1. This book feels like a mighty undertaking—its loving attention to detail, its lyric flights devoted to the downtrodden, the broken, the deluded, the hopeful but unfit. How did you first conceive of this project?
I always meant the book to be a large, unruly, literary novel, but the path to that vision was rather circuitous. My first draft came in at a fourth of the length of the final version. I spent too much time cutting, parsing, and reducing the scope of my original vision, either because I didn’t have the confidence to pull off something of this size or, frankly, my skills as a writer or my patience could not support the ambition. I let this first draft sit on a shelf for many years, and when I gave it a second look I thought I could improve it considerably. As I began writing what would become the published version I let all of my self-imposed restrictions fall away. I figured I had one more attempt to get this story right and that I should tell the story as I first imagined it. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have had the stomach for it if I knew that it would take 350,000 words to complete the vision, but, fortunately, I didn’t know that at the time I began. The true scope unfolded a page at a time over a couple of years. Then, probably around word 200,000 there was no turning back. I wasn’t going to waste all that time on an incomplete novel. I worried about self-indulgence and tried to pity the reader, but like one of the protagonists, Cactus Jack, I wanted to create a grand, epic vision, no matter how foolish or egotistical the idea may have been
2. Are Nelson and Cactus Jack meant to be a kind of yin-yang of male potential, one young but impossibly errant, one damaged but determined to get back to the bedrock of home?
That’s exactly true. I see the structure of the novel as a call-and-response between Nelson and Cactus Jack. While their actions don’t mirror each other, one without the other would be a less satisfying exploration of human capability. So, readers are drawn to Cactus Jack, in spite of themselves, because he is a force of nature and he has a purpose, no matter how quixotic and cracked the purpose happens to be. He perpetrates some heinous crimes, but they are crimes committed for a reason and when they are committed to support his vision we want to forgive him. I wanted to write him as if he couldn’t control the impulses driving him, with an oversized personality and visage. He’s charming in his own way. I want the reader to believe in him and forgive his transgressions. Jack rejects structure and government and will only follow his own vision, but Nelson has no vision, and while his actions are outside the law as well, I think he wants very much to become part of a societal structure if he could find something to hold. Nelson does not have the same life force or purpose. He is lost. He is often acted upon and is the victim. I think readers find him more troubling, because he is more of a threat. Nelson embodies a kind of self-inflicted nihilism. He has rejected his own life, yet the will to live remains. He understands little about his place in society and sinks to the basest of professions and then to the basest of existences. I can think of nothing worse than losing purpose and Nelson inhabits that space.
3. The parts of Cleveland we see in this book are war zones, the earth already salted with broken glass, the buildings looted of the paraphernalia of civilization, mysterious packs of dogs trailing the unwary. It’s post-apocalyptic without the apocalypse. How are we to take your enthusiastic depiction of ruin?
When I first moved to Cleveland to come to graduate school at CWRU, I worked for non-profits in some rough neighborhoods to earn extra money. On more than one occasion I came across packs of feral dogs, which set my imagination ablaze. I thought the idea of an animal, domesticated for millennia, reverting back to wildness in a matter of days or weeks worked well as a metaphor for the state in which I found the city, at least the parts where I lived and worked.
My political answer is that parts of the city still feel like an economic apocalypse has occurred. Along with deindustrialization came the loss of neighborhoods and cultures that once flourished and that should be mourned. Really, only traces of old Cleveland remain, but those traces are haunting and evocative. So much of the novel has to do with memory and things lost that a landscape of destruction and ruin reflects those concerns. Certainly, the areas where these characters live are the most desperate places and within these conditions come the question of maintaining civilization and order or just letting it all sink back into the ground. On a grander scale it’s a question that has confronted every city since their dawn. At what point do they cease to become viable? I think of Xenophon when he writes in The Persian Expedition about stumbling upon the ruins at Nineveh, the once great capital of the feared Assyrian civilization, abandoned and crumbling, or the post-imperial decline of Britain so perfectly captured by W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn. Cataclysms are associated with war, famine or natural disasters, but this region has been undergoing a slow-moving, inexorable decline for decades due to economic restructuring, global competition, free trade, and wage stagnation that looked at with a longer lens surely resembles a bloodless war. These characters stumble across that battlefield after the armies have moved on.
4. Do you naturally gravitate to the maximist style—elaborately detailed, digressive, accumulative, dense—or is this something required by your subject matter?
As a reader I’m drawn to expansive works, Don Quixote, The Man Without Qualities, In Search of Lost Time, and most all of Dostoevsky, so ultimately, I think, what you like to read will influence how you write. I’ve argued with a good friend of mine and my co-founder of The Great Lakes Review, Rob Jackson, since we first met over the merits of Moby Dick. He has never been able to get over the long descriptive chapters concerning the industry of whaling. For him, it kills the momentum of the book and bores him to tears. For me it informs me about this world. Since I understand it better, I can feel more, and I can better understand the thinking of the characters because I can think as they do. So, as a writer I want to provide the same experience for the reader. I want them on the shoulder of the characters, smelling the same smells, looking through their same eyes, and most importantly, probably, following the same digressions of thinking that may not advance the plot but provide a deeper context for the story. I think this style harkens back to the birth of the novel and the novel may be the only form in which it is possible. I appreciate a slim, perfectly told tale, but I’d prefer to be thrown headlong into a world with blind alleys, digressions, tales within tales, and the possibility of losing myself in a place I have not known before. I suppose if I write something that demands tight control I will follow the style it demands, but I’m about finished with a second novel and it’s written in much the same style as Dogs in the Cathedral, although the scope of the story is pared down. I write books that I would want to read and hope a few people agree with that decision.
5. Could you say a little something about your involvement with Great Lakes Review? It appears to have a clear regional focus. Do you think geography shapes our narratives?
I am the co-founder of Great Lakes Review, which is an eclectic cultural journal of the Great Lakes region, with editors in Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Toronto. The region is home to over 20 million people, with the behemoths being, of course, Chicago and Toronto so we are aiming to expose writers of the region to audiences they may never reach. The dialogue between the cities interests me and could be fertile ground for collaboration, the sharing of ideas and resources. The purpose of GLR may be to answer the very question you pose. Does geography shape our narratives? Is there a Great Lakes character? Are there commonalities in style, tone, and content so that a very clear regional voice emerges? If nothing else the readers of GLR will better understand the culture of the cities and the region, but I’m excited to watch it unfold as I hope GLR has a long publishing life. We are just beginning to edit the second issue which will come out in the spring of 2013, so the dialogue has just begun, but I’ve already been surprised, for instance, at the active theater scene of Buffalo and not as surprised at the depth and brilliance of a host of Chicago writers.
In my own writing, geography has very clearly influenced and shaped all aspects of it. I’ve given this idea a lot of thought and if I can take my little corner of the world and find universal themes within this context, then I have produced something worth reading. My life has been rooted in Northeast Ohio so it’s an inescapable fact that this is what I know. I made Super 8 documentary films of the devastation of Youngstown when I was a teenager. I’ve worked for decades with displaced workers. My father worked in the rubber mills of Akron when they were still viable and we lived through strikes and the closing of production. My grandfather left his family’s Indiana farm to come to find work and his wife in Akron. I’m raising my two daughters on the same soil. I’ve not wanted to escape it as of yet.
6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?
I attended CWRU as a graduate student in my early twenties, so it was an incredibly formative time. I began the first draft of the novel in Mary Grimm’s creative writing seminar and her wise counsel pushed me forward. I think we had three other students in the class so it was very intimate and intense. I found her to be a very effective teacher. I worked like a madman, producing a ton of pages in a short time. I think a couple of the other students thought I had this on the shelf and dusted it off for credit, but it was all original for the class. I ended up using it as my master’s thesis. I had already written a 400-page novel in undergraduate school which was pretty rough in style and structure, but it was incredibly important to my development as well, because sometimes you just have to sit down and write no matter what nonsense you create. Mary even agreed to read some of that work and suffered through it. She constructively told me to keep writing. I feel my vision and scope of thought really expanded during my years at the university. So, when I began the rewrite I found all the ideas were there, a product of a kind of alchemy when I was challenged with a host of new ideas and perspectives, so it may not be overstating the case or me to say that this book would not have been possible without my experience at CWRU.