Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review,VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. VOLT, a collection of stories published by Graywolf Press, was a “Best Book 2011? selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as for inclusion in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Heathcock has won the GLCA New Writers Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
Lou Pendergrast: Which authors have influenced and inspired you to write?
Alan Heathcock: There are so many authors I love and admire. I love Flannery O’Connor and Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. James Joyce’s The Dubliners is an important books to me, and is The Stories of John Cheever. I dig Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith, Ben Percy and Tom Franklin, Chris Offutt, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, and Frank Bill. Really, though, there’s Cormac and then all the rest. If I listed my top 20 favorite books of all time Cormac McCarthy’s books would take up many of those spots. In form and function both, he’s my guy.
Lou Pendergrast: What advise would you give to readers who would love to walk in your footsteps and become a writer and write in your style?
Alan Heathcock: Read all of the authors I’ve mentioned above, and then read them again. Write their sentences in notebooks. Internalize their stories. You get out what you put in, and if you’re putting the right sentences and characters and plots into your head, that’s what you’ll get out when you sit down to compose. It’s A to B logic–you write what you read and study.
Lou Pendergrast: What are your daily rituals of writing?
Alan Heathcock: I start out each day by reading. I read poetry, I read novels, short stories, anything I think is of quality (see my logic above). As I read I highlight any sentences I think are of value–they might be great images, great bits of dialog, of action, an interesting turn of phrase, a particularly wise insight, anything. I then hand copy all of the highlighted sentences into my notebook, with the idea that I’m training myself to write as well as the authors who wrote the highlighted sentences. This is my ritual. Every day I hone my instincts off of what I’ve read.
Lou Pendergrast: The Staying Freight, The Smoke and The Daughter how did they each take you to write
and what inspired each story?
Alan Heathcock: “The Staying Freight” was me trying to get my head around a family tragedy, the death of a child and the pain that death sent into the world. As a young man, I saw the devastating effects this kind of pain can inflict of someone, and it scared me, still scares me. I often write to confront things that scare and confound me, to try and apply some order (a story) when things feel out of control, and that was certainly true with “The Staying Freight”.
I wrote “Smoke” based off of a story my grandpa told me when I was a little boy, about how he got into a physical confrontation with another man while working in the oil fields in Oklahoma (just like the confrontation described in the story). My grandpa didn’t kill anyone (as happens in the story), but his story stirred something inside me, made me see how violence seeps into the world, becomes a permanent part of the world, just like smoke. Where does all the smoke go? It just becomes a part of the air we breathe, just like violence. Really, I’m still trying to make sense of the invasive nature of violence and the tenuous nature of peace. It may take me a lifetime of stories to find any peace on the subject.
“The Daughter” was another exploration of how a simple act of violence can alter everything in its proximity. I started with the corn maze, and with the neighbor boys who were indignant to Miriam’s request to stay out of her field. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of “justice”, of what justice really means versus how man’s laws allow and disallow justice to be served. Finally, this is about family, too, how a mother and daughter become a world onto themselves as a means of survival. “They were still here while others were gone,” Miriam thinks at the end. So much of human behavior can be tracked back to trying to sticking around as long as we can.
Lou Pendergrast: Which story in this collection was the hardest to write?
Alan Heathcock: “The Staying Freight” was, by far, the hardest. I’m a father myself, have three kids, and living the life of a man who’d accidentally killed his own son, in feeling those feelings, thinking those thoughts, was awful. It was beautiful and necessary, too, but mainly awful. I’ve gotten more notes and emails about that story than any other. It really strikes a chord with anyone who’s had this kind of tragedy in their lives, and the notes I’ve gotten are folks who say the story allowed them to look directly at a thing they’d always tried to hide. I believe the greatest purpose of literature is to allow us to see ourselves, though in a way that’s bearable. I’m very proud that “The Staying Freight”, despite being so difficult to write, has become a way for folks to look at their own grief, to see the grief and pain directly, and to heal themselves, even if just a little.
Lou Pendergrast: Volt took at least 10 years to complete. Did it involve many rewrites?
Alan Heathcock: VOLT took ten years because:
1. I wanted to get it right. I doesn’t take me very long to get a story in the ballpark of what I’m hoping for. But I wanted every insight to be true, every gesture to be perfect. That takes a LOT of drafts. I probably went through 150 drafts of “The Staying Freight” alone.
2. Beyond the eight stories in VOLT, there are 30 that didn’t make the cut. I needed to write all of the stories to get those eight, so nothing is to waste.
Lou Pendergrast: In the hard times of your life growing up in Chicago. What has pulled you through and got you through? any role models or inspiration?
Alan Heathcock: When you live in a tough place you’re surrounded by others who live in that place, too, so you never feel alone with it. There are tougher places than Hazel Crest, where I grew up, but one of the hallmarks of people from Hazel Crest is that a premium was put on being tough, on working hard, on not complaining. I’m very proud to be from Hazel Crest, and feel growing up in a working class town, surrounded by tough people, men and women both, has prepared me for the rigors of being a professional writer. Whenever I’m writing, I’m always aware of my old friends back home, who are working real jobs, working as firefighters and police officers, working in rail yards and garages. I think of them, and that makes me buckle down and work all the harder. If they’re working, then I’m working, too–that’s just how we roll.
Lou Pendergrast: How do you pay the bills? What do you busy yourself with?
Alan Heathcock: I pay the bills by writing and teaching writing. I write some for magazines, publish my stories, teach at Boise State University, travel and speak, and I’ve just signed on with a film agent to take a crack writing some original screenplays. I’m making a life off of my writing, and life is, indeed, good.
Lou Pendergrast: Some of your stories feature pastors and churches. Do you have a strong belief in faith?
Alan Heathcock: I was raised up in the church, and still think a great deal about what it means to be a good person in a world of hurt and pain. My great grandfather was a preacher, and I know I have a bit of the preacher woven into my fabric. I think a great deal about where, as a culture, we get our sense of morality, and how our morals become corrupted, perverted, the things that over time slide from a place of truth and into a place where we want something to be true that maybe isn’t. There is a great conflict inside most people, and that conflict has something to do with how to find peace in a world that feels under attack. As a people, we have trouble even defining the word “good” anymore (as in, “I’m a good person”). If you come from a small town, there’s a very good chance that religion, for good or bad, will be a place people turn for answers. I’m very interested in that tension in the world, and inside people (inside myself). All I’ll say about my faith is that I try, as best as I can understand what it means to me, to be a good person. The pursuit alone brings me some measure of peace.
Lou Pendergrast: One of the stories from Volt, Fort Apache seems to have received film interest. Whats happening on the film side?
Alan Heathcock: Yes, a short film version of “Fort Apache” is being made in the next month or so by a brilliant young director named Addison Mehr. The guy’s super bright, comes from a small town himself, and I think he’s going to knock it out of the park. His goals for the film are as high as they get–he want to get into the Cannes Film Festival in France, win at Sundance, win an Oscar,… I’m a huge fan of movies, watch over 200 movies a year, so I’m getting a huge kick out of this. I can’t wait to see the finished product.
Lou Pendergrast: Are you working on something now and when will we see another book from you?
Alan Heathcock: You sure will, as I’m working on a novel now, about another great flood (a la Noah), and a family who’s floating around on an old coal barge and get caught up in a war over the last remaining mountains peaks left in the world. If you all have as much fun reading it as I have writing it then the book will do well.
Lou Pendergrast: Which are you most favourite villains and heroes from fiction?
Alan Heathcock: I could list a hundred names, but I’ll just give a couple.
For the hero I’ll pick Tom Joad from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Joad is a good man in hard times who must fight for his family and protect what he thinks is right. He’s a good, but flawed man. He’s real. He’s a hero because I admire him. I also really admire Rhee Dolly, the hero in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Rhee does anything and everything she has to do to protect her brother and sister, and endures terrible hardship in the process. If I list the top 10 toughest people I’ve ever known, that list would be dominated by women. If Rhee Dolly were a real person, she’d be near the top of that list.
My pick for villain would be the judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. This guy is mythic and terrifying, the kind of villain you hope shows up on every page because they’re so fascinating, but then you read a little more nervous for fear of what will happen in his proximity.
Lou Pendergrast: Which black and white films are you most favourite?
Alan Heathcock: Wow, again so many I love. The film The Last Picture Show, based on the Larry McMurtry novel, is one I greatly admire–it’s tough and heartbreaking and beautiful. I love the movie Hud for the same reasons. I really admire all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, and especially love his films Winter Light and The Virgin Spring. Psycho would have to be on that list, as would Red River, High Noon, the original Frankenstein.
Lou Pendergrast: If there was a zombie outbreak and you was able to take with you to a safe island books, which books would they be?
Alan Heathcock: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Collected Poems of James Dickey, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Dusk by James Salter, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, The Dubliners by James Joyce, and maybe a couple of Stephen King novels, just as touchstones of my youth.
It has been a pleasure to host such a talented writer as Alan Heathcock i hope you enjoyed it and take on his good advice. Take care and Thanks for reading.
Alan interviewed on The Writers Block (July 29th, 2010)
“Three Books to Take to a Fist Fight” on NPR’s All Things Considered