f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A pt. 1

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Day 3 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A pt. 1

Clay has a lot of anti-heroic tendencies. Did you ever feel in danger of creating a character readers just might not like?

With Brad Cannon, the narrator in Cycling, my second novel, I thought it was a very real danger. With both Clay and Brad, though, I tried to create what I think of as extenuating circumstances in their back stories that would give the reader some sympathy and have them rooting for them to snap out of it. Free Bird begins with two newspaper columns that put Clay’s life into relief: ten years ago he left his lucrative law practice to came back home to rural north Carolina after the death of his wife and child in a car crash, and he never left. Clay’s progress through the book then is one where we’re rooting for his good self to emerge, and we see flashes of it along the way—sort of a two steps forward, one step back thing. As long as readers have hope for change, they can keep reading.

Is the "road trip" novel one of those things like jazz and baseball that's an American form? I know it's based on the ancient quest/journey narratives, but isn't there something quintessentially "American" about the road-trip?

America has made highways and cars a central part of our modern mythology. Like the old Westerns, you can saddle your trusty steed and travel to some place where you can be a different person, if that’s what you need. Free Bird is very traditional, in the sense that it moves from East to West, from civilization to wilderness (which is the pattern we’ve followed as a nation and seen in novels like The Grapes of Wrath). It’s also traditional in that it has a picaresque plot, which means the novel is made up of one sequence after another as Clay meets people along the way and deals with external and internal conflicts. It’s structured very differently than Cycling, which almost all takes place within twenty miles of the narrator’s house.

Do you consider your book a "southern" novel? How about a "Christian" novel?

Free Bird is Southern to the extent that I was raised in the South until I was ten or eleven, and my sense of language and storytelling remains very Southern. It also features characters who are very Southern—the mother and maiden aunts, Clay, and Clay’s stepfather, Ray all talk and act Southern—polite, even when they’re being rude, submerging things they can’t dare to talk about. It’s also Southwestern, though, in that the Southern elements about politeness and how we act in company and how our families and our history determine who we are clashes with the Western notion I mentioned earlier about how, when we enter this vast landscape, we leave those past things behind and we come to a place where no one knows us and we can try to be somebody new.

Free Bird is indeed a very Christian novel, although I would not have described myself as very Christian when I was writing it. I was suffering through some of the worst depression in my life as I worked on the book, and I wasn’t part of a church community, nor did I have much of a faith life or any hope for the future, for that matter. If you’d asked me straight out, I probably would have told you that I was “historically Christian.” I’m pleased that it turned out this way, especially now that I’m ridiculously devout and studying for the priesthood, but honestly, I was just trying to write a novel about a character I cared about.

And yet it’s clearly a Christian novel about forgiveness, redemption, and rebirth, and it’s full of Christian phraseology and symbolism. One critic asked me about all the scenes of communion/Eucharist in the book and I just said, “Wha huh?” And of course the climactic action of the book—not to give away anything, but if any of you folks out there are hoping the climactic scene is a car chase or gunfight, you should probably read another book—the climactic scene is a confession, an actual confession to an actual Catholic priest. I didn’t plan that, and it is over sangria in a bar instead of in a confessional, but still. It just became clear as I neared the end that it was the only way that the character could ever be healed. He had to confess, be forgiven, and then he would have the chance to do better.

I consider Clay to be "Christ-haunted" in this book. He just can't escape. That paints an interesting portrait of a loving, relentless God who refuses to give someone up. What vision of "God" did you want to share in this book.

As I mentioned, I had no conscious notion that I was writing a religious book, so I really had no interest in promoting any vision of God. I was telling a story about a broken person’s journey back toward wholeness. Since I was writing as a broken person myself, though, I’m sure I had the hope that there is a God who loves us and won’t give up on us, who loves us as much when we hurt each other as when we win the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s the God that seems to emerge: plot is always a series of coincidences (the plot of our lives is also simply a skein of coincidences), but the coincidences in Free Bird seem to show that there is a plan for us that we can’t escape simply by running. Most importantly, Clay meets good people who are the face of God for him, who call him back into communion not so much by talking God-talk but by living Jesus-lives. If Clay becomes a hero along his way—and I think he does—it’s by emulating the Christ-like lives of those he encounters along the way, especially the example of his stepfather, Ray, the true moral center of the book.

Name a novel or two that have been instructive in your writing development?

I went through phases in my twenties when I was learning to write where I was interested first in Stephen King, then in Anne Tyler, then in John Irving, then in Margaret Atwood. I read all their books and emulated their work, usually badly, as I sought my own voice. The works of my teacher Robert Olen Butler, especially his Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, helped teach me how to write. The novels of Walker Percy, especially The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, and of Richard Ford, especially The Sportswriter, convinced me that writing about broken men could be done with integrity and beauty. And the works of Cormac McCarthy challenged me to write with both emotion and innovation. I don’t read much new fiction, because I find it hard to read while I’m writing—and because I’m a fulltime teacher and fulltime student—but in recent years I’ve very much admired Peace Like a River and the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri.
Go to Day 4 of our conversation with Greg Garrett