No Easy Way Forward: A Conversation with JP Gritton




JP GRITTON’S DEBUT NOVEL, Wyoming, tells the story of Shelley Cooper, a violent and volatile man who’s just been fired from his job working construction and is enlisted by his brother to drive 50 pounds of dope from their home in Colorado to a drop site in Texas. Nothing goes according to plan, but Shelley doesn’t particularly care — perhaps he evens prefers it. He returns to the road and attempts to reckon with his own moral shortcomings, his love for his family (or lack thereof), and the impending confrontation over the money he’s failed to retrieve. The resultant drama unfurls with unfair horror and unforgivable suspense, forcing us to confront the limitations of escape in the West.

Gritton is an assistant professor of practice in the department of English at Duke University and the recipient of a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship, and the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. His translations of the work of Brazilian writer Cidinha da Silva have appeared in InTranslation.  

We spoke on the phone about Wyoming, the Western genre and its myths, John Williams, Good versus Evil, violence, lying, No Country for Old Men, construction work, and the structural requirements for writing an unlikable character.

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SEAN MCCOY: So how long have you been working on Wyoming?

JP GRITTON: It’s a strange thing. Right out of college, the job I fell into was construction work. To say that I came home and wrote would be kind of a lie — basically, I came home and tried to write. Usually I would fall asleep at my desk with my notebook in front of me just because I was so drained at the end of the day. What I did manage to do, though, over the course of that time, was to write the first few chapters of the book. But I wrote them in third person. Eventually it occurred to me that I should try writing the story in the main character’s voice. So literal years later I was looking through this notebook and I just started rewriting the opening chapters in the first person. I think I had a draft done in six months or so. I was 32 when I sold Wyoming to Tin House, and I would have been 22 that summer I started composing.

Did you find it difficult to tap into that first-person voice? Or was that what opened up the story for you?

What I found really easy — and I don’t know what this says about me — was to write from the perspective of an asshole. There was something so fun about having this brassy, Southern Missouri voice. (My dad’s family is all in Southern Missouri, and I think that’s part of the voice’s DNA.) So I combined a certain twang with being a total asshole, and that was a blast: to have a character who can turn to a hapless 12-year-old and say, “You better put those chips down or you’ll wind up as fat as your dad” — I mean, that’s evil, but the craziness freed me. Later on, the book got serious, but by then it had its own life.

Evil is an interesting part of Wyoming. For me, so much of the momentum and horror are generated through this barrage of seemingly unstoppable and, on some levels, unexplainable violence. The majority comes from the hands of Shelley. He’s totally tragic, never catches a break, perhaps doesn’t want a break. Over email, you and I talked about that John Williams essay in which Williams examines the lack of the literary Western. We were especially interested in his discussion of Good versus Evil, and it seems like Shelley embodies Good and Evil at the same time — he’s the good guy, but the asshole-ness is part of him too.

Yeah, it was great to read that essay and sense something in it that animated Wyoming. I hadn’t read it until you sent it to me. I grew up out west, in Colorado, and I think those Western myths that Williams identifies permeate you with your even knowing it. For me, Shelley was fun to write because he’s both the cowboy in the black hat and the cowboy in the white hat. He can be marshal and outlaw at the same time. I’ve been puzzled sometimes because in some of the responses to the book people have talked about Shelley getting redeemed, and I didn’t know that was the book I was writing. To me, there’s something bad just in his guts. But yeah, if it’s true that Wyoming is part of this narrative lineage that is obsessed with these struggles between Good and Evil, then Shelley as a protagonist collapses that distinction.

I agree. Williams was concerned with how the Western was too often subjected to a quasi-religious dichotomy of right and wrong that draws on the Calvinist tradition. To quote him: “What has been widely accepted as the ‘Western’ myth is really a habit of mind emerging from the geography and history of New England and applied uncritically to another place and time.” The result is a rigid and ahistorical story of the Hero and the Villain, like the marshal and outlaw, and they’re pretty black and white characters. For Shelley, I don’t think I saw redemption in his end, but he definitely subverts the progressive narrative that builds toward a shoot-out or some clean ending.

Right. It’s a struggle, as a writer, to avoid such a trap. I knew I didn’t want Wyoming to end in a blaze of fire. I knew that the book needed to resolve itself in a moment of capitulation: Shelley needed to accept that family may really be the only thing he has, even if his is totally imperfect. I had never thought about the book in these terms, but in some ways, it actually does build toward a shoot-out: Shelley shoots it out with his own conscience, which both does and doesn’t carry the day.

There were actually multiple scenes that felt like shoot-outs, but that weren’t shoot-outs at all in the traditional sense. You have all these stand-offs over who’s telling the truth — when Shelley’s confronting Clay about the lockbox, or when Starbuck’s confronting Shelley about the bowling ball, or when the motel clerk asks Shelley about his oil gig. The drama really escalates in these moments, and there’s a pattern to them: two men toeing off, on either side of the line of some lie. It’s an interesting twist on the shoot-out in that they’re not trying to kill each other, but rather avoiding telling the truth. Was this preoccupation with truth and lies something you had in the back of your mind the whole time?

There is a kind of verbal jousting in the work of somebody like Annie Proulx that for me is as gripping and entertaining as Marshal Blaisdell stalking down the street in Oakley Hall’s Warlock. In a lot of ways, such verbal combat is much more interesting to me because at the end of the day you know Blaisdell is the quickest draw in town. So I do think of those scenes you mention as a kind of combat. I often think about Hemingway’s “Francis Macomber,” where at the end of the story the guy gets his head blown off, but in some ways it’s the least violent thing that’s happened thus far. The character has been dogged and tortured and tormented, and when he dies it’s a sort of rescue. So for me, the ways that my characters interact with each other — especially around money — are full of drama.

What did you think of Warlock?

I’m actually still reading. I felt myself beginning to speed read for this interview, but because it’s such an interesting and awesome book I didn’t want to sprint through the rest. I’m floored. And I also think, as I’m reading, that it runs contrary to the books critiqued by Williams in that piece — like Guthrie’s The Big Sky and Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident — because Warlock’s battle between Good and Evil is really, really complicated. And it all revolves around money. Everybody’s for sale. It’s about being poor and getting screwed over. It’s about the way the system exists to protect the wealthy and powerful. It’s about morals getting compromised by the classic shoot-out: a ritual of violence completed as a matter of course. In some ways, I think I was on a very similar trip when I wrote Wyoming, which is also about money and what people are capable of doing when they don’t have enough of it.

I think you’re right. I think Warlock would fit the outline of a historical-mythical novel that Williams was hoping for. My favorite part of the book might be in the little prefatory note where Oakley Hall says that “by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.”

Absolutely. I’m thinking about the intro to the New York Review Books edition by Robert Stone, who reads Warlock through the lens of Vietnam. He writes brilliantly about the ways Americans have bought into this notion of regeneration through violence, and how that pervades not only the literature of the West but the American psyche, writ large. You see how the shoot-out, even when the Good guy wins, is also this weird victory for violence.

Speaking of myths and what is and isn’t “Western,” I’m curious what you think about genre fiction. Wyoming could be considered a crime novel, a road-trip novel, a Western novel, et cetera. Is genre important to you? Were there moments while writing when the choices you made were influenced by preconceived ideas of what is and is not “Western” or “Road-trip” or “Wyoming”? 

“Genre” has acted like a kind of guywire for my fiction. I love the road genre, and that’s sort of what Wyoming is: a road novel. It’s also, in a lot of ways, an updated Western. I think genres are useful in that they give us a platform on which to construct meaning as writers (is what I’m writing bullshit, or do I actually think it? I can’t tell). While working on the book, I often had this strange sensation that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then it dawned on me that I was almost rewriting parts of No Country for Old Men. Of course, that’s a very different book, but it’s a story interested in playing with the tropes of the West, which also says really complicated things about that Good-and-Evil struggle. It’s asking what happens when Llewelyn Moss doesn’t win that struggle. Anton Chigurh is sort of the bad cowboy, sure, but he’s a pervasive evil that seems to arise out of nowhere. He’s elemental. He’s part of the landscape. So for me, I was interested in how cowboy novels and novels about journeys could be used as a narrative blueprint to say something new. For me, genre, and the road narrative especially, was in the back of my mind. The heavily biblical hand of a film like Red River was also something I was interested in complicating, and I think Shelley goes there. He’s despicable, but I hope at the end of the day, in a strange way, he’s also likable.

I recently rewatched No Country, and there’s all sorts of great similarities with Wyoming — the handsaw in the motel room, the container full of cash, the car going up in flames, and, of course, the drive-by scene in the cab — but after watching that and then reading your book, I was struck by how part of Shelley is this elemental, unexplainably violent Anton Chigurh character, and another part of him is the family man, the gritty but empathetic Llewelyn Moss. It’s not clear if he’s bad or good, if we should root for him or not.

I think in some ways, that was exactly what I was trying to do with Shelley: write a combination of Moss and Chigurh. And I think every Western writer is to some extent writing in McCarthy’s shadow. There’s no way around it — you can’t help but be compelled by his work. Blood Meridian, for me, remains his best. That band of cowboys (and this is another journey narrative) doesn’t get up to much good. I don’t know that anyone ever redeems himself, in spite of evidence to the contrary. So those two books were subconsciously in my mind. How could you write about the West and not be thinking about them?

It’s telling, regarding this question of redemption, that Shelley attempts to reconnect with his son at his lowest point in the book. Shelley’s son happens to be named Sovereign and is being raised by a stepfather. There’s another line in the book where Shelley says, “When you name a thing, you’re just telling lies about it.” All of this adds up to a pretty pessimistic picture.

It’s odd, because I think I’m a fairly optimistic person. I wonder if there was some demon I was exorcising. But I tend to agree that Shelley has a pretty dark view of the world, and there’s no easy way forward for him.

Is Shelley somehow characteristic of the West? How do you reconcile the destructive, pessimistic, asshole character with the potential for goodness in people like him?

I don’t, or I can’t. I think writing this book had something to do with that inability.

Let’s talk about structure a little bit. The ending of Wyoming is fantastic. The increased toggling between different times and places (which occurs more gradually in the rest of the book) offers these rapid juxtapositions that really helped tie the novel together. Structurally, how did the ending come about? Did you always know you’d be flipping between scenes like this?

Shelley walks a very fine line between despicable and likable. And that’s a challenge because you don’t want to alienate somebody from finishing his story. When you have a character doing something pretty awful, and then going to have a father-son day in the Kansas City zoo, it’s hard for a reader to swallow. It’s also hard to make that psychology credible. As readers, we get to be judge, jury, executioner, and shrink. And I don’t think most people would like Shelley after what he did at the Seaside. I knew that the chapters worked in discrete chunks, but I couldn’t have the scenes follow chronologically. It was a lot of fiddling. The two chapters in the hotel used to be one long chapter, and I knew that wasn’t working. I also knew the transitions had to be recurring, that they had to haunt the story in the same way that memory haunts and eventually overwhelms us. At the end of the story, I think Shelley’s pretty overwhelmed.

And that overwhelmed sensation is mirrored in the quicker flipping back and forth between different scenes and times.

Exactly. So the structure is partly to sell the plot — to make sure what takes place on the page is in a certain believable order — and it’s also about reflecting the psychology of a man who’s gotten away with this horrible thing.

There’s an emptiness, that scene which has been buried, and you know he went back and got the money, but you don’t see how until the very end.

Yeah, I struggled a lot with making the sequencing credible, and making Shelley’s action credible.

And that’s the Anton Chigurh side of Shelley rearing its head.

Right, and I mean, we talked about how Chigurh rises out of the landscape. And the fact is that some people’s jobs do weird shit to them. I think that’s the case: maybe this is because of the Warlock kick I’m on, but the stuff you have to do for money changes the way you think.

So what made you try writing instead of construction?

I should explain that construction was the first in a series of odd jobs I worked after graduating from college with a bachelor’s in English. There were a lot of things pulling me elsewhere, not just the fact I was making 12 an hour and didn’t have health insurance. At the end of the day, there’s just this physical exhaustion after doing those gigs where I found it really hard to write. I always knew in the back of my mind that what I wanted to do was write books and read books and talk about books. So for me, the only way forward was to try to get a novel out there. And even though I was pretty financially uncomfortable for a long time, I went back to school. There’s still a piece of me that misses being outside all day, but I remember that exhaustion, and how crippling I found it to my creative process. It’s true that I found the beginning of Wyoming in these old notebooks, but what I’d actually written back then has a very loose relationship to Wyoming as it stands now. I think there was maybe an air compressor that went missing, but I don’t know if a plot coalesced around it.

What’s the next project, if you don’t mind me asking?

I always thought of Wyoming as Western-noir. The next one is pretty much a pot-boiler — a “literary mystery,” I’ll call it with a cringe. Like Wyoming, it’s a book that jumps around in the Lower Plains states a bit, but most of the action takes place in Crockett, which is South Central Missouri. It occurs a few years after the Shelley story. It’s about a young kid wrapped up in meth production who, at the beginning of the book, gets murdered. The Cooper family from Wyoming is also part of the story, because by the year 2000, Clay and Aileen and Erin have drifted back to Crockett. I’d call it Ozark noir. And then there’s one more book in what I think of as a trilogy that has to do with the Coopers, and which is set back in Colorado.

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Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona. He edits Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands.

 

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