“I really love to build descriptions, to try and help someone else see a town or city or farm field or mine entrance in the way I did.”
Pine Gap (Peasantry Press, 2019)
I took some time to view your social media platforms and noticed a dog at a computer in your profile photo at Twitter. First of all, what is the name of your dog? Secondly, do you often find comfort in your pet when you are in the vigorous stages of the writing process as well as grading (as the caption mentions)?
Our puppy’s name is Eeyore and his brother is an orange tabby named Tigger. I’m not sure about comfort: having a puppy and kitten sure creates plenty of opportunities to watch conflict-in-action, and so I guess they inspire me that way. But it feels nice to have a furry friend on your lap when grading, because evaluating work is tough, whether it’s an essay from a first-year composition class or a manuscript I’m reading for a friend or anything in-between. There’s something warm and comforting about having a friend around during that process.
In your East Fork interview, you talk about the difference between your journalistic writing and your fiction writing. What was the transition like for you? Also, in your present creative writing, do you find yourself reflecting on your journalism days for inspiration or for capturing a certain part of what you are writing?
It’s been a good while now since I was a practicing reporter, and so the specific connection is a little frayed, but in both sorts of writing I like to start with the observable. In journalism, those initial observations led me to questions I would then verbalize in order to facilitate the source’s telling of their own story in the clearest, most powerful fashion possible. In fiction, that observation sparks questions I’ve got to answer myself in the form of an invented character’s action or speech, their connection to a certain place, or their interaction with other characters. So, in both forms, it’s really a detailed handling of questions and what they mean and where they lead.
In a previous interview at Speaking of Marvels, you said that the question you would ask other writers would be, “How much time do you spend naming characters?” I would love to know your answer to this question. Do you spend as much time contemplating the names of your characters as you do the other parts of your craft? Are there any names in Pine Gap that have a symbolic meaning or that reflect the characters?
My naming strategies depend on the story. I tend to spend more time naming characters in shorter works, because there’s restricted space and I need each element of storytelling—from names to setting to minute actions—to carry more weight. In Pine Gap, the names all came from gravestones in the Harlan, Letcher, and Pike Counties in Kentucky. While I was doing research and exploration in the region, I spent some time looking at real names of families similar to the one I wanted to represent in the story. A few of the given names also came from documents on display at the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky. For me, the names in this story were less about invention and more about placing me into a context. I’ve lived in Appalachia for a good part of my life, but most of that time was on what would be considered by a lot of folks as fringe Appalachia, so researching and exploring names was a tool to get deeper into my understanding of towns more central to the region. The one name that really has secondary meaning is Enoch, the father character, whose biblical namesake is known for “walking with God.”
In the past, I have heard from opposing sides that writer’s block does or does not exist. What are your thoughts? If writer’s block does happen to you, how do you overcome it?
There are moments when writing comes easier and more naturally than others, but one of the things I learned writing for a living in a newsroom is that it’s a practice as much as it is an art, and it’s just something you work through whether it feels good or not. Every writer has their own process, and for some, the deal is to just keep struggling through until the passage works. For me: if something not going particular well in a particular writing session, I’ll just drop it for a while and move on to something else. If composing is rough, I’ll switch over and edit something that already exists. If that’s not going well, either, I’ll switch to submitting work or doing paperwork or booking readings—there’s always something else, and if one thing’s not working, I’ve got no problem with switching off in order to stay productive. Writing out of order can help too—sometimes we feel programmed to write the start first and the end last, but my brain doesn’t always work that way, so it eliminates a lot of frustration when I feel free to hit the return key a couple of times and work on a different scene.
From the beginning of Pine Gap, faith seems important to your characters; for example, it informs the interaction between Jamie and her sister Rebecca. When Jamie almost says a curse word, her sister gives her a look, and Jamie later offers her opinion on the matter: “Personally, I think the Lord gives us a free pass on language when it comes to talking about you” Does your writing draw on your own experience with faith or belief?
Faith has been a big part of my journey as a person and as a writer; like these characters, it’s something that I wrestle with, something that informs me, and it’s helped me to build and define community. I think this is a fascinating and important moment for people of faith interacting in the broader culture, and there are tough questions to explore. In moments, I think my own questions and concerns, joys and comforts with the idea of faith come through in different elements of each character’s actions. There are times I love the warmth of a faith community, and other times faith means wandering alone in the woods or jumping on a train’s coupling (maybe not literally) and escaping everything I know or think or believe. So, yeah: pieces of that constant tension show up in the way these characters act and wrestle.
How do readers respond to your inclusion of faith in Pine Gap? Are the responses positive or negative?
The book’s too new to have much of a sense of reaction yet. A couple weeks ago, James Mattson visited our campus and read a selection from his heartbreaking, beautiful book, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves. A student asked why he used a great deal of profanity in some sections, and James talked at length about being true to the character’s personality. I would give the same answer for this family when it comes to faith: this is just how this family operates, and I hope faith informs their actions and concerns, their dialogue, their doubt, and of course their hope. Communicating through faith just felt natural for this family as they developed in my mind and on the page.
My favorite aspect about your writing, especially in Pine Gap, is the detailed setting and vividly described characters. I love the beginning: “At the white four-room bungalow owned by Enoch and Miriam Eskill, the droplets strike the pitched tin roof, pinging low tones near the eaves and brighter notes near the capped apex” (1). Would you consider imagery to be your strongest literary element, the one you pay the most attention to?
I really love to build descriptions, to try and help someone else see a town or city or farm field or mine entrance in the way I did. Because they might not see it the same way, and I love the interchange—the thinking about what we all notice in certain moments and why that’s the thing we dwell on. Most of my work deals heavily with the ways in which people and place interact, and the fascinating tool of imagery is a key part of that process.
Who has been your biggest inspiration for writing? What about them and their craft has inspired you? Have you experimented with any of their techniques?
I’ve spent a lot of time studying the ways in which Colum McCann rotates characters so usefully, and so obviously that came into play with this book. Claire Keegan builds the most spectacular sentences, and so she’s a big informing force, too.
Is there a genre you would like to try writing in the future? A genre that just doesn’t interest you?
It’s been a long time since I produced poetry, and I’d like to spend some time on that when I get the chance. I deeply respect science fiction and fantasy writers and the work they’re able to do, but those are genres I can see myself leaving to the experts.
You teach creative writing as well as professional writing. Have you ever thought about teaching your own work to your students?
Depending on the class, I sometimes share an early draft with students and let them tear it up, in order to sort of pre-evacuate the silly dynamic that sometimes forms in favor of the teacher as some sort of expert: fiction is a discipline where everyone brings unique perspective, and I want to make sure students feel like all our observations are equal, because they are. I also try to complete an assignment alongside my students in at least one class, at least once a year, so I keep a realistic check on what I’m asking of them, under the wild workloads and time constraints that are often present in the academy, and I like to share that work with students, too, in order to emphasize the dynamic of equality.
Brooks Rexroat is the author of Thrift Store Coats and Pine Gap. He was raised near Cincinnati, Ohio at the intersection of the Rust Belt and Appalachia.
He earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree in creative prose from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Now based in Owensboro, Kentucky, Rexroat was a 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow in Cassis, France and a 2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Teaching and Research Scholar at Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University in Siberia, Russia.