An interview with Tony Earley, before the publication of Jim The Boy (2000)
Who and what are your influences?
My wife has pointed out that everyone in my family knows how to tell a story. Apparently, this isn't true for all families. So I guess my family was my earliest and probably most profound influence. That I was able to write about the Depression without having to do a lot of research is because a large part of my family's story stockpile is about life during that time. I feel like I've almost lived in it myself. When my grandmother talks about the way things were, I can almost see it.
The influence other writers have had on me is harder to track. I've read thousands of books, and I probably learned something from all of them. But how do you figure out what? My two favorite books, though, My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, are both by Willa Cather. I don't know if Cather's had the greatest influence on me, but she's the one writer whose influence I would most hate to be without.
Do you consider yourself to be a Southern writer? Do you identify more with the grand tradition of Southern literature or with today's young literary writers?
I consider myself a southern writer because that's where I'm from and that's what I write about. More specifically, I suppose, I'm a North Carolina writer. Even my stories set in other places are about North Carolinians. As far as fitting into a tradition, I'm not crazy about trying to wedge myself into any one pigeonhole. Different parts of me fit into a lot of different holes. All the big southern writers, old and new, have been influences, sure, but, when everything is said and done, I hope that I sound more like me than I sound like anybody else. I think the worst word a writer could ever hear about his work is "derivative."
You've been selected by both Granta and The New Yorker as one of the best young writers of today, and yet your first novel hasn't even been published yet. How does it feel to be the recipient of such high praise so early in your career?
The New Yorker designation was just fun. When they photographed us, they chartered a motor home to ferry us fifty blocks to the site of the shoot. We had catered food and a makeup artist. I felt like a rock star, although I really can't picture a rock star talking about how good the pasta salad was. The Granta list, however, damn near wrecked me. Once they said I was one of the best young novelists in the country, when I hadn't finished a novel, and didn't even know if I could, I felt nothing but pressure. Every time I sat down in front of my computer for the next year and a half, I thought, "Geez. Now what?"
When did you first know that you were going to be a writer?
I decided I was going to be a writer when I was seven, after my second grade teacher told me that's what I should be when I grew up. I thought, "Ok. That sounds good. I'll be a writer. I think I'm extraordinarily lucky in that I never had to abandon my childhood ambitions the way most people do. All my friends wanted to be baseball players, but none of them were. I have no idea what that must feel like, and I'm thankful that I don't.
What has been, so far, the greatest thrill of your writing career?
A few things come to mind. When I took the first copy of Here We Are in Paradise out of the mailbox and held it in my hands and opened it up and sniffed it, that was pretty cool. And I loved seeing my name for the first time in The New Yorker type face. The biggest thrill so far, I suppose, was typing the period at the end of the last sentence in Jim the Boy. I leaned back and thought, "OK. I'm a novelist." There were a lot of bad years I was afraid I'd never get to say that.
Are there characters in Jim the Boy whom you may revisit in a later novel? Will there ever be a Jim the Man?
I'm a long way from finished with Jim and the uncles and Mama. They've already told me that. Sometimes I think Jim the Boy will be the first book of a trilogy, that I'll just keep going. The next two would be called Jim in Love and Jim Comes Home. But then the ambitious, careerist part of my brain says, "Shut up. Don't think that. Do you want to get in a rut? Write something different."
When you teach writing, what words of wisdom do you have for your aspiring-writer students? What books are must-reads?
I tell my students that first they've gotta do their work. Sitting around a coffee shop in a black turtleneck, looking tragic, never made anybody a writer. Jittery, maybe, but not a writer. Writing's not easy and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well. The best students figure that out pretty quickly. As far as must reads, I catch myself recommending Hemingway's early short stories over and over. They're stunning stories, and, because the language is so simple, it's easier to figure out how the machinery works. And you've got to figure out how story machinery works before you can use it to make something of your own.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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