Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Bob Sloan

Interview by Susan O'Neill

At 60, Bob Sloan is a gray bear of a man. His long beard tumbles off his chin like a mountain waterfall, licking at the suspenders stretched across his chest, and his head is habitually sheltered by a floppy brown fedora. But underneath his "aw shucks" demeanor, the author of Bearskin to Holly Fork, Home Call and Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees, is a serious writer. He's won a PRNDI for his public radio commentary, and NPR's Morning Edition began carrying his work in 2001. He has also won a Gold Medal from the Faulkner Society of New Orleans. His writing has been featured in The Lexington Herald Leader, The Christian Science Monitor, and in the magazines Appalachian Heritage, Limestone, and Carve.

Sloan lives with his wife Julie on his ancestral farm near Morehead, Kentucky. He talked to me about his philosophy on writing, and how his upbringing in rural Kentucky affects it.


SA     How do you go from being a hod carrier to being an author?

BS     It helped that I figured out very quickly being a hod carrier wasn't a job in which I wanted to linger for long. How in the world you knew I ever did such a thing?

(For those who may not know, a hod carrier is the guy who mixes mortar for masons, and keeps them supplied with bricks or blocks on a job site. It's brute labor, nothing but hard ceaseless work with precious little in the way of opportunities for a break, especially if you're supplying three or four bricklayers.)

I carried hod for a guy named Otto (and his crew) in Canyon, Texas, for three summer months in 1968 or '69. We were building a church, and my most intense memory of the job were all the Sunday mornings when Otto would come banging on my rooming house door to convince me I oughta come to services. Sunday mornings were when I recovered from Amarillo Friday and Saturday night beer fests, and I never made church even one Sunday I worked for the man.

But I watched and listened and paid attention, to Otto and his crew, to the crowd at the Tex-Mex saloon where I drank a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon, to the tales the lady who ran the boarding house told on the porch of an evening. They were all great story-tellers, and cumulatively constituted as fine a preparatory workshop for being a writer as anyone could hope to attend.

SA     You told me, somewhat proudly, that you do not have and are not pursuing an MFA. A lot of people think a fine art degree is a prerequisite for an author. What do you think the prerequisites are?

BS     It's all subjective. I think the first prerequisite is understanding the primary responsibility of an author is to tell the story. "Story" is what writing's all about. Harry Crews said it best when he counseled, "If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. If you want to preach, find a pulpit. If you want to advocate social reform, stand for public office. But if you want to write fiction, tell a story."

The second prerequisite is a love of language, an appreciation of the power of words, and a desire to master that power, so far as your talent and understanding allow.

The third prerequisite is a willingness to allow that desire to take center stage in your life, no matter what else you find yourself doing with most of your time.

MFA programs smother more writers than they empower. The current "hot ticket" is one of those low residency programs where people get the MFA without actually living on a campus, or being a student as it's typically defined. People spend a hellacious amount of money in those things, and seem to come out the other end no better at writing than when the process started. They could have taken that money and spent two weeks on the Trans-Siberian Express, or ridden a tramp steamer to a few ports in Latin America. They could have gone someplace they'd never been, checked into a bed and breakfast and said to a few people, "Tell me about yourself."

Perhaps most editors pay a little more attention to a submission from someone holding an MFA, but good writing will find its way into print whatever a writer's academic history (or academic lack).

And of course, someone who has an MFA can probably find a job teaching someplace, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The writers I most admire, no matter what century they lived in, weren't career academics. Larry Brown was a fireman. Jim Harrison was a day laborer. Mark Twain piloted steamboats. Jack London prospected and fished and any number of other things. I know some people who once upon a time had all it took to be good, maybe even great writers. Then they went to college and basically never left. They don't know anyone who isn't an academic, and the stunted work they produce shows that limited perspective.

SA     If you look at a map, you'll see there are only 120 counties in Kentucky, but when someone reads your stories, they discover the 121st. Where is Hawkes County?

BS     In my mind.

Hawkes County was born when circumstances had me living other places—notably New Orleans—where I was desperately homesick. It's an olio of decades of memory, the product of yearning to be "home" and getting there the only way I could: I wrote stories about the place. It was convenient to build my own inner landscape because I could play with geography and time and character easier than restricting myself to a "real" setting.

But Hawkes County became, for me, as real as any place on earth. The publication of short stories set within its borders encouraged me to write a novel that took place there. Home Call was a long time finding a publisher, and the recently published sequel, Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees was written with no real hope that it'd ever see print. I just wanted to see what happened to Jesse Surratt, and Margaret, and the rest of my characters. The only way to find out was to write another book.

SA You call it "an olio of decades of memory." What do you mean?

BS I was away from eastern Kentucky a long time. Hawkes County was constructed from remembering, over the years, the people and places and stories that had formed me, for better or worse.

SA     Your stories are mostly character driven, but they're also driven by place. Explain, if you can, the connection that Kentuckians have to the place they live.

BS     Denise Giardina, the wonderful West Virginia writer, said one time "Mountains imprint themselves on the souls of those who know them as children." I believe that.

The Kentuckians I know—and about whom I write—live with mountains all around them. Mountains form their character in lots of ways, some of them quite subtle. For instance, in the mountains, we live without being able to see very far in most directions. We can see as far as the next hill, a quarter or maybe half a mile and that's about it. I think that encourages us to be real aware of what's here, spawns an intense awareness of—and appreciation for—that which is most immediate.

In the mountains the shortest distance traveled between two points is never a straight line. As the crow flies, it's three or four miles from my front porch to my father's homeplace on Holly Fork. But I traverse at least ten miles of winding road to get there, no matter what route I take. I suspect that realization straight lines aren't always a reasonable way to get someplace is why we're a complicated people who don't always solve problems as directly as someone from Oklahoma—where much of the land is flat as God's own pool table—might.

SA     You've lived in other states, too, but for the most part those other places don't play a part in your writing. Why?

BS     I'm not done writing about Kentuckians, I guess. I have completed a novel set in Minneapolis, around the time of the Reagan-Carter election. The land I think of as the Great American Tundra is very much a part of that story, though the protagonist is a transplanted hillbilly not quite sure what he's doing in the National Icebox.

SA     Did you live in Minneapolis?

BS     I lived there, and also way north on the Iron Range, sixty miles from the Canadian border.

Novice writers are advised to "write what you know," and when it comes to place that's especially good advice. Fox on the Run, my unpublished "Minnesota book," is set in 1976 because that's the time I knew the Twin Cities. Without doing a whole lot of research, and a lot of visits north I'm not inclined to do, I couldn't write about that place today.

SA     The front porch in general and the swing in particular plays a Big role in your stories. It's almost a character unto itself. How much of your time do you spend on the front porch swing?

BS     As much as I can, weather permitting.

When my wife and I are alone in the house, busy with whatever's keeping us occupied, it isn't unusual for one of us to ask the other, "Want to go set on the porch a while?" We settle into a swinging glider that was here when my grandfather owned this house, and just spend time together. We might talk, or we might both read, or just watch the birds at the feeders, but invariably we stay longer than we might have meant to.

I've noticed that if someone wants to interview me, and we do it on the porch, they always stay longer than they announced they would. When friends come around, they stay longer if our visit occurs on the porch rather than in the living room or kitchen.

It's always been that way. That's how it was when my grandfather was telling stories in this house: everybody went to the porch unless it was too cold.

If the people of eastern Kentucky didn't invent the front porch, we've surely made the use of it into an art form.

SA     How well do you know your characters?

BS     I know what their voices sound like, not just how their words look like on a page. I know how they walk, the gestures they use, what their eyes look like when they're angry.

I know them about as well as I know very good friends.

But like friends, they're capable of surprising me. I knew "something bad" happened to Jesse Surratt, the protagonist of Home Call and Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees, when he was growing up. I knew it drove him to live a long way from home for decades. But I didn't know exactly what it was until he explained it to Alma, another character in Home Call.

There's a story in Bearskin to Holly Fork, a collection of some of my short fiction, called "Fire, and Stella." The character Joe Caudill lost his left arm to the elbow, but manages to run a small farm. I don't know how Joe lost his arm because he's never told me. He just showed up that way. If he turns up in another story, maybe he'll explain it.

SA     How many of your stories could you preface with the phrase: "the names have been changed to protect the innocent?"

BS     More than my mother would have liked, had she lived to see more of them in print, but less than some others assume. Several times I've had people take me aside to confide, "I know who [and here they insert the name of a story] is really about." If I ask them to tell me, they come up with the name of someone I've never met, someone whose history is a complete cipher to me.

The "truest" stories in Bearskin are "Junior Blevins" and "Jesse's Becky." But even those stories are very much fiction, not history.

SA     Bearskin to Holly Fork takes readers from one end of Hawkes County to another. Do you have a favorite story in that book? If so, why is it your favorite?

BS     If I absolutely had to pick one, I'd say "Junior Blevins," because it's about family, about the never-ending process of learning about—and from—our kin. Roy Lee, the story's narrator, is in the process of burying his mother, but he's still learning things about her he never dreamt were part of her life. I've read "Junior Blevins" to groups of people perhaps eight or nine times, and I'm still surprised when, almost always, someone cries. For me it's an intensely personal story, but apparently lots of folks find something of their own in it. That's part of the magic of fiction, of the power of telling stories. I love it. It's what I'm here to do.


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