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.
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.