One of the more striking aspects of Polar
is the way its loquacious narrator indulges his
storyteller's knack for letting meandering, shaggy-dog
stories carry his main storyline along. It's almost
as if you've inverted the main plot and the subplots,
in terms of their presence on the page. Were you
ever worried that your unusual approach might not
work—that, in essence, your reader might feel
as though he had gotten lost in the labyrinth of
forking subplots? Or did you always have faith in
the novel's pitch-perfect depiction of a spoken
If I'm employing a
first-person narrator, as is the case in Polar,
I feel I have an obligation to make that narrator
as human as possible—equipped with both virtues
and frailties. Like people, my narrators have a
difficult time getting to the point, which can be
exasperating. When I edit a manuscript, I try to
keep the exasperation to a minimum, but I never
attempt to do away with it entirely. If the narrator's
voice is untrue, the plot is essentially pointless,
as far as I'm concerned.
How hard do you have to work to get a narrator's
voice down? Polar's narrative voice seems
to flow effortlessly without any false notes, but
I would think it makes the writing process akin
to composing music.
I write almost exclusively with my ear. I know when
the voice sounds persuasive to me and genuine, but
I can't truly say how I know.
Polar is also
full of wonderfully drawn characters whose backstories
vie aggressively with the main plot for the reader's
attention. Which usually comes first for you—plot
Characters tend to
come fully to mind from the inception of a book,
but I start a novel with only a vague sense of where
the story is going. The fun for me is in finding
out what happens.
You've worked with
recurring characters in your earlier novels, and
Ray Tatum, who investigates the missing girl case
at the heart of Polar, is a comfortable,
likeable character who seems destined to appear
in another novel, no matter where it's set. What
are the benefits and drawbacks of working with recurring
characters? And would you indeed work with Ray Tatum
The chief drawback is the temptation for my publisher
to identify the Ray Tatum books as a series. I've
taken great pains to insure that the Ray Tatum novels—Cry
Me A River, Blue Ridge and Polar—can
stand entirely alone. I would hope a reader who
tackles all three would find the ties among them
enriching, but they can be read singly as well without
much sacrifice. As to the benefits, I certainly
know Ray Tatum as well as I know any actual person,
if not slightly better. And I like him without qualification,
so I suspect I'll spend at least one more novel
at least in part, with family, loneliness and the
need for love, among other things. Are those among
the abiding themes you most like to explore in fiction?
They're offshoots of the characters, most particularly
Ray's character. He's a vagabond, lonely by nature,
and his melancholy infuses Polar.
Are those themes distinctly
Where do you think
Southern literature stands today? Is the Southern
voice in good shape?
The Southern voice is in fine shape. I doubt we'll ever
see a shortage of Southern fiction. We are a gabby
Finally, two related
questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected'
writer—someone they think has been unfairly
ignored by the general reading public. Do you have
one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated
writer working today?
I do. W.T. Tyler. I am particularly fond of a novel
of his entitled Rogue's March which is positively
brilliant. If the world were a fair place, Tyler
would be renowned throughout it.