by Laura Knight Moretz
Charles Dodd White is the author of A Shelter of Others (Fiddleblack, 2014), Sinners of Sanction County (Bottom Dog Press, 2011), and Lambs of Men (Casperian, 2010). He is co-editor with Page Seay of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2010). He is an Assistant Professor at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.
I felt fortunate to have Charles Dodd White’s three books to read during the recent snowstorms. In each book, I was torn between the impulse to slow down and savor the poetry of a sentence and the urge to read on to discover what would happen next. White’s gift for poetry is matched with a gift for creating deep, memorable characters who have urgent tasks before them—often the saving of their own lives or souls. All these elements make for my favorite sort of books, ones that make me think and feel as I am drawn ever forward.
Laura Knight Moretz: I read your books in the order they were published. There appeared to be an evolution of style from the first book, Lambs of Men, set in the 1920s in the North Carolina mountains, to the more succinct style of your short stories about contemporary mountain life in Sinners of Sanction County, and then a sort of melding of these styles in A Shelter of Others. I realize that it’s likely you were writing the short stories at the same time you were working on your first novel, so rather than an evolution, perhaps it’s more a matter of matching a right narrative style with a given story and form. Are you aware of choosing a certain pace and style for a narrative, or does the story you want to tell determine its own form and style?
Charles Dodd White: I think you have to be open to how each story/novel wants to be told. In the first novel, I was aware of writing something that was historically set, and the long sentences seemed to serve the connection to landscape better. With that book too I was writing my way toward voice, so there’s a great chance that it reflected my admiration for William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and William Gay. The story form is quite different, and I began to experiment with what I considered a greater precision of language, influenced by my reading of story masters like Barry Hannah and Mark Richard. A Shelter of Others takes this to an extreme in that it is as tight stylistically as I could manage in a short novel/novella form, which was supposed to be something of an ironic stance given the theme of the book is madness.
LKM: The titles Lambs of Men and Sinners of Sanction County and the crucifixes in the cover art for A Shelter of Men all suggest the pressure of Christian heritage on the characters in your fiction. But no one seems to spend any time in church; it’s as though Christianity is in the air and everyone is breathing it whether they want to or not. Susan Ketchin has an anthology called The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. Her introduction referred me to a quote from Flannery O’Connor. (Ketchin took it from Habits of Being. It’s also in Mystery and Manners in expanded form. I used that one from Mystery and Manners.)
… I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
Through all three books, I see the pressure of doubt and loss of faith on the characters. Is it fair to say your characters are Christ-haunted?
CDW: Absolutely. The Christian myths are inescapable, not just in the South but in America. I find it puzzling that so many good and brilliant people must explain wonder away with a set of stories that clearly fail their audience in terms of moral instruction. But it’s a fact nonetheless. I think people like Thomas Carlyle and Paul Tillich, who believed that the outward practice of doctrine had failed the essential spiritual impulse, would essentially agree with me. I don’t begrudge others their faith, but I find that there’s more than enough in this world to hold my attention.
LKM: In A Shelter of Others, Lavada appears to act from a set of Christian tenets. Sam says of her, “She is tender in hope, in charity, in the many Christian lies.” And later, Cody asks her, “You a Christian woman?” And she answers, “I believe, yessir, I believe there’s a purpose and a way.” Cody tells her later in the scene, “We should all learn to fear. It’s how God intended us.” Lavada is tender in hope and charity, and Cody gains power by instilling fear in others. Lavada is unfailingly kind but no less complex for it. If everyone in the book is Christ-haunted, they are all haunted in his or her own way. Sam and Mason both grapple with faith or its lack. Did you think of these characters in terms of their need for or a loss of faith? For instance, Mason has just come home from two years in prison for trafficking pills. But we don’t know about that time. We meet the man who is trying to find his way home or make a new one. In Christian terms, he’s working out his redemption, and yet it has nothing to do with church.
CDW: Yes, each of these characters is striving to come to terms with a sense of universal locus. Sam’s is perhaps the most philosophical because he’s a bit different from the others in that he’s educated and has a different set of values with which to engage the world, despite the collapse of his mental faculties. The others see meaning through the Christian lens, though I believe behind that what is ultimately being sought is the sacred, something they inevitably find in nature itself. Jesus doesn’t save them, but if they’re lucky, the rocks and sun and river do. Like “God,” the natural world is made up in relatively equal parts of grace and terror. Coming to terms with that points toward hierophany.
LKM: Sam in A Shelter of Others reminds me of Sloane in Lambs of Men. Both men, in mental and physical decline, know and feel more than others suspect they do about what’s going on around them. When the reader meets them, most people have discounted them as more than halfway gone, but their interior lives are rich and vital. Also, both of them wouldn’t be fully alive if they didn’t live in the woods. I was reminded of King Lear when Sam is lost in the storm and also when Sloane comes close to losing his grip. What are the challenges and rewards of writing about people who know and understand more than those around them might suspect? Could these men survive for long in another setting?
CDW: I like to work from the perspective of the marginalized and underrepresented. It is easy to dismiss people because of superficial reasons, so the practice of excavating unique meaning from a character is rewarding for me. Take someone who should not be sympathetic and portray him with a sense of compassion. I feel like there is an act of gratitude and wisdom in doing that. You are telling the human story, not writing to formula.
I’m not convinced that these traits are dependent on a natural setting, though it is the setting I prefer to write about. I believe a character will meet a different set of challenges wherever you put her or him but that the nucleus of self remains relatively stable as long as they can hold true to a sense of meaning, whether that’s in nature or music or literature or art.
LKM: A Midsummer’s Night Dream came to mind when several characters are lost in the woods at the end of A Shelter of Others, but the effect in your books is tragic, not comic. Did you see the woods at this point as a place to be lost or to seek?
CDW: Yes, Sam mentions the nature of the mind and wilderness as being a confusion, not just to him but to humans generally. Look at something like Gothic literature in America (especially Hawthorne) and you can see how the imagination and the woods inform one another.
LKM: Did you map out the parallel storylines in advance? What’s your process like when five speakers are offering different views of the story? Did you plan from the start to tell the story from five points of view, or did that idea evolve while you were writing? If I were to play devil’s advocate, I might ask: Why not tell it just from the point of view of Lavada, Mason, and Sam? What’s the value of adding Dennis and Cody, who are outside that central triangle? That’s five questions, I realize, so just pick the ones you like.
CDW: I didn’t plan it per se as much as let it happen. The other POVs were included to further enhance the fact that everyone was struggling with similar impulses. They just resolved it in different ways. I’m not interested in focusing the reader’s attention too much in one “camp.” I’d like to be as true to each person’s sense of who they are and what matters to them as I can be.
LKM: In A Shelter of Others, the natural world is central to the interior lives of Lavada, Sam, and Mason to the point that the woods and the mountains are extensions of their souls. This connection represents their best selves. Here’s one of Mason’s passages:
Late March winds chewed through ice in the cracks of granite, brought quick melt. Water actually spoke. It awaked a part of Mason he thought he’d long discarded, a lightness in the limbs and skin that needed to shake off the heavy blankets of winter.
The telegraphic poetry of the first sentences gives nature agency and voice. Nature gives people what they need again and again in this book. Do you see it that way? Do you see nature as a kind of universal force that nurtures these characters’ lives?
CDW: I think nature is everything ultimately. The easiest way for me to put it is to reference an Edward Abbey quote (which is incidentally the epigram for the novel I’m currently writing): “Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear–the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
LKM: Over and over again, precise actions, descriptions, and the lively intelligence of your characters made me want to stop reading and study. Here are some examples of sentences I admire from the first two pages:
Lavada rose to iron dark and stepped barefoot across the cabin floor, paused and placed her hand to the door to test the wind’s new ache, to know it as her own.
A rill of daylight cracked the ridge.
The skillet talked as the eggs hit the surface.
In these three sentences, the wind, the daylight and even the skillet are imbued with power not ordinarily suspected. And the compactness of the sentences enhances their effect. Do you tend to revise a lot, or do you find that your best sentences emerge in your first drafts?
CDW: It’s a bit of both. I write slowly. Usually about 300 words a day (when I actually sit down and do it, which is 3-4 days a week during the school year and maybe five during breaks). So the first drafts are pretty tight, but I continue to tinker and reread through the course of writing the book.
LKM: What are you working on now?
CDW: I’m writing a novel about an eco-terrorist in hiding with his teenage daughter called Hurt River. A version of the first chapter appeared in the first issue of Change Seven under the title “Feasts of the Sun.” I hope to be done with it by the end of the year.
LKM: Please add your own spin to the conversation. What question do you wish I would ask so you can answer it? What would you add?
CDW: Sounds good, Laura. I enjoyed it.
Laura Knight Moretz’s short story “Philo Goes Home” won the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award in 2012 and was published in Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts in 2013. She holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College.
Read Charles Dodd White’s novel excerpt “Feasts of the Sun,” which appears in Issue 1.1.