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Page 4

Indeed, every reader of a work of fiction establishes from the beginning a solipsistic situation.  You live and breathe and hold a book in your lap.  The book does not live and breathe, but you are going to pretend very quickly that it is populated with living, breathing characters like yourself.  Something in the back of your mind always reminds you that they are not really alive, that only you exist, that all of those people are simply being pretended into existence by yourself (with the help of the author), but for the duration of your enjoyment of the book you "willingly suspend disbelief" and convince yourself you are moving among real people.  For the duration of your life you move among others who certainly seem to be alive and very real but who could quite conceivably be only the product of your fancy (nobody has disproved solipsism!).  The imagination is a very powerful thing.

In my effort to make the reader a participant in the creation of the imaginary world of "reality," I choose narrative techniques which require the reader not only to figure out the stories but also to investigate, usually with the benefit of a second or third reading, the multiple levels of "existence," meaning allusion, "reality".  For even if I concede that solipsism is bullshit and you have every right to just as much existence as I have, I still believe that you and I can never exist on the exact same level of perceived "reality."  And as long as I am in control of your perception while you're reading one of my books, I am going to use every trick I know to take you into realities where you've never been.

All of my novels are historical in the sense of being in the past -my latest book KAT takes place mostly way back in the early 1980's -but none of my novels is "a historical novel" in the conventional sense of that term.  Indeed, to the extent that nearly everything in Stay More takes place outside of history (notice what scant regard Stay Morons gave to the two world wars), it might be safe to say that my novels are ahistorical.  But in those that are set in the past (pre-World War II -no, pre-1948, the year I turned 12), there is still a sense of an old-timey Ozarks in existence, and that sense seems to disappear in "contemporary" novels or those parts of "historical" novels (TAOTAO, SOP TRIP, the end of COT) which carry over into the contemporary world.  I am not deliberately using a different attitude, but it is impossible not to detect what is lost in the contemporary world.  Some might theorize - it isn't my conscious intention - that one reason my books inevitably change to the future tense in the end is to escape the dull, non-mythological, unsatisfying present time.

All of the worlds of my "fiction" are invented, pastoralized, idealized, fictionalized, that is, made into art as opposed to "life," which is pretty dull stuff.  I consider myself an Arcadian novelist.  Maybe I shouldn't talk about what is lost in the contemporary world so much as what is lost in "reality" as opposed to the magic of fiction.  As an artist I can't ever resist remaking the world, past, present, or future.  Why should I?  That's true even of my "non-fiction" book LUB, as I noted before.  Do you know Faulkner's essay "Mississippi"?  Recall how he mixed fictional and "real" people, the world of Yoknapatawpha and that of historical Mississippi.  I was obviously inspired by it in parts of LUB.

In a similar way TAOTAO was greatly inspired by One Hundred Years of Solitude - all the way through, even beginning with the similarities of the opening paragraphs.  A dissertation could easily be written on the parallels between the two books.  But at the time I wrote TAOTAO I didn't know what "Magic Realism" was.  For that matter, I'm not sure I yet understand it.  I admired what Garcia Marquez had done and wanted to emulate it, but I took pains to make sure that everything which happened in TAOTAO was possibly conceivable, believable.  There are no flying carpets in TAOTAO nor any blood running endlessly down the street.  So the "magic" of Garcia Marquez might be missing.

Of course, Appalachia and the Ozarks are naturally akin to the Latin Third World in the strange things that happen, and the only way to depict them is a touch of surrealism.  The tall tale, the ghost story, the folk ballad, and other forms of narrative in Appalachia an din the Ozarks have common unnatural events, weird people, a magical atmosphere that transcends "reality."  Bob Loomis, the Duke alumnus, classmate of Styron, and Styron's lifelong editor at Random House was my editor for The Cherry Pit.  He once characterized my fiction as an "entertaining nightmare."  Back then I didn't know what he was talking about, and I was insulted.  I think I may understand what he meant now, but I wonder if my conventional perception of reality might strike other people as nightmarish in ways I did not intended or in ways I don't realize.

Yes, I supposed one could compare the world I've created in TAOTAO with Al Capp's surrealistic Dogpatch.  As long as you keep in mind that Al Capp was totally ignorant of both Appalachia and the Ozarks, I don't mind being considered a kindred spirit of his.  But one of your friends paid me the compliment of saying that TAOTAO is something nobody else in Appalachia could have done and hasn't.  I refer you to my "nonfiction" book Let Us Build Us a City, wherein I observe that a Newton County ghost town north of Stay More - Marble City - was renamed "Dogpatch" and turned into a fanciful theme park recreating Al Capp's world (and which recently went out of business).  I have some cogent remarks to make about how the local people, some true Stay Morons, view the "Dogpatch" theme.

Although I write about Arkansas and the Ozarks, take it as my main subject, I would rather not be thought of as a regionalist any more than Faulkner is.  Jack Butler discussed this in his tribute to me in last winter's Chicago Review,  which remains the nicest thing anybody's ever said about me in print. [Butler wrote, "The man is a master craftsman, and vastly entertaining.  He turns out a superb novel about every eighteen months...  He should have a national best-seller.  He probably will have, eventually ...  But all this should have happened years ago."  Butler also noted: "The difficulty that Don faces, it seems to me, is that because of such scurrilous entertainments as the Arkansas traveler joke-books, Beverly Hillbillies, and before Jethro and his crowd, the Lum and Abner movies, everybody in America thinks he or she already has n understanding of Don's locale - the Ozarks are filled with barefoot bumpkins, and the bumpkins are supernally quaint.  Of course this 'understanding' is nothing more than a stereotype."  Butler concluded: "Don Harington is, quite simply, an intense poetic writers in a world which cannot, by and large, hear the poetry."]

I was first runner-up for the Pen-Faulkner Prize for best first novel in 1965, the year Cormac McCarthy won it for The Orchard Keeper.  In 1972 my novel SOP TRIP was chosen by the Book of the Month Club as their October selection, but at the last minute Solzhenitsyn, who had refused to allow one of his novels to be "prostituted" as a BOMC selection, was persuaded to change his mind, and my book got bounced.  TAOTAO was a BOMC alternate selection, and we all had great hopes for it.  But the reception was a disappointment, and it was 11 years until my next book  came out.  During that time my father died.  I had prided myself for 20 years for being a very heavy but controlled drinker, but I lost that control.  And Windham College, where I had earned my living for 16 years, went out of business.  Exhausted and jobless, I moved back to Arkansas and met my second wife Kim, and we took up writing LUB,  and with Kim's help I turned it all around.  I've published four books since then.

I generally write during the summer months, when I'm not teaching.  I research during the school year.  Then I try to write the book during the off-months.  I usually finish before I have to begin teaching, although with KAT I continued into the Fall.  It was very hard on me, and I wouldn't want to do it again.  I began work on my next novel, Butterfly Weed, during the past summer [1993].  This will be my medical novel, Doc Swain's book.  I'm debating whether to call it BUW or BUTT.  Last spring I discovered I had a squamous cell carcinoma of the throat, possibly a much-delayed effect of two synergistic vices I gave up over 11 years ago, smoking and hard boozing.  It wasn't life threatening, but they put me on "aggressive" chemotherapy, and I was frightfully debilitated and enervated, even to the point of having to cancel some of my classes; the first time I had done so in modern memory.  I "graduated" from Northwest Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute last summer after five months of treatment.  During my treatment, I was able to question my doctors about certain medical curiosities which I might include in my book.  The let me keep as a souvenir a hard-plastic mesh head cover, which is a three-dimensional portrait of my head, and was designed to keep my noggin bolted immobile to the table while the X-rays were passed through it.  I'll hang it in my study along with all the other narcissistic souvenirs of my life.

I've had some bad luck with reviewers, especially in the New York Times Book Review, but I also have exacted a certain amount of revenge.  Your smart guesswork about "frakes," the disease in TAOTAO, is a good example.  James Frakes reviewed an earlier book badly.  It was once my fond hope that if TAOTAO had enjoyed half the enormous success of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that everywhere James Frakes went people would snicker at the very mention of his name.  But probably he doesn't know that an original American disease has been named after him.

 

 

 
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