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Darnell Arnoult is the author of the novel Sufficient Grace, and two books of poetry, What Travels With Us and Galaxie Wagon. Her work has appeared in the Asheville Poetry Review, Sandhills Review, and Southern Exposure, to name a few, and she has won multiple awards, among them the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Literature and the SIBA Poetry Book of the Year Award. Arnoult serves as co-editor of the national online publication drafthorse: a literary journal of work and no work. Arnoult is also Writer-in-Residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, where she teaches creative writing and co-directs the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop. In a recent interview with Appalachian Heritage, student associate Caroline Hughes, she talked about the importance of growth and learning for a writer, the joys and challenges of teaching writing, and her recently released and up-coming work.
Appalachian Heritage: Author Jesse Graves describes reading your newest poetry collection, Galaxie Wagon, as being “like riding in the passenger seat of some grand old Americancar, transfixed by the scenery, unconcerned with the destination.” What inspired the title poem, “Galaxie Wagon,” and the decision to name the collection after it?
Darnell Arnoult: For years I’ve used a prompt called “The Ten Memories Exercise.” You list 10 memories from throughout your life and describe them in a short, visually driven paragraph, or maybe just visual bullets, as if you are describing a photograph or a 60-second video. Each time I give the assignment, I use the example of the memory of riding through the night with my father in our Galaxie 500 station wagon, me stretched out in the front seat, supposedly sleeping, but actually awake and aware. I was cataloging what I saw so I could hold onto it forever because our family had suddenly become fragile. After years of using the image as an example, I finally used it as a prompt for a poem. And as poems do, it took on other layers of meaning, developed its own symbolic complex.
[For instance] that poem about memory, our experience and where it leads us, how it shapes us, the way I identify with and hold onto my father, and about how well or not so well we achieve our goals or destiny before our time is up resonated throughout the collection. I considered my father, who was in his early fifties the night we were flying up the highway to some unidentified destination, and I wondered what he was thinking as he found himself squarely at middle age, with all his varied and exciting experiences and all the things that didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, his future so uncertain. In that moment of the poem, both real and imagined, I identify with him in such a “cosmic” way. I knew that was the defining poem and the title of that poem pulled all the other poems together.
AH: One of the many strengths of your poetry is storytelling, and your fiction is maredly lyrical. What are the ways in which poetry and fiction intersect for you? Do you have a different writing approach or process for each genre?
DA: I have heard so many poets say something like, “Poets have to think about every word and all the layers of meaning in a way fiction (or prose) writers don’t have to do.” I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that statement. Of course, this is usually poets who don’t write fiction or creative nonfiction who say this. I have always considered myself a storyteller first and a fiction writer next. It has taken me a long time to say I’m a poet, and I’m still uncomfortable saying it. There is so much to know about poetry, and it’s hard for any poet to know all of it. But because of the time constraints of being a single mother for 20 years, I had to learn how to use small narratives, and I began to use the tools of poetry to develop those small stories.
Since then, I’ve become dependent on poetry for so much, no matter what genre I’m working in. Sometimes the story I’m telling in a particular moment needs a poem so I can drill down into the minutia, meditate on some concentrated aspect of character or object through language. Sometimes I need a little more room to explore the possibilities and let the narrative arch rise up and feed itself, so it takes off as a story, but still the language is the fertile soil. How the words rub up against each other, slice at each other, sooth each other, tells me something about the story I’m searching for on the page. Everything depends on the visceral image and accompanying sentient details. The more razor sharp those elements are rendered, the more impact they have on first the writer, then the reader. And sometimes the story doesn’t stay short, but it is still the language and the way it intersects with the concreteness of the story that propels the thing forward, makes it get up off the page and walk around, claim chapters if it needs them. In that way, all good writing has to be poetry.
AH:An excerpt from your novel in progress, The Nine Lives of Loody Tibbett, was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Appalachian Heritage. Where are you in that process now? Can you tell a little more about the novel?
DA: When Sufficient Grace came out, I was asked to give the publisher a synopsis of my next novel, which was about a woman who had had seven husbands, or something close to husbands. I wrote the synopsis and effectively killed the novel. Once I knew what the story was, I had no interest in writing it. I write to learn. I write to learn about my characters and where their choices lead them. Once I knew what happened to Loody, I had no interest in retracing her steps in my imagination. So it took a long time for me to let go of that synopsis, a long time for the story to change into something significantly different, different enough for me to be interested in it again.
The Nine Lives of Loody Tibbett has been on my desk for over ten years in various stages of story and structure. It has started in a hundred different places. It has gone a hundred different ways. During all that time, I have become a different writer over and over again. But I believe the beginning published in Appalachian Heritage is the beginning that will hold. I have a structure in mind for the book now that fits the mind of Loody in the wake of her stroke. I have a lot of previously written text I can still use, but I have a good bit yet to write and discover in this new iteration.
I am like a gnat. I go from one place to the next all over my writing table. I’m never just working on one thing. But now that Galaxie Wagon is in the world, I expect Loody’s novel will be the next book-length project I finish.
AH: Is there anything else you are currently working on?
DA: As I said, I work on lots of things, one on top of the other. There are short stories, some essays, which seem to be coalescing into a larger whole. I’m exploring flash fiction and nonfiction. I have two other poetry collections in the works and then the random poems that don’t fit anywhere yet except on the pages they’re written and revised on. For years, I’ve taught novel writing workshops based on my notion of the “Sublime Fiction Triangle.” I’m working on a craft book about this.
AH: What writers/books have influenced your fiction and poetry, and how?
DA: Eudora Welty and Lee Smith were the writers I loved most and wanted to emulate as a young writer. They continue to be a huge influence on my writer’s mind. And Nathaniel Hawthorne, in that a story must be a good story on the surface, but then it must have layers and layers of meaning so the deeper the reader can go, the deeper the story can go as well. That’s my goal for prose and poetry.
When I think of where I go now to teach myself how to write, I look to Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews. That will surprise some people because my material is so different, but I’m not looking to them for material. I’m looking to them for both lessons in craft and lessons in something I cannot express in words. Other authors I look to as mentors on the page include Mary Hood, Jill McCorkle, Joyce Carol Oates, Cary Holladay, Mary Oliver, Raymond Carver, James Dickey, Kathryn Stripling Byer, George Singleton, Tony Early, Wendell Berry, Rita Dove, Ron Rash, Kurt Vonnegut, Rick Bragg, Michael Cunningham, and recently, Michael Knight, Sonja Livingston. I also think of Dickens, Chekov, Dickenson, Twain, Woolf. When I think of authors who have influenced my creative practice, I think of Dorothea Brande, Ray Bradbury, and Steven King.
AH: On your website you speak fondly of your Cumberland Gap home, “a beautiful landscape where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia come together.” What connections among these three states do you see manifested in Cumberland Gap? How does place inform your writing?
DA: Cumberland Gap is a beautiful place to live, rich in history. I am confronted with that history every time I leave my house. Whether its precolonial, colonial, Civil War, Appalachian, labor history, material culture and folkways, it’s all just outside my door, all tied to place, defense of place, invasion of place, conflict within the landscape. The intimacy of the town and the expansiveness of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and its landscape are interesting juxtapositions. The emphasis on nature and the landscape make me aware of something larger than myself, make me mindful of the Divine.
Of course , that all feeds the imagination. My writing is grounded in place, but for me place is so heavily tied to work, and place and work are heavily tied to personality and psyche. Place and work have such a profound impact on character. There are situations where place becomes a character, such as in my first poetry collection about Fieldale, and the building of Fieldcrest, which is also tied to work, to labor, occupation, avocation. I rely so heavily on the physical environment and characters’ voices. You have to have a strong sense of place to pull those elements to the page.
AH: You also teach creative writing and hold writing workshops. What have these activities taught you about writing? How does your teaching life feed into your writing life, or vice versa?
DA: I love teaching almost as much as I love writing. That generates a struggle for me. I want to be a writer who teaches, but too often I am a teacher who writes. What I try to convey to my students are the messages I am constantly having to redeliver to myself, that the best writing comes down to sentient language and a body of hard evidence. Every student can’t hear the same message in the same way , so I have to find more and more ways of [saying] the same thing, and also say what is unsayable about writing, what can’t live anywhere but in the subtext .
It’s easy to think you’ve learned something because you’ve written a book. But all you’ve learned is how to write that particular book. Each project is a new learning experience. Short story to short story. Poem to poem. Some poems come almost fully formed. Some take 100 revisions and years of mulling over. Teaching this to others keeps me reminded of it myself. Anyone can become a better writer, and more people than you might think can become excellent writers. I love sharing that gospel. The great joy of teaching writing is seeing students go places they never thought they could go, see them surprise themselves, have them surprise you, the teacher, hear that evolving storyteller’s voice. I look for that same thing in my writing. When it surprises me, I know I’m doing the right thing.
Featured Photo and Book Cover from darnellarnoult.net