An Interview with Wayne

Have you always been a writer?

I have always been a reader—at least I don’t remember not being able to read. I fancied myself a poet in high school, and hope very much that all of that has been lost or destroyed. I went through a haiku phase, for example. The perfect form for an Appalachian teenager, right? I have written a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation. An article on Hawthorne. A history of a local Baptist church, and a few book reviews. But it wasn’t until the late 1990's that I began to write serious fiction. I’m still learning the craft.

Who do you read?

Of living writers, I come back to Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier, Karen Fisher, Lee Smith, John Barth (when he isn’t being too post-modern). Of our brothers and sisters who have gone on, I re-read Faulkner constantly, particularly the Snopes trilogy. Flannery O’Connor is another favorite. I have read Heller’s Catch-22 probably a dozen times. Walker Percy is important. The Bible. Huckleberry Finn. This list could go on for pages.

You mention the Bible. Could you elaborate on that?

I think it’s getting less fashionable to talk about the Bible, but I have read that strange book since I was a child, and always find new things in it. I have taught a Bible class for years. It’s part of my intellectual furniture, not unlike Caravaggio’s paintings or Bob Dylan’s songs.

Does that make you a religious writer?

No. At least not in the sense C.S. Lewis was, for example. Or Flannery. But I think all serious writing examines the same things religion, at its best, does. What Faulkner called the eternal verities.

Do you consider yourself an Appalachian writer?

I’m not sure what that means. In the sense I live in Appalachia and write about it, of course I am. But I’m also a southern writer—and an American writer—and a teeny participant in the worldwide conversation that is literature. So I’m not sure the narrow focus is helpful. The late John Updike never wrote a story with a dead mule in it, but we both scribble about the same things.

You devote a lot of pages in Cataloochee to a dead mule. Why?

There’s been a lot of claptrap about what exactly is different about southern literature—land, religion, family, etc. Some years ago Jerry Leath Mills, “my old professor” at UNC, wrote an article debunking those ideas, and proposing that the test for the “southernness” of a story is the presence of a dead mule. So that’s my tribute to Prof. Mills, who, by the way, read Cataloochee in typescript and saved me from some embarrassing errors.

Do you write every day? How long?

I try to write at least an hour a day. Were it not for my day job, that time would expand, and sometimes does anyway. It’s a discipline I enjoy.

Did you study writing in college?

Not in any formal sense. I spent an undergraduate career at UNC without meeting Max Steele, for example. Spent three years at Duke without meeting Reynolds Price. Of course, in those days I wasn’t thinking consciously about writing fiction. I was training to be an academic, and there’s a marvelous amount of snobbery—or at least was—about the superiority of literary studies over literature. Which, when you think about it, is pretty silly. Were it not for literature, what would academics study?

There’s a lot of humor in Cataloochee. Did you know when you started this would be a funny story?

Not really. But there are two writers I admire, whose work, although deadly serious, contains a bunch of belly laughs. Faulkner and Twain. I see no reason for a novel to be grim for three hundred pages unless there’s a very good reason (even McCarthy’s The Road contains touching humor). Like life, which is often so funny it hurts.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Begin before I did, for one thing. I was fifty when I started writing fiction. Other than that, find a sympathetic but critical reader, keep steadily at it, and hang around where writers gather. This is as weird a business as I’ve ever seen, and a friendship with an established writer is the best way to open a door for you.

Where does your second novel, Requiem by Fire, take these characters?

It follows many of these folks through the winter of 1934-35. I wanted to examine what happened to two groups: those who stayed and tried to live with the park, and those who left to find a new life. Both ways were pretty interesting.

As a descendant of people who once lived in Cataloochee, what do you think of the national park?

I'm very happy that the government preserved this land for future generations, although (as I show in Requiem) they didn't always do things with sensitivity and concern for people. Imagine condos on Clingman's Dome, and you see why I'm happy the park happened. But there was (and is) a human cost for this preservation, and I wanted Requiem to detail that for modern readers.

Is there more?

I'm working on another novel. Young Rass Carter, the boy who checks on the cattle in the first novel, has interested me for years, and I hope he will turn out to have a book all to himself.