In the House of Wilderness, by Charles Dodd White: Q&A

What were the orig­i­nat­ing images in this nov­el? I imag­ined as I was read­ing it had to be the open­ing eight pages, where you set up the con­flict beau­ti­ful­ly, but I'm pre­pared to be wrong, as you could have writ­ten the Strat­ton chap­ters first.

Yeah, I was real­ly drawn in by this idea of three very dif­fer­ent peo­ple trav­el­ing togeth­er through a kind of over­whelm­ing land­scape. I actu­al­ly spent a year com­mut­ing along that stretch of inter­state that pass­es from west­ern North Car­oli­na into east Ten­nessee, large­ly in the predawn hours, so it was nat­ur­al to lull into a kind of dark imag­in­ing. In a very real sense, the land gave me the sto­ry. Also, I was in the process of mov­ing into a new state for a job and the idea of home and how that can change at dif­fer­ent points in a life was very much on my mind as well. Those two ele­ments nat­u­ral­ly coa­lesced into what became the cen­tral con­flict of the book.

When did you real­ize you were pit­ting the triumvirate–Wolf, Win­ter and Rain–so bald­ly against against con­ven­tion, and what did it mean for the book, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Rain,? Was it a process of dis­cov­ery, this nov­el, or the ful­fill­ment of a plan? It all seems inevitable, as it ought to, though not in the ways you expect, which is what I read for, most­ly.

That oppo­si­tion was there from the start. Part of it was my sense of the dual­i­ty of wilder­ness. For me that word has psy­cho­log­i­cal as well as phys­i­cal impli­ca­tions, which is at the heart of the para­dox in the novel’s title, i.e. how can a struc­ture man­age to be tru­ly wild? I think Rain is the most dynam­ic char­ac­ter in the sto­ry, large­ly because she defies what the men around her want her to become. Yet, she still lives with­in a very real world that shapes how we think, feel, and act. So there’s a sense of what things must be con­front­ed, but her sense of self makes that some­thing that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly easy to pin down.

What made you decide to pair up Strat­ton and Rain? I talked about it with my wife as I read, which I don't usu­al­ly do, won­der­ing how you were going to make it work, which I has­ten to say, you did, very well.

I didn’t want it to become a clichéd May/December pair­ing that pop­u­lates so many sto­ries. This was about find­ing some­thing of val­ue in anoth­er per­son with­out the for­mu­la of a con­ven­tion­al romance. So, their con­ver­gence need­ed to be inex­tri­ca­ble tied to the land. Their way of being and know­ing is drawn direct­ly from that fact.

I dig the ref­er­ences through­out, to the Gar­den and Gun arti­cle about the dog with can­cer, and the Jason Isbell/DBT, and the clas­si­cal music ref­er­ences. They give the book a good con­tem­po­rary feel, but I won­der, do you wor­ry about dat­ing your mate­r­i­al? Or do you just count on hav­ing picked up on the good stuff and the good stuff last­ing?

I think it’s just a mat­ter of telling the specifics of the world I care about. Good nov­els should doc­u­ment the world they’re try­ing to por­tray. If you wor­ry about how peo­ple might react to your work down the line I’m afraid you can become too self-con­scious. That’s the big dan­ger in get­ting involved too deeply in writ­ing workshops/groups. You start writ­ing to please a cer­tain group when you should be writ­ing to con­front them.

On page 113, Loy­al acknowl­edges his trou­ble with women via the baby. A nice moment, and fun­ny. He pro­vides a nice coun­ter­point to Strat­ton. Did he always have as large a role to play, or did he grow into it with the writ­ing?

He grew out of the edit­ing deci­sions. That scene, as well as oth­ers, came out of a direct con­ver­sa­tion with my edi­tor, Gillian Berchowitz, about who he was and why he mat­tered to the rest of the book. I’m real­ly grate­ful for this because it’s unusu­al to have such a thought­ful and inci­sive read­er. I real­ly can’t thank her enough for mak­ing the nov­el the best ver­sion of what it could be.

Page 117. I cringed a lit­tle at 'Oba­ma the Reneger." See­ing those things are part of the land­scape, and I find Stratton's pol­i­tics inter­est­ing, though maybe not sur­pris­ing, giv­en his occu­pa­tion. His uni­ver­si­ty friends seem more con­ser­v­a­tive, but he doesn't. Were you set­ting up oppos­ing view­points, or was it just the way Strat­ton rolls? He seems like a mav­er­ick to me.

I think he’s fair­ly typ­i­cal for some­one teach­ing col­lege in South­ern Appalachia. He’s a Demo­c­rat, but he also likes to drink whiskey and fish and camp. I think it seems weird to those on the out­side that you can have pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and a rich cul­tur­al life through the edu­ca­tion­al world while still enjoy­ing the best parts of the rur­al expe­ri­ence. The con­flict, of course, is when the unfor­giv­ably racist and jin­go­is­tic garbage turns up, which it does in very direct ways, and men like Strat­ton have to find a way to hold on to the things they care about while still chart­ing an eth­i­cal course for them­selves.

Liza fas­ci­nat­ed me through­out the book, some­one the whole nov­el turned around, some­one we know well, yet she's nev­er in the book as a POV char­ac­ter, though her pho­tos stand in for her. Stratton's loss is pal­pa­ble, though, on near­ly every page he appears. Can you talk about her, and the deci­sions you made about her? Was she always in the book, or did the idea devel­op as you wrote?

Liza was meant to be a ghost, but like all ghosts she was there to shape the world by her absence. Despite nev­er appear­ing in the “now” of the sto­ry, she is a cru­cial part of it. Not only for Strat­ton but Rain as well. I thought this was an inter­est­ing dynam­ic that tried to show what deep grief does to peo­ple, even those to whom they’re indi­rect­ly con­nect­ed.

Wolf reminds me of the old man, Wade, in Lar­ry Brown's Joe, but where Wade was just plain evil, almost a car­i­ca­ture, Wolf is some­one more com­pli­cat­ed. Did you wor­ry through­out about that, about mak­ing some­one so bad, so charis­mat­ic at the same time?

I think most of my bad­dies are like this. It’s like Milton’s Satan. How con­vinc­ing would he be if he failed to seduce the read­er with his hero­ic rhetoric? I think it’s per­ilous to under­es­ti­mate evil, to try to reduce it to some­thing that’s facile. When you do that you lose an aware­ness of how threat­en­ing it can be.

The end­ing reminds me of the best kind of inevitabil­i­ty, the knowl­edge that no mat­ter how things go, they can always get worse. Yet there's some hope too, as there ought to be but often isn' t (I've been read­ing a lot of noir late­ly). With­out reveal­ing the end­ing, I'd say it's hope­ful, but com­pli­cat­ed. How would you describe it?

I think, like in all sto­ries, things have to change to remain inter­est­ing.

Did you have oth­er books you were in con­ver­sa­tion with dur­ing the writ­ing of this nov­el? What kind of book do you think you set out to write, and what did you end up with?

I think those con­ver­sa­tions are ongo­ing. There’s clear­ly some McCarthy and Lar­ry Brown in there, but also some Car­son McCullers, James Salter, and Bon­nie Jo Camp­bell. If you’re not think­ing about oth­er books as you work, even on a sub­lim­i­nal lev­el, I think you’ve trad­ed away a sig­nif­i­cant piece of what you’re try­ing to do.

Charles Dodd White lives in east­ern Ten­nessee. He is a recip­i­ent of the Thomas and Lil­lie D. Chaf­fin Award for excel­lence in Appalachi­an Lit­er­a­ture, a Jean Ritchie Fel­low­ship from Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­ty, and an indi­vid­ual artist’s grant from the North Car­oli­na Arts Coun­cil. He is author of the nov­els, IN THE HOUSE OF WILDERNESS (Forth­com­ing 2018), A SHELTER OF OTHERS (2014), LAMBS OF MEN (2010), and the sto­ry col­lec­tion, SINNERS OF SANCTION COUNTY (2011). He is also edi­tor of the con­tem­po­rary Appalachi­an sto­ry antholo­gies, DEGREES OF ELEVATION (2010) and APPALACHIA NOW (2015). His work has appeared in Red Holler: Con­tem­po­rary Appalachi­an Writ­ing, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Med­i­ta­tions on the For­bid­den from Con­tem­po­rary Appalachia, Appalachi­an Her­itage, The Louisville Review, North Car­oli­na Lit­er­ary Review, The Rum­pus, Tus­cu­lum Review and oth­ers. He is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Pel­lis­sip­pi State Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege in Knoxville, Ten­nessee.

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