The Practice of Intensity: An Interview with Charles Dodd White

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September 6, 2015 by RJ

There’s something to be said for a writer who can edit as well as pen a good story. Whatever that may be, and it should be flattering, it should be said about Charles Dodd White. White, along with Page Seay, edited the anthology Degrees of Elevation a couple years back and included numerous cutting edge contemporary Appalachian stories in its pages. The anthology has garnered a great deal of attention, much like White’s two novels, Lambs of Men and A Shelter of Others, as well as his short story collection, Sinners of Sanction County. Charles took time recently to jaw with me here at Revolution John about endless bus rides, the practice of intensity, and writer’s writers. For more from him, visit his website here.

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SHELDON LEE COMPTON: The first time I met you we were at Spalding University in Louisville. I’d been there a couple semesters for the MFA (a friend of mine said this stood for Mother Fucking Asshole degree, which I found pretty witty and sometimes true) and I think you’d just arrived. You were sitting at a table during a lunch break not eating a thing. You had a notebook out writing like a demon. I remember someone said to me, “Hey, that guy with the hat on, he hitchhiked here from Canada.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it made for a hell of a mythology if not. Nowadays, with your prolific output well underway, I sometimes think it’s because you’d rather write than eat.

CHARLES DODD WHITE: The story is close enough to call true. I took a Greyhound from Toronto to Louisville with some questionable customers. Guy sitting next to me was awfully insistent that I share that bourbon I’d foolishly told him I had packed away for the duration of the trip. Let’s just say that the next nineteen hours of riding was not the most peaceable I’ve experienced. If you want to see the truth of the American bizarre ride a bus cross country. You will be edified.

Yes, I write to write. I want to render sentences to the point that they cause envy. There’s enough crap out there that’s written to popular formula. I think we have to justify another story or book by the practice of intensity. I guess this makes me a writer’s writer, since pushing toward extremities is not always popular with a general reading audience. That’s fine. I love doing what I do. I like the development of rare expertise.

SLC: I love that – “I think we have to justify another story or book by the practice of intensity.” Never heard it put that way and it fits perfectly for anyone working this craft and really doing it with the idea of rolling up their sleeves and offering something worthwhile. Great way of putting it.

You mention being a “writer’s writer” and I would agree, man. I think of James Salter in particular when discussing this, and your writing hits a similar mark for me. The full story is always there, but you can also slow down and really chew on your individual sentences, really get a taste of the work that went into them.

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So you accepted a new teaching position just a few weeks back. Congratulations and well-deserved. How is all that going? What do you think of teaching as a writer in general, or the ping pong debate about whether WRITING can be truly be taught?

CDW: Thanks, I’m really happy about being settled into a place. I’m teaching at a community college, so a lot of the focus is on helping people develop skills that will tangibly benefit them, either in the workplace or down the line at a university. So, my teaching of writing is more practical than aesthetic; there are definitely ways you can help a student discover his or her own voice and feel comfortable engaging with the world. I like the work a lot, but it seems quite different if not entirely diametric to my own work as a fiction writer.

When I have taught master workshops as a guest faculty, I’ve seen my role largely as a curator. I like to bring passages and stories that excite me as a writer and share those things with the attendees. It’s a great deal of fun to see someone become enthusiastic about a writer they’ve never read before.

SLC: That is a pleasure for sure, turning someone on to a new writer. Also, being turned on to one. That’s what happened to me with Breece Pancake, the best writer to breath air, in my opinion. A friend told me about this writer who killed himself when he was 26, said he kicked much ass, too. Read some of his stuff, he said. A creative thesis later and even a short story based on his last day, and I’m still thinking about Pancake. I visited his gravesite a few days ago and, man, I thought to myself, “Why the hell isn’t there a statue somewhere around here for this man? Why is his grave behind a novelty store that sells dildos? I could have gone two houses from the cemetery and asked and I guarantee the residents would have had no idea who the hell I was talking about if I asked them about Pancake. And there are a ton of great writers in this same sad situation. Do you have any close to your heart and gut that you’re just jumping to tell people about?

CDW: Well, you mentioned Salter, and I think he’s greatly underrated by the reading public. His last novel, All That Is, was as good as anything I read last summer. You have yourself published Taylor Brown’s work, and I think the world of his writing. His stories are uncompromising both at the level of style and content. Another writer who has been getting a lot of attention lately and who deserves it is John Williams. Stoner is every bit as good as it is hyped to be, and I’ve just started reading Butcher’s Crossing and that one, though completely different in tone and intent, is just as impressive. Really, pretty much anything that New York Review of Books Classics has been reissuing has been excellent. That’s where I found Williams and Don Carpenter, who is another great writer rescued from relative obscurity.

SLC: It’s always nice to see these sorts of writers rescued. I’ve just put John Williams on my reading list. Thanks for that, man. You’ve written both novels and collections. How are the two different for you? Do you have a preference?

CDW: I go back and forth between the novel and short story form. I really think writing stories tightens up what you do in a longer form, and it suits my style well. I love Hemingway, but Hemingway for more than 200 pages can start to wear thin. I think my ideal form is in the very short novel, somewhere between 55,000 and 65,000 words. Anything much longer than that and I feel a collapse of structure, a messiness that suits many great novels but which I struggle with personally.

SLC: Can you talk some about what’s up next for you? What can we expect to see from you in the next few years?

CDW: I’m slowly writing a new novel about an eco-terrorist in hiding with his teenage daughter in the Southern Appalachian mountains. The working title is Feasts of the Sun and I hope, I stress hope, to have a draft by fall of 2015. I’m giving myself permission not to rush to another book. It seems like the big publishers demand a new novel almost every season, and I don’t care to pulp my stuff like that. If I can get three more books published over the next decade, I’ll be happy with that. Probably a few stories as well.

SLC: Okay, let’s say you’re back on that bus heading to Spalding University. Give us a paragraph or two about what you see, spin us a little yarn from that moment.

CDW: My yarn would involve the hypnotic march of the road itself, the liquid qualities of time and night. Ideas are always out there on the edge of what we’ve found in the unlikeliest places.

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