Thursday, May 21, 2020

Jordan Farmer

Jordan Farmer was born and raised in a small West Virginia town, population approximately two thousand. He earned his MA from Marshall University and his Ph.D. at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

His new novel is The Poison Flood.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The best titles are both literal, simply explaining something about the book, and also a metaphor. The novel contains an actual poison flood in the chemical disaster that impacts Hollis’ hometown. However, The Poison Flood is also a rather obvious metaphor I’ll leave for the readers to discover.

What's in a name? (Why did you decide to name your main character Hollis Bragg?)

I don’t typically think much about character names. I tend to just pull one out from the subconscious and it usually sticks. However, I did have some criteria concerning Hollis. I knew that the main character should have a somewhat older name, a name that felt like it was from a former generation and one that would echo a kind of disconnect from his physical youth. It also needed a regional quality that felt appropriate for an Appalachian man. Regarding a surname, I wanted a single syllable that felt right for a rock star. I thought of Johnny Cash and went from there.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would be amazed that we made it this far and elated to see the novel find such a prestigious home at Putnam. Since I was young enough to understand that someone actually wrote the stories we enjoy, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Depending on the situation, I was both afraid to even fantasize that I could do it and somehow also certain I’d achieve it one day. I knew I had talent or at least the drive to work until I developed talent, but felt insecure about being from rural West Virginia. For a long time in my youth, I worried that I wasn’t born into the right kind of background to be a writer. It took finding the work of many skilled Appalachian writers to give me faith there was a place for my stories.

I hope the teenage version of myself would be proud not just of the dedication involved in sticking with it, but also in the quality of the work. It takes years to develop real skill at something artistic. I like to think a younger me would be pleased to know that we’d developed a strong narrative voice and improved our craft.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t outline, so I go into a draft knowing that massive revisions are often just part of the process. I have this suspicion that if I did outline, it would involve a secret desire to avoid such rewrites, which I think probably must come anyway. For me, outlines stifle the spontaneous discoveries. I want moments of revelation where a character or event occurs and changes the direction of the narrative. I might have some specific scenes to write towards or themes I want to explore, but it feels too controlling, too lacking in improvisation to work in a rigid sequence.

This makes the first draft all experimentation. Change point of view, change timeframe, change tense, whatever you wanna do. No restrictions. It’s sort of like setting out to sea and trusting that you’ll find enough wind to carry you to the next port. At this early stage everything is fragments. A character, a scenario, a cultural background or theme. These things will start to coalesce and influence one another eventually, but I don’t need much to get started.

If there’s one ritual I abide by, I usually won’t begin until I hear the first line in my head. What I hear doesn’t necessarily stay the first line, but I don’t force the first sentences when writing a new story. You must be patient and wait for that moment. Something about searching for it is a poor idea. It’s sort of a subconscious gift.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think any similarities revolve around both of us feeling physically different. Hollis suffers from severe kyphosis. My height has been left at five feet by a congenital bone disorder and I have scoliosis. While Hollis’ condition is more severe, we both reside in what I’d refer to as an unconventional body. Hollis and I are also both from small towns in Appalachia. We both make art in our own way. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Hollis was never meant to be autobiographical. I didn’t have a desire to write a stand-in for myself, but I did want to discuss themes of alienation and artistic struggle I’ve felt. Some of Hollis’ emotions might be similar to my own past or present feelings, but I share none of his biography.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music is a big influence, particularly on this novel. My tastes are vast. Essentially if it’s good, I wanna hear it, but I was thinking of the narrative quality and confessional nature of many country songs. The way a song like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” hides the details of a death until deeper into the track. I wanted similar layers in the novel. To show Hollis in his present state, then evaluate his past in subsequent chapters to inform how he came to be in these situations.

Biographies or interviews with artists fascinate me. I really crave the opportunity to hear any sort of artist talk about their process. There’s a TV show sponsored by Ernie Ball guitar strings where they talk to musicians like Buddy Guy, Mike Ness from Social Distortion and Billy Duffy from The Cult about their songwriting process and how they achieve a certain guitar tone. I’m not a professional musician, I play some bad acoustic guitar, but I love that show. I think it’s really useful to hear about how anyone creates regardless of the artform. Something about just understanding the critical decisions, or the worries of different artists can inform you regardless of how different their artform might be from yours.
Learn more about The Poison Flood.

--Marshal Zeringue