Authors & Events
Philip Stephens is the author of the poetry collection The Determined Days, which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA West Literary Award. His work as appeared in The Oxford American, Southwest Review, and Bomb, among other publications, as well as in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004. He lives with his wife and sons in Kansas City, Missouri.
There is much attention to scenic detail in this novel, specifically in terms of flora and geological features. What role, for you, do these natural details play in shaping a novel?
Place is character; character is place, though some folks might argue that place forms character, and I expect that's fair enough. But if we can agree that a story at its most skeletal tells of someone who wants something and what he's willing to go through to get it, then placein my case, hills, rocks, springs, streams, backroads, caves, trees, tarpaper houses, doublewides, town squares, and barnsbecomes a character through which each character must interact. I feel like my writing has to bring to life, to a reader's reality, what could happen. I want to make myth real. Wakoda County and Apogee Springs, Missouri, may not appear on the state map, but one of my jobs is to make the places appeal to senses, to a reality that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, and tossed around.
My grandpa Stephens used to cut and ride ties down the Osage River to Bagnell, Missouri, where he sold them to the Bagnell Line. He had to know white oak from red oak, walnut from hickory. The differences meant food on the table for five boys, one daughter, and his wife.
Later, he used to send his boys to clear brush on property across the road from their house. No matter the seasonleafy summer, barren winterthey had to know which trees to cut, which ones to leave. That's a writerly metaphor straining to beknowing what to leave in, what to leave outbut what has impressed me, and made an impression on me, is how my dad can name a tree or bush by looking at bark or shape, and how he knows where such and such a tree will grow. Nobody hopes to be ignorant, but I don't want to be ignorant of the physical world. I'd end up lost as a person, let alone a writer.
So just as I have to know where I am as a writer, I have to say on the page, "You are here." I have to show just what is here and where to go. Chert differs from karst. Cave-spring water looks, tastes, smells, feels, and sounds nothing like dammed river water. Second growth timber varies from cedar and blackjack oak encroaching on a knob. Each resides in its place; each appeals to senses in a different way. If I can't make that clear and real, I lose the reader, which at first is me, and the reader is lost.
Each character has a distinct way of speaking throughout the book. How difficult is it to maintain consistent dialogue? How do you go about capturing authentic, realistic speech patterns for your characters?
My forebears traveled out of east Tennessee and Virginia into the Ozarks. Language is culture, or switch that around. They hauled their language with them, and I guess it got passed to me from my folks, who came from south Missouri, and from their folks, whom we visited regularly.
Such as: "You'd complain if you were hung with a new rope"; "He doesn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of"; "It's black as ole Coalies' ass"; "I'll do that soon as I eat this hot bucket of shit"; "He don't know shit from Shinola"; "Shit or get off the pot"; "You were born tired and never did get rested"; "He don't do nothing and don't know when to stop"; "He don't know beans from buttermilk"; "He don't know his head from a hole in the ground"; "She could talk the bark off a tree"; "I'm so hungry I could eat the ass out of a bear"; "You would argue with a fencepost."
Sometimes these got cleaned up for a little boy's big ears, though mostly I heard, "You'd complain if you were hung with a new rope" and "You would argue with a fencepost." Music, metaphor, euphemismthese were part of my day, and I loved to hear old people talk. In my house, "Foot," was a substitution for "fuck," at least when employed as a term of disgust. When my mother dropped a bowl of batter, cut her hand on broken glass, figured an error in the checkbook, she'd say, "six and two is eight." Not simple addition, but a euphemism for "shit."
Some years ago I went to tour the Ryman Auditorium with my wife. We sat through the introductory film, which, of course, features Minnie Pearl. When I heard her, I got teary, and my wife asked what was wrong. "She sounds like Memaw," I said. My mom's mother, Memaw, we called her, had died twenty years before then. My wife gave me a quizzical look: "She sounds like your mom."
I like to blame the Southern Baptist Church in which I was raised for teaching me that people fail to say what they mean or mean what they say. There, I witnessed folks disguise their personalitiescontrary, morose, hateful, baleful, violentwith Christian language and bearing. Of course, disguising oneself is not limited to church. Conversations are rife with agendas, which as a writer you have to keep, but words often serve as a false face for the character speaking. I feel like when I write dialogue I have to be as much aware of what's not being said as what is being said.
When I worked as a signalman for the Southern Pacific Railroad out of San Francisco, California, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became a guide to me. The first sentence to his piece on Alabama tenant farmer's overalls begins thus: "They are pronounced overhauls." From there, he conducts a verbose study of overalls in their forms and changes: new overalls, old overalls, sweaty overalls, overalls slipped down in defecation. The importance of the pronunciation of overalls stuck with me, but so did the obsessive attention to detail of an object, which in turn gave life to the situation of a people. Agee went on and on about overalls, and I loved it. I fell for all things Agee, and, in turn, for the photographs of Walker Evans, which came to me not as nostalgic glimpses but as a documentation of lives and lifestyles and entire communities passing. I found a quote from Evans, made large-print copies of it, and I've carried copies with me ever since, sticking them to the refrigerator, pinning them to my corkboard: "Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." Maybe, for me, it's an edict. At least it says that the way I prefer to engage with the world is OK. Or crucial.
I make up voicesrubes, hillbillies, hermits, pirates, teenagers at the mall or on the streetto entertain my sons, though sometimes I'll keep up a voice to the point where my wife says, "Stop it. You're scaring me." One morning, a few years back, I sat in a rocking chair holding my two-year-old who was obsessed with The Beatles. "Talk to Paul," he'd say. "Talk to John." Which meant talk like Paul or talk like John. Before my first cup of coffee, my son required me to engage in a six-way conversation between John, Paul, George, Ringo, Winnie the Pooh, and a stuffed dog we call Tennie Hound because he grew up in Tennessee near Grinder's Switch and played sometimes with Hank Williams when he wasn't hanging out at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.
Just as I have to know Tennie Hound's story, I have to know where a character comes fromphysically and mentallybefore I can make voices both consistent and distinct. I have to write to get there, though. Once I figure it out I can go back to drafts of dialogue and say, "Nope, he wouldn't say that" or "Huh-uh, she's talking above her raising." Then maybe I can fix it. I hope so.
In notes at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain writes:
Twain's probably gilding the truth a bit, but that's not for me to say. I don't write in dialect. These days, dialect would come across as poking fun, or being judgmental or bigoted. But I hope I provide enough of the sound and cadence of a character's speech to make the character real. I guess that's done mostly by ear. In a recent New Yorker article, an author maintains that Twain wrote as much by eye as by ear. I don't know what figuring the author had to do to come up with what I think is a specious equation. Twain probably had to read his words back to himself. He had to taste the words before he could say, "Yes, that's him." I'm no expert. But I read my characters aloud so I can say, "That's the same gal I wrote on page 38" or "Yeah, there he is." I have to hope I'm right.
Music plays a huge part in your book. What's your relationship with the type of music featured in Miss Me When I'm Gone? What sort of research did you do in creating rich, historical detail for the musical elements of the book?
My great-grandfather, James Wesley Cunningham, often played fiddle, which he considered backsliding. When he wasn't a mason, he preached brush-arbor revivals for the Nazarene church. His daughter once had to retrieve his fiddle from the stove. "That's the Devil's instrument," he said. When he died, a Bible and a fiddle sat on his kitchen table. I have the Bible, which he marked extensively; he was fond of Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs; I play his fiddle.
My great Uncle Bud, James Edward Garrett, played fiddle, mandolin, and guitar for rent parties and dances as far south of Missouri as Langley, Oklahoma, and as far north as Argentine, Kansas. My papaw, Hilgar Lee Cunningham, played any instrument you set in front of him, except the fiddle. Not a one of them had a lesson or could read music. Not a one of them got beyond sixth grade in southern Missouri.
My great-grandma Garrett, Ganky, she was called, played piano; so did Grandma Stephens. Uncle Bill Stephens at the age of eighty has a country-western band that plays for V.F.W. Halls and nursing homes, anywhere people care to hear the old songs. A while back, my five-year-old was beating on his ukulele and singing lyrics of his own concoction, and he sounded like he was channeling Son House. His seventeen-month-old brother can say a few words, but can hum songs entire. Maybe music flows through blood.
When I was five-years-old I heard fiddle at Lee Mace's Ozark Opry in Osage Beach, Missouri. I told my mom I wanted to do that, and she put me off for two years until I ended up taking lessons on my great-grandfather's fiddle. At first, I played classical, but Mom found a teacher who'd let me learn fiddle tunes too. When Papaw saw me playing a fiddle tune by reading music, he stopped, stared me down, and said, "That ain't fiddle playing." If a melody wasn't handed down by ear, it wasn't worth much. I learned my first tune by ear from Great Uncle Bud"Ragtime Annie."
Like most anyone else my age I heard top forty as a child, though I still recall my mom's 45s and my dad's albums: Platters, Bill Haley and his Comets, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Chet Atkins. In the summer after my eighth grade year I lay in front of my brother's Realistic console stereo while a thunderstorm passed. " A Day in the Life," came on. Lightning kept interrupting. "Who's that?" I thought. My brother listened to Steve Miller Band and REO Speedwagon. I went from obsessions with The Beatles to Bob Dylan to Woody Guthrie to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and from there I branched out everywhere from John Prine to Otis Redding to Lottie Kimbrough to The Allen Brothers to Charley Patton to the Old Pal Smoke Shop Four. I studied liner notes like they were Dead Sea scrolls. As I wrote the novel I read everything I could find by Charles Wolfe, Vance Randolph, Peter Guralnick, Nick Tosches, Miles Gordon, Greil Marcus, Ken Emerson, John Jacob Niles. Books and liner notes helped with accuracy, but I have to admit most of the stuff leaked out of my head.
I should say that I did sing in coffeehouses and bars, but I wasn't very good. Even so, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter before I ever wrote a poem. But to be such a thing you have to entertain, you have to perform, and it doesn't hurt if you can play well. I'm not all that entertaining, so I hope I'm better off performing for a blank page.
How did you go about sculpting this story? What challenges did you face in balancing several complex storylines with intersecting characters?
I start writing and hope I end up somewhere. I scatter a mess of words. To use a brush-clearing metaphor, I have to hack, mow, landscape. By that time I may have an idea of what's going on in the story.
That said, I dreamt about the main characters in this book when I lived in California and wrote the dreams down. I do that sometimes; I don't know why. So: a woman shot four high-school boys; a man couldn't find his way home because the roads were new. Maybe seven years later, I started writing them. As I wrote, I drew maps of the land over which my characters wandered. I wrote long paragraphs about their history, their likes and dislikes: favorite sandwiches, laundry detergent, room lighting, brands of boots and shoes, information that never made it to story but helped me understand the sort of people I was fighting on the page.
Randy, the deaf-mute, the hog-eyed man, and idealistic ideas about old-time music insinuated themselves into the work, and I ended up with four intersecting story lines of six-hundred pages. Fine if you're working on a Russian epic. I was not.
I write by hand and type what I write, though what that has to do with anything I've no idea. I edit those pages. I retype. Pages go into a computer where they get edited all over again. One writer who saw a portion of an early typed manuscript asked what a hog-eyed man was. I knew a hog-eyed man was in more than a few old songs, but that was all. This was before Google. When I finally found the answer I had a decent understanding of the story. If I remember right, and I probably don't, I realized I needed to scale some characters back and bring others to the fore.
After my first son was born I went out back to what we like to call the studioa messy room over our garageto print what I thought was a once-and-for-all version of the manuscript. Three a.m. A new baby. The computer froze. I have a temper. I beat hell out of the machine and lost the hard drive.
I started over from old typewritten drafts, which I cut up with scissors and taped together. I rewrote. The hog-eyed man became an expert in song, as did Newbern. Randy became a chorus singing in blank verse. Without them, the book lacked a necessary layering. Without them, Cyrus and Margaret were strangers in a strange land, circling one another and lost.
What projects are you working on now?
When people ask what I'm working on, I say, " a mess." So far I'm working on a mess of poems; a mess of essays about music and family; and an unholy mess of a novel that, these days, takes place in 1865, 1965, and 2005 in Wakoda County, Missouri. I don't know where that novel is going, but I know where it is.
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