatest fear, by far, is that they’ll somehow be harmed. Steeping myself in the experiences and emotions of my character, Winslow Nettles, was devastating. I cried and cried writing that story. It was awful. But it was also beautiful. I think the greatest purpose of art, of literature, is to allow us to see ourselves, though in a way that’s bearable. To live through the experiences of Winslow helped me confront things that had scared and confounded me for a long time. As I’ve traveled around the country talking with readers I’ve found the empathetic experience I’ve enabled have been greatly cathartic for others, too. At the very first stop on my book tour, in Portland, Oregon, a woman came up to me and said she’d read “The Staying Freight” (Winslow’s story) and it greatly helped her deal with the death of her own son. She said she’d driven an hour and a half to come meet me. It was a powerful and privileged moment for me, a meeting that justified all the pain I’d endured in the writing of that story.

In the end, I love my characters. All of them. I love them because I’ve lived their lives, felt their pain, understood their confusions, their motivations. Once you’ve passed into empathy, to truly understand someone who is not you, then there’s no room for judgment, or at least not in the sense that I’m judging them. Often the characters judge themselves harshly, and through empathy I own that judgment, too, but that’s where it ends. This is straight from what my father told me as a boy, to not judge someone until I’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That’s what a great story does–it allows a reader to walk a mile in a character’s shoes.

Q: Many of the characters in VOLT show up in more than one story. In the later stories, the reader’s perception of repeated characters is colored by what is already known about them. What went into the process of deciding when to reveal what about characters in the collection?

A: As I wrote the stories the characters became real to me. That’s to say, for example, if I wrote a story about Helen Farraley deciding to cover up a murder, then that became a part of who she was. It was real. It literally happened to her. As is true in our world, once something profound happens to us, then we’re changed. Our worldview is changed. The way we feel in certain situations, the way we interact with the world, is different. Once the events of the story “Peacekeeper” came into Helen Farraley’s life, then she was changed. She was then a different character. So when Helen came up again in the story “The Daughter” I had to consider what had happened to her in “Peacekeeper”, and when I wrote the story “Volt” I had to consider what had happened to her in both of the previous stories, and then carry those changes into the new narrative. I was always writing a story collection, and wasn’t really trying to bind the narratives together by bringing plot points from one story into the next, but merely trying to capture the truth of that character’s human experience. As a result, the development of characters like Helen, or Vernon Hamby, over several stories acted as a glue that held the collection together. I didn’t decide to reveal certain things in certain stories as a kind of macro strategy, but only considered the empathetic truth of the character in one story, and carried those changes into the next. My book will fit the aesthetic of some readers, and for others it won’t be their cup of tea, so the only qualitative measure I took was to ensure that every word I wrote was true. You can tell me you didn’t care for the subject matter of my book, and that’s fine, but you can’t tell me it’s not true. Capturing empathetic truth, moment by moment, was my great preoccupation as a writer.

Q: You mentioned in another interview that you enjoy translating scenes from film into writing. You also said that you would be interested in seeing “The Daughter,” among other stories from VOLT, turned into film. “The Daughter” was my personal favorite story in the collection, and I felt like the ending was staged vividly like a well-filmed scene—daughter sitting at the table, mother turned away at the window, and the simple but necessary “props” of the cake, the sandwich and the broken salt-shaker. Can you talk about why you think “The Daughter” or other stories from VOLT might translate well into film?

A: Thanks for the kind words on “The Daughter”. That story especially is the exact right size to be a feature film–I don’t think a filmmaker would need to add or subtract anything, but just follow the story as if it were a script. As to why the stories would translate well into film, I think I’m a very visual writer (and film is primarily a visual medium), and I try to actually have things happen in my stories. The engine under their hood is still character and empathy, but the plots, I think, are mysterious and interesting, the drama often based on characters who get in over their heads (in multiple ways), which always plays well in cinema. Add an interesting setting to the plots, which I think I’ve done, and then we have something that just might work. I’m pleased to say that a short film production of the story “Fort Apache” will soon begin filming somewhere on the east coast. We’re also in talks to have the feature option picked up on others. I love books, and I’m a voracious reader, but I’ve been a great fan of the movies since my parents (also huge movie buffs) started taking me to every film they saw when I was just as a little kid. I’ve kept a movie log for the past 16 years, and as of today I’ve watched 3,262 films. This is to say that film is as much a passion of mine as literature, so I’m hopeful that I’ll get even more opportunities to see my stories up on the silver screen.

Q: As you said, a lot happens in your stories, yet the plot-lines never seem forced or over-the-top. Within the VOLT collection and otherwise, do you generally begin writing stories with a big plot-point in mind—such as a murder or a death in the family—or do your plots progress more from character or setting?

A: I don’t have a process that involves me starting from setting or character or plot, as it’s different and jumbled every time. Most of the stories in VOLT started with me posing a question to myself, or reengaging with something that happened to me, something I must face, consider, soothe. The process then is to make many many decisions, about the character, about the plot, about the setting and meaning and… So many decisions. Most writers make those decisions by writing draft after draft after draft. I don’t do that. I only start writing the story once I’ve figured out the character in the plot in the setting, and I know what it all means, and that it all feels real and right to me. I need all the elements to be married, so to speak, because the character affects the plot, and the plot affects the character, as does the setting, as does the meaning (what I’m trying to communicate). It’s a balancing act.I once had a professor advise to create a character and then, when writing a story, just follow the character around. Their approach was that it always started with character. In fact, they claimed that “literary fiction” was the art of following around a character. Tragically, back then I followed my characters into a whole lot of nothing. So I decided I needed to think, deeply, about the plot, too. Now, I understand the plot as being intimately linked with what the character “wants” in the narrative, and I allow that “want” to be the narrative engine, while understanding that often that “want” originates from an event in the story (a point of plot). It’s a chicken and the egg sort of thing. This is the basic template to all my stories. Because I know I don’t want my stories to feel over-the-top, forced, or formulaic, I work very hard to make sure that everything is unique, and in balance. To say it simply, I’m conscious not to abide a recognizable formula. 80% of what I do as a writer involves me taking notes on the story, drawing pictures, make story boards, all to figure out the character, the events, the setting, the meaning, figuring out everything before I officially start to write the story. Once I reach critical mass and I know the character and the plot and everything else, then and only then do I set out to compose, to find the exact right words to capture the story in its full potency.

To come back to your question, for me the story progresses in a circular fashion as I test the character against the plot against the setting against the meaning until I’ve found that balance. So it’s never that I start with a character and then get a plot, or have a plot and then get a character, but that I’m confronting a question, generally, and then find a character in a plot that enables that investigation. The biggest thing I tell my students is that we all work in different ways, and it’s important to you to find your own process. I wasted a lot of time by borrowing process from other writers, by doing what professors told me was right (for them), even though they were clearly wired differently than me. Ultimately, any writing process is a means to the same end. We all must have a balanced story, where all the elements are perfectly married, and it feels true and real. That in mind, I urge my students to find their own process. If you want to story-board the plot, then do it. If you want to start by creating the place, getting down every street and field and hill, then do it. Start with theme if that’s how your brain works. Outline. Free-write. Process only matters in that you need to find one that best suits how your own mind works most effectively to produce work of the highest quality.

Q: There’s a certain cyclical nature to families in the VOLT collection. In “The Daughter,” three generations of women are tethered together by a thread of violence, and in “Smoke,” the father, upon taking his son to help him bury a man he’s killed, confuses a memory of his son with a memory of his own father. Yet in both stories there also seems to be the chance of redemption for the younger generation. Do you think these stories show more the inevitability that the past will repeat itself, or that each generation is able to make their own choices and bring the world into a better future?

A: What a great question, and really the question that’s at the heart of why I write. I don’t think I can give an either/or answer. A truth of our world, one that gives me great pause, is that we don’t learn from our past. Violence on scales both small and large is passed down from father to son to mother to daughter. It’s a difficult cycle to break. Certainly, there are modern nations that have been at war for generations. There’s a part of us that calls out for violence. It’s needed. Violence to combat violence. Violence to combat evil. Violence to protect our own. These concepts are openly accepted, and culturally endorsed. In The Sermon on the Mount Christ says for us to “turn the other cheek”, to “resist not evil”. I was just reading Tolstoy’s take on this concept, and he points out that Christ meant exactly what he said. We should let evil destroy us. Certainly, Christ went to the cross to prove his point. But at the same time this non-resistance isn’t a part of the human survival instinct. It’s impractical to “resist not evil”. A philosopher King might just get us all killed. And if we’re destroyed then what does it matter what we believe. That’s how it’s widely seen, at least. So we’re destined to have violence in our world, because it’s required for us to feel as if we’re combating violence/evil, as opposed to understand we’re perpetuating more violence. In the end of my story “Smoke” young Vernon Hamby thinks of all the smoke the world has ever seen, smoke from wars, smoke from bombs, and understands all that smoke is now just the air we breathe. A bleak worldview, sure, but one that can’t be discounted. That said, his moment of recognition, of seeing the smoke for what is was, was a moment of hope. If you can see a thing clearly, recognize and acknowledge it, then you can choose how to negotiate the world with that thing in it–you can fan the smoke from your face to get a fresh breath of air.

We also have to acknowledge that there is love in the world. Though people generally don’t hold up well under moral scrutiny (myself included), they generally are motivated by love. Where there is love, there is hope.

Not too long ago I had a student come to class fresh from war. He started classes three weeks into the semester because he first had to finish his tour of duty in Iraq. He literally came to class with bandages still on from wounds he’d received in combat. He struggled in class. The piece of fiction he brought in for workshop was eighteen pages of uninterrupted violence. Watching him made me feel a lot of things (appreciative for what soldiers endured, bolstered by witnessing what sacrifices a person could make for a cause), but mainly I felt terribly sad. But he had a friend, a kind young lady who knew him from high school, who sat next to him every class, who looked out for him. I saw that she was trying to bring him back home, so to speak, and that relationship, as it played out over a semester, was remarkable and very moving. It gave me great hope for the future. That relationship was a metaphor for my greatest fear, and my greatest hope. The awful thing is that war exists. The brilliant thing is that love exists.

The best and only thing I can do as a writer and storyteller is to not look away, to peer unflinching at these questions and show both sides as potent and true, to put forth the questions as both indictment and herald. Much like young Vernon recognizing the truth of the smoke was an act of hope, writing is an act of hope. When I write I recognize and acknowledge the ugly truths of our world so that turning the pages will fan away the smoke from our faces and we might, if for but a moment, take a fresh breath of air.

Jessica Phillips is an English major with a focus on business and literary creative writing at Truman State University, and has evaluated submissions for The Chariton Review and Windfall literary journals. Jessica interviews authors for WriterHouse and is currently a publishing intern at the Truman State University Press.

DMU Timestamp: March 15, 2012 22:35

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