Steve Yarbrough’s newest novel, SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS, has one murder, more than one affair, and white people taking up arms to prevent African-American James Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss. Richard Russo says the book will, “take your breath away.” Ron Rash calls it “a magnificent achievement.” Tom Perotta says that Yarbrough is, “a formidably talented novelist,” and John Grisham claims he “possesses a gift that cannot be taught.”
I met Steve last summer at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, a former football player with the easy-going demeanor of a California surfer. Steve talks with a wonderful Southern accent, his translator/poet wife, Ewa, speaks with an exotic Polish accent. He’s one of those guys who can sit on a porch, drink whiskey, tell a couple jokes and make everyone around them feel like they’re at the best party in town. But beneath that fun-guy exterior is a rigorous intellectual who can write one hell of a complex, fascinating and entertaining novel.
Here are six questions for Steve Yarbrough:
What I love about SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS (and your last novel before this, THE END OF CALIFORNIA) is that it is character-driven literary fiction that unfolds like a mystery novel or a thriller. In this way, you remind me of Patricia Highsmith who wrote Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a strange comparison, I know, but I find myself unable to turn away from your novels until it’s all been unraveled and sorted out. Is the mystery in your novels deliberate?
STEVE YARBROUGH: When I first started reading adult fiction, I didn’t know what literary fiction was. What I read for pleasure came off the rack at a convenience store. I was heavily into suspense fiction. I read Frederick Forsythe, a bunch of Perry Mason novels, Jack Higgins—whatever I could get my hands on, which wasn’t a lot, because I lived in a town with no real book store and a very small library. Later on, thank God, my taste improved. I became fond of Graham Greene, John LeCarre and, later still, Alan Furst. To this day I like a story that makes me want to turn the page to find out what happens next. So I’m sure that my reading of mysteries and spy novels has a lot to do with the way I write. Some of what I read when I was young probably wouldn’t appeal to me today. On the other hand, I’ll be first in line to buy the next Alan Furst novel. He hasn’t disappointed me yet. There’s always so much atmosphere in his books, and I try to get that in mine, too, though a cotton field in the Delta is very different from a back alley in Budapest.
Murder and Infidelity are both common themes for you and often intertwined. They’re woven together in SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS as well as THE END OF CALIFORNIA and the short story, “The Rest of Her Life.” How do you explain this?
As an avid Graham Greene reader, I’ve always been fascinated by the various forms of betrayal. Choosing to betray someone you love, or choosing to betray your best friend—what does that feel like? What goes through the heart and mind of a character who’s making that choice? I’ve always found that fascinating. As for murder, well, I come from a fairly violent part of the country. There were a number of killings nearby when I was growing up. Some of them were racially motivated, but most were crimes of passion. Once, when I was playing football in college, my coach, who was an ignorant man who loved to philosophize, said, “If you went over to Parchman Prison and hauled off everybody that did what he did because of a woman, you wouldn’t have too many folks left.” He didn’t often say smart things, but I suspect he may have been close to the truth there. That’s not to say that the women were to blame, because clearly they weren’t.
The Southern dialect is so fun to read, I found myself rereading dialogue out loud just so I could hear it spoken. Are these the voices of your childhood? When you hear dialogue, does it naturally come out like that?
As you know from having met me, I sound like that myself. I have friends from the South who moved away, like I did, and they either lost their accents naturally or took steps to lose them. I never wanted to lose mine, nor did I want to lose certain regional mannerisms. For instance, in the Delta, we say, “I didn’t aim to do that,” meaning “I didn’t intend to do that.” And we say, “I’m fixin’ to go over yonder,” rather than “I’m about to go over there.” And so on. I love the way we talk down there. I don’t want to forget it. The other day, my father was talking on the phone to my daughter, who happens to be at our apartment in Krakow right now, and he said someone knocked on the door. She said, “Just a minute, papa,” then opened the door and began to speak Polish to a friend. My dad’s description went like this: “Man, she cut loose in that Polish, and it sounded like a damn thirty caliber water-cooled machine gun. I ain’t never heard nothing else quite like it.”
Your characters are beautifully complex. Even the “bad” guys are sympathetic in many ways because they are so vividly human. I call it Tony Soprano syndrome. (Tony kills people, cheats on his wife, yet when the FBI is chasing him, everyone roots for him to get away.) This is the case for James May and even Arlan Calloway whom we know shoots his wife. By the end of the novel the reader feels sorry for both these guys and really wants something to turn out okay for them. Are you trying to be fair to them as human beings who are acting within their own circumstances?
I grew up seeing many otherwise wonderful people who, during the Civil Rights years, did awful things. I don’t condone what they did—in fact, I abhor it—but I can’t deny that in every other way they were sterling people. At the same time, many people who were on the right side politically didn’t treat their families well and betrayed those they loved. People are complicated, and I think it’s a novelist’s business to try to convey that in the depiction of characters.
You write very strong, powerful female characters. The women in your novels might be victimized but they’re never victims. There’s a way in which they’re more powerful than your male characters. Men may run the world but women are running the men. Have you ever been called a feminist?
Yes, I’ve been called a feminist, and it’s a label I wear proudly. My best friend, the lesbian critic Lillian Faderman, once said, “You’re a woman in a football player’s body.” My wife didn’t much like that, but I knew that Lillian meant simply to say that I had a feminine side. My best friends have always been women. My grandmother was a no-nonsense woman whom nobody would ever have crossed, and she mostly raised me. Then in my own family—the one I’ve had as an adult—there are, besides me, only women: my wife, my two daughters; we had two dogs, and they were both females. I feel lucky that I’ve been surrounded by women. They make the best companions, and they make the best friends.
I really enjoyed the details of Southern life in the novel: the goings on in the barbershop, people double parking each other into dirt lots and then hanging around and chatting with their neighbors until someone comes out of some shop and moves the car that blocked them in, telephones with party lines, etc. Is some, or all, of this stuff from your own childhood in Mississippi?
Most definitely. All of it. We had one elderly man on our party line. He lived alone. And I guess he got lonely and would almost always listen in on our phone calls. You could hear him breathing softly. So whenever I was ready to get off the phone, I would always tell whatever friend I’d been talking to goodbye, and then I’d say “And goodbye to you, too, Mr. Cy.” He didn’t take offense. It was just a neighborly way to behave.