DT: Four of your six novels, including this newest one, are set in the South. What draws you to the South as setting?
KM: I was born and raised in eastern North Carolina and still consider it home. Three of my novels, including Rage and Melancholy, are set in mythical Mawatuck County, which is a stand-in for Currituck County, my territory. Beyond knowing and loving that actual Southern landscape, over the course of my lifetime I’ve seen some fairly radical changes in the culture, politics and economics of that region—changes that make for interesting fiction. But also, I suppose, there is an element of witness to my Mawatuck novels. I want those changes and struggles to be remembered.
DT: The title—In this Season of Rage and Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These. I’ve heard you say that poets love the title while proseists furrow their brows when they hear it. When did that title come to you and what made it feel so right for your novel?
KM: Well, it is a long title for a fairly short book. But I wanted a title that, right away, conveyed the polarities operating in 1978 (the year the novel is set) and to reflect the mind states of two of the main characters: Mickey Waterman, vengeful real estate developer and Beth Anderson, self-destructive alcoholic. I settled on the title in one of the later drafts. I like the rhythm of it, even if some folks consider it a tongue twister.
DT: You use a Conrad quote as your epigraph: “We can never cease to be ourselves.” Why that quote for this novel?
KM: Although there are a lot of exterior forces at play in the novel—politics, Pentecostal religion, the shift from a county of small farms to acres of developed real estate—the main “war” the characters fight is with themselves. All, in one way or another, are trying to become other than who they were or currently are. Micky Waterman is still trying to prove to his dead father that he’s a business success. George Scaff is trying not to be the Scaff who sells the family farm. Becca Denby, Micky’s second-in-command, is trying to prove she’s “better than her DNA.” Beth Anderson is trying to find reasons to stay alive. But those efforts to be something other represent an ongoing struggle. An intense struggle.
DT: You’ve written elsewhere that “Southerners are a melancholic tribe.” In Rage and Melancholy, rage seems tempered by melancholy. Mickey’s lingering rage at Leeta drives him to create a plan for revenge, but when his plan falls short he seems more melancholy than victorious.
KM: Yes. Exactly right. Mickey does move from rage toward melancholy at the novel’s end. And since rage/revenge has been what drives him since he was a kid: what now? Although Mickey is usually considered the bad guy of the story, he does “commit” several acts of kindness (along with acts of treachery) in the novel. So who knows? Maybe Mickey is on his way to becoming a saint.
DT: Despite all the rage and melancholy, authors Allison Amend and Kelly Cherry have also emphasized the humor in this novel. Do you consider the novel humorous? Was it meant to be?
KM: In sections, absolutely! I think/hope a lot of the exchanges between Beth and best friend Leeta Scaff are funny—primarily because those characters see the world so differently. Leeta is all about “improvements,” trying to “spruce up” Beth, get her a boyfriend and such—which Beth resists. One of the scenes I had the most fun writing is the scene in the women’s bathroom at Graff’s Tavern between Leeta and Beth, Leeta insisting on “fluffing up” Beth’s straggly bangs.
DT: In your trilogy about Mawatuck County, The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan deals with women’s roles; when the dust finally settles looks at race relations in 1968. Rage and Melancholy explores land, the selling of land, religion and family. Did you plan those thematic divisions in advance?
KM: I wasn’t consciously aware of divvying them up that way, but those themes do reflect major issues of the time periods in which the novels are set. Women rebelling against stereotypic notions of how a woman should behave, 1950s-1970s. School desegregation in the late 1960s. Small farms starting to disappear in the late 1970s. From my perspective, family—and in particular the Southern concept of family loyalty—plays a huge role in all three novels. But religion is a new literary element for me. I hadn’t delved into that aspect prior to Rage and Melancholy.
DT: And even in this novel, Beth is the only religious character. And she has rejected the Pentecostal faith.
KM: She rejected the God her Aunt Grace and the Pentecostal church presented to her as a child but she does still retain a certain kind of religious faith. Even though she breaks with her Aunt Grace’s church, she communes, almost nightly, with her version of God—one who wears a tuxedo and matches her drink for drink.
DT: Beth’s God is seductive. He is witty and wrathful and quite compelling as a character. I confess to having a bit of a crush on him.
KM: Happy to hear that! He’s meant to be seductive—and lethal (for Beth) because eventually she feels she fails him too.
DT: Apart from Beth, sympathetic women are hard to find in this novel. Did you see Beth as a sympathetic character from the start?
KM: Quite honestly, I consider all of my characters “sympathetic”—even those some readers find not to be. And the reason I find my bunch sympathetic is that, in my view, they aren’t guys and gals “born” unlikeable or difficult or treacherous. They got that way because of familial or economic or other circumstances they didn’t choose but have to deal with regardless. And deal they do—some of that dealing not especially pretty. That said, I do consider Beth a very sympathetic character. She is also an extremely damaged character who, having lost her God, her baby and (she thinks) her best friend, sees no way out of her morass. Writing the end of the novel was actually quite painful—which has never happened to me before. So, yes, I’d say Beth has my heart.
DT: The book’s cover. The God in the painting is looming. Do you direct the art for your books? Can you talk about the cover art?
KM: The cover of Rage and Melancholy is a painting by Philip Rosenthal (philiprosenthalpaintings.com). For almost all my books, my lovely publishers have allowed me a bit of cover input—which is awesome. And because this painting includes a sprawl of houses, fields and sea—as well as Loomer God—it seemed a perfect match for the novel’s contents.
DT: So what next? What projects are you working on right now?
KM: A chapbook of sonnets about America’s First Ladies is coming out from dancing girl press early next year. I adored researching that subject. Utterly fascinating! Many of those 19th century First Ladies have quite the “backstory.” Otherwise just now I’m betwixt and between projects and rereading favorite novels—which is pure pleasure.
KAT MEADS is the author of 16 books and chapbooks of prose and poetry, including: 2:12 a.m.; Not Waving; For You, Madam Lenin; Little Pockets of Alarm; The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan; Sleep; and a mystery novel written under the pseudonym Z.K. Burrus. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a California Artist Fellowship, two Silicon Valley artist grants and artist residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, Millay Colony, Dorland, and the Montalvo Center for the Arts. Other prizes include the Chelsea award for fiction, the New Letters award for essay, and the Editors’ Choice award from Drunken Boat. Her short plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere. She is a three-time ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year finalist, and four of her essays have been selected as Notables in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Essays series. Her flash fiction collection, Little Pockets of Alarm, was runner-up for the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize. Her novel For You, Madam Lenin received an IPPY (Independent Publisher Award) Silver Medal and was shortlisted for the Montaigne Medal for thought-provoking literature. Her essay collection 2:12 a.m. received an IPPY Gold Medal. A native of North Carolina, she currently lives in California and teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency Red Earth MFA program.