SS: Where did the idea for this novel come from?
CDW: I was interested in a lot of stuff that depicted wilderness and I was interested in some of the things that William Gay did in his novel Twilight, but kind of refining not just the language but the interaction between the characters and the wilderness itself.
All I can really say in terms of direct influence is that I borrowed from the structure. It became a way of making the theme of the book, dementia, into a physical reality through the wilderness. It was more that entering the story through that perspective than having a precise narrative to tell. It is the idea of a deliberate constructed confusion that I was interested in and having other people enter into that confusion. So it was a reaction to a book that I read, but it was also very much a thematic concern more than just an image.
SS: You spoke earlier of the idea of wilderness and having the novel take place in the wilderness. Being such a critical piece of Southern and Appalachian Literature, how does the idea of sense of place play into the novel? Did you go into writing the work with the idea that you needed something with a strong sense of place?
CDW: One thing that is nice is that I feel pretty much at home in this environment because it is the place that I used in my first book (Lambs of Men) and the story collection (Sinners of Sanction County). Some of the fictional Sanction County was already mapped out in my head.
For me, sense of place is linked to a seriousness of intent of writing. It’s whenever you engage in any kind of realistic “regional fiction” you enter into a paradox. The more regional you get, the more universal you have to make your story. Otherwise it’s going to be hermetic—nobody is going to care about a story around the block just because it’s around the block.
For me, the idea of place is vital because paradoxically it takes you into something that’s much, much larger. It intensifies things because through the fiction process you have to really arrange the atoms of that universe in a way that people will believe them. By controlling place or letting it be a force in the story itself you’re really allowing the characters to participate in a world that exerts its own physics on people instead of something that’s just setting.
Setting is too easy; place is much bigger than setting. It is something that pervades not just setting but people; it pervades language and, I think, too, it should pervade the style of the work and so all that “placeness” is the “thisness,” the thing that is not just a symbol, but itself is important.
SS: How has the feeling of place and “thisness” of Sanction County grown for you over three books?
CDW: It certainly has undergone a change. It has become more specific in my imagination over time, and this is probably the last book that will be set there, honestly, because I feel like I’ve said what I wanted to say about it.
At this point, it’s a claustrophobic thing and that’s one of the problems you face when you create an imaginary place to put your story in. Thomas McGuane said about Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County that the problem with Yoknapatawpha is that nobody ever decided to get up and move to Miami.
That’s something that I’ve been thinking about. When you work in a mythic mode, it can mean you’re kind of restricting the exigency of what real people do, and so I feel by becoming more specific it’s becoming more constraining in certain ways.
SS: To shift the conversation a little, it’s hard to go a page in A Shelter of Others without a line or paragraph sticking out for the pure poetic nature and the power that comes from the language you use. How do you feel that complements what you were trying to do thematically?
CDW: People sometimes describe the style as poetic, and I think that’s complementary, but it’s also very non-novel-like and that’s on purpose.
A Shelter of Others is a short book, so it doesn’t look like your typical blockbuster book. The language is tight for the reason that every word needs to speak and it hopefully intensifies the plight of the characters and maybe even elevates the characters.
I’m honestly very dissatisfied with a lot of contemporary Southern and Appalachian fiction that just plays into stereotypes, so for me I want it to be something that stands out as being serious. Serious not only in the style, but in the serious treatment of the characters and what they’re going through. I think that style does do that because it restores a sense of grandeur and meaning and moments of great pitch. Those are all things that can be buried and made invisible with more prosaic writing.
SS: Speaking of the characters, you create multiple points of view and emotion that readers are drawn to. What was your intent behind having the multiple points of view?
CDW: It was a risk, I think, to do such a short book with so many points of view; it felt like it as I was working on it, anyhow. I felt that each was part of the wilderness mind, that the wilderness itself was an overarching character and each of these people were struggling to come to some sense of meaning or at least self-realization through that place. It seemed that there were similarities of affliction found throughout. You’ve got Mason that parallels his father’s dementia and you’ve got the villain of the piece, Cody Gibb, whose mother is delusional as well. Mainly I guess because I felt that all the characters were dealing with variations of the same problem and it was how they were coming to terms with it that was important.
SS: How do you see the idea of madness and the multiple characters and finding the least common denominator between the madness working in modern Appalachian literature as well as universally?
CDW: I think madness is maybe a result of extreme pressure put on people dealing with universal concerns, and if you’re to look at it as a cultural zeitgeist it’s a questioning of justice and of rightness in the world and of the human desire to not accept historical explanation for what’s right or true. Crime is a very similar thing. Whenever you look at crime fiction there’s an implicit criticism of the standing order. I would say that madness is in many ways an exposure of vulnerability. That exposure might end up leading to pretty poignant ideas not just about Appalachia or the South, but about people that are dealing with things that are beyond that.
SS: Finally, one more craft question. Were there any major processual differences between your first novel and this one?
CDW: You’re always kind of following a gut feeling in first novels. You may be relying on inspiration a little bit more than you should, and I think you have to have that place of enjoyment in building a word in any book you work through, but for this one I had a precise understanding of what I wanted to do pretty much from the beginning.
Something that occurred to me was to place violence in the hands of this man who was helpless so that the violence was almost divorced of its accountability, as if it were violence without violence—almost a force outside of the characters themselves. I guess I was trying to mine a little bit deeper with this book. I was more interested in the philosophical implications of the story. There were times in this book that I let the characters rule the theme itself and, in that way, I felt that this book was more exhausting in some ways but I was happier with how it ended up.