Here’s an extended metaphor, and it’s the best I can do. Say you’re taking a canoe ride on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio (where I once lived) to Louisville, Kentucky (where I have visited). Distance approximately 100 miles. You know Cincinnati and to a lesser extent your destination, Louisville. You know the larger towns and cities along both banks, and the major tributaries. You intend to get to Louisville, that is, your ending of your novel, and you have certain characters and certain events (those towns and tributaries) in mind. But you have never been on the river. The currents, snags, small islands, smaller tributaries, the drudgery of day to day paddling—the dispiriting drudgery, the innumerable temptations to give up. You know it all in the abstract, but you don’t know what it’s actually like. Everything could change in a day, and Louisville, if you ever reach it, might not bear much resemblance to the city you have in your mind. That combination of the mapped-out and the powerfully and subtly unforeseen is, metaphorically, how I’d describe the writing of a novel.
Would that description, that extended metaphor, fit the composition of Father Figure?
Only to a certain extent. I think I would characterize Father Figure by the narrative liberties I took. I had to take.
I have as a narrator a man who’s heard glorious and winning stories about this pre-WWII father—and mother—but the only father he personally knows is the powerful and embittered one-legged man who returns from the Battle of the Bulge and makes his hometown—and his family—pay for such pre-war adulation. Since his son knows only the post-war man he must find a way to connect him to the former winning one. If, indeed, the son is the son of that fabled pre-war father. And the only way to be sure about that, of course, is to be present at his own conception. Liberties such as that.
Your narrator doesn’t sound like such a stable sort himself. What other liberties?
History. What, as fiction writers, are we bound to about history? I’d say the documented events. I know there are novelists who write alternate histories of huge events—what if the South had won the Civil War, for instance—but I am not one of them. But that does not mean I don’t allow myself to enter imaginatively into history. It’s what I tried to do with my novel The Unwritten Chronicles of Robert E. Lee, pairing off Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and it’s what my narrator again finds himself forced to do if he’s to understand what happened to his father during the Battle of the Bulge, the transformative effect that battle had on him. It’s exciting. It’s not exactly a violation, but as a narrative act it’s putting yourself (as narrator, not author) into another’s skin in an almost forbidden way.
A moment’s frisson? In spite of that, Father Figure sounds like a pretty grim novel. Any humor?
It is, finally, a Southern novel, which means a family novel, which means a sitting-out-on-a-screen-porch-storytelling novel. Yes, there are some amusing stories in there, but you have to be careful with them. Amusing stories can set you up for dark involving ones. Out on those Southern screen porches there is always an undercurrent, which can take you as reader no telling where.
Well, given my earlier description of novel writing, all novels end in Louisville, but one man’s Louisville may be another’s Kalamazoo (never been there, but the word alone makes it sound like a rambunctious, freewheeling place). I guess the last thing I want to say about this is that writers always like to be surprised, by characters, for instance, that come out of nowhere and insist on staying and by endings that loom up at journey’s end and say, Wherever you thought you were going this is where you’ve come, so it’s time to drop anchor and make your peace.
LAMAR HERRIN is the author of seven novels, including The Lies Boys Tell, House of the Deaf, and Fractures; a memoir, Romancing Spain; and numerous short stories, which have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review and Epoch, and elsewhere. He has won a NEA fellowship, an AWP Award for the Novel, and the Paris Review’s Aga Kahn award for fiction. He is a professor emeritus from Cornell University and with his wife, Amparo Ferri, divides his time between Ithaca, New York and Valencia, Spain.