Tony Earley Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tony Earley

Tony Earley

An interview with Tony Earley

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Here I Am
    Here I Am
    by Jonathan Safran Foer
    With almost all the accoutrements of upper middle-class suburban life, Julia and Jacob Bloch fit the...
  • Book Jacket: Harmony
    by Carolyn Parkhurst
    In previous novels such as The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, Carolyn Parkhurst has shown herself...
  • Book Jacket: Commonwealth
    by Ann Patchett
    Opening Ann Patchett's novel Commonwealth about two semi-functional mid-late 20th Century ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Darling Days
    by iO Tillett Wright

    A devastatingly powerful memoir of one young woman's extraordinary coming of age.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Tea Planter's Wife
    by Dinah Jefferies

    An utterly engrossing, compulsive page-turner set in 1920s Ceylon.

    Read Member Reviews

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Circling the Sun
by Paula McLain

An intoxicatingly vivid portrait of colonial Kenya and its privileged inhabitants.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Blood at the Root

Blood at the Root

"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review


Word Play

Solve this clue:

D C Y C Before T A H

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.