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20. Mud

DIRECTOR: Jeff Nichols

CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon

RELEASE DATE: TBD

Take Shelter writer/director Jeff Nichols continues his string of ominous Southern parables, and McConaughey continues his string of challenging and interesting work, with the story of two young boys who befriend a fugitive.

 

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in a little log cabin in Kentucky in 1822.

You’re often described as “unknown,” “someone you’ve probably never heard of,” and “obscure.”

As long as I’m “often described.”

You’ve published four books with Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon.

Yes, two true-story collections and two novels. Things I Like About America was my first and most popular non-fiction work. It addresses among many other things, losing my virginity with a psychopath, wrestling on a porch in the rain with a junkie, battling crack addiction, and finding a friend of mine in Mexico who’s been dead two days. God Clobbers Us All was my second book with Hawthorne: it’s a death, surfing and LSD novel. Then came Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, a tropical island love triangle with obeah damnation and a sexy but sometimes headless jumbie. My last book was 501 Minutes to Christ, where I hop a freight train to France, try to kick meth, and talk about what it was like to lose a multiple book contract with Houghton Mifflin, though I never actually use the words Houghton or Mifflin. My Dutch isn’t that good and it gives me the hiccups.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.

Basically it goes like this: the newly arrived math professor from our state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a terribly nice fellow who lived two blocks away from my family, disappeared one day without a trace. Ninety-five days later he was found burned and bound to a tree in the remote hills about a mile south of campus in what was then an incinerated prairie forest. A number of news teams, law enforcement officers, and bloggers, including psychics and ghosthunters, exhausted themselves in the so-called investigation, but this case remains unsolved, a profound mystery. Since I knew almost all the players, the police, the Sheriff, the math professor and many of his colleagues and friends, and every last one of the “suspects,” I became the natural repository for this story. Love and Terror is also about my quaint High Plains small town, its eccentric residents, my rocky marriage to a beautiful Mexican woman, and my exceptional, purportedly autistic son, who was four years old at the time.

What do you think happened up there, I mean with the math professor?

“Twilight Zone Shit,” is what my friend Sheriff Karl Dailey calls it, and though I don’t pretend to know, I do include the body of forensic evidence and the full spectrum of possible scenarios, including prairie dragons and space aliens.

Did you work with the math prof at the college?

I don’t even have a degree. I was cleaning floors at Safeway at the time.

Tell the two or three readers who haven’t put this interview aside a little about your writing routine.

I try to write four hours every day, mornings if I can. Most of what I write is discarded. Jack London used to set a goal of a thousand words a day before he gave in to the first of his twenty-six drinks. I might get down six thousand words, I might record twenty-two. I don’t force things because the next day I know I’ll just have to throw it away, and I’m not pressed by the need for a drink, wealth, or legitimacy. Production in writing is often about the acceptance of moving backwards. I am developmentally slow and usually have to go through at least ten major versions of whatever I’m working on before I start to see the gleam. I’ve been working on Love and Terror now for five years, and I thought it was done three years ago. One thing I’ve learned through the “creative process” is that most of the time you don’t get a say.

Do you use notebooks?

Extensively. I have about a hundred notebooks arranged in such a manner that I can never find what I’m looking for.

Do you have a method for beating that little voice that snags and blocks the whispers of the muse?

I write as fast as I can, which is why I like a computer.

But when you started writing, personal computers didn’t exist.

No, ink pens had just been invented and most people were switching over from papyrus. I teethed on a Royal manual typewriter, then moved to an electric Smith-Corona, followed by an IBM Selectric (also an electric typewriter), then it was a 286 clone (a computer I bought in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1989). I had a ThinkPad for a time. For many years I composed whole pieces including novels in longhand, but I can’t write fast enough to do that anymore.

Who are some of your influences?

My earliest influences were John Steinbeck and Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael?

Yes, I learned a good deal about structure and atmosphere from her movie reviews.

Name some books worth reading twice.

Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck by Charles Bukowski, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, The High Window by Raymond Chandler, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.

Those are all old books.

Yes, I don’t read a lot of new books. I don’t have the time to sort them out.

Can a secret about the vital inspirational force be divulged?

Don’t just watch the river, jump in.

Why did you travel for nearly three decades, living on four hundred dollars a month without seeing a dentist for sixteen years, when you could’ve gotten yourself a comfy job teaching?

I am easily bored and not much of a joiner. In Mexico, by the way, I lived on three hundred a month.

Your work is often compared with Bukowski’s.

Bukowski derived from Henry Miller, who I’m also occasionally compared to, and there are similarities. Both men came from working class backgrounds, both started and published late, both traveled widely and lived lustily among the poor, wrote with humor and heart, worked a number of mundane jobs, were totally ignored for years by the mainstream literati, and both rejected convention and academia. I’m also often compared to Kerouac (another disciple of Miller), I suppose because he traveled.

What do we look forward to seeing from you?

I have two stories upcoming in the Sun magazine, a story in the 2011 Spring edition of Ecotone, Love and Terror is slated for 2012, following that a novel in 2013 called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees the reservation to become a standup comedian in Las Vegas. Al Saperstein just finished a great documentary on me, “Poe Ballantine, a Writer in America,” available soon. I’ve also just made a big pan of chicken enchiladas. You’re welcome to as many as you like.

Thanks but I’ve got to catch a plane. One last question before we go: what advice would you give the young would-be writer?

The difference between the writer and the person who wants to write can be reduced to one word: work. The devotees have significantly better odds of success than the dreamers whose mouths never close. Luck, timing, passion, courage, and talent all play a role, too. So does a complete investment in the truth. I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that you pursue literature, since it’s been replaced for the most part by visual media, but if you learn to trust your instincts, if you give everything you’ve got, if you don’t quit, if you really love what you do, if you’re willing to put your ass on the line, you might produce a work of note or at the very least learn something valuable about yourself. Good luck, however, avoiding the nervous breakdown.

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.


“I’ve never met anyone from Nebraska.”

Usual response when I tell people where I grew up. Then, “Where is that, up near Maine?” Followed by, “Did you have to draw water from a well?”

I say, “Yes, it’s near Maine, because ‘N’ comes after ‘M’ in the alphabet and that’s how all the states are arranged geographically.” And I say, “On the prairie, we didn’t drink water. Just gin. Which springs up from a well naturally, and is why we’re always drunk out there.”

When I first moved to Massachusetts, having driven across the country in a small black Honda Civic that wheezed at even the hint of an incline, I still had my Nebraska license plates on the car – a bright orange and red dramatization of the Midwest, with a fiery, setting sun in the upper corner and three geese artfully flying home. A few cattails garnished the corners. Somebody got carried away.

These plates shone ostentatiously in every parking lot, in every traffic jam, as if my car had worn an inappropriate dress to a party; they stunned people. I nearly ran some folks over because they lost all sense of time and place and human dignity and just stared. I once watched someone mouth the word, slowly, as if pronouncing it for the first time, “Ne-bra-ska,” and then elbow a friend and point at me in astonishment. I could have been a Lost Boy who escaped the Congo for wintry Minnesota. How did I ever survive there, or make it out alive?

A few weeks after I moved into an apartment, my neighbor trotted across the street to introduce himself. He was a teacher, and he was thinking of inviting me to speak to his class. I thought it was because I was a young, intrepid journalist who could inspire a stray kid to “stay in school.”

“Because you’re from Nebraska,” he said. “My students have never met anyone like you.” Exotic, corn-fed girl to give speech about the hard life on the Plains, her encounters with natives, tilling the soil, meeting boys at county fairs and then never seeing them again until they ride up on horseback to ask her papa for her hand, and the wonders of cooking with sorghum.

I’ve now been on the East Coast for over eight years and ditched those license plates long ago. I started to get weary that they read, “Rob me.” But after all this time, I’ve noticed there’s still some mass confusion, and dare I say – hysteria – about what it’s like growing up Nebraskan. So I thought I’d clear it up for y’all.

First, we don’t say y’all. Or at least I never did in my neck of the woods. We didn’t say “neck of the woods”, either. I did not walk for miles to get water. I did not tussle, barter, or give poisonous blankets to Indians. I learned about Native Americans the same way everyone else did – at a museum where I stood in a fake teepee and wondered where they went to the bathroom. My parents did not own a farm.

A lot of people know how to read. The state is flat, but not all flat. It’s in the middle of the country, surrounded by a group of states that make up what’s known as “the Midwest.” Wiki that for more. We didn’t own cows. Omaha Steaks really aren’t that amazing, even though they’re a prize on “Wheel of Fortune.” Also, not everyone from Nebraska is the nicest person you’ve ever met. I’m not that nice; I just come across that way. Finally, I probably don’t know the person you know who lives/lived in Iowa, Missouri or Kansas.

And yes, for god’s sake, yes, I’ve seen a tornado, and yes, it was scary.

So what was life like, on the prairie and all? No prairie – I lived in the suburbs of Omaha, in the town of Bellevue, where my dad worked as contractor for the military in the underground buildings at Offutt Air Force Base. I was told Bellevue would be the second place bombed if the U.S. was ever attacked; the first would be the White House. Sometimes I looked up at the sky and wondered if anyone was aiming for us.

I learned about the prairie and covered wagons and baking biscuits in iron skillets by reading Willa Cather. O pioneer, indeed! That sounds like it was hard. Once, my dad forced us to drive across the entire state on a family vacation on our way to the Badlands, and I liked the town of Valentine, Nebraska, only for it’s name. Its emptiness scared me. You could have called this trip, “The Trail of Tears,” but that joke might be too soon.

In high school, I was a Cornhusker fan like everyone else. I went to the stadium to watch a couple of games and got caught up in the eerie, nationalistic fervor as the Red Sea parted for our favorite players, like Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer (whose death in a plane accident made all the girls at school cry, including me). We won Orange Bowls and other fruit-type bowls, and head coach Tom Osborne became a congress member. I didn’t know his politics then, and didn’t care. No one did. He had led our team to victory, and somehow that made him a little like God.

Speaking of God, there was a lot of Him. Probably because there wasn’t a whole lot else left to do – God and football. So if you imagined this, you were right.

I did work on a farm for one summer when I was fourteen years old, de-tassling corn with a crew of child labor. We were bussed out to farms at five in the morning, our sleepy heads bouncing in the dark. Other than this experience, I didn’t grow up any closer to the land than a kid in Brooklyn. I ate a lot of Taco Bell.

See, it’s all pretty normal, growing up stuff. You and me, we’re not that different after all. The whole “Nebraska” thing doesn’t have to divide us anymore, or utterly confuse you.

Do I plan to ever move back? Are you crazy?! That state is as crazy as all get out. Never said “as all get out”, either.