Oct/Nov 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Conversation between Ed Southern and Joe Mills

Review by Ed Southern and Joe Mills

Ed Southern is a North Carolina native and a graduate of Wake Forest University. His first two books were part of John F. Blair's Publisher's Real Voices, Real History™ series: The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614, published in 2004, was a collection of contemporary accounts of the first permanent English colony in America; Voices of the American Revolution in the Carolinas, released in 2009, told the story of the tide-turning Southern Campaign through the words of those who lived and fought their way through that tumult. He is also editor of the anthology Sports in the Carolinas: From Death Valley to Tobacco Road, which combines personal essays and informative articles to examine why sports mean so much to so many in the Carolinas.

His first work of fiction, Parlous Angels (Press 53), came out in the fall of 2009. Lee Smith said of Parlous Angels: "Ed Southern's stories are about hard work and hard times and what is required of a boy to become a man in such a place and time. They are also about class—that taboo subject in America—and about anger, love, and yearning. Carefully written, with the best dialogue I've read in years, these terrific and utterly original stories are made to last—like a stone pathway or a brick wall."

Southern has been executive director of the North Carolina Writers' Network since January 2008, after more than eight years with John F. Blair, Publisher. He lives in Winston-Salem.

Joe Mills has published three books of poetry, Somewhere During the Spin Cycle (Press 53), Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (Press 53), and, most recently Love and Other Collisions. With his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he wrote two editions of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries (John F. Blair, Publisher). He also edited A Century of the Marx Brothers (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) and has published numerous pieces of criticism, non-fiction, and fiction. Currently he holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

He moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina after earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of California, Davis. He also holds degrees from the University of New Mexico and the University of Chicago. None of these have helped him master playing barre chords for the guitar.

Joe     I first met you when you were with John F. Blair, Publisher, and my wife and I were working on A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries. I think you were already Vice-President of Sales and Marketing then. How has working in the publishing industry affected your writing?

Ed     Umberto Eco has a great quote about how scholars almost never ask of a work the only question that matters to a publisher: Is it any good? Working for a publisher confirmed a sneaking suspicion I'd long had, that whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, people crave a good story, well told. We all want something to happen, we all want to be surprised. So, I started trusting the story even more.

My main job as VP was to explain to booksellers who among their customers would buy a particular book, and why. And usually I had only a sentence or two in which to do it. Like most writers—and most passionate readers—I could talk for hours about a given book (preferably not my own) if you let me. My job at Blair taught me a wonderful mental discipline.

I was also lucky that Blair has a brilliant editor, Stephen Kirk. I served on the acquisitions committee with him, so I was able to see the before and after shots, so to speak. I could see how he identified a manuscript's strengths and weaknesses, then worked with the author to amplify the strengths and fix the weaknesses. I learned to look at my own work with more clarity and dispassion, and my language became sturdier.

Joe     How did Parlous Angels develop? Did you always intend to have it as a larger project of related stories?

Ed     The earliest story in the cycle, "Squirrel Hunting," was written when I was about 22 or twenty-three. Let's not talk about how many years ago that was. At that time, I was just beginning to learn how to write a short story, and I was teaching myself by re-telling my own experiences—with huge doses of artistic license, of course—in story form. Even then, though, I had the idea of an interrelated collection or cycle. Hemingway was my first and is probably still my greatest influence, and I'd read In Our Time straight through about four or five times; Will Adams was very consciously (if not pretentiously) named after Hemingway's Nick Adams. As I wrote more stories, though, I began to notice a pattern into which much of what I wrote fit. The connections became stronger, until I realized I these stories together told the story of a slice of North Carolina in the 20th century.

Joe     As someone who identifies strongly with the South, how do you think a sense of place informed your work?"

Ed     You know, it's funny—I've lived in the South all of my life, I love the South, I couldn't imagine living anyplace else. But when I started writing, I very much did not want to be seen as a Southern writer. That's probably because of my last name—I long ago grew sick of "Oh, your name is Southern, and you're from the South!" Thanks, Sherlock, I hadn't made that connection. So at first I wrote a lot about my semester studying in London and the traveling that I did then, again following the Hemingway model of writing about foreign lands. A year or two out of college, though, I went to a panel discussion about Southern history at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. At some point on the drive home afterward I embraced, or maybe accepted, being a Southern writer, and realized that what I really wanted to do as a writer was tell the story of my little pocket of the South, and how it came to be the way it is. That's a subject that's still utterly fascinating to me; I don't think I'll ever exhaust it.

But that's from my perspective as someone who's spent almost all his life within 200 miles of where he was born. As someone who moved to North Carolina from the West, how has that affected your perspective of place? As a writer, do you find yourself more interested in where you are now, or in where you were?

Joe     I confess that I'm jealous of writers who have a strong sense of place. I grew up in northern Indiana. A land that's flat. Gridded. Seemingly devoid of poetry. Abraham Lincoln called Indiana "as unpoetical as any spot on earth." And I would lie in my bedroom and read Westerns and tales of mountain men and pour over maps of the West, savoring the names like "Bitterroot Range," "Sweet Water Rim," and "Deadwood," As soon as I could, after college I headed West, and I lived in Utah, New Mexico, and California. Then, eventually, I moved to North Carolina . As a result, although I love exploring landscapes, I haven't felt personally tied to a particular place. I haven't, as the saying goes, put down roots.

Ed     You know, Westerns are full of beautiful landscapes, but unrooted heroes. How do you think you would have felt if you'd stayed in the Midwest?

Joe     I don't know. That's a scary thought for me. I think my language retains a Midwestern flatness, a cryptic quality. I didn't grow up in a community that talked explicitly in metaphors or similes. We didn't tell folk tales. We didn't have a rich oral culture and love of language. In fact, it was the opposite. We were suspicious of people who were too glib. In graduate school, I took enormous offense when a Southern professor wrote on a paper of mine that it was "clever." Clever to me was an adjective applied to lawyers who get ax murderers off on technicalities. Clever was verbal ingenuity that was suspicious. You have to watch out for people who are "clever." I went to her office hours all worked up and discovered that she meant it as a compliment.

In my family, we made the word "fine" do a great deal of work. It served as an answer to how we were feeling, how it was going , how a trip went, etc. I spent a year teaching in France , traveled around Europe, and met the woman who became my wife. Afterwards, when my family asked how it was, I said, "Fine. It was fine." and then we went on to talk about something else. Usually the weather. We used to joke that if you asked one of us how we were doing even if we had just severed a leg and were trying to hop to the hospital before we passed out, we would say, "Fine." Then a couple years ao, my Dad had a freak accident and broke his neck. I made a point of calling him regularly to check in, and each time he said, "I'm fine. Fine. And you?"

Ed     That's fascinating. It sounds like my teenage son would fit in well where you grew up. I have a hard time getting more than "Fine" out of him.

Joe     It can be difficult to write with such a condensed ranged of expression. My poetry isn't lush and rich with poetic devices. One positive result probably is that it's not intimidating. My wife likes to say that it's poetry for people who think they don't like poetry. Instead of adjectives and adverbs, I look for gestures and images, actions or moments to hold the weight of a poem or story. In part, it's the classic "show, don't tell." I talk about this with my students a lot. I tell them if their lover says, "I would do anything for you. I would climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest sea," they should call the person up at 3 am and ask him to bring over a Coke.

Ed     What you say about gesture and action rings very true, especially given my deep and abiding love for Hemingway's work. He was another Midwesterner who was distrustful of excessive speech. (Supposedly, he could also walk into a room full of strangers and figure out all the interconnections in a few minutes, just by observing.) Something I learned while I was in college—although I didn't learn it in college—was how Southerners, particularly men, use storytelling to deflect conversation from excessive expressions of feeling.

Why do you think Midwesterners are like that? That's the question that fascinates me—why are people and places the way they are at a particular time? Do you think it's solely a function of geography?

Joe     I suspect what we consider geographical characteristics have a lot to do with immigration patterns, class, positions in the family, etc. But, as I think about this dynamic, it occurs to me that my brother has lived in Fort Wayne his whole life and is a non-stop talker. So perhaps if I had stayed more rooted, I'd be more verbose, but I doubt it.

Ed     There's an Irish saying that a writer is just a failed talker. I always felt that was true in my case. I was never any good at telling stories or jokes, despite having grown up in the rich oral culture of the South. I think I love writing because I can take my time and revise.

To me, Charlotte and Winston-Salem are sort of the North and South Poles of my imaginative world. I realize that to most people they're practically the same place, but to me they couldn't be more different. That comes out, to an extent, in Parlous Angels; most of the stories are set in or near one or the other. Again, the question that fascinates me is what made them so different?

Joe     Speaking of Charlotte, since I know that you moved there a while ago and then back to Winston-Salem, how has that affected your writing routine? Was it disruptive? Do you have a routine? A particular way of working?

Ed     In a way, I'm lucky in that I've never been a creature of strict habit. I don't have to write in a certain place or at a certain time of day. That's helped me get through the ups and downs of life; whenever I have the time, I can pull out my notebook, try to focus my imagination, and escape into somebody else's story for a bit. I tend to write in bursts, anyway, so I don't need long blocks of unbroken time. Having said that, I do really enjoy writing in the early, early mornings, before, during, and right after dawn.

Joe     I used to sleep until noon, and now the early morning is my favorite part of the day. But the difficulty in finding time is why I end up writing a lot of poetry. You can work on something short and small in a half hour. But it adds up. After a couple days, you have a draft that's okay, then a revision, and then maybe a poem you like well enough to show people. And then another and another.

Ed     After you have a number of poems you like, how do you make selections for a collection?

Joe     You want the poems to work together in a book like songs on an album or cd. I try to give each collection a coherency rather than just having it be a grab bag. Sometimes this is obvious. The subtitle of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers is "wine poems," which says it all.

The poems in my most recent book, Love and Other Collisions, are grouped around family and education. My mother suffers from dementia, and, a few years ago, we had to put her in a home. I started writing poems about some of the experiences, but I knew an entire volume about this would have a limited audience, one that probably wouldn't even include myself. And, it wouldn't be faithful to the experience of dealing with my mother while simultaneously raising my children. As a colleague told me recently in the hallway, "I understand now why they call it 'the middle years.' We're in the middle." So, as I put this volume together, I divided it into several sections, including my childhood, raising my children, and my mother. In one of the early drafts of the manuscript, the last section was the poems about my mother. A friend read it, pointed out that ending that way was bleak, and asked, "Can't you leave us a little more hopeful?" Since I had some poems about teaching scattered throughout, I decided to collect those in a final section. Teaching and writing are how we figure out what's going on with our lives (at least how I do).

Ed     How did you choose the title?

Joe     It had a working title of "Love and Other Natural Disasters." In fact, I was planning a two title series. Once, when my family was white-water rafting, we had to sign a waiver that agreed we wouldn't hold the company responsible for "death and other ailments." I thought this was a great phrase, and I wanted to write: "Death and Other Ailments" and "Love and Other Natural Disasters," but I decided "collisions" was more apt. I give a lot of thought to titles, names, and those kind of specifics.

You mentioned the naming of your character Will Adams. What kind of process do you go through in naming your characters?

Ed     I guess I could make up some quasi-mystical process I use for making up character names (casting runes, reading tea leaves, taking peyote and waiting for the clouds to spell out the names), but I'll go with the boring old truth. They pop into my head, or I steal them from someone else (real or fictional), or I look through baby-name books. "Will Adams," as I mentioned, was named after Hemingway's Nick Adams, and I just like the name Will. "John Gardiner" was inspired by my grandfather, who gave me a James Bond novel to read when I was far too young, except the one he gave me wasn't written by Ian Fleming but by Fleming's licensed successor—John Gardner.

For many of the other names in the first John Gardiner story, I drove around the part of Lincoln County where the story was set, where my grandfather grew up, and looked at the names on the road signs. Most of the roads around there were named after whoever's farm they led to, so I got names like Mundy, Tully, and Abernethy, sturdy names with deep roots in that part of the world.

Last names fascinate me. What else has been held onto for so many generations? But I also tried to have fun with it. Generally speaking, if a character is particularly unpleasant, their name is adapted from the name of someone I didn't like. I probably shouldn't admit that.

Joe     What about the title Parlous Angels?

Ed     The working title of the cycle was The Survivors. It was meant to be somewhat ironic: Will Adams and his peers know so little of survival, compared with those who've gone before them, but trying to make it through a largely silly and irresponsible age with purpose and strength and dignity intact is a form of survival itself. Then the series Survivor came along and blew that name out of the water.

I named the story "The Parlous Angel" after the Gram Parsons song "The Return of the Grievous Angel." Parlous angel seemed—and still seems—an apt description of Mother McCaskill. She offers death or redemption, depending on your willingness to listen and think. I came across the archaic word "parlous" in elementary school in an Australian folk tale, and have loved the sound of it ever since. Most importantly, I don't think anyone doing an Internet search for "Parlous Angels" will come across anything other than my book.

Joe     My brother has the middle name of "Everard" which was given to him by my father who has the middle name "Everard." I was always glad that I wasn't the oldest son and given such an odd family name until I started to try to promote myself on the Internet. "Joe Mills" gets a half million hits on Google. In fact, my sister once called me up to berate me for being so modest. "I didn't realize that you had written so many books," she said. I had to point out that all those Joe Millses on Amazon weren't me. Everard would have set me apart.

Ed     That's funny—there's an English scientist, on the faculty at Oxford, named Ed Southern. I don't think anyone confuses me with him.

Joe     It's odd using the Internet to learn about other Joe Millses. One's a photographer, one's an actor, another's a vascular surgeon. It's almost like seeing alternative lives. These are the Joe Millses I could have been if I hadn't realized that my enjoyment of campus life didn't have to end and I could become a teacher. If you weren't the Ed Southern in the publishing industry, what career do you think you would have pursued?

Ed     I have no earthly idea. My childhood ambition was to be a war hero. I went to college thinking I'd be a journalist. I only got into the book business after I dropped out of grad school, which I'd gone to thinking I'd be a professor of English. Some days I wish I'd followed my grandfather and great-grandfather into bricklaying. I've found a good home in the business of books and writing, though, and I have a hard time imagining any other.

Earlier you said teaching and writing are how you figure out what's going on in your life. How do you think you'd make your living if you weren't a teacher? Or, maybe I should ask if there's a career path you now wish you'd followed that didn't even occur to you when you had to make the choice?

Joe     Growing up, I wanted to be a Mountain Man, which clearly wasn't a viable career path by the 1980s. I also wanted to ride the garbage truck because I thought that they got first pick from all the great stuff people threw out. By the time I was in high school, the factory in our town had shut down (which is where most of us expected to end up), and my mother made me take a typing course so I would have some kind of skill. I was the only male among the thirty students, and, in addition to learning how to type over 60 wpm, I studied business correspondence. After that, I never had trouble landing temp and clerical jobs when I needed to. I suspect, if I wasn't teaching, I'd be doing administrative work somewhere, reading Louis L'Amour in the breakroom on my lunch hour. I was lucky, however, when I stepped to the front of the classroom, to discover that I loved it. To get paid to read and write and think about reading and writing is pretty great, even if there are no horses.


Editor Note: Thinking about buying Parlous Angels or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!