Interview with Darnell Arnoult

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SLR: When did you first start writing stories?  When did you know you wanted to spend you life writing?

DA: My father fought a boxing chimpanzee when I was two years old.  I heard that story told over and over from the time it happened, and by the time I was four, I was telling the story myself.  I understood from my father at an early age what made a good story for telling.  I grew up around stories—stories from my father’s adventures, my mother’s life and her schizophrenic’s imagination, all the women’s stories in mother’s beauty shop, the stories of my grandmother and her spinster sister, whom I lived with during adolescence. So when my senior high school English teacher gave me my first fiction writing assignment, it came easily for me.  I knew then I wanted to be a writer.

SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were young?

DA:  When I was young, I loved being read to, but I hated reading. I was a good student, but I read really slowly, and read only what I had to.  In class we sometimes shared books, and my reading partner was always waiting for me to get to the end of a page. Large books intimidated me because of the time it would take me to wade through them. It was embarrassing. But in fifth grade I attended a boarding school where we could not get up before a certain time.  I woke with the sun, so I would stay in bed and read in that early morning light.  Like Mama Toot from Sufficient Grace, I would take out my book and look at the pages until I could make out the words.  I don’t remember much about the books I read then.  Only that they kept me company during a lonely time when my mother was hospitalized and I was away from my family, and this changed my relationship with words on a page.  The books became a comfort.  Later, when I realized I wanted to write, I read Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne. One of my favorite books was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  When I think about writers that have influenced my work, as an adult, I think of writers like Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, Clyde Edgerton, Allan Gurganus, Michael Lee West, Jill McCorkle, Lewis Nordan, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Kaye Gibbons, and poets Kathryn Stripling Byer, Robert Morgan, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, and again Wendell Berry.  And my work was also influenced by writers who at the time were still unpublished: Isabel Zuber, Tamara Baxter, Lynn York, and Pamela Duncan, among others.

SLR:  It seems that Sufficient Grace is about, among other things, the phases of life—and new beginnings. What inspired you to write this novel?

DA:  I started out writing a short story about a woman who was leaving her husband.  The story wouldn’t stay short, and when I discovered the woman was leaving because disembodied voices were directing her, I knew I could draw on my experience as the daughter of a woman with late-onset schizophrenia. My subconscious was definitely helping me out there. While Sufficient Grace is not autobiographical, it certainly has autobiographical elements.

Mama Toot and Mattie came to me after I attended Sister Shirley Caesar’s Gospel Crusade one year in Durham.  But they are rooted in my childhood experience of being taken care of by black women when my mother and father were busy working.

I’ve observed that many people who survive the big obstacles and disappointments in their lives with grace are people who can reinvent themselves and adapt to new circumstances, finding some way to use their history as a source of strength and depth. I’ve had several reincarnations over the years, based on my goals and the resources available to me. Also, I found true love in my late forties.  I know it is never too late to discover something new about myself, and my characters are no different. In Sufficient Grace everyone is reinventing themselves in response to some kind of disappointment or hope.

SLR:  When you write do you have the story outlined completely in your head or does it unfold as you write?

DA:  I take lots of notes on the story and the characters, and those notes grow as I write, developing into writing prompts or details to flesh out a character or a scene. I never use outlines or start with themes in mind.  If I knew that much about my story, I would be bored and not want to keep writing.

So, I start out with a character and a situation and write to find out what happens.  I call my first draft a “learning draft.” I like to see where the plot rises up organically, and discover the themes that are naturally present in the work. I do start brainstorming from the beginning about how the structure might work, but I’m never wedded to one structure until I know how my story ends and how the plot evolves. Structure is a constant experiment until the final revision is done.  As for the story itself, my characters, once I get to know them by writing about them, always have a better story to tell me than the one I think I know at the start.

SLR:  As you look back on the novel, what are your thoughts on Gracie? Did you fully understand her journey when you began writing or did she develop through the process of letting the story unfold?  Did she surprise you in anyway?

DA:  I have to say I didn’t totally understand Gracie’s journey in the beginning of the writing process.  When I realized she was hearing the voices, I gave her some actions and symptoms my mother had when I was a child, and I let her go about her business through applied characterization.  As a result, following her journey has helped me understand my mother’s illness in a more intimate way.

When I started the novel, Gracie was the main character.  As the novel developed, all these other strong characters showed up and started taking their turn at center stage.  They took on lives of their own, often lives I hadn’t expected.  So in the end, Gracie and the manifestations of her illness became a catalyst for change and new direction for other characters in the book, particularly Ed.  Gracie simply makes a place for herself in her newest reincarnation, part a result of illness and part a result of her, until then, untapped talent as an artist.

Gracie’s illness displaces her former personhood to a great degree, but it doesn’t diminish her value as an individual. That wasn’t a surprise. I’ve been close to several people with schizophrenia, including my mother, and each of them were remarkable people, despite the fact they were not the same people they would have been without the disease.

SLR:  Your prose is absolutely beautiful. So poetic and rhythmical, what do you attribute this to?

DA:  I attribute my use of language and image to reading good books—looking to masterful writers as my teachers—and to reading and writing poetry. Writers, no matter how successful or accomplished, should always be students of good writing. And I believe every prose writer can benefit from writing poetry, even if the poetry is bad and never sees the light of day.  Trying to say so much with a few intensely vivid images and compressed language, as a poet does, is like lifting weights for a prose writer.  It keeps me in shape and develops a strength and familiarity with language that can only benefit any writing enterprise. I think being a poet is particularly helpful during revision.

SLR:  You’ve written short stories before tackling the novel. What did you learn in the process of going from short stories to the novel? Any preferences?  Do you plan to continue writing both or will we see mostly novels from you from now on?

DA:  I learned the novel and the short story are two completely different animals.  The short story has much more in common with poetry than with a long form of fiction.  It is more contained and limited in what it can examine and explore. Its focus is tight and immediate in the brevity of its telling. There is common ground with the novel, certainly. The basic elements are the same; the way they are used is very different.  A novel really takes up residence in your home and rides with you to the grocery store and to the doctor’s office, does business with you at the bank, helps you feed the dog, and goes to bed with you (and your spouse) at night, living with you in an extended way that isn’t required by a short story. And the story itself is so much larger and more layered. It is like wrestling a gorilla.  The minute you have one extremity under control, another one grabs you from behind and pulls you in a new direction.  The author’s job, as I see it, is to make a graceful dance out of the tussle.

I used to think I didn’t have a sufficient attention span to write a novel.  Now, I consider all the short story ideas I have going in various stages and wonder which of them will grow into a novel one day.  I still write short fiction and poetry, but the novel is becoming my form of choice. Now that I have one novel under my belt, I really want to write another one.

SLR:  Even though you are still an up and coming novelist, you’ve already been referred to as a southern writer. SLR dedicates a page to what makes southern literature southern, but I’m curious, in a world that is ever-changing, what does being a “southern writer” mean to you?  And what does it mean now in 2006?

DA:  Southern writing has that strong story-telling voice that evolved out of a rich oral tradition, told about characters who are shaped in some way by their connection to or rejection of place and past.  Southern “literature” uses the local specific to reveal universal experience.

Being a southern writer today requires the same thing that being a contemporary southerner requires. We have to look at the way the South is changing, for better and worse, from its richer multi-cultural population to the devastating onslaught of mega-businesses, and use what we know to be our strengths as an already multi-textured and self-aware region to interpret and document our changing culture through the experience of individual characters.  If we want to keep the South and southern literature vibrant and thriving in the same ways it has always thrived in spite of and because of change, our body of literature has to encompass an ever more diverse and larger story with self examination at its center.

SLR:  Do you mind the term “Southern writer” or do you find it confining?

DA:  I was born and raised in the South. I love the South. It informs how I think and speak and what I recognize to be good material for stories and poems.  The South I come from is also greatly influenced by Appalachian culture.  I can’t escape either of those influences and don’t want to.  That background gives me something to write about and a way of telling the stories I come up with.  And I most love to read southern literature.  At the same time, I want my work to have value beyond the region, and I want it to address themes that extend beyond any physical geography. As other southern writers have said, I don’t mind being called a southern writer. I am proud of it. And along with that, I want to be called a good writer, no matter where I come from.

SLR:  What’s next in terms of your writing?  Are you working on a novel now? Will your stories stay in the South?

DA:  I’ve never lived anywhere else, so even if my stories are set elsewhere, I imagine they will be tethered to the South.  But for now, I see my stories anchored in a place familiar to me.

I’m currently working on a novel about a woman who has had seven husbands.  There’s lots of material there!  I’m also working on a new collection of poems about middle age.

SLR:  Are you reading anything now? Any recommendations?

DA:  I recently finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and On Agate Hill by Lee Smith (due out in the fall) and Claudia Emerson’s poetry collection The Late Wife.  I loved all three.  I’m also enjoying Ted Kooser’s collection of poems, Flying at Night, and Wendell Berry’s new novel, Hannah Coulter. The next books on my list are Waiting by Ha Jin and Solo by Clyde Edgerton. And I’m looking forward to Tamara Baxter’s first short story collection, Rock Big and Sing Loud, due out in the fall.

SLR:  Thank you so much for taking time from your busy schedule to talk with us.

DA:  Thank you for asking, and thanks for giving writers and readers a great place to read about Southern Literature.

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