Tony Earley holds the Samuel Milton Fleming Chair in English at Vanderbilt University, but his closest literary forebears are children’s books: in their luminous, direct, unironic use of language, in the way the undeniable darkness of the world is more foreshadowing than plot device, his novels come closer to The Wind in the Willows, Little House on the Prairie, and Charlotte’s Web than to the work of any contemporary author.
Jim the Boy (Little, Brown, 2000) and The Blue Star (Little, Brown, 2008), are set in rural, pre-War Appalachia, where the family farm is the reassuring center of the universe. That world may bear no resemblance to 21st century Nashville, where Tony Earley actually lives, but distance and time have made his commitment to preserve it no less fierce.
If critics have anything to say about it, Earley’s own work will last, as well. In 1996, on the strength of one story collection — 1994’s Here We Are in Paradise — and zero novels, Earley found himself on Granta’s list of “20 Best Young American Novelists.” In 1999, The New Yorker named him to its inaugural list of the best young writers in the country. Whenever Earley publishes a book, it invariably lands on best-of-the-year lists all over the media, and nearly two decades after he published his first book, all four of his titles remain in print.
Tony Earley recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.
Looking back now from the perspective of middle age, how would you say the rhapsodic early critical accolades affected your writing?
Thanks for pointing out the middle-aged part. In retrospect the accolades turned out to be a mixed blessing, but nothing that I would give back or trade in. I did unfortunately misuse all the attention to put pressure on myself, but at the same time it suggested, at least to me, that I had arrived at the places I had always wanted to go. Maybe I didn’t get all the way to the top of the mountain, but I got close enough to the summit to get a good look at it. On bad days there’s some comfort in that.
You have called Jim the Boy “a children’s book for adults,’’ but The Blue Star tackles more complex topics: racism, war, romantic love. At one time, at least, you planned for your next novel to pick up with Jim when he returns from the war. Is that still the plan?
I tried writing the next Jim book shortly after The Blue Star came out, but it just wasn’t happening. I have no idea when, or even if, it will. Stories ferment on their own, in some backwater of the brain, in ways that I don’t pretend to understand. I may go back to Aliceville some day, and I may not. Your guess is as good as mine.
Last year in The New York Times, Dwight Garner threw down a gauntlet before America’s novelists: “If you and your peers wish to regain a prominent place in the culture, one novel a decade isn’t going to cut it.” You’re a novelist who takes his time between books — any response to this argument?
I think Dwight has a point. Given what I’ve noticed to be the direct correlation between publishing and prominence, I certainly wish I wrote faster. But as far as cultural prominence for novelist goes, I think that ship has already sailed. When I look at the literary landscape today, I don’t see a Norman Mailer wandering around. I think Jonathan Franzen has applied for the job, but as far as I can tell the position remains unfilled. I mean, if one were able to compare how many people have watched Dancing With the Stars with the number of people who’ve read The Corrections, the answer wouldn’t be pretty. J.K. Rowling is probably the only novelist out there who could lay out Kim Kardashian in a fair fight. That’s just the world we live in now.
Probably no one questions whether the South still produces great writers, but the question of whether there’s a distinctly Southern literature persists. Do you have an opinion?
There are a lot of different answers to that question. The one I’m going to give here is that the South not only still has a regional identity, it has many. As an Appalachian writer, I have absolutely nothing in common aesthetically with most of the other “Southern” writers I know. I could no more sit down and write a believable story set in the Mississippi Delta than I could one set in Paris. Other than the fact that it’s in Mississippi, I don’t even know where the Delta is.
In an interview with Chapter 16 last year, your Vanderbilt University colleague Mark Jarman mentioned that he sees the Internet as a boon for poetry because it makes poems easily accessible. What do you tell your own writing students about the digital world they’ll be publishing in?
A couple of things make me nervous about the digital future we’re rocketing toward. First, I’m not crazy about the idea of a literary world without gatekeepers. Is that elitist? Sure it is, but I don’t have any problem working in a meritocracy. It’s made me a better writer. If we arrive at a place where anyone can publish at will, will it matter if anyone does? Second, I worry about getting paid. If, for instance, Walmart and Amazon decided to get into a shooting war, literary fiction as we know it today would cease to exist. I teach out of an iPad, but I wouldn’t if the authors I was teaching weren’t making money.
‘‘When every one of your ancestors has been looking at the same landscape for 200 years, it becomes rooted like family, passed on, maybe even genetic,” you once said, but you’ve been away from that landscape yourself now for most of your adult life, and you’re raising your own daughters far from the landscape of your childhood. Do you still feel like an immigrant here?
Strangely, I do still feel like an immigrant in Tennessee, although it won’t be that many more years before I’ve lived here as long as I did in N.C.. When I’m in Tennessee I talk about going home to North Carolina, but when I’m in North Carolina I talk about going back to Nashville. That’s a semantic distinction, sure, but one that still carries a lot of emotional weight for me, although not nearly as much as it once did. My daughters are Chinese-American, and I doubt they’re going to care very much about which one of the great-grandfathers they never met made moonshine. Although they do like bluegrass.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.