Lewis “Buddy” Nordan is the author of eight books: Welcome To The Arrowcatcher Fair (1983), The All-Girl Football Team (1986), Music Of The Swamp (1991), Wolf Whistle (1993), The Sharpshooter Blues (1995), Sugar Among The Freaks (1996), Lightning Song (1997), and Boy With Loaded Gun (2000). Among his many awards are the Southern Book Award, two PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, and two Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Awards for Fiction. Buddy grew up in Itta Bena (rhymes with Argentina), Mississippi and has lived in Pittsburgh for more than twenty years. He taught creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh until his retirement in 2005, and I was lucky enough to be one of his students there. He will be teaching a course at Pitt again this fall, and in January 2008 he’ll teach in Carlow University’s Low Residency Writing Program. He continues to write, although he has been slowed lately by peripheral neuropathy, which causes pain and numbness in his extremities and makes it difficult for him to walk and type. He lives in Sewickley with his wife Alicia, and when I visit on a Saturday afternoon in early May 2007 I am greeted at the door by Buddy and his two greyhounds, Blue and Joey. The following is an excerpt of our conversation, which was filled with laughter and good stories.
DA: You know, I have to tell you, I was a little bit nervous about this interview.
DA: Well, I’m pretty gullible. So I’m just going to have to ask from time to time—
LN: If I’m telling the truth? (laughs)
DA: Exactly. Because I know those shifts occur.
LN: I’ll keep track of it.
DA: If you lead me down a path, you have to come clean at the end. Those are the ground rules.
LN: It’s a deal.
DA: I used to teach one of your essays called “The Invention of Sugar.” The copy I had was a handout from a class I’d taken at some point and the quality of the Xerox wasn’t very good, so I tracked it down to get a copy of it in print. It was originally published in The Oxford American with the title “Dangerous Inventions.” When I would teach it, my students would get really mad at you. They’d come to class furious.
LN: Now let’s see. . . Has that got the story about me and my father going huntin’?” 1
DA: My students would come to class really angry because you lied. They were outraged, even though you tell the reader at the end of the opening anecdote that you’ve made it up and that it didn’t happen. Then when we would discuss the piece, they would realize that maybe some of the other things later on in the essay—
LN: Might not be true? (laughs)
DA: They would get even more furious! But they came away from the experience with a better understanding of being critical readers. So, my question is, have you ever been gullible?
LN: I think I’m a complete innocent. I think that I’m willing to believe anything. Let me see if I can think of an anecdote. I’m not sure if I can. . . Right now nothing comes to mind. But, I think of myself as willing to believe anything, and therefore gullible.
DA: Let me prod you a little bit, because I don’t know if this is even true or not, but a little while back there was a dust-up about J.T. Leroy, the writer who turned out to be a hoax. When it came out that there was no J.T. Leroy, your name was mentioned in the media as one of the writers he had contacted. Was that true?
LN: Yes. It was true that he contacted me. She contacted me.
DA: Did you believe it?
LN: Completely. That’s a perfect example. Now, when she—I’m gonna call him he, because to me it was a he. When he first called and introduced himself as a fan, I thought it was a woman. But he insisted that he was a boy, and he was eighteen and his name was Jeremiah, and that on the streets they called him “Terminator” and that I could call him either one. So I only called him Jeremiah because—I said, I can’t call you Terminator (laughs). So we talked for hours. Many, many times. We e-mailed. Many, many times. I have this whole life of this in my heart because my heart was broken for him. He sent me manuscripts that were in progress and I helped him with them. I edited them and made suggestions and wrote notes in the margins. We had lengthy correspondence. I made plans to come see him one time in California, but couldn’t make it. And then he was scheduled to be in Pittsburgh, and I was going to introduce him at a reading, but then I got sick and couldn’t make it—and it turned out he couldn’t make it either (smiles). Our lives kept intersecting long distance, but not ever coming together, even though I wanted to, and he said he wanted to. When I read that it was not true, after I had not only worked with him but my heart had gone out for him—all the rapes, and the psychiatrist that had raped him, and the terrible background and his background with his mother—all this is still very real to me. And when I found out that it was a hoax, I didn’t even believe that. I would rather have believed the horrible story that I had been living in for a year of my life than the truth, that none of these terrible things had ever happened. My heartstrings, and my valuable time, had been used. So, it took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that it wasn’t true. And in fact, still, I sometimes think of him as a real person. Mary Gaitskill was another person who fell for it. I read that she said it was a great hoax, one of the great All-American hoaxes, and she was happy and it made her laugh. Well it didn’t make me laugh. I felt used and abused. Somehow the word gullible doesn’t quite describe me being mad—I was gullible and sensed that I was a fool to believe it. But it was not a joke. Gullible implies a kind of joke, but this was not. This was a serious lie that somebody was telling for profit. It was elaborate and I can admire the fiction, but I was hurt by it.
DA: Did she contact you after?
LN: No. She never said a word to me of apology, or attempt to get my approval, or ask forgiveness, or anything else. She just ignored me after that. In fact, he told me that I could call him. He was supposedly living in California with a girl who was a dominatrix, and he’d had a sex change operation and had his penis taken off, and he had talked about getting breasts and hormone treatments he didn’t like—and this is so elaborate, I’m thinking it’s true. He was living with this dominatrix who had a child, and he was fathering the child. Anyway, he gave me a phone number. The phone number, though, was not in California. It was in some mid-western state. And so, I called, and the voice of a grown woman was on the answering machine. So I left a message saying something about some of his manuscripts, but it really went unrecognized. I don’t know whether that was somebody he knew who was supposed to pass messages on, or if that was just a fake number and that somebody else got that call (laughs). So, as I say, I still think of him as a guy who had all these horrible problems that I wanted to help him with. I would have sent money if he’d asked for it, truthfully.
DA: How did you find out that it was a hoax?
LN: In the paper. In fact, I think I said to Alicia, “they’re saying this is a hoax. This is Jeremiah.” I thought the people who were exposing the hoax were wrong.
DA: I didn’t really know about J.T. until about the time the hoax was coming out. But evidently he had been somewhat legendary, enough so that there was speculation about whether he was a myth.
LN: Well, he actually appeared a few places in public. I think two different people posed as him with a blonde wig on. I think a girl did it once, or maybe both times. I had encouraged him to give his first reading. And he called me and he said he’d wet his pants during the reading, and I felt horrible for him and terrible that I had encouraged him. Well, I just—I’m not even angry about it. In fact—I don’t feel hurt by her, I feel hurt by him (laughs).
DA: It’s pretty amazing. I haven’t read any of the work, but it seems the talent was there that could have been used—
LN: It was very meager talent, but it was real. It was about what you’d expect from an 18-year-old genius. Very simple, and it was mostly interesting for the horror that was in it, for the details of the horror rather than for the writing.
DA: I’m always fascinated by memory, and by memory as invention. If our nature is that of a reflective child, things can get incorporated into our memory that may not be entirely true. So, I’m really interested in memory as it develops, and how as children with somewhat limited abilities to put the pieces together, we sometimes see cause-and-effect where there isn’t any. So, I think that reminiscent aspect is part of what draws me to your characters, particularly to Sugar. And it also draws me to the contradictions in your stories where things happen different ways, and they’re retold different ways. How did that style evolve for you as a writer? And as it evolved, there must have been some step in seeing that not as a flaw but as a technique. Can you talk about that a bit?
LN: Hmmm. That’s a big question. Let me see if I can come to terms with the question first. . . . Well, I’ll start by describing what a creative memory is, and it’s no breakthrough to describe it as similar to a dream. And you dream that you’re in one place doing something, and then you’re in a cornfield being chased by a bear. It’s easy to say: I was in this dream and I don’t know how I got to this cornfield, but I must have driven to the cornfield because it’s a good way from home. You invent that drive to the cornfield that never occurred in the dream. So in memory where there are gaps, you tend to fill them in even more elaborately than the simple way of getting to the cornfield. You invent all kinds of transitions that will take you from one room to another, or one state of mind to another. And that’s what Sugar does, and I guess what I do, in a lot of those stories. What are you thinking of? Are you thinking of the Rock’N’Roll suit that occurred a couple of times?
DA: It does, yes. And there are several versions of how the dad died.
LN: Right. Once he dies under a house, and once in a tornado. Yeah. Or maybe he’s already dead, and the tornado comes and blows the house away. The whole problem of memory, and especially mine these days, is that it’s fallible. I don’t think in real life it’d be fallible about how your father died, but it could be, I suppose. A lot of what’s contradictory in my books is simply that I didn’t care whether it was contradictory. I knew it, and didn’t care. Certainly when I was writing the story—that this story needs a father who was buried in the fish, and this story needs a father who crawled under the house and died. So they’re the same father, it doesn’t matter. That seems to be a philosophical problem, but isn’t.
DA: Sometimes the story that we think we’re going to tell and that we start out to tell, isn’t necessarily the one that we end up with. How do your stories start?
LN: With an image, usually. It usually starts with an image. Not always, I guess. But if I think of something that really strikes me as interesting and glowing in some way, then that’s where the story starts. It’s not in the first line, not at first. In the story “Music of the Swamp,” the image is of the two boys finding a body. I thought the body was going to be the body of Emmett Till, and so at the top of my page I typed the title: The Boys Who Found The Body of Emmett Till. And so I said, how does the day in which something like that happens start? It starts normal, but glowingly different somehow. So I started the story—he woke up one morning with mice singing in the mattress and Elvis Presley singing on the radio, and everything seemed wonderful and he said to his father “I love you Daddy” and his father said, “good luck on your travels through life” (laughs) or something inane or dumb like that. And he goes out into the world, expecting the best, expecting maybe to see a mermaid, and oh my God, he sees a body. And so that’s how that story got started, with the idea that there’s a body out in the swamp, and that a boy on a special, strange day of his life in which he wakes up feeling wonderful, has to find it. I thought it was somebody else. I thought it was gonna be about that murder, but instead by the time I got to the body it was about this boy and his family. And so I made the body anonymous. I made it some old man who’d had “spells” I think I call it in the book, and he fell out and he’d drowned. So, that’s how that story got started. It started with the idea of Emmett Till’s body in the swamp, then by putting together information about the boy who was to find him. The image before the story just sort of went away in the story present.
DA: Do you think about the image for a while before you actually sit down to write?
LN: I do. In a novel, every chapter has an image, and sometimes they don’t come through quickly. They’re always contained in the chapter before that, but it’s hard to find them. But eventually you see: Oh yes, there’s that image. And sometimes when I finish the novel, I see that novel starts slowly, so I move chapter five to chapter one, but you never even know then where that image came from that is buried over here somewhere else later. It’s a process. It isn’t just one process, it’s many at the same time. It’s finding an image, finding a place to start that image, and rearranging that image so that it’s out of context with the one that started it.
DA: You came to writing relatively late.
LN: I was thirty-five when I decided to give writing a try. I had been in graduate school, and in fact had gotten a Shakespeare degree, a PhD. There just weren’t any jobs in Shakespeare, and besides that I was not very good at it. I’d been good in school, I was a good student, but I didn’t really have the kind of analytical mind that it takes to write a well-focused, well-analyzed article. Therefore there was no chance of me getting anything published because I just didn’t have the kind of mind that could do it. So I was teaching fiction and literature on a three-year appointment, and I had to leave after the third year. I had no luck looking for a job. I applied for 250 jobs and didn’t even get one interview. So my wife at that time, my first wife, said “I think deep down, even though you don’t write, you want to be a writer.” And this was true. She knew something about me that I thought was secret.
DA: You knew, though?
LN: I knew it, yeah. She said “let me work for a couple years and see, give yourself a chance to try it.” So basically that’s what we did. We moved to Arkansas where I knew a writer that had been my teacher when I was in undergraduate school. So I started to write, and I was not so good, but I kept at it. And eventually it became all I wanted to do.
DA: Welcome to the Arrow Catcher Fair was your first book. I tried to get a copy to round out my Nordan collection. I found a copy of The All Girl Football Team which I didn’t have, and I found a first edition of Music of the Swamp which I bought since the copy I had was a paperback. But the one I can’t get, and never will get, is your first short story collection, which is going for about $1700 right now! Tell me a little bit about that. What was the print run? And did you really send it in over the transom?
LN: Well, it was just a bunch of stories that I threw together because that’s all I had. It’s not a particularly unified book. I sent it to LSU Press, and they took it. They published probably about 2000 or 2500 copies of first run, and about the same in paperback. And it sold out, and I believe they may have published a second run. Oh my God, it reminds me of—Shelby Foote told me this story (laughs)—about a guy who self-published a book and sold it out of the back of his car to everybody he’d run into. And he sold 10,000 copies of it, which is a lot for a self-published book. He said it was a terrible book, but now an unsigned copy is going for thousands of dollars. A signed copy is worth nothing!
DA: It’s pretty hard to categorize your books. You know, I can’t say you have X number of short story collections or X number of novels or even X number of memoirs because your books overlap categories and genres.
LN: My other books are about as close to true as my memoir is. I felt terrible when that poor guy got in so much trouble about A Million Little Pieces. I thought, he’s a piker compared to me when it comes to making stuff up. But the stuff I make up is not self-promoting, which I think his was. But everyone else does it. Read Angela’s Ashes—it’s heartfelt, and it’s beautiful, but it’s not true.
DA: Tell me a little bit about Shannon Ravenel, your editor at Algonquin. I read several interviews with her where she was asked about writers and works she had edited. In one she said, “Leading the pack I am most proud of Wolf Whistle and Buddy Nordan.” She also described you as “the most brilliant and original writer I’ve worked with.” How did you arrive at Algonquin and how did you end up with her as your editor?
LN: Before I published any books with them, Shannon had published a couple of short stories of mine, in Best Southern Short Stories or something like that, and had chosen some for honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. So she knew me, but I didn’t know her. And then when I wrote Music of the Swamp, I heard about Algonquin somewhere and I sent it to them just cold. At that time, I had an agent but she had not been working for me. She’d had a bad mammogram and it scared her and she took off work for a long time and she wasn’t sending my work out, so I just sent my own stuff out. And when Shannon said yes to it, this agent wanted 10% of the money, and that didn’t seem right to me. She wanted 10% of everything, all the rights and everything else. Working with Shannon and Algonquin was just pure luck on my part. I’ve been very happy there. I get really hands-on editing. I know the people there. It’s a small group. They work well together and they work well with me. I’m very happy with them.
DA: Did she edit all your books after you were with Algonquin?
LN: Beginning with Music of the Swamp she did, all of them, yes.
DA: By the way, that’s my all-time favorite. I know you’ll go down in history known for Wolf Whistle—
LN: That’s my favorite.
DA: Music of the Swamp is the one I buy as gifts for people. It’s the one I always recommend first. Maybe it’s partly because it was the first of your books I read that it remains my favorite.
LN: There’s a sweetness about these characters that’s different from Wolf Whistle for sure. I also like Sharpshooter Blues for that reason. There’s a real sweetness to those people. They’re grown up and not as gentle and innocent as in Music of the Swamp, but there’s a similar innocence.
DA: Music of the Swamp seems to mark a transition in your work. It’s the one that leads into the novels, and it’s been referred to as a novel-in-stories. And maybe that’s part of why I like that one so much, it seemed to usher in something new.
LN: Well it was new to me. I had been writing the stories—and I think pretty good stories—but none of them had my imprint on them the way that book does. That was partly Shannon Ravenel’s doing. The first draft that I sent of Music of the Swamphad some of those stories, but it had a lot of other stories too. She saw the stories that didn’t belong in it, and she said write more stories about this character, about Sugar. And so I actually wrote the title story and wrote other stories in that book at her direction. She didn’t tell me anything about how to do it, but she said I want more of this character to unify this book.
DA: You wrote Music of the Swamp in Pittsburgh, right? The bulk of your work has been written here.
LN: Yeah. Almost all of it, really. I wrote most of my first book in Arkansas, and the last part of my first book and all my other books in Pittsburgh. In fact, I say without kidding around, I became a southerner in Pittsburgh. In the south, you’re not a southerner, you’re just somebody next door. But in Pittsburgh, people related to me as though I were a southerner because I talked different, I liked different favorite foods and different music. Somehow by being able to see myself at some remove like that, I became more of a southerner and became the writer that wrote those eight books. I don’t want to live there again—and in fact that world never really existed, except as a world I made up out of a world. But that’s the best way to have it. Now, twenty-five years later, I’m beginning to write Pittsburgh stories.
DA: Your humor is an important part of your narrative voice, and it’s part of your personality. Were other members of your family funny?
LN: Yeah, my mother was very funny. My uncle—her brother, was very funny. My grandmother was very funny. It’s a way of looking at the world. I don’t know where you get that. I had one student ask me one time, “I’d like to write comedy, how do you do it?” I said it’s so hard just writing like yourself, don’t try to write like someone else right now. Write what you are. And I guess that’s what I believe in. I believe in imitation too, but do the imitation of somebody who’s on your wavelength, someone who’s also comic or also not comic. I could never be Kafka, or Doestoyevsky, or many of the people I admire for being who they are—but I can be James Thurber sometimes.
DA: I like the way humor plays over the underlying sadness of your work. It works as a sort of defense mechanism, just as it can in real life to keep us afloat.
LN: You know in my work, and I guess in my life, you never know if you’re gonna laugh or cry, depending on which way something strikes you. Like old Solon [a character in Wolf Whistle] trying to do the best thing for his family, trying to think which ones he’s gonna kill. He’s only got six bullets and seven people in his family. As horrible as it is in reality, there’s a kind of comic twist to it that makes it bearable and makes it human. I don’t exactly do it as a technique either. I wouldn’t say that I would even know how to make comedy useful as a technique. It just is. It’s just how something comes out. Of all the things that have happened to me, including the death of my son, I’ve just got lots of comic moments in the middle of that grief, like when I was waiting for my son’s body to be shipped from the city where he’d been autopsied to back home where he was to be buried, and I was talking to my minister, and I said I hate to think of poor Rusty traveling by U.S. mail. And he said, let’s hope he doesn’t end up in the dead letter office. So that kind of macabre—I mean it’s funny. The absurdity. We didn’t laugh in order not to be sad. We’re still sad. But it’s just a part of it.
DA: It was also a huge risk though, especially for Wolf Whistle. But the humor was needed to give the reader some relief from the darkness of the story.
LN: You know that book is a special book in so many ways. Some of it was done by instinct, and some of it was really done deliberately. For example, I didn’t know some things were going to come out funny that took a comic twist. But it’s true you couldn’t have anything quite that dreary without some humanizing effect. I didn’t know whether the world would take a complicated monster like Solon and hate him and love him at the same time, as I did. And part of loving him is seeing the comic absurdity of the monster within him. But also there are other moments. In chapter eight, I think it is, of Wolf Whistle, Solon and Bobo were in the car together, going to Bobo’s death. And Solon is talking to him about fishing poles and about going fishing and they’re driving in the rain. In that chapter Bobo had no point of view, and not only no point of view—has no corporeal reality. He didn’t have an appearance with any substance except as you hear about him through Solon. Solon’s handkerchief comes up, which we imagine he’s wiping up blood with, but we don’t ever see the blood, we don’t ever see the boy take the handkerchief, we don’t ever hear the boy’s voice, we don’t ever see the boy’s face even though Solon can see him. No corporeal reality for that child exists. And he never has a point of view until he’s dead, when he’s in the swamp. The first draft I wrote of that book, he was an actual child with a substance that filled up a bed that he was in, and he was bleeding in the car and in a ditch, and things like that. But it was just so horrible, so horrible to read about, that I didn’t want that. So I rewrote that chapter without any substantial corporeality at all. I don’t know if a lot of people notice that, but it really does exactly what I meant for it to do.
DA: I seem to recall at some point that you had been contacted by Emmett Till’s family.
LN: Yes, that’s true. I got a call. I was on an NPR show, the Diane Rehm Show in Washington, D.C. It was a live show, and one of the callers was Emmett Till’s cousin. And she was born, I think, the year he died. She and I liked each other and we began talking regularly on the phone after I got home. She put me in touch with Emmett’s mother, whose name was Mrs. Mobely. She had remarried. So she and I got in touch and we talked many times on the phone. I’m not sure she actually ever read the book. She was always saying she was going to, and always telling me how glad she was that I was keeping the story alive and things like that.
DA: That happened so long ago, but the past doesn’t stay in the past. His body was recently exhumed.
LN: Yeah. They decided not to pursue any more arrests. One other person was implicated and that person was dead. The only other people who were implicated were black kids who had been forced to wipe out the truck or something, and they didn’t want to prosecute them.
DA: I’ve never been to the Delta, so I enjoyed looking at the images by Maud Casey in her photography book Delta Land. In the introduction, you wrote: “Black and white is the color of grief and all its metaphors.” That is really, really beautiful—and exactly right. Do you get back to the delta much to visit?
LN: I was back a couple years ago. I was invited to speak at the Oxford Conference for the Book at Faulkner’s home. I don’t get there very much, but I’m going back early next month to my 50th high school reunion.
DA: Will that be in Itta Bena? Have you ever gone to a reunion?
LN: Yeah. Every five years I go, to keep up with my high school class. It’s pretty wonderful. You would think there’d be people mad at me, but they aren’t. (laughs)
DA: Did I read a while back that Sherman Alexie was going to do a screenplay based on your work? A project with the two of you seems like it would be a good fit.
LN: He had bought a number of options on Sharpshooter, but never did make a movie. He actually claims he did the screenplay, but dropped his interest in the book for some other project he’s working on.
DA: There have been a lot of interviews with you, a lot of literary criticism on your work, and at the AWP Conference in Atlanta this year there was a panel discussion about your work. So, I had to wonder if there was anything new I could bring up in conversation that hasn’t been covered. Is there anything that nobody ever asks you that you’d like to talk about?
LN: Here’s a place that we can start. Now here’s the truth. Most of the people who interview talk about the subject matter of the work. And I’ve become kind of a faux expert on Emmett Till and the civil rights movement and guns and things I don’t really know very much about. Things that are really just details in my work and in my life. So the real question is: Who are you as a novelist? And what kind of things would you say about this life as a novelist that I’d want to know about? Would you like to hear about those?
LN: I see every project as not primarily about the subject matter, but about the shape the subject matter has in it. So, when I started to write about children finding that body—he wakes up one morning with a view of the world as an open, wonderful place that’s going to reveal itself in its glory. And it turned out to be filled with death. This is what his father’s been telling him all along: “The Delta is filled up with death.” And so, to me that story and all stories are in one sense about the shape of storytelling, rather than about the narrative itself that makes up the content of the story. I would say that I heard the sound of what I was going to write a long time before I knew any of the details of the story. Before I caught on to what it was about, I heard the sound, as if the music had already been written and the shape had already been drawn. And I just made the details that fit in it. That’s why it’s easier for me to write a short story than a novel. Because I can see the shape of them more clearly than I can see the shape of a novel. And so when I write a novel, I have to shape the chapters. They’re not exactly short story shaped chapters, but they’re shaped individually so that when I get enough of them together I can begin to see a pattern of shapes that will shape the novel. This is all very abstract, I understand, but it’s what writers don’t get to talk about.
If you were to analyze all my stories, you would see them as exactly like everything else. Like the story that begins: “This was a day like no other day” and then develops from there. These are types of stories and they are immortal, and all of them are repeated in my work over and over again because I was desperate to write a story and my mind told me this is the way it started out to be. And so all my work, really, is about the structure of the work. It’s about the arc. I used to tell students that a story was a line, which I would draw on a chalkboard. The story is the line on which the truth is tacked on to the end of it. But the truth is not a straight line. The line is like this (draws a rising slanted line in the air that arcs at the top), and the truth is sort of dangling off the sides of it. But always, the story has to be in an arc. Many would think I was an expert on something I’ve written, about which I really knew nothing. I have packs of wild dogs running through [stories], which I knew nothing about. I don’t even know if there are actually packs of wild dogs, or if they just appeared on the page and then wandered off. I don’t know anything about shooting arrows. I know nothing about teaching fourth graders. And yet I’ve written stories about all these things.
So, that’s what I would say if I could say anything about writing. I’m a little embarrassed because it sounds so—it sounds like an actor talking about his craft. You know that really bores me to death, and I don’t want to talk about mystical stuff that nobody can get. But where I’m sitting, I’m not writing the material so much as I’m writing the shape of the story.
DA: What have you read lately that you’ve admired?
LN: Suzanne Mars’s biography of Eudora Welty is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I absolutely adored it. And that sent me back to reading a lot of Welty. And when Kurt Vonnegut died, I reread some Kurt Vonnegut. And I liked that. And now I’m reading a biography of Einstein, which I’m really loving. He was quite a blade, a ladies man.
DA: When you write, do you need to be really immersed in it? Do you need big chunks of time?
LN: Well, not always. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think, well, I’ve got to start cooking something for dinner so I’m not going to start writing now. But that’s more of an excuse than anything because I’ve written books with children on my lap and cats on my lap and dogs under my feet and the phone ringing. So, sometimes nothingcan keep me from writing, and other times anything can keep me from writing. But these days, I like to have at least a couple of hours that I can devote to it, that I don’t have something really important to do right afterwards.
DA: I really need to immerse myself so that I can focus on the fictional world of my characters. I seem to enter a different zone, and at the end of the writing day it takes a little time for me to transition back into the real world. Does that happen to you? Do you kind of leave reality a bit when you’re writing?
LN: Well, it’s more that the story becomes my reality. When I was writing Sharpshooter Blues I had no idea until it was reported in the book that Hydro was going to die. I was just stunned by it. I couldn’t believe it. So, I came down the stairs and I guess I was just ashen because Alicia said “Honey, what’s the matter?” And I told her Hydro died. And she said, “Oh, no. . .”
DA: What should we do? What are the arrangements?
LN: Yeah, right! Should we call the airport? But I just mainly am annoyed if I’m in that place and somebody interrupts me with something that’s not needed. My new book, which is very slow in the making, is about a father whose son was abducted at school one day.
There is just one more thing to tell. As Buddy walks me to the door when I’m leaving, he tells me one more thing—much like the narrative construct he uses like a signature in his books. He mentions that he’s gotten a lot of mileage from a phrase I’d given him years ago to use as a funny title for his memoir: “Don’t Cry For Me Itta Bena.” He tells me that title always gets a big laugh when he gives readings, and that he never credits me for it. We chuckle at the joke on me, and I tell him I’m glad that it goes over big—and that I’ll have to set the record straight on that one.
1 The essay “Dangerous Inventions” published in the Spring 1992 issue of The Oxford American opens with a story about going hunting with his dad and their poorly behaved and inept yellow hunting dog, and then meeting up with the governor’s hunting party on private land where they’ve been trespassing. The hunting story goes on for more than a page, then after a punch line about how his father would later retell the story as “the day me and my boy went hunting with the governor,” Buddy confesses to the reader that the story isn’t true. He writes: “I’ve told this story many times over the years. It is a part of who I am, one of many deep important memories that have shaped my life. The thing is, though, not one word of the story I’ve just related is true. This is a deep important memory with no historical basis, you might say.” The essay goes on to discuss how imagination and memory work to create the stories we need, and sometimes the lies we need, to help us make sense of the world. It continues with other reminiscences that are not so clearly confessed as being fabricated, and are told in a way that take the reader in hook, line, and sinker—and then has us laughing at ourselves for swallowing them whole. And underneath the humor that causes us to laugh out loud while we’re reading, is the sadness of the story of Buddy’s truth, of losing his natural father who died when Buddy was 18 months old and of loving the stepfather who raised him. He writes, “I was determined to have a father, and so I have invented one out of the man whom I was given,” and describes that process as “a way of inventing myself.” It’s a process that ultimately leads him to invent the character named Sugar who appears in many of his stories and novels. He concludes that a lie can “invent, shape, and define.”
NOTE: “Buddy Nordan: Shaping Stories” first appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Paper Street.
Dory Adams holds the copyright for this interview.
About the author:
Dory Adams is a Pittsburgh-based writer with an MFA from Vermont College. Winner of the 2002 William Faulkner Award for Short Fiction, her work has appeared in The Avery Anthology, Blue Earth Review, Hobart, Slipstream, The Oklahoma Review, Common Ground Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Workers Write! Tales from the Clinic and Forge. Dory is the fiction editor at Paper Street and the co-founder of Paper Street Press. Her interviews with writers on craft appear in the fall issues of Paper Street. She is currently working on a novel titled The October Earth.