JM: Thank you for taking some time to answer a few questions. It’s almost been a year since The Marble Orchard was published (congratulations, by the way). What sort of reactions have you been receiving from your debut novel?
AT: I have had a few good reviews for the novel, two starred ones from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and a French translation of the book is forthcoming this August from Gallmeister.
JM: The Marble Orchard captivated me from the prologue. When I finished the book, I went back to look at the chapter headings and noticed that the entire series of events happened in under a week. What inspired you to write such a “short” story, and how did you intend for this to affect the overall tone of the book?
AT: This is a difficult question to answer as it presumes more planning (and thought) on my part than may have actually occurred.
I go very slowly as a writer, word by word, in fact. I very rarely know where I am going and the world often feels draped in fog. I see vague shapes, get snippets of voices, but a true form doesn’t emerge until after years (in the case of a novel) of struggle and staggering through the gloaming.
I think I likely had Larry Brown’s Father and Son in mind when structuring the book to occur over roughly a week. It’s a nice compact section of time. I didn’t believe this wanted to be a Tolstoyian epic that spanned generations, though I did want the onus of the past to be very present in the souls of the characters. Plus, I knew there was going to be a fugitive element with the main character, but I wanted him to be at large within a very small space, his own home county, in fact.
In retrospect, this seems to be one of the major themes of the work, something I was unaware of during the initial drafts: the conflict between loyalty to place, even the necessary courage it takes to remain loyal, and the necessity to take flight from home.
JM: I loved the moment in The Marble Orchard when the reader learns why this is the title of the book. What made you decide on The Marble Orchard, and were there any other names for this book that you were considering?
AT: The title came from my late friend Kenneth Doolin. In my early twenties, I used to run around with several old men. Mr. Doolin was one of them. He was something of a father figure, I suppose, in that he showed me how to cut down large trees, plow a garden, clean wild game, etc. It so happens he enjoyed visiting cemeteries, even ones where none of his friends and relations were buried. He seemed to think of them as both records and talismans, these places, and I once heard him refer to them as “marble orchards,” which seemed wonderfully poetic. I tucked it away because I knew I would want to use it at some point. Since the novel is, in one sense, about the ineluctable forces of fate and of death, the phrase seemed appropriate.
JM: This novel contains a spectrum of characters. Is there any character that you identify with in particular?
AT: I aspire to be like Pete. He’s an amalgam of many of the old men I knew growing up. They’re all gone now and the world is much the poorer. These were Unreconstructed Southerners who embodied all the virtues and vices of that culture. They were country people, suspicious of the actions of men and of institutions, wryly ironic, hardworking, thrifty, prone to dissipation, prone to song, prone to harried violence against women, animals, the land, the weather. They were also doggedly loyal to principle, particularly the obligation to help those in need. An old friend of mine, a man who used the N-word quite liberally (though only rarely did he attach true venom to it) once filled his car trunk with buffalo, carp and catfish and took it to a black family that lived near him. Because they were hungry. Because it’s what a man does, if he’s able. Now, hold that soul in your mind’s eye for a moment. We like to purge these types from our world of leftwing Puritanism, we like to believe in progress. But how many of us are so willing to make atonement in such a genuine way?
JM: Your collection of short stories, The Name of Nearest River, has had great success. After completing The Marble Orchard, thus having experience with both, would you say that you have a preference for writing novels over short stories?
AT: I don’t know that I have a preference for either. The long form emerges when whatever story I am attempting to tell reveals itself most reluctantly. If I had my druthers, I’d be a poet. The difficulty in writing a novel is that you may spend years working toward a fulmination that ultimately fizzles, whereas one understands very quickly if a story is going to fail.
JM: The voice of this novel is stark, concise, and yet simultaneously poetic. Soft imagery works in harmony with the darkness of the plot. For instance, when Loat puts Derna to bed and the reader hears “the creak of the springs as they bore her sleepy weight like the sound of a stone sliding perfectly flush against other stone.” What inspires you to create such imagery?
AT: As I said in the previous question, I wish I was a poet. Since I am not, I must flex this muscle in prose.
I am utterly dismayed by the tepid, lukewarm prose being wrought today. It is bereft of color, of any tactile strength, and any tensile meaning. One wonders, reading most contemporary writers, if they love language at all. Where is the oratory, the high-blown rhetoric, the song? I don’t hear it. Perhaps they haven’t read their Shakespeare, or their Bibles. That would explain quite a bit, actually. In particular, the lack of a moral center I find in so many works of contemporary literature, the lack of a sense of tragedy.
JM: Out of all of the jobs you have had, where would you put writing in the rankings?
AT: Writing is not a job. I would quit if it were.
I can think of no other term more appropriate than “compulsion” to describe the vocation of writing. It forces me to interact with people, mostly academics, whom I loathe. It forces my consciousness ever inward, and turns my mental energies ever on my own self. It is narcissistic, deranged behavior. Who would choose such a life? Flaubert notwithstanding, to be a writer is to lead a life of too much introspection, too much examination.
We should aspire, as Seamus Heaney says, to be but pure verb. The aruspices of ancient Rome were much better renderers of prophesy. We should leave the realm of the chicken innards to their ilk. Anyone who takes moral teachings from a contemporary writer is, at best, a sociopath because our contemporary world is one so bereft of dignity, sacrifice and forbearance. You will not find the best of humanity if you examine those attending MFA programs. At worst, they are naïve idealists. If the failure of communism teaches us nothing else, it should be that these are the viruses we should be most vigilant in inoculating ourselves against.
JM: What sort of advice do you give to your students when you teach creative writing?
AT: The advice I give my creative writing students is quite simple. I point out the window to the campus library and say, “What matters is all in there. Go and find it.”
JM: What sort of pieces are you working on now?
AT: I have written another novel and am currently working on a third. Both are historical pieces set in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is utter escapism on my part. Someone asked me once if my predilection for nostalgia was born out of my moral or my aesthetic sense. To this I replied, “Aesthetics are morality.”
JM: Wonderful. Thank you again for your time, and for giving us a better look into your book.