DM: I read this novel right after finishing The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig. A struggling rural family and community stand at the center of Doig’s novel and yours. Yet they couldn’t be more different. The adults in Hardscrabble Road have a severe deficiency of parenting skills. Many types of abuse occur in this novel, from physical beatings to parents making fun of a child’s stuttering to husbands and wives cheating on each other. What motivated you to create the MacLeod family?
GW: In the Acknowledgments, I credit my father-in-law, Vernon McDonald, for the sense of time and place he gave me through countless stories about his upbringing outside Colquitt, Georgia during the Depression and war years. Hardscrabble Road was inspired by the trials that he and his two brothers endured. While much in the book is fictional, the circumstances in which Roger “Bud” MacLeod lives–hateful father, callous mother, supportive brothers, and privileged sister, all living sharecroppers’ lives–mirrored Vernon’s childhood. It’s not a memoir because I invented much of what happens and most of the characters. I suspect that Vernon’s actual growing up was worse than depicted, as he often commented during his tale-telling that I was hearing the “PG-rated” version of his childhood. The novel is a testimony to perseverance and the strength of character that can be forged under severe conditions. What inspired me to write the book in the first place—and what motivated me to create the MacLeod family as I imagined Vernon’s family to be—was knowing him and his two brothers as adults. Each was a great success: good to their families and prosperous in their careers. Instead of replicating the behaviors their parents modeled for them, all three of them chose to do the opposite. While listening to Vernon’s stories, I imagined how mentally strong and physically tough he and his brothers must’ve been as kids not to have cracked under such strain and to have thrived as adults. Make no mistake, all three of them were scarred: even as comfortable seniors they feared losing everything and having to go back to the hardscrabble lives they’d endured. However, they didn’t perpetuate what was done to them on the next generation; they had the strength of character to break that cycle.
DM: Why did you choose to begin the novel with a scene of the middle brother, Chet, beating on Bud?
GW: A few reasons: (a) the reader discovers immediately that the hero is living a harsh, punishing life; (b) there’s a contrast between the fistfight with Chet (who wants to continue to haul the heavy sled, even though it’s Bud’s turn to struggle with it) and, in a few pages, the cruel treatment by Papa, whose motivations are far less noble; and (c) it’s always a good idea to start with action; a fistfight is a very common occurrence in Bud’s world, but hopefully it would be something alien and riveting to readers.
DM: What were the reasons you chose to give Bud his port wine birthmark?
GW: My father-in-law had a port wine birthmark and, early in his childhood, a nervous stutter that he eventually overcame. These conditions were constant sources of stress for him, so I recognized that for my book they offered excellent opportunities to create tension in many scenes along with sympathy for the struggling, intrepid hero.
DM: What was your inspiration for Bud’s half-Japanese friend Ry
GW: I created Ry to show a different facet of race relations in the South. There’s certainly plenty of black/white relations addressed as well, but having a half-Japanese character as Bud’s friend, with the start of World War II looming, added another element of conflict and tension while grounding the reader in historical events.
DM: Other than Bud, for which of your characters did you feel the most empathy?
GW: Valerie Wingate, Bud’s teacher and mentor, often brought me to tears as I wrote scenes of her interactions with Bud. The book never leaves Bud’s perspective, so the reader only gets the other characters viewpoints through their dialog and actions; I think Valerie’s point of view is that Bud is a tragic, possibly doomed, boy who she should do her utmost to protect. As a woman of privilege, it is hard for her to see so many children in her classroom living in dire poverty, good-hearted kids who have never caught a break. She makes it her mission to rectify that imbalance whenever she gets a chance. Maybe she can’t save them all, but she might make a difference in at least some of their lives. In Bud’s case, her efforts are redoubled because of circumstances that further link them.
DM: Have you lived in the South Georgia region you write about?
GW: No, and I was born in the 1960s, long after the event of the novel, in suburban Maryland. I grew up with middle-class luxuries, enjoying central heat and air, the latest indoor plumbing, microwave ovens, Star Wars at the cineplex, and Atari videogames on my parent’s color TV. My own father told me stories about growing up middle class in the 1930s and 1940s on Long Island, heading into NYC on the subway to see Benny Goodman’s big band, and catching shows at Rockefeller Center. Thus, the childhood that my father-in-law, Vernon McDonald, described was as alien to me as anything I saw in science fiction movies. I think that is what intrigued me so. Though I didn’t grow up in South Georgia during the Depression and war years, I had the next best thing to real-life experience: the veritable time machine Vernon provided through his stories and sense memories. He was amused that I was so fascinated by his tales that I wanted to write a novel set in the time and place of his childhood and use his recollections to provide the color (and he supplied the photograph for the cover: that’s him on the far left with his two brothers). I quizzed him often about how things smelled, tasted, sounded, etc. If the novel succeeds–if readers feel like they have been transported to South Georgia during such hardscrabble times–then the credit is due to Vernon’s remarkable ability to put me there first.
DM: Military service offers a way out for Bud. What value do you see in military service for young people?
GW: Military service also provided the real-life escape from grievous poverty for my father-in-law and his brothers. Then and now, the military offers young people an orderly, stable, disciplined world with predictable wages, well-defined responsibilities, physical exercise, mental challenges, a pathway to educational opportunities, and even good food. Vernon was fond of saying that people who run down the military have never served and those who criticize the food have never gone hungry; try living on boiled possum and a few scrawny vegetables and then critique the banquet offered daily in mess halls around the world. In times of prosperity, where there are good jobs for young people, numerous options for financing college educations, and easy credit for housing, cars, and other luxuries, it’s easy to dismiss the benefits of enlistment in the armed forces. During the recent “Great Recession,” where none of those conditions existed, the military services had no problem making and even exceeding their recruitment goals, and that was with two war zones where new soldiers potentially could be sent. That speaks to the escape hatch still offered to young people by the military. Is it a good choice for every young person? Certainly not, but I believe it’s an option that often is discounted or not even considered by those who could have benefited from it.
DM: I have not read your novel for young people, but noticed your biography says the organization with which it is associated states a goal of letting young people know they can take command of their own lives. Hardscrabble Road leaves readers feeling that Bud is doing just that. Is this a theme that informs a lot of your writing?
GW: Young people taking command of their lives–or failing to do so–was always of interest to me, since I fell in the latter category. My teen years were misspent watching movies and TV and reading books that didn’t challenge me or expand my worldview. I drifted through college and graduate school in much the same haze of self-absorption and lack of personal growth. Fortunately, after a few years of work, I matured a bit and, at age 25, I was introduced to the brilliant and beguiling Katherine McDonald on a blind date. I proceeded to woo her during her extensive business travels with almost two dozen love letters over three months. Our first date was July 16, 1991; we were engaged October 3 of that year, and married on December 21. That period was the first time I’d ever felt completely focused on a goal. By falling in love–a time when most people feel out of control–I’d finally taken command of my life.
DM: When did you first start writing? What genres have you explored?
GW: I wrote even as a young child, creating plays for my stuffed animals to act out for the amusement of my older brother and younger sister. During my teen years, I fantasized about putting myself through college by writing science fiction stories; one harsh rejection letter was enough to burst that balloon. I didn’t have the emotional resilience to accept that critique as a challenge to improve–instead, I quit, contenting myself with writing little satires for friends, knocking out essays and reports by the score for school, and doing very little to improve my craft. At 25, writing love letters to romance Katherine McDonald forced me to mature quickly as a wordsmith. Each one was a point of no return, with everything on the line. Kate encouraged me to keep writing after we married. I started a historical novel in 2001, set at the start of the Depression and revealing the little-reported mass deportations of Mexican-Americans to make room on the welfare roles for whites. In 2002, after I’d secured a literary agent to represent that novel, Kate prompted me to quit work to write full time. By 2004, I produced the manuscript that became Hardscrabble Road and, in 2005, a contemporary upmarket novel about a ballerina who needs to take command of her life (that theme again!) after losing her leg in a car crash. The agent wasn’t able to sell any of them; I ended our contract in 2008, probably five years later than I should’ve held on with her. That year, I was hired by a nonprofit to write Jake and the Tiger Flight, a children’s motivational novel about a boy who learns to become Pilot in Command of his life with the help of the real-life pilots of the Tiger Flight Foundation, who do leadership programs for kids. After that, I went back to my sci-fi and satirical roots and wrote a near-future-terrorism-sex-comedy, and I returned to work full time. In July 2012, Vernon McDonald passed away; two weeks later, I met Deeds Publishing founder Bob Babcock at a signing for one of his authors. In the course of our conversation, he asked what I’d written and I talked about Vernon and the novel that was inspired by his childhood. Bob asked me to send him the manuscript; four days later, he offered me a traditional publishing contract, so it only took eight years and four days to get Hardscrabble Road into print.
DM: What are you working on now?
GW: I’ve so enjoyed editing and re-reading Hardscrabble Road and talking to individuals and groups about it that I’m working on short stories about the same characters, to post on my website for those who’ve asked me for more of their adventures. I hope to work with Deeds on the publication of at least some of my three other completed novels in the coming years.
DM: What do interviewers never ask you that you wish they would?
GW: I think many people take for granted the “blurbs”—positive comments by authors and reviewers—that appear on book covers and inside pages. If interviewers and readers wonder about how I obtained more than two dozen blurbs from a range of Southern authors, this came about through my decade of volunteering for the Atlanta Writers Club (AWC), a nonprofit founded in 1914 and dedicated to teaching the craft and business of writing. Having been president, vice president, and everything else in the AWC, I’ve had a number of opportunities to invite authors from around the South to speak to the club. My interactions with some of them have evolved into cherished friendships. When I asked them to read my book and consider blurbing it, not only did they gladly agree to do so, but they introduced me to others who agreed to do likewise. I couldn’t have hoped for kinder reviews or more generous praise. When an author is unknown to the wider world, blurbs provide credibility. Potential readers tend to evaluate the cover art first, and if they find it appealing, they next read the book summary and the blurbs; if they respond well to those, only then do they open the book to read a sample of the prose. Aspiring writers also might wonder about how one creates an audience for one’s books. Not only did volunteering for so long with the AWC help me secure blurbs, but it also made me a familiar face and name to the many hundreds of people who have been members of the club over the years. When I announced that my book was being released, it was an easy sell to a number of these individuals, and some of them have recommended it to others, and so on. Ready access to that built-in audience is called having a “platform” and is critical to an author in the early days and months of a book release. If authors don’t know anyone, they are completely reliant on getting strangers to buy their books. With so much competition out there, this is a very difficult task, so having an army of well-wishers who are willing to buy the book and tell others about it is crucial. And then when the authors are doing book signings, trying to sell their books to strangers, perhaps some of those people have heard about it from the authors’ friends and, if not, the authors still don’t need to toot their own horns: the blurbs can speak for them.