Interview with Driftwood Press (September 2016)

When did you write "The Grass Cutter"?
I wrote this about six years ago while I was doing my MFA in creative writing at Bluegrass Writers Studio.

Did you have a difficult time deciding the title of your work? Were there any other titles you were considering?
No, it seems natural. Mundane but very specific. Choppy and memorable.

What inspired "The Grass Cutter"? Are any of its themes inspired by your own life?
I used to cut my grandparents’ lawn in Alabama. They had an old riding mower. Between the lake and the garden there always developed this whale shape that I became fascinated with. It was always there. In regard to the theme of home health care, I used to be a nurse. A lot of my writing takes place in hospitals and nursing homes.

What was the hardest part of writing "The Grass Cutter"?
I suppose maintaining the fast pace. It got to point where I just had to stop and call it a day, otherwise it would have been too long. That was the temptation, to keep going. It could have stretched to novel length but at the time I was exclusively writing short fiction.

Which part of "The Grass Cutter" was conceived of first?
The character of Jimmy came first, Jimmy who mows him some grass.

What's your favorite sentence in this work? Why?
I have a few, most dealing with the physical such as “A thick wad of Ensure-streaked hock clung to his teeth and sprung back onto his chin.” My favorite line, though, is probably “A load of laundry spinning in the washroom behind the kitchen shook the floor and rattled pennies in the ashtray.” It captures the mundane with concrete imagery, which is so im-portant.

Our editors worked with you on this story to cut down on some of the storylines; we worried that the original draft was too ambitious for its own good. Could you share with the readers what was cut?
At some point I was trying to stretch back Jimmy’s life to ancestors in the 1600s. I cut those parts.

Do you primarily write fiction?
I exclusively write fiction. I just finished a six-book series based on my experiences as a nurse in Ethiopia. When I was younger, I wrote fiction, bad fiction, and then lapsed into poetry for about twenty years. One day, I woke up and said it was time to write fiction again.

What other mediums have influenced your work? How?
Well, sad to say, I think reality TV reinforces some of my tendencies toward the grotesque. I’m a sucker for “Hoarders” and “My Strange Addiction.”

Is there anything unique about your personal writing process?
Well, I primarily write outside sitting in a plastic chair while smoking cigars. It’s a habit I can’t break. I wrote my first novel in a chair that was broken. I had to push it against a deck post to keep from falling out.

Tell us about your revision process regarding this work.
I always read and reread my stories making changes here and there, adding, subtracting. I had fine help with the editing on this piece from the editors at Driftwood.

A story like this one succeeds in so far as the reader keeps up with the various threads you so seamlessly weave together. Were you ever concerned that you might lose or disorient readers by jumping (in time and perspective) so often and so quickly in the narrative?
Yes, that is a concern. I think the concrete details keep the reader on the ground.

Time is obviously a big theme here. Can you speak towards that? What is it that you were trying to capture about the nature of linear time?
I usually write out of sync. It seems that I write a scene and then go backwards most of the time. Sometimes I’ll then rearrange pieces to flow chronologically, but not with “The Grasscutter.” Time is a mysterious thing. I have a theory that all time is simultaneous, that everything that has ever happened has happened all at once.

This piece went through some pretty significant revisions before see-ing publication. What was removed and why? How does the piece, as published, benefit from these exclusions? What struggles or diffi-culties did you face in revision with our editors?
Revisions are golden. Having outside readers is invaluable, and I appre-ciate the help I received from Driftwood. I suppose the biggest challenge was with sensationalism versus the cold hard truth. I realize that readers can get turned off if a delicate subject is handled quickly, so I had to balance my approach. My stories can get pretty bawdy and need some reining in on occasion.

One editor remarked that your work felt "Southern." Without hearing their logic behind the label, would you agree or disagree? What makes, or doesn't make, one a "Southern" writer?
Oh, that’s tricky. I suppose there is a dialect in the manner that word choices are arranged here. I take a lot of that sound from my grandparents, who somewhat raised me. They were from a small town in rural Alabama, and I’ve spent many years in that area, listening to people tell stories, especially my grandfather, who is deceased. I sometimes refer to my stories as Southern suburban malaise.

Religion (or, one might say, "spirituality") makes several subtle but haunting appearances in the story. Is this a theme in all your writings?
I would have to say so. I was raised Sothern Baptist, hardcore, and was only freed after spending six months in Ethiopia during the famine back in 1986. That shook the nonsense from me but left a huge hole in my life, which I have been filling ever since. It’s a kind of haunting as you say.

How does the old cliche "Write what you know" relate to you, as a writer, and "The Grasscutter" as a story? Were there autobiographical elements here, or was it more of an exercise in fantasy?
Yes. My experiences as a nurse play heavily here with the caretaking of the protagonist.