Great question—posed by Steve Weddle.
As you’ll see in the Q & A below, Weddle is a likable, engaging thinker. That spirit comes through loud and clear in Country Hardball, a gritty series of unflinching, powerful stories about rural life today. It also comes through loud and clear in this exchange.
I haven’t met Steve Weddle in person, but I feel like I know him more than a bit after reading his written replies to my questions. Weddle’s answers show his enthusiasm for his work and reveal plenty about how much thought he has given to his art. My review of Country Hardball follows but you’ll learn more about this unique series of stories from Weddle than you will from me. I highly recommend Country Hardball but also urge you to take a few minutes to read Weddle’s answers, right down to the very humorous response to my question about what’s next. It’s no wonder that Country Hardball has drawn praise from The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and more. I feel fortunate to have him stop by my little-old blog outpost and share his thoughts.
Question: What was your inspiration for these stories—the setting and the characters in particular? Where did the idea of Roy Alison come from?
Steve Weddle: A friend of mine said something about wanting to be a better person, wanting to do better. In everything I came across, this idea kept coming up. There’s a Justin Townes Earle song with the line, “I thought I’d be a better man.” So the idea of wanting to do better, but finding yourself in these terrible situations, just wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s like if you buy a white car, how you immediately notice every white car on the highway. Every problem a nail, as the saying goes. So I got to thinking about this person, Roy Alison, and it was natural that he’d have grown up where I did. He wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to stop the mad scientist in Paris or solve an assassination in Prague. He’s just this guy, you know? Terrible things happened. And he’s fighting his way out of it, in a world that doesn’t care about him, in a world where “man’s inhumanity to man” is a bit of an understatement. Yet, it’s also a world of hope, of some people who keep fighting because it’s what they do. Sometimes the only thing you can do with your life is just try to live through it.
Question: How did you research these individuals, this particular community?
Steve Weddle: I grew up with these people. I am these people. I’m the little boy and the father in “All Star.” I’m the kid who had his walking stick taken, and the father who tries to get it back. I’m the university student come back to study rural life. I am these people. And these people are my neighbors. The guy who runs the mini-mart and funds the baseball team. The girl who wants to be a pitcher. The woman with the beauty shop in her house. These are all my people. I’ve tried my best to be honest to them, to see them as people, to try to get at what they have to go through.
And, since this is where I grew up, I know the stories. I’ve heard them on back porches while the bitter tea thins with melted ice. I’ve heard them in fellowship halls of churches, read them in newspapers, shared them with family. These are my people and these are our stories.
Question: One of your characters thinks, “You have to leave behind everything that holds you back.” Many of your characters struggle with how to break out of their current situation as under-employed Americans, but Roy Alison in particular. The decisions are sometimes based on desperation, but nobody seems to be getting very far. Is that a fair assessment?
Steve Weddle: That’s fair, sure. And thanks for seeing that. For me, place they want to end up isn’t as important as their wanting to break out, as you put it. They struggle. Good lord, do they struggle. But that’s the fight, isn’t it? It’s brutal, swinging fists against your past and your present. Never being able to get ahead because you need that $50 you saved to get the pump fixed. But you don’t have to play for the San Diego Padres to get out. You can work a good job at the insurance agency in town. That’s a huge triumph. A good job. Money for date night. That’s so far ahead of where so many people are. The people who make it to the next day without losing ground – that’s far enough to matter.
Question: How did the story-cycle approach come about? Did you write these in order and did you ever contemplate writing this as a straightforward novel?
Steve Weddle: The first story was “The Ravine,” written on request for an anthology. I wanted to go back to that character, Roy Alison, and did so with “Purple Hulls” and “Good Money.” At that point, I had some other requests for stories, so I just started setting them in the same area, with different people, because it felt right, like what I was supposed to be doing. Eventually, my agent suggested writing a Roy Alison novel, but I wasn’t as interested in developing a straight-forward story arc or an outline, because the stories were as much about the place and the fragments as they were about anything. I could have restructured the stories to make them a novel, imposed some sort of accepted framework. For me, though, it’s important that this not be some neat, encapsulated snow-globe that you look at, shake, and then put back on the shelf. Life isn’t that tidy.
Question: How do you go about writing these characters and showing some balance; what’s your approach so readers feel some reason to like individuals who have made some bad choices?
Steve Weddle: It’s odd, isn’t it? You can show someone doing a bad thing, then show his life and why he made that choice, why he had to. Or you can build up his life—or her life—and then show this bad thing done. Either way, what’s important is letting the reader understand the person doing the bad thing. I was reading a best-selling novel in which the bad guy was called “The Maestro” and “spoke in a metallic voice, as if he were speaking through metal.” Or there will be a big, bad villain who kills women because his mother had been mean to him. None of that rings true, for me. Those don’t seem like people. I don’t want to waste the reader’s time with that. I want to show you this person in this situation who had to do this terrible thing, who was driven to it. I want you to understand the pain, the grief of the person. I want for you to hope that the person in the story does the “right” thing, but then completely understand why he had to go the other way. I want that conflict. I want you to feel that, to know that person. I want to break your heart a little.
Question: Is this the year of the short story? They seem to be everywhere you turn these days. Have you always been a fan? Who inspires you?
Steve Weddle: Blame George Saunders, I guess. The Tenth of December really set the pace, didn’t it? And Alice Munro. Karen Russell. But then we have Donna Tartt’s huge book. And Eleanor Catton’s. Philipp Meyer’s. We have these story collections that are popular, and we have these giant novels that are popular. I’m sure people love to talk about how our attention spans or our cell phones are driving us to shorter fiction, and that may be so. But maybe it’s more the year of reading.
I’ve loved Raymond Carver and could take one of his collections as my desert island book, I guess. But my three favorite stories are Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ann Beattie’s “Burning House,” and James Salter’s “Comet.” They’re such sparse, emotional stories that break your heart more than a little. That line near the end of Salter’s story about the guy knowing the constellations, having seen them from the beach years back. Wow. That just presses something into my chest every single time.
Question: Many reviewers are slotting you in the mystery category, which of course is a broad group with lots of leeway for style and format, but do you think of Country Hardball as a mystery? Did you approach it with the mystery genre in mind?
Steve Weddle: I don’t really understand genre. Is Moby-Dick crime fiction? Nautical travel? Fantasy? Swords and dragons or harpoons and whales. Plus a giant!
Genre is a marketing tool and a mechanism for shelving, as I understand it. If you go into Barnes & Noble, you don’t want every book in a long row, alphabetized by author. You want it broken down. But if you shop online—whether through Indiebound or Amazon or elsewhere—you’ll often find the suggested books, which aren’t always in the same genre. So, genre has its uses, of course, as an organizing principle. But you also run into the “this not that” problem. And you have the author who whines about not being “just” mystery or fantasy or chick-lit or whatever. “My book is so much more,” they say. You know, of course it is. When reviewers and readers say that Country Hardball is a book about X, I think that, yes, but that’s only part of it. And I think the same thing with books I’ve read and loved. Is Agnes Grey a book about an abused governess? Sure, but it’s so much more. Is Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest an urban fantasy book about Heaven and Hell? It’s so much more, but I guess it’s that, too. Labeling a thing negates it, as Kierkegaard and others have said. But it’s never meant to be strictly limiting. Am I a guy? Sure. But I’m also a father, a husband. I’m a ginger. I’m a terrible dancer. I’m a cheap date.
Is this book a mystery? If that helps more people take a look at it, then that’s fantastic.
But, no, I never thought of this book as a mystery. Is there a mystery in here? Sure. Are some of the stories young adult? I’ve been told they are. Is it southern noir? Whatever that is, sure. I didn’t approach this as a mystery novel. I approached this as an attempt to tell the stories of these people, to show what their lives are like, to shine a light on the choices they make.
Question: What’s next? Can you tell us what you’re working on?
Steve Weddle: Roy Alison’s grandfather was killed in 1955 on the road from Bradley, Arkansas. I tell that story next. But to do so, I have to tell the story of what happened in 1933 in Columbia County, Arkansas. And I have to tell the story of what is going on now, and why all this matters. The next book looks more like a traditional novel. This will take me years to complete, but when I’m done, I hope it comes out in the Year of the Epic Novel.
Country Hardball seeks the truth. The 18 stories are vignettes, in a way, but each is much more than a sketch or detail. Individually, yes, they can be taken on their own. Together, in the big sweep, the gravity grows. And packs a wallop.
I started Country Hardball once and had to start over when I was more ready for Weddle’s reality. These are stories about lives and cultures that are often overlooked. In this case, Louisiana. As the economic mood brightens a bit in 2013 (unemployment rate is “just” 7 percent; let’s celebrate!) Weddle reminds us that real people are struggling in the backwaters—real people with real hopes, real dreams and very dicey choices ahead. Do they focus on the fact that they are at the bottom of a hole? Or do they see a way out? As one character, notes, “All holes have sides.” Do you try to get away? To where? Do you take what’s not yours? How? And what will be the consequences? If you’ve got a plan, will it work? And how sure are you that it will?
Weddle’s writing is low-key, unflashy. He uses words for power and accuracy, not show. He is after intimacy, odd moments and big life choices both. He goes for bone-shaking honesty in studying the lives of people on the economic edge, where a busted alternator can make or break the budget and you measure distances between the new bad thing and the last bad thing. “Debts to Pay” spotlights the sharp edges. “The tree through the porch. The rotten tooth. The burned-out relay in the septic tank. You ask yourself how other people do it. When it go so tough. How anyone ever gets ahead. Just a little, you say. Just a hundred bucks in the coffee can you won’t have to go into a month when something else goes wrong.”
Depressing? Not necessarily. There are glimmers of hope and humor and love amid the ruins. Country Hardball starts bleak and gradually rises up in tone and tenor. Don’t give up on Country Hardball and don’t give up on these people. They might be at the bottom of a hole, but all holes have sides.