The World as Something Recognizable: Interviews with Cary Holladay and Charles Dodd White
Two storytellers inspired by landscape — and, as it happens, both fans of the movie, Days of Heaven — Cary Holladay and Charles Dodd White recently read each other’s new books, swapped questions and answers, and found common ground in dangerous characters, moments of weirdness, and “thoughts that would shame hell.”
Cary Holladay: It seems to me that all your characters carry the weight of pain and damage and want to be loved. There’s so much vulnerability and instability in their lives.
Photo: Andrew WayneCharles Dodd White: I’m drawn in by characters who carry something greater than the mere sum of their parts. Part of me looks up to them, even if they are in many ways abhorrent, because their lives are so freighted. I think it’s impossible not to admire the part of a person that drives through private pain and adversity. I can’t think of a better laboratory than serious fiction to explore what makes a person like that manage to go on and try to live rather than merely survive.
CH: There’s a theme of civilization versus wilderness, the artificial or civilized world in opposition to the elemental, natural world. Nature is shown as a place of refuge and also as a hostile wilderness. Were you consciously aware of that?
CDW: Wilderness and civilization and all that can entail are definitely a primary concern in all my writing. And I do think that the natural world is often misunderstood and romanticized by many writers. The woods are therapeutic in some ways, but they can also posit psychological confusion in addition to more immediate physical threats. Crossing the timber line and putting yourself in the care of the natural world has a pronounced effect on a person. Being open to wildness can be liberating, but the problem with liberation is freedom. True freedom, as Dostoevsky reminds us in The Brothers Karamazov, can sometimes feel unbearable.
CH: Themes of obsession and betrayal keep the novel humming, along with the suspense about the characters’ relationships and their fates. Could you talk about how what feels like betrayal to one character can be escape or survival for another? I’m thinking of Wolf, Rain, and Winter, and of Winter/Ellen’s taking refuge with her family, who then seek to shield her from Wolf.
CDW: Any novel is a matter of the character who perceives it. The characters of this novel are so trapped within their own perspectives that it seems they often act from a place of desperation. When one is cornered, it seems all these emotional registers get blown completely out, and the resulting action is a matter of pursuit and flight. So, these differing ideas of what constitutes loyalty, betrayal, and escape, are all ideas that are constantly operating under their own dynamic.
CH: This is a powerful, complex novel, distinctive and unusual. After Stratton’s wife Liza dies, he discovers she’d been unfaithful. Even though the reader never “sees” her alive, she’s a brilliant, vivid presence. How did you manage to make a dead character a source of tension?
CDW: I was very interested in trying to have Liza conjured. It’s important to remember that she always is because the view we have of her is entirely through Stratton’s memories. I think it advanced one of the pervading themes of the book that any artistic creation is essentially partial, that it’s exercising its own kind of framework for understanding. That being said, Stratton cannot fully come to terms with who Liza was, and there’s a kind of energy in his effort to understand what their marriage meant. I think his psychic need to do that is what bodies her forth.
CH: Even the minor characters buzz with life. A man at a truck stop comments on Stratton’s cap, and their brief exchange has the fullness and immediacy of real life. I’m reminded of Charles Dickens’ ability to make even minor players memorable. How do you decide who belongs in a story, and who is major or minor?
CDW: Minor characters are there to show you the world you’ve created is convincing. While they might have little to do with the plot or development of the main action, they need to seem truthful. Too much fiction about Appalachia and the South leans on caricature, I think.
CH: The novel makes references to actual artists and works of art, music, and literature, including the photographer Sally Mann, “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi, and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. There’s a suggestion that art and nature are lasting and salvific.
CDW: I believe at the end of the day that I’m really just an heir to a realistic tradition. So, putting those things in the book, I think they give shape to the world as something recognizable but which might still have the capacity for mystery too. Maybe, despite that familiarity, the act of writing makes the reader look more closely and what is otherwise taken for granted.
Charles Dodd White: Could you discuss the challenge of working in both historic and contemporary fiction? You’re marvelous at both, but I am curious how your process varies.
Photo: Trey ClarkCary Holladay: Characters and situation come first. Whose heart is aching, and why? What does the main character want, and why? For historical fiction, you also need to be saturated in the time period. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the historical novels Balm and Wench, perceptively says that historical fiction resembles fantasy in terms of world-building. For the title story, I read extensively about the Oregon Trail. Francis Parkman’s book is definitive, especially about the hardships people endured. I studied maps to understand the geography and to imagine what people must have talked about as they traveled. The story went through many drafts as I explored what was going on in the hearts of the two sisters who marry two brothers and launch out on a 3,000 mile trek into the frontier. Kate, the main character, is terrified and thrilled. The title, “Brides in the Sky,” comes from Kate’s imagination as she looks at the stars. Earthly and celestial landscapes, the sweep of sky and plains and hills, play a role in these stories.
CDW: I noticed a theme of secret lives across several stories. It put me in mind of Alice Munro, particularly her story “Carried Away.” Were you aware of developing a consistent theme or approach?
CH: For me, getting to know a character means gaining a window into her secret life. Literary critics talk about the “drama of consciousness” in the work of writers such as Henry James and Willa Cather. Interiority means the secret life and the private life, as opposed to the public life. A story should reveal all three, but especially the secret life, the pressures within, the mystery, the explosive, unruly truths at a person’s core. Robert Louis Stevenson supposedly said, “All of us have thoughts that would shame hell.” Beauty and danger, heaven and hell, coexist in community life and in the human heart. The stories are connected by atmosphere, larger cosmic forces at work in human lives, powers beyond our understanding.
CDW: Do you have a particular favorite in the collection?
CH: Probably the novella, “A Thousand Stings,” which draws on the late-1960’s rural and suburban childhood that I just thoroughly relished, the story of three sisters alert to the foibles and quirks of children and grownups, agog and delighted by the whole panorama of experiences they’re having in the family and at school and in church. There was lots of laughter in my childhood. My parents used to laugh till their shoulders shook.
CDW: This is your eighth book. How has your approach to fiction and the writing life changed?
CH: I have more fun and allow more humor in the stories. Think of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — tragic, yet parts are comical. Writing has become harder because I want to explore more demanding scenarios and go more deeply into the unknown territory of an individual life. I worked on the Oregon Trail story for ten years and am delighted it’s in this book and in the 70th Anniversary Issue of The Hudson Review.
CH: Many interesting moments in these stories revolve around a moment of weirdness. In some, the world appears to turn inside out. I think a story like “Shades” illustrates this so well. We think we recognize the setting but it shifts from underneath us. Can you talk about how you achieve this?
CH: In “Shades,” Roma realizes that one of her sorority sisters has kidnapped a child. She wants to save the child but keep her friend out of trouble, too. But the thing that makes the story strange is Roma’s obsessive nostalgia for Rush Week. She’s living it and loving it — the hectic parties, the glorious frenzy — yet she also knows how she’ll feel when she is old and yearning for her youth. There’s a curve of perspective, a vision of the future. Although Roma is only twenty-two, she’s already crossing a threshold into middle age. The myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone isn’t specifically mentioned, but it’s there in Roma’s imagined older self and in the national officers’ showing up, older women reaching out to younger ones, winter giving way to spring.