Monday Interview: Castle Freeman Jr.

Posted by John Kenyon 0 comments

When Paul Ingram from Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City places a book in my hands and says, “This is one of the best things I read last year,” I usually walk from there to the counter, exchange money for the book, head home and crack it open. He did so a couple of weeks ago with Castle Freeman Jr.’s third novel, Go With Me, recommending Freeman’s new novel, All That I Have in the process.

Reading both books in quick succession, I was struck by a sentiment felt too infrequently when it comes to literature: Castle Freeman Jr., where have you been all my life? It’s as if Freeman and I had discussed books for an hour and he then went off to write something that would particularly appeal to me.

The books, like all of Freeman’s work, take place in rural Vermont. Unlike his two previous novels, however, they are very short and spare. In story and tone, they call to mind Southern writers like Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown and Daniel Woodrell. Go With Me tells of Lorraine, a young woman tormented by the town black sheep. She goes to the sheriff, who suggests she look to an old mill owner for relief. The miller, Whizzer, in turn suggests that two people who work for him, the old Lester and the young’un Nate the Great, take on the task. All of the action takes place in a day, with Freeman putting just enough words on the page to get his story across.

All That I Have is more involved, though it, too, is a short novel. Here, another sheriff, Lucien Wing, deals with a seemingly simple situation: One of the county’s misguided young men (nicknamed Superboy) has broken into a home and stolen something. But the home is owned by Russian mobsters who are eager to get this item back and make the offender pay. Wing’s deputy seems to want to wade into the mess with guns blazing, but Wing’s philosophy is to hang back and let things develop. Better to give someone a little line and let them find their way back onto the path than to lock them up and send them down another, likely unswerving path.

Freeman is a typical overnight sensation, one who has been toiling away for decades. His first book was 1987′s short story collection, The Bride of Ambrose (based on the stories I’ve read so far, this is also highly recommended). That was followed by two novels: 1997′s Judgment Hill and 2002′s My Life and Adventures. Freeman has been an essaying for The Old Farmer’s Almanac since 1982 and contributes to other magazines.

Unfortunately, it seems the quick pace that might promise more books about Sheriff Wing and the other folks in this fictional nook of Vermont was a fluke. Freeman says he doesn’t expect — or want — to keep such a schedule. Here’s hoping the warm reception to these books will lead him to revisit this fertile storytelling ground, no matter how long we’re made to wait.

TIRBD: After just three books between 1987 and 2002, you suddenly have books in back to back years. What changed to allow this more rapid pace, and does the difference in tone and book length have anything to do with it?

CF: The quick succession of All That I Have and Go With Me is mainly from chance. I started writing All That I Have a couple of months after finishing Go With Me, partly so I wouldn’t be making myself nuts by waiting by the phone as my agent tried to find a publisher for the latter, a process I expected to be difficult and prolonged. Then in fact, Go With Me was taken by Steerforth Press in fairly short order. By the time it was published, All That I Have was finished, hence the fast pace of their appearance, which is uncharacteristic of me, to say the least.

Given the quick turnaround between these two most recent books, do you anticipate continuing that pace or was that just a quirk of scheduling and perhaps some unique motivation?

No, that pace was an anomaly. I don’t want to get into a spot where I’m expected, by myself or anybody else, to publish a new book every year or two. Certainly, I hope to write more novels, but I don’t have one in the works at present, and I don’t expect to in the near future.

You had a big publisher for the paperback version of Go With Me, but are back with Steerforth for All That I Have. Was that because you had a multiple-book contract with Steerforth? Did you see greater exposure from the Harper edition?

I didn’t have a multibook deal with Steerforth. They did a superb job with Go With Me and accepted All That I Have, planning to publish it as a hardcover book and then to seek a paperback deal, just as with the first title. Then the economy went south, however, taking the hardcover fiction market with it; so it was decided to publish All That I Have as a paperback original. Certainly Harper Perennial have done very well in promoting their paperback edition.

Much has been made about the length of these two most recent books, and you’ve said that you essentially wrote them until they were done. Still, you obviously tackled stories that took less to tell. Was that a conscious decision, to get closer to the end of the story before you started?

I was looking for clear, simple, highly focused narratives in both cases, not because I had made up my mind to write short, but more because I wanted to attract and hold the reader without adding a lot of fictive baggage about the characters’ histories and motivations. For me, the big interest is always in the narrative: what information does the reader need to know to follow and understand the story, and how does the author give the reader that information? But also, I have always been mainly a writer of short stories and essays (see below), and so I guess it is natural with me to keep written work concise.

You have s
ome interesting thoughts about the role of a sheriff in All That I Have. Are those your own, the results of research or perhaps a hybrid?

All made up. The extent of my real knowledge of rural law enforcement is a couple of parking tickets. To be sure, I have read a lifetime’s worth of books and watched a lifetime’s worth of movies and TV shows about characters more or less like these and so imbibed a good deal that way — but that’s experience, not research.

I never got a sense that we weren’t in the present with Go With Me, yet its clear from All That I Have that we were in the past given that Sheriff Wingate has been retired for some time when the events of All That I Have take place. Were you trying for a sort of timelessness with that book? By extension, All That I Have does feel more fixed in one place timewise. Was your approach to these two different in that regard?

You could say both books are set in a kind of “timeless present.” I never thought of the second book as a follow-up to the first. You’re right that if we look at what All That I Have says of Sheriff Wingate’s career, some years must have elapsed between the two books, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. Wingate functions very differently in the two books, which for me are independent stories except for him.

Reading Go With Me and All That I Have back to back, I got the feeling that Nate the Great and Superboy could be considered two sides of the same coin, their stories a commentary on the way a certain type of young American male can turn out depending on nature and nurture. Thoughts?

In my mind, these two kind of represent the physical, impulsive, aggressive side of life in contrast with the reflective and experienced side. I have written about similar figures in other fiction, going back years. Clearly, I have disorderly, rebellious, born-to-hang young men on the brain. Why that should be I have no idea; probably it’s from some deep, dark psychopathology of my own — but what the hell?

You have done considerable non-fiction writing for magazines and The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Does that inform your fiction in any way, either good or bad?

Well, as I said above, I suppose it predisposes me to brevity; but beyond that, because my subject matter has always been rural Vermont in one way or another, writing nonfiction on that topic has required me to immerse myself in that setting, which is also of the first importance to me as a fiction writer. So there’s a certain amount of cross-fertilization, I guess.

Your last two books could easily be shelved as crime fiction, though they are not. Do you read much or anything from that genre? What about Southern Gothic authors like Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown or Daniel Woodrell to whom you have been (or ought to be) compared?

I haven’t read a lot of crime fiction — none, really, apart from classics like Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Elmore Leonard. For the Southerners, I like Cormac McCarthy a lot and have read him attentively and always with pleasure, but the other two you name I know nothing about.

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