Interview: 10 Questions with Author James Carpenter

James Carpenter gave up writing in his twenties. It was “quite literally killing me,” he recalls.

That’s because he associated the act of writing with the act of drinking. To recover from his alcohol abuse, he needed to put down his pen.

The Pennsylvania native went on to teach middle and high school English and eventually spent 14 years as affiliated faculty at The Wharton School. He lectured in computer programming, system design, and entrepreneurship.

But when he retired, the calling to tell stories was clear.

He answered. And since then, Carpenter’s fiction work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Fiction International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ambit.

His new novel, “No Place to Pray,” came out this month from Twisted Road Publications, a publisher that aims to bring marginalized voices to the mainstream. The book is a moving example of how one’s personal experiences with issues we all can struggle with—addiction, mental health, spiritual search, race relations in America—can be lush if tempestuous landscapes for storytelling.

Here, Carpenter talks about why those subjects are so important; how Southern and American Gothic literature can tell these stories in a way other genres can’t; his advice for fledgling authors; his own daily writing practice; and notes on forgiveness and self-awareness, from a man who has had to learn a lot about both.

He also has one of my favorite answers to the dinner guest question.

Enjoy.

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Author James Carpenter's latest book is "No Place to Pray."

Why title the book “No Place to Pray”?

The title has two senses. In the first, the characters, especially LeRoy and his mother, seek some kind of spiritual rescue from their difficult lives, but the institutions where they look for it forsake them, leaving them with no place to pray. In the other, many of the characters lead lives in trying and often squalid places: taprooms, brothels, tarpaper shacks along the flats beneath a bridge — places where it is difficult to pray. Similar to the way one might speak of a filthy apartment as no place to raise a child, we could say that where the characters have found themselves is no place to pray.

Why use the Southern Gothic style to address topics of social interactions, religious institutions, self-awareness, mental health, and race? What does that genre offer us today?

I didn’t set out to write a Southern Gothic novel. It’s obvious that writers so tagged are among my influences, especially William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Though most of the story is set in a fictional southern state, my model for place was where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. That it comes across as southern is not entirely coincidence, as there is a large expanse of our country, including western Pennsylvania, eastern and southern Ohio, and northern West Virginia, that bears a striking similarity to the deep south, often derisively referred to as Pennsyltucky. The characters’ colloquialisms and rhythms of speech are what I grew up with. When I wrote about the river and the countryside surrounding it, I had the Allegheny in mind. For the town, such places as Beaver Falls and New Castle, Pennsylvania served as my inspiration.

But Southern Gothic’s tropes are well suited to the broad issues your question addresses. We can’t shine a light into the darkness if we aren’t willing to enter into the darkness. We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches.

I think it’s been a mistake to think of Southern Gothic as addressing a narrow segment of American culture. Niche audiences would not have made Faulkner a literary icon and Nobel laureate. Southern Gothic writers are concerned with Americans at the margins of our institutions because it’s there that the truth can be uncovered, which is very much the case not just in parts of the south, but from coast to coast. I prefer to think of the genre as American Gothic, a more generalized treatment of broken people that would include authors as diverse as Richard Wright, Louise Erdrich, and John Steinbeck, as well as settings ranging across the continent from the urban East to the Great Plains to Southern California.

What role does a human’s innate and individual spirituality play in this book and why was that important to you?

First, it’s important to me because I firmly believe that we are primarily spiritual beings capable of spiritual fulfillment and that much of our history has revolved around asking what that means. We’ve come up with a great many answers which, for the most part, emphasize love, compassion, peace, and joy. Unfortunately those answers have too often become codified in religious institutions, which reduces the animus intrinsic to spiritual fulfillment to dogma and ritual.

Several of the characters in No Place to Pray are driven by spiritual impulses—Agnes and LeRoy certainly, Miss Wells and Pastor Johnson ostensibly, and even Harmon, who sees visions in spite of himself. But the institutions that they’ve been taught to believe can provide the peace they seek let them down as they attempt to adhere to unrealizable admonitions to avoid angering God. From LeRoy’s comment that, “Pissing off a powerful celestial being ain’t a good move no matter how you slice it” to Miss Wells’s attempt to measure her life against the impossible theology of the New Testament verse her Sunday school students have memorized: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” What they seek isn’t where they’ve been told to look.

But grace, whatever that might be, is actually everywhere. We and everything that surrounds us are imbued with and immersed in unimaginable immanent spiritual power, but like the truck crossing over the bridge and “unaware of the ethereal suchness through which it lumbered,” our eyes are too often closed to it.

We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches. …  The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibility for the wrongs we have committed.

How did you research for “No Place to Pray”? Was there anything particularly important for you to get right as far as your characters or setting?

It was critical that I get race right. I studied other white writers who dealt with race, William Styron, of course, as well as J.M. Coetzee, John Berryman, John Updike, and others. I studied the post-Civil War history of racial oppression, especially the largely successful efforts in the south to resurrect slavery as a legal institution, notably in the practices of tenant farming. But most of all, I simply talked with friends about their personal experiences, from what it’s like to walk into a restaurant as part of a mixed-race party in the 21st Century to what it was like to march in the south for civil rights and be beaten for doing so in the ’60s.

Is there anything you hope readers learn, think about, or take away from this book?

That however tolerant and open-minded we think we might be, all of us hold tight to unconscious misconceptions about people who are different from us. In the opening chapter, a group of black men agree that you can’t know what goes on in a white woman’s head. Then they amend that to mean any woman’s head. Whether you are a man or a woman, how many times have you heard, “You know how women (or men) are”? As innocuous as such consensus many seem in the moment, it is the seed from which egregious injustices can sprout and bloom. We have to do better. We can do better.

Does writing about these topics through a fictional lens offer you anything personally? For example, a relief in the sense of offering something to the conversation about social problems?

I had to give up writing when I was in my twenties. Struggling with my own debilitating alcohol addiction, I found that writing and drinking were inextricably intertwined with each other in how I saw myself: hunched over a typewriter in a dark room, the workspace haloed in the light of a desk lamp, with a cigarette burning in an ashtray, and a cocktail glass of bourbon right beside it. Writing was quite literally killing me. So I stopped writing and with the support of friends and family stopped drinking.

Some thirty-five years later I picked up my pen again. Much of my reason for writing “No Place to Pray” lay in telling myself my own story, a way to make sense of the insanity of my young life, and to find some sure foundation upon which to stand where the landscape didn’t shift with tectonic ruthlessness. Though “No Place to Pray” depicts a dark and uncertain world in which not everyone survives, those who do, come out of it strengthened and with their souls bruised but intact. I am one of them.

Also, I spent my childhood in a house inhabited not just by my parents and brothers, but by the demons of alcoholism and physical abuse. (As Hank Williams, Jr. sang, it was a family tradition.) Similarly to the way LeRoy retells his life story through his fantasies, rewriting them in ways that make the unbearable bearable, “No Place to Pray” helped bring me to a place of reconciliation with my own past.

Are we prisoners of our past mistakes — personally and culturally?

No. I strongly believe that redemption is possible. But it can only come if we are honest about those mistakes and willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to make right the harm we’ve caused. And that holds true across the full spectrum of our interactions with each other, from verbal abuse within a relationship to the economic and political oppression of entire populations. The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibility  for the wrongs we have committed.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you stick to a routine, and if so, what is it?

When I’m working, I write five days a week, usually the first thing in the morning before the day’s chores and responsibilities hijack my mind. I begin by reading poetry, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I know when it’s time to go to my desk when the words on the page begin to spin into whatever story it is that I’m working on.

My goal is one page a day. I used to aim for 2,500 words per day, but the result was quite dismal. I was more concerned with word count than quality and I would find myself after several months with a few hundred pages of embarrassment, with no way that I could see to fix them. When I began to think in terms of a restricted daily count, the writing got better and the accumulated pages something I could work with.

Each morning I begin by reading aloud the last of what I wrote yesterday before turning to what’s new for the day. I write for however long it takes to complete 350 words. (If I’m really tuned in, I’ll let myself go on, but I have an absolute upper limit of 850 words. I make myself stop at that line, no matter how good I might think the writing is.) I finish by reading aloud what I’ve written for the day, making some adjustments, but not many. As I’m falling asleep that night I think about where the story is going and what I’ll do to advance it the next day.

Do you have any advice or tips for fledgling fiction writers?

Always be reading. Read widely. Read the masters and read books that receive really bad reviews. Ask what the difference is. What makes one opening sentence compel you to continue reading and another to set the entire book aside? Why does one author thoroughly describe their characters’ physical appearance and another give almost no description at all, and yet both make for fascinating reading? The time will come when you are struggling with some part of the craft, a description, a snippet of dialog, or a bit of action, and you will discover some other author’s solution to the same challenge somewhere in what you’ve read, to which you will find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s how they do it! I can do that!”

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

Gertrude Stein, Buckminster Fuller, and Martin Luther King. All three were visionaries, far ahead of their peers. They represent the pillars of any community, art, practical innovation, and the canons of justice and spirit upon which everything else rests. I imagine them gently polite and gracious over aperitifs. As the appetizers are served and they begin to understand one another, they laugh and nod knowingly. The conversation animates and rises through the courses as they connect and find their rhythm, and by the digestif, they’ve left all of us behind to wonder and marvel at what they have to teach us.

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Purchase “No Place to Pray” on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or from publisher Twisted Road Publications.

Continue following the No Place to Pray blog tour tomorrow at Lori’s Reading Corner!

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