AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BALLAM
AUTHOR OF A NOVEL THE MARY HOUSE
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
I am probably the most avid reader you will ever encounter. Long books and short ones, over the course of a year I read on average one new book every 36 hours. The longest thing I’ve ever read is the Mahabharata, which is apparently about the same size as the complete works of Shakespeare six times over. That one ruined my average for a while. I also love music and have a particular fondness for jazz, Baroque and Early Music; but also folk, bluegrass, early country western, pop 50s-70s… I’m a pescatarian who loves to cook. I’ve never enjoyed sports and can’t swim at all. For exercise, I like hiking – up to 20 miles is a good day’s work. I studied Latin fervently and have now forgotten almost all of it. My spoken Italian produces some blank looks and indulgent smiles, but generally speaking, accomplishes its aims.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
Yes. When I was fifteen I wrote a scathing satirical poem about my Algebra teacher. Friends got hold of it and I was made to read it out in class. From there I went on to replace the lyrics of all the songs I’d ever heard. After that I wrote something like 300+ sonnets to all the girls I successively had crushes on. Probably 300 each, in fact.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
The most recent thing I’ve done is a novel called The Mary House. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, where storytelling is as much a part of living as eating and drinking. There are, I think, quite a lot of books set in Appalachia nowadays, but the characters in these books are seldom people I’d recognize and their stories seem to follow certain predictable patterns. For me, the people I knew there were more like people everywhere else – a little lazy, a little selfish, a little lusty etc, but fundamentally decent, hard-working, generous folks, with a good sense of humour, confused by the world and their own feelings about it. For me, what is different about the Appalachian experience is the abiding sense of personal isolation: from oneself, from friends and family, from community and from the world beyond the hills. This is what I wanted to capture – mostly ordinary people of different races, genders and economic strata whose experiences across three centuries are marked by a culture of deep alienation.
How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
No one ever really knows where the beginning of an idea is. For me, once this one became irresistible, I was sure there were things I didn’t know and wanted to. I spent a year in researching the details for the project – folklore, forgotten historical facts. I read thousands of pages of indigenous American and African-American narratives trying to gain insights, perspectives and information that had fallen out of the mainstream. I then spent another year in making very systematic plans of how the whole thing would work, what would go where, how it would knit together. Once those notes were all in order I got down to it and wrote the first draft in about nine months. As an experienced writer, and as a teacher of writing, I know that it is too easy to get bogged down, creatively frozen or self-indulgent on a manuscript of this size, and my way out of this was never to have a daily minimum of ‘words to write’, time to spend writing or similar, but instead, to have a maximum of 1000 words a day. When it all is going well – and all the planning upped my odds on this, as I never had to sit and think ‘What shall I write today?’ – 1000 words is not hard to do. The hard part is stopping there regardless of where the axe falls, and the hunger to just do ‘the next bit’ will keep it growing in the mind until the next irresistible session at the desk.
Do you have any unusual writing habits?
See above. As Hemingway reputedly said, ‘Write drunk but edit sober.’ I don’t write drunk, but I do frequently write while listening to indigenous American instrumental music, as it is so profoundly uplifting. As for editing, any piece that has not by its last sentence moved me in some way – ideally to actual tears or actual laughter – feels second-rate somehow.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I tried singing – until everyone who loves me offered me the same advice… My only other real artistic talent is to be a super-enthusiastic audience-member for anyone else’s art: theatre, literature, painting, sculpture, dance…
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Everybody. For this book, my most earnest thanks would be to Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Lorrie Moore and Ron Rash. All of these writers share with Tolstoy a heart that is open to everyone, no matter how wise or how foolish.
What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
Two things are ruining my sleep. One is a novel about four homeless boys in Appalachia during the Great Depression. The other is a collection of stories about more ordinary folks who can still laugh a little, in spite of the pain, in spite of the bewilderment.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
To borrow a thought from Oscar Wilde, people enjoy literature in which they absolutely see themselves, or in which they absolutely don’t see themselves. I’ve always tried to write about people getting by – trying to make their ideas work, trying somehow to gain a little security, a little joy, a little relief. Most people can identify with that, so they are likely to see themselves here – their moods and regrets and fantasies are all displayed. For others, this novel (and the stories inside it) will be a world away from anything they are likely ever to have known. I have done my best to write with as much authenticity as I can muster. The result is a portrayal of lives that can seem very curious indeed – plausible, and yet remote.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
My day job is giving advice to new writers and authors. The main thing is: Love Your Work. If it is not giving you joy (and in art, there can be a kind of joy in the representation of suffering, if the result is to show that that suffering has not been ignored or denied or experienced alone) then do something else. If you love your work, doing it will always be satisfying. Never envy others. They have their stories to tell and the voice for that will be their own. If you try to borrow it, you will ruin your story and your pleasure in that story. Write honestly and give it to others to read honestly. That will be the truth that will connect you.
What is the best advice you have ever heard?
It’s a paraphrase of Stephen King, I think: ‘Never stop at a good stopping point.’ That’s advice for life as well as writing.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
See above. At this particular time I am reading a lot of 20th-21st-century Russian and continental European writing in translations. Though I can get excited about anything from speculative fiction to post-structuralism, romance to horror, my favourite genre remains Realism – typical people who, when scrutinized show what an extraordinary thing Life is.
What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
The thing that makes this book different is its stance on ‘culture’. We talk a lot nowadays about ‘cultural appropriation’ and its relationship to various injustices. This is a discussion that needs to occur and which will continue to develop. What I’ve tried to do here – and I am aware that this may be courting controversy – is to represent a single geographical area across a period of time in which cultural verisimilitude is readily apparent, yet which when explored from contrasting perspectives, reveals that at a significant (or ‘meta-‘) level it is a community populated by folks contributing to a single culture. Different races, different economic groups, different eras and social practices do not stand apart from one another, but instead, in a complex way, influence one another, making each one even in reaction a part of its neighbours’. The violent, the victimized, the glorified and the ignored cannot really be understood if they are not seen in their vital juxtapositions. The many points of view taken in this novel are an attempt by one author to allow competing voices to speak for themselves – sometimes in chorus, sometimes in contradiction. To me, taking only one of these viewpoints would be implicitly to discredit any other.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
The ‘problem’ most of us have in making any sort of choices is not in finding what we want, but in actually knowing what it is we want. The advent of digital technology in publishing has created opportunities for writers to reach audiences on a scale never seen before. Yet it has also created so many such opportunities that readers can feel a little overwhelmed. It is as if the main shopping street in your town suddenly has 100 new bookshops on it – some specialist, some with entrances you cannot locate. Nowadays, readers need more savvy than ever before to locate the authors they’ll enjoy. The same is true for writers. It used to be that writers only had to understand readers (ie most publishers did the same things). Now, writers have to understand the challenges that publishers face, and ask themselves how they can form a real partnership that allows for genuinely shared ideals about books to communicate to the readers eager to hear about good books. It’s an exciting time, in my view, and really professional writers will embrace it.
What is your opinion about your publisher – Adelaide Books?
I’m thrilled to be a contributor to Adelaide’s portfolio of new works. Everything about the company shows expertise and promise. Readers can be thankful that Adelaide is working for them.
Thank you and good luck with your future endeavors.