Tim Parrish works at Southern Connecticut State University in the MFA program, helping turn regular folks into writers. He’s published books before–but never two in the space of just a few months. But both his novel and his memoir came out at the end of last year–and both are amazing.
As the reviewer Eric Miles Williamson, judge of the 2012 George Garrett fiction contest, put it: “Mr. Parrish’s The Jumper is a novel so shockingly good that readers will abandon their favorite authors and rush to read all his work.” Clearly, he’s come a long way from his first effort in second grade, “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.”
Want to hear him speak? Here are some upcoming events:
* Thursday, March 6th, 7:30, Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, with Sari Botton.
* Wednesday, April 23rd, 7:30, University of New Haven.
You can visit him at http://www.tparrishauthor.com.
We are so lucky to have him in New Haven, and to welcome him to Books New Haven, talking about BOTH of his books.
Tell us about your new book.
Amazingly, I have two new books out, which is what can happen after a 13-year drought between books; shopping a novel through a not-so-competent agent; taking that novel out of circulation; working seven years on a memoir; finishing the memoir; getting it accepted; submitting the novel to a contest and winning that contest so that the books come out at virtually the same time. Which, of course, isn’t about the books so much as the labyrinth of the publishing world.
The book that’s getting the lion’s share of attention is the memoir, although I like my novel too, and I don’t always say that about my writing. The memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, is about my upbringing in a racist, Southern Baptist environment during the sixties, then getting terrorized by some sociopaths in the seventies, spiraling into racist violence myself, and getting turned around after some really good people, both black and white, intervened. It’s also a slice of new South, alternative history, depicting, rather than reviling, scared working-class white people during desegregation at a time when their narrow world felt threatened. I think only by really looking at the roots of racism and looking at racists as the complex people they are, and I was, can we fully understand it. At its heart, the book is really a rough coming-of-age story in the midst lots of confusion, turmoil and ugly behavior.
The novel, The Jumper, attempts to combine a lot of genres by being a story of strange family drama, eccentric love, racial identity, crime, and legal intrigue. It starts with an illiterate man, who thinks he’s an orphan, getting a telegram that his roommate has to read to him. The telegram is from his father, who asks him to come to Baton Rouge from Houston because he’s sick. It turns out that the father has ulterior motives connected to a class-action suit and the father’s problems with gambling. Then, once in Baton Rouge, the main character, Jimmy Strawhorn, meets a woman on the existential run herself, and they become involved in an odd romance that includes the impulse to jump from high places. And believe it or not, all that doesn’t give away too much.
How did you first know that you wanted to write these stories? What were the factors that engaged you from the beginning?
The novel came out of my experience teaching a thirty-something-year-old man how to read back in the eighties, and the story he told me about why he was illiterate and how the state of Louisiana had done him wrong. I won’t tell his entire story, some of which informs my novel and would give away the plot, but his story stayed with me. I think my first impulse was to investigate a rather remarkable tale of mysterious lineage, but then I became fascinated with imagining myself into the psyche and world of a person who can’t read at all and seeing how that person navigates the material world and his own shame and sense of outsiderness. The story kind of took off and quickly complicated and I found myself writing a book with a lot of plot, three different point-of-view characters on the margins of society, and story lines from three different decades. I never expected to write sort of a rip-roarer.
The memoir is the only book I’ve ever felt absolutely compelled to write. It started after 9-11 when I saw Americans get scared and allow the bullies and “crusaders” in the Bush administration to lead us to war in Iraq, which in my childhood church was Babylon, a hotbed of “Moslem paganism” and the potential starting point for the much-sought-after apocalypse. What seemed to be driving the nation was the same beliefs I had as a kid and teenager, in particular the belief that the way to be safe was to attack someone else, usually someone with darker skin. As soon as I realized the similarities between my youth and the present, old emotions–shame, guilt, disgust, anger–began percolating in me, and I knew I had to tell my story for myself if for nobody else.
How did you find writing memoir to be different from writing fiction? How was it similar?
Different because of having to dredge so many personal emotions and shape seventeen years of my life into a narrative while feeling constricted by not being able to go into other people’s points-of-view or create any scene I wanted. Similar because I still mainly dramatized as I do when writing fiction and because even in memoir I was creating characters, including myself.
Did these books come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle them to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up?
There’s always wrestling. Nothing I write comes easily. I did give up on the novel for a while as I mentioned before, but it kept nagging at me and a couple of good friends also kept encouraging me to take another look at it. My greatest assets as a writer are my work ethic and my doggedness, a.k.a. obsessiveness, and that’s why I ultimately did not give up. I worked on the novel for three years, put it away, then hugely revised it three times in a year as I was working through the final revisions of the memoir. By the way, I don’t recommend working full out on two books while having a full-time job, but I’m glad I did it because that intensity very much informs the novel.
The memoir was, frankly, hell to write. It started with a focus on masculinity and was kind of all over the place. I went through three different rounds of submitting it to friends, agents, and editors with massive re-conceptions of the book between each round. I think the nature of the subject matter scared off some people, and I was very frustrated and depressed when I was going into the sixth year of working on it without an agent or a publisher. But I knew I had to stick with it, and I’m glad I did because the responses to the book have been amazingly personal and positive.
Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?
A pantser? Nice. That sounds like I just gave somebody a wedgie.
I guess I’m somewhere in between pantser and, what, formal dresser? My characters always tell me who they are, at least to a point, while I’m writing, and the story has to bend to fit them. But often I’ve largely imagined them and the story enough beforehand, as well as taken enough notes, to have some sort of template or schematic. So, it’s a combination of knowing and discovering and then applying craft to give the narrative a shape that suits both story and character.
You’ve obviously written characters who are close to or are someone you know, so have you worried that that person will be furious with you?
All the time. And someone has not only been furious but threatened me with a lawsuit for my story “Exterminator” in my collection Red Stick Men. That was the most extreme, but writing a memoir made me struggle constantly with what to put in and what to leave out and how I could be fair and honest in depicting real people or composites of real people and still honestly tell the whole story. I think I do the best I can to be fair to people, even completely fictional people, following what my thesis director, Allen Wier, told me: “You have to love all your characters, especially the ones you hate.”
Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?
I don’t procrastinate so much as worry and amp up my anxiety until I’m out of sorts and just have to sit down and hack away. I don’t know about favorite mode, but my prevalent mode of both procrastination and life is obsessing. I’m obsessing about these answers right now.
What about being a writer has made you truly happy?
So many things. I’m lucky to be a writer, in spite of the difficulties writers face. Mainly, what’s made me happy is being able to live in my imagination and take on the challenge of bringing the world in my head to life on the page. And, of course, having readers. People have said remarkable things to me, including how my work has altered how they see themselves and their lives. I mean, I’ve been told that the memoir has made someone understand their father’s and brother’s anger, have heard family and racial stories people have never told anyone before, and been literally embraced by people who feel my story has allowed them some sort of freedom and honesty to speak about race and masculinity.
I never imagined I would do anything that could have that effect.
What do you tell people who want to be writers?
I tell them they either are or they aren’t, and if they are, they have to commit to the hard work and isolation of it. I also tell them that being a writer is sort of like having a virus. If you have it, you can’t not write. And if you try not to write, you feel worse and worse, like you didn’t take your medicine. Sometimes people ask me how they can tell if they’re writers or not, and I tell them to list everything they could be doing besides writing–making love, reading a book, going for a run–and then see if the choice they would make is to sit alone and write something down, then sit down with that same work again and again. That cuts the mustard right there.
How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?
Inspiration is a tricky word because it implies some dynamic creative impulse, when I find that to rarely be the case. For me, I just get to a point where I have to write or I’m miserable in the world. The way I get back into something if I’ve been away for a while is to immerse myself in it as much as I can within the demands of life. When I do that, all the elements of a piece start to come back. I’m sure part of the reason for that is because I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s almost like muscle memory, but that’s the pay-off for the work. Basically, it’s always the work that addresses the problems.
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?
I’d be a school teacher, like I am at Southern Connecticut State, and like I have been for thirty years. That or a bobsled driver.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I think I knew in high school when an English teacher named Fred Shirley turned me on to the possibilities of writing and to the transport of reading literature. That said, my first written story was in second grade. “Trouble for Timothy Turkey.” It was a pretty high-falutin deconstruction of the feel-good myth of the first Thanksgiving. All my friends and I were animals that the pilgrims and native Americans wanted to put in their stomachs. My best friends made it out; the not-so-best, well, CHOMP!