Interviews · 05/24/2016

An Interview with C.D. Albin

Like the characters in Hard Toward Home (Press 53, May 2016), his debut short fiction collection, C. D. Albin lives in the Ozarks, a place that can have an almost mystical hold on the hearts of its people, despite the hardships that life there can bring. Albin tells the stories of people who know this power of the Ozarks and also their struggles to survive hard situations, some of their own making, and to overcome the distances we humans can create among ourselves. Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, writes,

A new voice from the Ozarks, C.D. Albin crafts a reverent, clear-eyed but heartfelt look at his people, the love, the violence, the myriad forces at work in lives that push the hidden up through the ground to be seen and reckoned with in surprising ways.

A runner-up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, Hard Toward Home is a collection of stories that continue to engage and inspire long after the last word is read.

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You were born and reared in West Plains, left to go to school and then returned. What was is like to leave? What drew you back to West Plains and what keeps you in the Ozarks?

After graduation from high school, I enrolled at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa,
Oklahoma. Tulsa is located in the foothills of the Ozarks, but I didn’t realize that at the time. To me it seemed like a large city with too much traffic and too much concrete, although I made good friends at the school and enjoyed classes in the English Department. I returned home each summer, and by my junior year I pretty much knew I wanted to make my home in West Plains. The writers who were speaking most forcefully to me at the time were people like Welty, O’Connor, Faulkner, Steinbeck — people who had managed to explore their own cultural, artistic, and familial roots. I hoped to do that too, but I knew the challenge would be to find some way of making an adequate living in the Ozarks. That’s when I developed the goal of coming back after graduate school and teaching at Missouri State University — West Plains. My job there has enabled me to make a living and feel I’m giving back to my region. It has also afforded me time to develop as a writer.

I stay here because of ties to family and to the land. I think most Ozarkers feel similarly, although it’s not uncommon for us to grow so frustrated with the place — the poverty, the slow pace toward progress, the subjugation of heart, mind, and spirit in chase of coin — that we leave for a time. Many of us return though.

The theme of the Ozarks as “home” is woven throughout the stories in Hard Toward Home. Some of your characters seem to feel called by the land and the landscape either to stay and hold onto land that can be hard on them (like Glen in “The Price of Land” or Dale in “Traveling Mercies”) or to make sacrifices to return home (like Robert, the oncologist, in “At Wood’s Edge”). What do you think it is about the Ozarks, perhaps unlike other regions, that can affect its people in these ways?

I don’t think it’s uncommon for people whose childhoods were nurtured in unique landscapes to feel that somehow they are from a special place. Ozarkers often share that instinct with others, perhaps most so — in this country, at least — with the people of Appalachia. Some of it stems from a shared cultural heritage and an awareness of generational connection, although there is more racial and cultural diversity in the two regions than the stereotypes ever acknowledge. Ultimately the ongoing emotional loyalty that natives feel for the Ozarks may derive from the knowledge that it’s both a beautiful and a hard place, and that such a combination of the beautiful and the hard forges us, stamps us, so that we carry that stamp wherever we go.

I was particularly interested in the story of Robert’s decision to return — “after twenty-four comfortable years in Ladue he’d suddenly been seized by the urge to return to Arkansas and re-root.” I have met dozens of folks with a similar story: people who felt a deep and almost inexplicable urge to get back to the Ozarks even when it might be easier and more comfortable to remain somewhere else. Have you heard these stories? Will you write more of Robert’s story in a future short story or novel?

Yes, I’m familiar with such stories. They happen here too, and in some ways I feel I’ve traveled the same path. For me, Robert is someone who is aware of his material good fortune and knows his professional education was never to be had in Lotten. Nor is the medical expertise he is accustomed to providing. Over time he has come to feel that, while practicing in Ladue may be well and good, he still has an obligation to better the lives of his fellow Ozarkers.

I hadn’t considered writing more about Robert. For me, “At Woods’ Edge” was really Lauren’s vehicle, the story of someone who felt displaced and out of step in the Ozarks, rather than someone like Robert who felt he was returning to his true self, his true home. I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing more with him though.

The character Trace in “Traveling Mercies” made me wonder about what it is in the Ozark landscape and culture that makes some of its people the kind of people one longs to know better. What do you think?

I think in most cultures and occupations there are overlooked people, those who quietly conduct dignified, unselfish lives, and when they are finally noticed we realize they are the ones we should have been studying and emulating all along. For me, Trace is that kind of guy. I’ve known several like him here in the Ozarks, but I’m not sure he is specific to the region. Certainly the Ozarks produces its share of laconic, private men whose actions define them more than their words, but such men spring from other cultures as well.

Also, in “Traveling Mercies,” when the character Ray decides not to go to an interview in Memphis, he gives up a chance for a position that might offer more prestige and more money. Throughout the story, we can sense Ray weighing the price for staying in the Ozarks against the price for leaving. Both have costs. When you envisioned this story, did you always know what Ray would decide?

I didn’t always know, although I think in the end his decision may be based less on dwindling fascination with the Memphis job and more on a glimpse of who his wife actually is — plus perhaps a glimmer of the kind of man he is. Both realizations surprise him

Your stories about Bond County and its people remind me of Wendell Berry’s short stories and novels about Port William, a fictional place based upon his hometown of Port Royal, Kentucky. Is there a specific place or county that inspired Bond County?

Certainly my own home county, Howell, is the biggest influence, but any of the Missouri or Arkansas border counties in the Ozarks has probably lent something to my fictional settings. And those with colleges or universities located therein, like Baxter, Izard, and Independence counties in Arkansas have been influential. Also, Baxter County has the lake culture, which interests me.

Another theme that seems to run throughout your stories is family and the hurts and burdens we pass down from generation to generation, a topic you handle with the skill of someone trained in family systems theory. You also write in “Hard Toward Home” about the meth problem. How do you write with such care and restraint about the things that I imagine break your heart?

I believe family conflicts, as well as addictions and other harmful behaviors, stem from the fact that human beings are flawed creatures. In some ways our flaws are our essence, because they usually impede us from making the most of our gifts, and frustrations sparked by our impediments often cause us to lash out at each other, especially those with whom we are close. I don’t find it easy to write about such things, but if one writes literary fiction, then the job is to write as thoughtfully and insightfully as one can about the issues that trouble humanity. In terms of restraint, I try not to over-write for fear that such language might draw attention away from the characters and their plight. The understated approach just feels right for me, given what I’m trying to do artistically.

Do some stories require more drafts than others?

Yes, although all of my stories require many drafts. I write slowly, with quite a lot of line-by-line and phrase-by-phrase revision as I go.

How do you know when a story is ready to be submitted for publication?

I don’t always, but I’m getting better the more I write. If I can reach the state in a story’s development when I can read it as if I had nothing to do with its composition — read it as a reader who is coming to the story cold — and the story still holds up, then I have a pretty good sense that it is ready to submit.

You manage to keep politics and religion mostly out of your stories, at least explicitly, while both are large parts of Ozark culture. Was this a conscious decision as a writer?

Cultures undergo shifts in political and religious moods, and as a fiction writer I’m not so much interested in the moods themselves as in the way individual people respond to those moods. I suppose it’s the old idea that you can get to the universal through the particular. I do think of my work as addressing religious issues in this sense: I’m concerned with how and why people behave the way they do when they feel unmoored. That can be a political question, although I tend to approach it more from a religious sensibility. A portrait of people groping in darkness is, to my way of thinking, a religious portrait.

What books are on your bedside table?

Currently I’m working through a new collection of poetry, After the Three Moon Era, by Gary Fincke. I’m also reading Peter Makuck’s recent short story collection Allegiance and Betrayal.

Which authors have influenced you most?

I’ve always studied closely those writers who write about particular regions of the country, especially if those regions are a little out of the way. The major figures like Faulkner and O’Connor have influenced me, as they have many others. I’ve also made close study of two Louisiana writers, Tim Gautreaux (whose class I took one semester at the University of Mississippi) and Ernest J. Gaines. I also find the work of Ron Rash deeply moving.

I know you also write poetry. Which is your first love- fiction or poetry? Who are your favorite poets?

Fiction is my first love. I began writing poetry late, after the poet and scholar Matt Brennan from Indiana State University gave a poetry reading in West Plains. He inspired me to try, and I’ve kept at it, often with his encouragement. I also admire the poetry of Ron Rash, Peter Makuck, and the late Claudia Emerson.

You have a full-time job. How do you work writing time into your life? What time of day do you prefer to write? Do you keep a journal?

Writing is a choice, so making time to write means I have to prioritize writing over other activities I could choose to do. When I’m writing most productively I write early in the morning, although that becomes exhausting by the middle of the semester, when I usually have to settle for revising work I’ve done earlier rather than generating new work. Summers and breaks are my most productive writing periods, simply because they afford me the most time to work.

Are you part of a writing group?

No, although I have attended — to my benefit — summer workshops like Sewanee, The Glen, and The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.

What keeps you going as a writer and as a person?

At least two things keep me going as a writer. One is the love of a beautifully made story and the hope of telling such stories myself. The other is the belief — religious, at its essence — that the ability to write is a gift I should develop to whatever degree I can. As a person I am motivated by normal things, like faith, work, and family. Plus a year-round obsession with the St. Louis Cardinals.

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C. D. Albin was born and reared in West Plains, Missouri. He earned a Doctor of Arts in English from the University of Mississippi and has taught for many years at Missouri State University – West Plains, where he founded and edits Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His stories, poems and interviews have appeared in a number of periodicals, including _American Book Review, Arkansas Review, Cape Rock, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, and Slant.

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Jan K. Nielsen works as a Unitarian Universalist minister and studies creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks and, after living and working in New England for nearly twenty years, recently returned to Arkansas, the place she calls home.