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From the Mississippi Delta to the central San Joaquin Valley and far beyond, readers turn and return to the spaces created in Steve Yarbrough's novels and stories. People often want to see what he's not going to tell them.
Yarbrough is the author of four novels and three collections of short stories. His latest, The End of California, was a Book of the Month Club selection. Before that, Prisoners of War was a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. The Mississippi native is the James and Coke Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing at Fresno State.
The End of California follows the fictional Barrington family--Pete, wife Angela, and daughter Toni--from Fresno back to Pete's hometown of Loring, Miss.
Pete, the town's former football star, hopes to escape a scandal in Fresno and avoid one he left in Loring almost 30 years before. Angela seeks comfort in Pete's best friend, Tim; Toni seeks comfort in the son of Pete's worst enemy, Alan. And the story is told from multiple points of view, including that of Frank, the police chief who becomes an important link among the characters.
Yarbrough--who will appear Thursday, Oct. 26, at the final Respite By The River reading of the season--talked with community journalist Kristin FitzPatrick about his books, his teaching, and what it means to be a Southern writer.
James and Coke Hallowell are among the sponsors of Respite By The River. How did your relationship with them lead you to read for the series?
Pretty much anything [the Hallowells] ask me to do I'm going to do, because they're great supporters of local arts. Not just literature, but all the arts--music, visual arts. They have done a lot, I think, more than anybody else. At least, anybody else I know.
You're from the Delta town of Indianola, Miss., and many of your books are based in the fictional town of Loring. You recently were named to serve on the advisory board for Indianola's B.B. King Museum. And this past summer, you visited the South for a book tour. How do people there receive your work, since you've lived in California for nearly two decades?
Because my first three books were short story collections, it's the nature of the beast that you're not going to get a lot of attention for those. ... [But] I always got signings in Mississippi and a number of people would come out. It really changed when my first novel [Oxygen Man in 2000] came out because it made a splash. I started getting bigger crowds, more attention. I don't think [anyone] would say, "you know, he's not really a Mississippi writer."
I live in Fresno and part of the time in Europe, and I think that when the first novel came out it really touched [audiences]. People would come up to me and say, "My gosh, you write like you've never left Mississippi." Once a Southerner, you're always a Southerner.
Why is Mississippi so accepting of its native writers, then?
Mississippi has got to be the best place in the world for a writer, if you ask me. It's where being a writer really matters more than just about anywhere else.
If you look at the history of the South, the legacy of defeat, they're separatists being a part of the rest of America. Because of the Civil War and what the rest of the country saw about us during the civil rights movement, Southern writers were partly out to explain themselves and the part of the country that they came from. And because a number of them did that very well, I think that in a place like Mississippi that didn't have a lot to be proud of when I was growing up, one thing they had to be proud of was the legacy of Southern fiction.
Arguably--though I don't think there's much of an argument about it--Mississippi produced the greatest American novel, [William Faulkner's] As I Lay Dying. If you lined up 100 critics from around the world and asked them who's the greatest writer, Faulkner is the answer you're going to get more than anybody else.
Mississippi also produced Eudora Welty and Richard Wright. Some people forget Richard Wright's a Mississippian; they only call him an African American writer, but he was very much a Mississippian. Richard Ford is a writer who really hasn't lived in the South for I don't know how long, but if you ask Ford where he's from, you don't have to ask him. You can hear it when he opens his mouth. You can hear it in his cadences when he tells a story.
That's why I say Mississippi is a great place to be a writer. You really matter. There's a sense that literature matters.
A Washington Post review of the book said it "limits itself to life more or less as we know it--which of course is no limitation at all." How much distance do you feel obligated to maintain between the Delta life you've experienced or observed and that which you create on the page?
I don't feel any obligation in the sense of depicting reality so that it matches up tit for tat with the reality in my hometown. On the other hand, I would find it very difficult to write anything set in the Mississippi Delta set in 2006 that didn't deal with race because it's on everybody's mind all the time. It's the subtext of every conversation, at least the subtext. Sometimes it's the main subject.
One of the few reviews I've ever gotten that taught me something was when my first book came out, a collection of stories called Family Men. One of the people who reviewed it--I can't remember his name ... or where the review was published--had actually been to my hometown when he was doing some work as a sociologist. Toward the end of the review, he said: "The only criticism I would make with this book is that with the exception of one out of the eleven stories, you would never know this town is a town in which racial conflict is on everybody's mind all the time. Hopefully in future books, he'll have the capability to deal with it."
The second I saw that review I thought, well, I know why I've stayed away from it. I stayed away from it because of my fear that it will overwhelm the fiction, that the storytelling will become overtly political to the point that my characters will disappear. It was a pretty big step for me to start writing a little bit more honestly about what is on everybody's mind all the time, so I wouldn't want to be guilty of writing a book that slipped it under the carpet anymore.
The End of California, like some of your previous work, includes frequent shifts in point of view. The novel is told through the eyes of several characters, sometimes switching more than once on a single page. How extensively do you plan those types of structural moves before writing a manuscript?
The approach to point of view that gets pushed in an MFA program more often than not is basically a kind of [main character's point of view] as the center of consciousness. I encourage students not to play around with point of view until they really know they've got it under control.
When I started writing fiction, I was pretty severe with myself about not changing point of view. Maybe because I read a lot of suspense novels when I was a kid before I discovered literary fiction, and because that shifting third person is really a staple of suspense fiction, it facilitates the creation of a suspenseful plot. You follow up one plot line for 30 pages, leave the reader hanging off a cliff, shift point of view, and you still have them hanging for the next 30 pages while you develop another storyline.
And then, in a very different sense, you can think about modernist fiction, a writer like Faulkner and As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom, where we keep going over the same material from different vantage points. I don't think there's anything that radical about what I do with point of view. I just think that most writers of literary fiction, in this country today, have been through an MFA program. More often than not, they tend to approach point of view in a severe manner. That's fine, if it works. But I don't think they need to feel limited to it.
I noticed a significant shift in the book once the perspective of Frank, the police detective, came in. His is the only African American point of view. You mentioned race as the subtext of everything; suddenly things changed when Frank entered. How did you plan that, and what was its function?
I read a novel when I was a student that really, really impressed me because it completely shattered my notions about point of view and narrative structure. It was by the Montana writer Ivan Doig ... an early novel of his called The Sea Runners.
The book is about a group of convicts in the archipelago off the coast of Alaska at the end of the 19th century. They escape from the prison and start down the coast. It's got a consistent, single third-person point of view. The main character, exactly halfway through the book, gets killed. It's completely shocking and shattering. It had never occurred to me that that could happen. Then you read his book. A whole different approach to point of view is taken in the second half of the novel.
Was that echoing in the back of my mind? I didn't think of it until I finished the book, but it may have had something to do with how I planned the novel because I've always been fascinated by the notion of shifting gears in the middle of a book.
Toni, the daughter of the main character in The End of California, lives in Fresno until high school, when her family moves to Mississippi. How is Toni like or unlike your two real-life daughters?
Independently of one another, they arrived at the same answer to that question, and that is: "Well, when she's good she's like me; when she's bad she's like my sister." She certainly doesn't take [after my daughters exactly], who are not at all alike. My older daughter is a very good pianist, so she has that in common with Toni. My younger one is an enormously talented writer who doesn't really want to be a writer. She's a good storyteller.
The Barrington family's journey out of California reverses the familiar theme of westward settlement and the promise of a better life in California. As a teenager, Pete left Loring for Fresno because it was the farthest away he could get. Almost 30 years later, his daughter Toni leaves California at roughly the same age, but going in the opposite direction. By the end of the novel, she calls Mississippi home. What inspired you to chart this course for the characters?
I guess that I see some irony because she comes to call it home, but I think Pete's main reason for staying there in the end, if he does, is that for whatever reason, [Toni] has come to feel like that's her place. I think it's her place because she's fallen in love with this boy that she loses at the end, so as to whether or not that means that they're going to stay there for good, I don't know.
I think they probably do. It's when he realizes maybe she does even more so, there's no point in running. So yes, it's his journey in reverse.
If you think of what California has always meant to Americans, it has been the promised land. It's where you went when things didn't work for you where you were, and so I think the novel tries to explore the question: Well, OK, what if you go where things are supposed to work and they don't work there either? Where do you go? Back where you came from.
School kids in Mississippi know Toni by the nickname "California." Both she and her mother Angela suggest to people in Loring that Fresno does not necessarily fit the "California" label. What do Angela and Toni, as Fresno natives who leave the San Joaquin Valley, represent to Pete and to readers?
I did see some irony in a passage when [Pete's childhood friend] Tim is talking about how he and Pete used to think about California when they were growing up. Well, they didn't think about Fresno. That's not what you think about. ... You think about this broad sandy beach, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and you know enough about L.A. to know that Hollywood is Hollywood, so you think about that. But you don't think about Fresno.
One of the ironies for me is that this region is every bit as conservative as the one that I come from. In fact, if you look at the United States on an electoral map, where there are blue regions and red regions, Mississippi is a red state and California is a blue state. But Fresno--if you look at it on one of those maps where things are broken up county by county--is red, and my hometown is blue. My hometown is blue because it's 65 percent African American and they almost all vote for Democrats. So I like to [include] those two things in the book as well.
The conversation between Angela and Alan, where he pretty much [suggests] that California is a kind of monolithic, crazy place, a place where nobody has any morals, she tells him, well, you know, where I'm from, religious fundamentalism is alive and well and thriving. I think there are different ways to show people that California is not monolithic. You've got just as many different viewpoints here as you have anywhere else.
A key conversation along those lines is the one that took place between Toni and Tim's daughter, Susan. That's where she says something that Toni disagrees with but I think there's an element of truth in it. That is, that for a lot of people growing up in a place like Mississippi, they're acutely aware of how people think of California and New York and what we think of as the blue states, and a lot of them feel like their attitudes and things that matter to them are ridiculed or looked down on and that they're being ignored. I think there's an element of truth in that.
Toward the end, when Alan has more moral conflict, he goes to see the pastor more often and his thoughts tend toward Scripture. Is that where you were trying to illustrate this type of person?
Yes. I was trying to show a person who thinks of himself, by nature, as not a generous person, which is another way of saying his nature is corrupt. After all, that's what Christians believe. It's another way of saying that he believes the doctrine. He probably also believes that if he can't turn over his own natural impulse to a higher power to help him do the right thing rather than the wrong thing his impulse tells him to do, he's finished.
What does the young pastor signify?
He signifies a person who organized religion is pushing toward the far edge. He's a man who doesn't believe in easy answers and yet he's trying to exist in a religious environment that wants to serve up easy answers. Eventually, he can't make it. There are a lot of ministers like him. I was raised as a Southern Baptist and several of the most interesting ministers that I knew before I stopped going to church were all folks who ended up out of the church for various reasons.
Reviews of The End of California celebrate a long-awaited return to Loring. How do you create your characters? Is there a large population in Loring still waiting to come to life in future novels?
In the novel I'm writing now, some of the characters are from Loring and part of the novel occurs in the town. But part of the novel is set in Poland and parts of it are set all over the United States. Any adjective that gets put in front of the word writer becomes limiting. Southern writer can become limiting. I've felt very free about writing about Eastern Europe. I've done a good bit of it in nonfiction, but some in fiction as well. I feel perfectly at home writing a piece of fiction set in Poland.
Now, as to how this plays into marketing plans that publishers and agents have, that's an altogether different story. I know that if I called my agent up and told him, "I think I'm going to write a novel and set in, I don't know, Moscow," I don't think he'd be real happy. But if I persisted, he wouldn't tell me not to do it. I think he'd throw his hands up and say, "A boy's got to be a boy."
Does your process change when you change the setting and the characters?
I don't want it to. I just finished writing the first full section of this new novel. It's a novel that, at least as I've conceived it, is going to be from two points of view. It's a music novel, to some extent. They're a pair of brothers that are bluegrass musicians from the Mississippi Delta and one of the brothers is the point of view character. So I wrote those sections, the opening sections, from his point of view and then I switched to the point of view of a Polish woman living in Poland in 1976 before immigrating to the United States.
I remember telling my wife, "The appositive is anathema to the way I need to write this section. When you read my work, if you see me doing too much of that, you've got to call it to my attention." Because in the appositive, you usually explain the subject of the sentence.
One character at one point is talking about another character who says, "I hear he's in trouble for advising the committee." Any Polish person would know that the committee he's referring to is KOR, which stood for the worker's self-defense unit [and was] the precursor for the Solidarity movement that erupted in 1990. The temptation is to explain that for the American reader. I can't do that.
I'm only at home with the point of view in which the reader knows what the character knows. And the reader knows it in the way the characters knows, so it's important to make clear what the committee is; it's got to be done in context.
... The more oblique the narrative is--the less that's explained for a reader--I think readers are going to follow. A novelist friend once said to me, and he meant it as both praise and a note of caution, "You've got to be a really good reader to read your books because so much is left out." And that's just the way I write.
I love music in which a lot is left out. My favorite musician, probably ever, is the pianist Bill Evans. Evans is about silence as much as he is the notes that he plays.
In a lot of sections of your work, the ending comes very abruptly. Would this be analogous to that silence?
Possibly. I also think that in the way that I end chapters you could see that probably that I'm a more natural short story writer, because the short story ends very often on an image or on a line that can be read in a multiplicity of ways. You can see probably that this is a writer who has read a little bit of suspense fiction because that's always the way suspense writers end novel chapters, on a note that sends you into the next chapter. I think the most powerful thing in fiction is a big white space.
Steve Yarbrough's reading is Thursday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at the River Center, 11605 Old Friant Road. Admission is free. For details, visit the KFSR website.