Boise writer Alan Heathcock’s impressive debut short story collection Volt (Graywolf Press, 208 pages, $15) examines the gritty realities of life in a small town called Krafton, somewhere in rural America. The New York Times called Volt “galvanizing proof of [Heathcock’s] talent,” and the book, which is in its third printing, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. I recently interviewed Heathcock via email about how movies influence his fiction, why he thinks “Volt is basically an episode of Roy Rogers, just with the blood on-screen, and without the singing away of pain,” and why Boise should be declared New West’s new Literary Capital of America. (Are you listening, Cody, Wyo.?)
New West: Your stories made me think of movies. There are several references to movies in Volt, such as the moment in “Smoke” where Vernon imagines or hallucinates that he’s talking to Roy Rogers in the middle of moving a body, or “Fort Apache,” which begins in a movie theater and addresses the contrast between the dreams movies offer people and the realities of life. Even the structure of “Peacekeeper” reminded me of a technique sometimes used in film, the way it flashes back and forth in time and gradually reveals the mystery at its center. Are movies an influence on your writing?
Alan Heathcock: I have no hobbies. I raise my kids, love my wife, read books, write, and watch movies. I watch a lot of movies. I’ve kept a movie log for the past 15 years and as of today I’ve watched 3,061 films during that time. That’s not to say that I’m not equally influenced by books, or by life itself, but film is absolutely an influence. Some of the most important literature of the past 100 years has been on celluloid. I feel compelled to pay close attention. In fact, whenever I see a scene in a film, or even a moment, I take out my notebook and try and write that scene, to translate cinema into words, taking it from the external sensory medium and into the empathetic medium that is fiction. I find this exercise to be highly rewarding. I once wrote out the entire film, Winter Light, by Ingmar Bergman. It taught me a great deal—for example, I was surprised the entire film could be written out in only about fifty pages, which made me then worry less about the idea that a shorter work couldn’t be completely full and rewarding. The film Following by Christopher Nolan, is directly responsible for the structural decisions I made when writing my story “Peacekeeper”. I’ve studied dialog from There Will Be Blood and have taken images from Scorsese and The Coen Brothers, worked to discover how David Lynch builds tension through environment. Sometimes I think it’s easier to learn from film because it’s not fiction, because I have to think my way in deciding how it could/would/should be written to its highest effect, how words operate to create theme music and lighting and subtle gestures of the finest actors.
NW: Roy Rogers comes up in a couple of stories—”Smoke” and “Fort Apache”—what do you think he represents to the characters in your stories?
AH: Roy Rogers is kind of the quintessential American man, in that he gets into a scrapes in just about every episode of his TV series, and yet also sings lovely ballads. For me, it represents the duality of the man who is called upon to fight, to destroy, and then must soothe himself, alone—in this case on a horse and riding the range. Yet Roy is so far from reality. Some of the fistfights on his show are brutal, actors flying over tables, windows breaking. And yet there is never any blood. Never. Why? Because that’s what we all want to believe—that you can fight, can destroy, without there being blood. I have a great fondness for Roy Rogers while at the same time understanding the damage that kind lie can produce. We can’t sing away the pain once the punch is thrown. This is a point my books hits upon again and again. Volt is basically an episode of Roy Rogers, just with the blood on-screen, and without the singing away of pain.
NW: “Peacekeeper” was included in the Best American Mystery Stories anthology, and several of your stories could be described as mysteries—”The Daughter” is another good example. I felt that part of the mystery in these stories derived from the careful way you structured them, revealing partial information as you went along. Do you aim to create mysteries in your stories? Do you analyze the structures you create for their effect on the reader, or do you do this instinctively?
AH: I don’t think of myself as a mystery writer, though I do consciously employ mystery. Ultimately, I’m trying to make a reader feel a certain way while reading. That’s of great importance. I want to stir someone, to move them out of their comfort zone so they’ll have to lean in, think a little harder, actually pay attention. I work really hard to reward the reader’s effort with the thrill of tension and dramatic urgency. So, yes, I’m constantly thinking about how I can make a story feel mysterious, which means I have to innovate. I find most Hollywood movies have the same pacing and delivery, and though that predictability is comforting to a viewer (it feels familiar and is thereby non-threatening), it greatly diminishes the dramatic impact. I’ve made the decision to make people uncomfortable, for the sake of hopefully making them feel something intense. That’s why I read—to be stirred from my complacency and pulled deeply into the mysteries of human potential.
NW: Volt is enjoyable in part because it makes the reader think—you reveal many key plot points with great subtlety, and the reader must read carefully to add up all of the parts. (One example of this—at the beginning of “The Daughter,” Miriam’s mother is killed suddenly. Some reviewers have described her death as the result of a traffic accident; I interpreted as the result of a violent carjacking attempt.) How do you walk the line between subtlety and obscurity?
AH: If it’s there, it’s subtle. If it’s not there, it’s obscure. I only require that I’ve actually given a reader everything he/she needs to understand the story, even and especially if subtle. It simply must be present, but doesn’t have to be simple. I understand some readers will miss subtle bits of content on first read, and I’m fine with that. A definition of “literary” I heard once and liked is that a piece of literary fiction gets better with subsequent readings. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort making sure every little detail will inform a reader somehow. It’s there. It’s on the page. That’s all I can do.
NW: You grew up in Chicago, yet all the stories in Volt take place in a rural town somewhere in America called Krafton. I read in one interview that you plan to continue to set fiction in Krafton. Given your urban upbringing, what appeals to you about setting your fiction in a rural town?
AH: Really, I could’ve set all these stories in Hazel Crest, where I grew up. The details would’ve different—industrial lots and city streets instead of cornfields and barns—but the content would’ve stayed the same. I could’ve named the town Krafton and everything. I’m convinced the book would basically be the same. That said, I wanted to write a book about America, and the small town lends itself to that commentary better. I’ve had reviewers/readers claim that Krafton is set in the Midwest, the high plains, the South, the West—nobody knows where it is, but they all get the same general idea about the commentary the books is trying to deliver. Krafton is just kind of a perfect vehicle for me to write stories that are understood as “American” stories, and that’s something I like and desire.
NW: Many of your characters speak in their own particular dialect. What did you base this dialect on?
AH: My mother and father are both from small towns (southern Indiana and central Illinois), both with their own accents, and then I grew up in Chicago, which also has it’s own distinct dialect. I’ve taken from both my home and my hood to cobble out a dialect that expresses a hardscrabble, hard-working kind of people, but one that can also, maybe, hopefully, get away with a kind of poetry. I always admired James Joyce’s characters in The Dubliners because so many said such lovely and profound things while speaking from a working-class Irish dialect—the dialect made the insights more profound, I think, and in a general sense was what I wanted for my own work.
NW: I think my favorite character is Helen Farraley, the middle-aged grocery clerk who is elected Sheriff as a joke, but then takes her job seriously, and has to confront a lot of trouble. What inspired that character?
AH: I used to visit a small town in Minnesota named Waseca. I had friends who lived there. It was a lovely little town, nice Main Street, beautiful lakes, kind people. In winter, I went ice fishing, which I loved. In summer, we’d take long walks down these country roads, looking out over the still fields, listening to the locusts drone. Then, in 1999, a twelve-year old girl came home from school to find a man robbing her house. The man raped and killed the girl, and her parents found her dead body in the house. I visited Waseca about a month after this happened, and the town had changed. My friends, who used to leave their doors unlocked, now locked their doors and kept a rifle by their beds. Waseca felt changed, the air and water were changed. It touched everything. I couldn’t shake the desire to have Waseca returned to what it was, and wondered what could possibly be done to restore the peace. So…I wrote the story “Peacekeeper” as a means of unpacking some of my questions, a bit of grief, too, trying to see if I could find any answers and heal the troubled heart. I needed a character who would be tough yet vulnerable, caring yet brutal. It had to be the right mix of things. I felt the character needed to be female, needed to be a fish-out-of-water, and yet highly effective in a way. Over time, these story requirements became Helen Farraley, who I love dearly, who broke my heart many times over, and healed my heart a little, too.
NW: My favorite scene in Volt is in “Fort Apache,” where the characters get drunk, raid bowling balls from a burned down alley, and then smash up the town with them. What inspired that scene?
AH: One of the coolest things about being a writer is that people always want to tell you stories. That is good because I’m the type of guy who actually wants to hear them. I can’t remember exactly who told me, or where I was (it was years ago), but some older gentleman told me about a time he and his buddies rolled bowling balls down a hill and into their town square. For years that detail sat dormant in my notebook. Then I was writing “Fort Apache” and needed some way to express the feeling of senseless destruction, and I found that story in my notebook, and it just fit. It was just perfect, and the story immediately lit up in my imagination.
NW: I was intrigued by this idea expressed by a character in the title story: “You think some are just bad or evil or whatnot, but somewhere along the way they was someone’s baby, sucking the teat like anybody. Then something puts a volt in ’em and they ain’t the same no more.” Most of the bad, life-changing actions that characters take throughout Volt are not intentional, or at least are not premeditated. Was this a conscious theme?
AH: Yes, it was conscious. If you asked me to name the “good” and “bad” people I know it would be wholly based on what they’ve done, or been caught doing, and how those actions somehow define them as people. I think about this all the time, how one event has a profound impact on how we see each other, how we see ourselves. I have a few friends who spent time in prison, and I see how the one mistake they made affects how the entire world views them, defines their self worth and their employment and the way their kids are raised and where they live and, and, and…I can think of a couple particular cases where guys just did dumb things, and got caught. They weren’t “bad” people. They were just young and followed a bad instinct. I also think of some things I’ve done and how I didn’t get caught, and how easily I could’ve swapped the life I have for a different and less blessed track. It’s complex stuff, I think, and ripe for story.
NW: Last year with the power invested in me by nobody, I bestowed the title of literary capital of America on Cody, Wyoming, whose per capita output of quality literature is astonishing. Can you make a case for Boise winning that title this year? (Alas, there is no prize money involved.)
AH: Boise is the greatest place on earth to be a writer. We have amazing writers, making the bestseller list and winning big lit prizes and generally being champions for the written word. We have great novelists and story writers and poets and journalists and screen writers, all getting national attention as vital voices in the world of letters. To boot, Boise as a community is the most well-read place I’ve ever lived. This is a town, a people, who love and appreciate literature, and support its authors with a fervent glee. I mean they really care. I had a book launch for Volt and 325 people came. That’s amazing! And…they actually read the book! That’s very special. When I moved to Boise, eleven years ago, I didn’t plan on staying. But now I’m incredibly proud to call it home. Literary Capital of America? You bet your bottom it is!!
NW: What are you working on now?
AH: I’m on to a novel now, about another Great Flood (a la Noah), and a family floating around in their house-turned-ark who get mixed up in a war over the last remaining visible mountain peaks left in the world.