A Conversation with Holly Goddard Jones (The Next Time You See Me, a SIBA Okra Pick) and Leah Stewart (The History of Us)

Holly Goddard Jones Leah Stewart

LS: All of my books are set in different places, but you’ve created a fictional small town—Roma, Kentucky—and explored it in both your stories and your novel. Why did you create a town rather than choosing an actual one? What went into the creation of Roma, and what compels you about the place and places like it?

The Next Time You See MeHGJ: By the time I’d reached the end of the promotion cycle for my first book, Girl Trouble, and had worn myself out on talking about my regionalism, I’d reached what felt like an epiphany: which was that I write about Kentucky precisely because setting is not my foremost interest. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’d be disingenuous if I claimed to have no interest in where I’m from, in representing where I’m from for a reader. But—well, here’s the best comparison I can make. I’d rather hang out with people I already know than go to a party and meet new people. New people tire me. And in my writing, I’d rather just take the setting for granted. I like to travel, but I could never be a travel writer, probably.

I made up a fictional town, Roma, because I wanted to write about a small Kentucky town without writing about a specific small Kentucky town. I wanted to be able to make stuff up when it was convenient to do so, and I couldn’t imagine calling it Russellville, which is my hometown, and then saying that the barbecue restaurant is anything but Roy’s and the drugstore on the square anything but Riley-White. It was probably also a fear of being taken literally, and I’ve had plenty of reasons over the last few years to feel justified in that fear. People are hungry to see the truth in a work of fiction, and when you borrow a few true details, you give readers just enough to hang their hats on.

LS: I’m also curious to hear what you’d say about the relationship between Roma and the characters who live there. Is your work in some way also about location and identity? Many of these characters are certainly profoundly shaped by having grown up in Roma.

HGJ: I suppose it has to be. I think all the time about what it means that I’m from where I’m from. I’d venture to guess that the majority of southern writers (whether or not they write about the South) are driven to a certain extent by a combination of defensiveness and self-loathing, and that’s one of the compelling tensions in the region’s literature. It’s not a tension that my characters are aware of—they tend, so far, to not worry much about how the world outside of Roma views them—but I think it’s there in how I struggle to narrate some of the contradictions I struggle with. Like how a man can be a wonderful father to a daughter but an old-fashioned, sexist husband, or how your fiercely smart, strong, no-nonsense grandmother is perhaps also a racist.

LS: To stay with character for a minute, you tackle an impressive range of people in the novel: different personalities, of course, but also different ages, classes, races, genders, and professions. What motivates you to explore such diverse points of view? Were there particular characters who were more challenging to inhabit than others?

HGJ: It’s just one of the sources of fun for me, one of the reasons I write. It’s the magic of the creation process, figuring out how I can come to know the seemingly unknowable, whether that unknowable person is a murderer or a cocaine user or a person outside of my race or a mother, since I’m not a mother.

With this book, the character that was most obviously a challenge was Tony, because I’d never written a black point of view character before. I’ve wondered over the years whether or not I have the right to do so. Intellectually or hypothetically, I’ve believed all along that I do—of course I do—but practically, there’s a lot at stake. A lot to lose if I can’t be convincing, and what does that even mean, to be convincing? It’s all very loaded. But it has bothered me for a long time that I was writing about a small Kentucky town and not ever writing about race. It seemed cowardly and false. It would have been another kind of cowardly and false to put Tony in the story but never grant him the perspective I grant other significant characters. So I went for it, and I used baseball as the point of entry. One of his lines—“You don’t understand the life of an athlete”—is something a man said to me many years ago (to immense anger on my part, I might add), and I thought, let’s see if I can try. This was an interesting case of the two alien things—Tony’s race, his obsessive athleticism—making each thing less alien to me.

LS: The story you sent me that’s set in Sewanee is the first thing I’ve read by you that doesn’t take place in Roma. Have you been working with other settings lately? How does that feel different to you? Do you think you’ll keep writing about Roma? Have you set anything in Greensboro, NC, where you now live?

HGJ: Yeah. Since finishing The Next Time You See Me, it’s all been outside of Roma and even Kentucky. There are two stories set in Sewanee-like places, though I’m not calling it Sewanee. I’m chickening out again. This one story, which is unfinished, has a backstory in it about a 19th century serial killer, and I don’t see how I can call it Sewanee and claim that the town had a serial killer in the late 1800s. But man, you put Sewanee and 19th century serial killer together, and it just makes sense, doesn’t it?

I haven’t set anything in Greensboro. It’s not something I’ve thought consciously about; it just hasn’t happened. I seem, even in this new incarnation of my writing life, to be drawn to more claustrophobic settings: a small town, an island beach house, a college campus, a car on a lonely stretch of highway. Greensboro is such a medium-sized city. It’s such an easy place to live, and you don’t have to think about it too much. And that’s probably why I’m not itching to write about it.

LS: Except for your time in the MFA program at OSU, you’ve mostly lived in the south, and all of your work is set there. Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? What does that term, or the idea of southern fiction, mean to you?

HGJ: I guess I must be a southern writer—I’m certainly willing to claim that mantle when it benefits me—but it’s something I end up having to think about a whole lot more on the publishing end than the writing end of what I do. Same thing with being a “woman writer.”

There’s an image of the southern writer—one you see in places like Sewanee, when people are drinking whiskey and listening to a makeshift band of writers on guitar, and someone starts telling a story about the time Barry Hannah pulled out a gun in a creative writing workshop—that I enjoy being an audience to but feel outside of. That way of life is as foreign to how I grew up as having a pint in a London pub, or eating dim sum in New York. I experience it like a tourist.

LS: As a first-time novelist, how would you describe the challenges of transitioning from short stories? What have you learned that might serve you on the next book?

HGJ: Writing The Next Time You See Me was when I finally started to learn the art of the cut. Before, when I heard people talk about cutting manuscripts by 20 percent or whatever it is, or killing darlings, I nodded along but really saw it as an act of conspicuous self-deprivation, like loudly declaring you’re going gluten-free or lecturing to people at a cocktail party about how good you feel now that you don’t drink anymore. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. Can I just get a refill? The way I’ve unstuck myself during the composition process has always been to go into lyrical passages of exposition, and if that was the drug I needed to get the job done, so be it. So I ended up with two thirds of a really flabby novel that read a bit like a story cycle. Each chapter had a tidy narrative arc, usually set off with some kind of narrative frame, and that meant that the book’s momentum kept flagging. Shaping this book into what it eventually became involved a lot of reordering and ultimately about 40 pages of cuts. They were hard at first, and then I was pretty gleeful about them. And let me say, in case it sounds like I’m the converted preaching to the heathens—and I don’t remember anyone explaining it to me this way—that these gleeful cuts had ample and immediate payoff. I started to see how an extraction could immediately heighten the tension and create a stronger transition. And I’ve been taking these lessons more intuitively into the new project, so I anticipate that the revision process won’t require 40 pages of discarded material.