You know, you’re bound to attract unfair envy. Here you are with your uncommon name…your uncommonly beautiful book, Emily’s Stitches…another project going on every other burner…and, oh yeah, that PhD. And yet I’m reminded of something I wrote: that the world is filled with wannabe Van Goghs…who are over-attached to their ears. What I mean is that envy is most often based on ignorance of the real price that’s been paid. Can you tell us a bit about Emily’s journey, from conception to completion, and the toll it took on you?
Emily’s Stitches began as a writing exercise. I wanted to write an entire novel made up of self-contained short stories. When I first wrote it, I thought it had Pulitzer written all over it. When I dug it out last year for the first time in over a decade, I realized I may have overvalued it a bit. while not prize-winning material after all, it is still, however, an enjoyable story. It may not be the great American novel I thought it in my cock mid-twenties, but it is, I think, a pretty good novella.
I don’t know that I’d say it took a toll on me, but there were definitely sections that were pretty hard to write. I’m thinking mostly of the sex scene in “The Primrose Path.” I wouldn't have even tried except that it was a matter of honor: My writing buddy, Will Blair, double-dog dared me to write a sex scene, and anyone who has seen A Christmas Story knows no self-respecting male can honorably retreat from such a challenge.
I was house sitting for the mother of one of my childhood friends. She owned a nice house out in the country near a lake, and I had intended to spend the week walking in the woods, maybe fishing in the lake. This was my last year of graduate school before I got my Master's degree, and I knew it was going to be the last summer I could, in good conscience do nothing, I had every intention of not hitting a lick at a snake all week. Instead, I struggled with this scene the whole time.
There is a balance that needs to be struck between describing the physical act of love: too much and you sound either mechanical (bad) or comical (worse). I spent every day pacing the floor reading the scene and re-reading the scene out loud. I would try to mentally see the scene as I read, and sometimes, I'm embarrassed to admit, I even tried to mimic the actions I was describing on the page to see if they made sense or were even physically possible. It is not an experience I hope to have again, but I hope I managed to write a piece that titillates, amuses, and (given the nature of the story and the context of the scene) revolts you just a little.
What about your own evolution, the sense of yourself as a writer? When did the magic come to you, the great Yeah …Baby Moment when you knew you really had the power to pull whatever you fancied?
Well, I'm still not sure I have the power to pull whatever I wanted, but I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I learned to read. I wanted to be the guy who put movies in your head just by the order in which he put 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks. I tried my hand at writing several things throughout my childhood, none of them really very good.
I knew I had the ability to be a decent writer in 10th grade. I co-wrote a play for English class parodying Shakespeare's life. It was about as derivative as anything else I had written up to that point, heavily influenced by Monty Python and Douglas Adams. However, I got to see it put on stage when my co-writer, Jack Mayfield was allowed to stage it at his school. Watching other people, whom I had nnever met, laugh at my work (especially when I wanted them to laugh) gave me a feeling I cannot adequately describe, so I won't. It felt good though, I can say that much.
Later that year, I wrote a short story for my drama class (yeah I know, a play for lit class, and a story for drama, I've never been one to bow to expectations if I can do it just as well differently). The teacher gave each of us a picture from Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Hearris Burdick. If you're unfamiliar with the book, it's a picture book that consists of hauntingly eerie black-and-white charcoal pictures with a single line of text. We were supposed to do something creative with our picture that incorporated both the title and the caption.
My picture was titled "Captain Tory." It showed the back of an old man dressed in a heavy pea-coat and holding a lantern up over his head. Next to him stood a little boy. Both the old man and the boy were staring into a foggy river where a wooden boat was coming out of the mist. The caption read: "He swung the lantern three times, and slowly the schooner appeared."
My story was a ghost story, written from the kid's point of view. He's had a fever for days, and one night his missing uncle, Captain Tory, shows up at his window and entices him to run away with him to a distant land. The kid follows him all through the streets of 19th century London, and finally arrives at the Thames, where the uncle beckons his ghostly ship, and the kid loses his nerve. He wakes up on a park bench the next morning, his fever broken, and returns home to his worried mother.
It's not the best story I've ever written, but it was at that point. It was the first thing I wrote that my dad genuinely liked. He still talks about it and asks if I'll ever publish it. Both my wife and my god-daughter love it, and even now, I find myself tinkering with it. Perhaps it'll show up in my next collection of stories.
Readers are often puzzled by the orchestration strategies of successful writers. How the hell do they get so prolific? Lawrence Sanders too came out of nowhere, at about the age of 50, with The Anderson Tapes…then the Deadly Sin and Commandment series…and a slew of other titles it dizzies a man to consider. But before achieving ‘overnight success’, he must have labored for decades and had a huge backlog to publish. Also, he alternated the time-consuming Sin books with the lighter Commandments, etc. So, how did you get so prolific—and how do you plan to remain so?
It just kind of happened to me, actually. I've been working on my current fiction project, Guns of the Waste Land, which re-tells the Arthurian legends as a Western, for a couple of years now, but before I started that, I wrote a short story "Misdirection" (which is collected in Stitches). In it, two hit men for the Norse god Loki debate the paths their lives have taken as they drive to their next assignment: to kill Baldur and begin Ragnarok. I really liked those two guys, so I also have been tinkering with another short-story novel retelling the Ragnarok myth as a hard-boiled mob/mystery story. I've been tinkering with this story, too, off-and-on.
In my day job, I'm an English professor, and I've always wanted to teach a course using H. P. Lovecraft's work. If given the chance, I'd want to use a critical edition, where the primary text is accompanied by several ancillary materials to help explain the text and its thematic and historical contexts. However, there isn't one, so I decided to make my own.
So one thing after another just kind of happened. I stay busy on them by using each one to procrastinate the other. I'll work on Guns if I feel like I should be working on the Lovecraft book, I'll work on the Ragnarok story (I was going to name it Twilight, but the vampire lady beat me to it) when I should be writing Guns, and I do most of my writing when I should be grading papers or otherwise preparing for class.
Somehow, though, everything gets done.
If everything does go according to plan, your catalog will consist of wildly disparate titles: a collection of hauntingly beautiful stories that tie together as a novella…a retelling of the King Arthur legends as a spaghetti Western…a critical edition of H. P. Lovecraft’s work…and another collection of interrelated stories—retelling the Norse Ragnarok myth as a hard-boiled detective story. Is there any common ground here? Anything that gives a reader the sense of a Leverett Butts book?
I think the common ground is myth and archetype. I've always been fascinated by mythology, and it informs almost every aspect of my professional life. My master's thesis dealt with how Catch-22 redefines the hero archetype, my doctoral dissertation looked at how Robert Penn Warren employed different mythologies into his fiction H.P. Lovecraft's allure for me is in the mythology that he creates and adheres to throughout almost all of his adult fiction, and my own fiction deals heavily with myth. Obviously, my two current projects deal overtly with myth as they literally retell Arthurian and Norse mythologies but in unfamiliar settings, but Stitches also employs myth, in this case the local myths that grow up around people and places who do not seem to fit the local mold.
Most of the writers I admire (see below) also employ myth in some manner into their writing.
When I asked my wife this question, she pointed out that I seem to have a talent for telling grand stories through the eyes of the common man. She points to Emily's Stitches: told from the point of view of a janitor, "Misdirection": two hitmen, and Guns of the Waste Land: telling the King Arthur story through the eyes of illiterate and semi-literate cowboys.
Could we talk for just a bit about the nuts and bolts? Anything you’d care to share about your writing methods, routine, etc. My professional pride won’t allow me to ask—and yet I’m dying to know: if you outline first.
I don’t remember if I outlined ever for Stitches; I know I had an idea in my head about how each story would fit into my overall story arc, but I don’t know that I ever wrote anything down. With my short fiction, I rarely outline. I have a situation in my mind, sometimes I know how it will end up, sometimes I don’t, but I put my characters in the situation and just start writing and see where they wind up. Kinda like God if you’re a deist.
Guns has been a bit different, though. I didn't start out with an outline. I wrote the first section of Chapter 1 just like my short stories, but when I submitted it to Tag Publishing’s Great American Novel Contest in 2010 (where it placed second, incidentally), they required the first chapter and a synopsis of the rest of the novel, so I pretty much had to outline it then. I still use the synopsis as my basic skeleton of the story, though I do amend it when the story develops differently than I had planned. For instance, my plan had been to originally divide it up according to the sections of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I remembered as having three sections. However, after having re-read it this summer to prepare for a world lit class, I realized it has four sections, so I now have to decide where in my synopsis I am going to split sections 2, 3, and 4. Also I decided to add a character based not on the original myths, but on a character from Richard Monaco’s Parsival series, so I have to decide where he’ll fit in to the overall plot and what he is going to do.
Which writers do you most admire? And did you have to fight for freedom from any one of them?
My top ten writers, in no particular order are: Richard Monaco, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Stephen King, and H. P. Lovecraft. As I mentioned above most of these writers (Monaco, Gaiman, and Lovecraft especially) tend to employ, either overtly or subtly, a good deal of myth in their work.
I’ve not really had to try too hard to avoid imitating their style, however. I’ll admit that their influence in my writing can be seen by the close reader, but I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of sounding too much like them. If they did, however, I’d gladly buy them a beer in thanks.
What’s it like to be Lev Butts? If you view your life as a work in progress, where is it cooking and what needs more work?
Robert Penn Warren once said that he never knew what it felt like to be a Southerner until he left the South. I suspect the same can be said about being Lev Butts. I won’t know what it’s like until I’m somebody else. I suspect it’s better than being some people, worse than being others, but mostly akin to being like most anybody.
I think my writing is good (not great, but good), but it could always be better. My teaching is better than my writing I think, but it, too, could always use improvement.
I think my best quality, the one that really sets me apart from many people, is my humility. I take an overabundance of pride in my humility; I can be humble better than anyone else I know.
Are there any historical figures you’d really love to have met?
I’d like to meet Jefferson Davis. He’s a fascinating study of contradictions. Here was a man who was the president of the Confederate States of America, who apparently supported slavery, but who ran his plantation as a kind of training ground for his slaves to train them for eventual freedom: establishing a slave justice system run and managed by his slaves and prohibiting any slave to be punished unless found guilty by a jury of peers or having exhausted any further appeals and training them in various trades and crafts and encouraging them to practice these vocations for their own gain. He even adopted an African-American boy, Jim Limber, as his son while he was president, and when he was taken away from him at the end of the war, allegedly spent the rest of his life looking for him.
This, to me, sounds like an interesting guy.
What’s the boldest thing you've ever done?
Probably answer that last question.
The one thing that no one expected?
Answer one question I've missed here, one that offers a key to the real Leverett Butts.
I think you've about covered it, actually. I will say, though, that Emily’s Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories was nominated for the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year Award and is available as both paperback and ebook on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, and lulu.com; and that the first volume of Guns of the Waste Land, Departure, will be available as both paperback and ebook in September on lulu.com and as an ebook on Amazon. My plan is offer the subsequent parts one at a time every few months or so and then release an omnibus edition when the whole work is finished.