Today, I’m delighted to welcome Jay Lemming to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about the books they’d like to persuade your club to read. If you want to pose a question of your own, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
Jay is the author of the literary novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and The Curse of Jaxx, a dystopian novella. He manages a survey for writers of literary fiction, providing a forum for them to discuss their craft as well as a great theme they treat in their books. Jay’s goal is to get 75 respondents for his survey and publish the results as an epic roundup post. He is currently working on a series of short stories related to the world of Billy Maddox and another collection of coming-of-age short stories entitled Death to the Children and Other Stories. His research for Billy Maddox Takes His Shot was partially funded by a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Q: Welcome, Jay. This is your first novel. Have you always felt driven to write or was there a particular trigger?
The drive was probably always there but it took enrolling in a creative writing course my final year in high school to really uncover that compulsion. I remember once I was about to begin writing a short story. I had a pen in my hand, was staring at a blank sheet of paper and thought: This is going to be a part of my life. And I was seventeen years old at the time! That’s some deep stuff to be thinking of at that age.
I have grown from being a socially awkward person to being a socially comfortable individual but the writing is still there. I don’t believe writing is just an outlet to express feelings and ideas that you’re afraid to share with others. I think it’s driven by love of the form of narrative expression – a desire to capture a slice of life and turn it into a form that makes sense. Because life as it exists outside books doesn’t really have a narrative, unless you want to bring in the religious angle, which I don’t think is the intention of this interview. But anyway, that’s why what we do is called “fiction”. That kind of structured narrative that we create for life in our stories just isn’t real.
Q: What is it about Billy Maddox Takes His Shot that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
I think it’s the complexity of the characters’ personalities. My job in creating characters is to provide them with particularly hateful qualities but to also give readers enough about their backgrounds so they, the readers, have an opportunity to feel sympathy for their condition. And I stress “an opportunity” because not everyone who understands other people’s less-than-stellar qualities will curb their judgment simply because of what might have led to those qualities (a tragedy, lack of love, illness, social isolation or some other unfortunate event earlier in life). Some people (and readers) will simply dislike someone for being hateful, regardless of circumstance.
So as a result, the reader’s values – and how they make decisions about others – becomes part of how they experience the characters in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. One reader may not like Billy’s anger management issues, period. Another might decide Billy’s wife has her own issues, despite her exalted socioeconomic status, and those issues make it difficult for Billy to overcome his ongoing personal struggles.
I think Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and the wide range of opportunities to interpret the novel’s characters, will lead to some stimulating conversation. I would love to hear about a book club meeting that is consumed with readers arguing back and forth with each other about whether Billy is a good guy or a bad guy.
Q: It doesn’t sound as if you felt under pressure to make your main character likable.
Just the opposite. I want my character to be immensely disliked but I want to give my protagonist a story that demonstrates why they are the way they are.
Q: So Billy Maddox is complicated. What ten words best describe him?
Angry, frustrated, damaged, sensitive, misunderstood, wonderful father, aspiring, slightly unhinged.
Q: Can you tell us where is the book is set and how you decided on its setting?
My setting is south-central Arizona in the United States including the Sonoran Desert, which sweeps through a good part of the state. In 1999, I was browsing through a bookstore in Washington, DC and came across a work of non-fiction called Dead in Their Tracks. The guy who wrote it, a photojournalist named John Annerino, basically brought the Southwest border of the United States to life with stories and photos about Mexicans crossing the border, Border Patrol agents, ranchers and a whole array of other characters whose combined interest in border crossing makes the border culture what it is.
I have always been a sucker for staring at panoramas. I stare out at open oceans from the shore, I stare at valleys when I climb mountains. And the stark images of the Sonoran Desert with the saguaro cactus, the brittlebush and mesquite, the mesas and washes just took my breath away. Despite having absolutely no knowledge at all about that part of the United States, I decided right then and there that I was going to write a novel about a Border Patrol agent.
Q: What were the major areas you had to research?
Well, first and foremost, I had to learn about the U.S. Border Patrol. So I went to Arizona for a few weeks and went out on line watch with some real agents. Thanks for the hundredth time are due to the Washington, DC Commission on the Art and Humanities for helping to subsidise that trip. I would go out in the desert with the agents in their Ford Explorers and Chevy Tahoes, trying to find illegal border crossers trying to get into the United States. I had to learn about the techniques that the agents use to find crossers including sign cutting and creating drag roads. I had to figure out how they analyse footprints and broken bushes in the desert to determine that people recently passed through.
I also had to learn about the politics of the border – what people on both the left and the right side of the issue think about people crossing into the United States. I had to be very careful about which words to use with different groups too. I once referred to the “migrants” to someone on the political right of the issue and they nearly bit my head off. I never made that mistake again!
Q: What is the central conflict in your novel?
Two conflicts run in parallel tracks–one internal to my protagonist and the other external. As though that’s unusual in literary fiction! Ultimately, it’s a growth story about a young man, Billy Maddox, whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. His brother was killed when they were both kids during a shootout on the border between Border Patrol agents and drug mules. Billy’s parents were devastated, became hardened and didn’t do a good job of raising their remaining son. So Billy grew up with behavioural and anger management issues. Then he got his high school girlfriend pregnant and they were forced to marry, which didn’t improve his situation. Both Billy and his wife Jessie have been trying to make things work.
But Billy’s anger issues have gotten him fired from a number of jobs and by the time he joins the Border Patrol, Jessie – his wife -has pretty much had it. She tells him – keep this job and make it work, or I’m leaving with our son. Of course joining the Border Patrol takes Billy back to the place where his brother was killed, so he has a lot of soul searching to do if he’s going to save his marriage and his mental health.
Q: Maggie O’Farrell says, ‘The way I see it, the past and the present are not separate. The present is the past amended, particularly in the way we apprehend it, our memories and nuances.’ It that something that you like to explore in the timeline of your novel?
This is not unlike the quote by Faulkner in Requiem for A Nun. “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” Variations of this point have been made, I’m sure, countless times over the years.
We are, in some ways, products of our memories and of all the emotional associations with the things that have happened to us. Those associations can guide our present action. If we got hurt in one situation, we may attempt to avoid that kind of situation again, even if there is no guarantee we will get hurt again.
And yes, I do explore the idea of the present as the “past amended”. Billy Maddox had a pretty messed-up childhood and upbringing. He has a lot of rage and frustration. But at a certain point, he’s an adult with his own family counting on him. And he basically has to ask himself, can I give up all these bad feelings that I associate with the tragedy of my brother’s death? Can I do that to have a successful present and future? Or will I succumb to old habits and fears, and destroy what I have now?
The question has a lot to do with freedom and free will. Can we make choices in our present situation that has nothing to do with what happened to us in the past?
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
There’s a scene where Billy is about to commit suicide. He’s stuck the barrel of his gun in his mouth and is about to pull the trigger. His worst fear seems to have come true – his wife has just left and has taken their son with her. Billy feels nothing is left for him other than to kill himself. Having never come close to killing myself before, I found it challenging to try to convey the kind of despair that Billy must have felt. I also had to follow a train of logic within Billy’s mind so his decision to kill himself would have been right and natural to the reader. I’ve heard from family members of people who have killed themselves and those tragedies basically come down to stories of people who were in so much pain, no matter their circumstances, that they just want the pain to go away. That has got to be one of the saddest things to contemplate – that someone would feel that much anguish. Putting myself in the mind of someone like that was difficult.
Q: In which ways was writing the book transformative for you?
If you don’t mind, I would like to refer your readers to a blog post I wrote on the topic called Why It Took Ten Years to Write Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. It gets into my marriage and divorce.
Q: Would you say that being a parent heavily influences your writing?
I’m the single father of a five-year-old boy, but I wrote Billy Maddox Takes His Shot before I became a father – and, of course, Billy has a young son. I’ve always wanted to be a father and that came out in the novel. So when I became a father in real life, my experience pretty much mirrored what I expected Billy’s was like.
Q: I know you’re conducting a survey on the subject, but what is it that you think makes fiction ‘literary’?
Okay, get ready for a slightly long answer.
Anyone who knows my philosophy about writing fiction will eventually hear me reference C.S. Lewis’ character in the film, Shadowlands: “We read to know we are not alone.”
When we read literary fiction, we are entering the most secret world of the writer who has “opened a vein and bled” by writing about whatever stories live inside them. Those stories are reflections of their emotional experiences even if the events that happen in their fictional stories never happened to the actual writer.
And while what happens to each person may be different, the experience is charged by identical emotions: fear, pain, happiness, anger, love, etc.
At our root, people are not products of the things that happen to us. We are products of our responses to those occurrences. Each of us experiences life in our own particular emotional way, and we all have the same emotions. Sure, some people may have more happiness than someone else, or more pain, unfortunately.
But the core of what makes us human is the same across our nations, our ethnicities, our genders. We are socially conditioned (out of fear) to recognise and emphasise our differences. But there are few differences, really.
Literary fiction serves an important social function by helping readers recognise the connectedness between everyone. When you live a literary life, you become more thoughtful in your relations to others, recognising that when you hurt someone else, you’re also hurting a part of yourself. We are, in fact, not alone. We are together, as C.S. Lewis said.
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Q: Will Self believes that the serious literary novel is dead. I’m assuming you don’t agree.
That’s a silly thing to say. As long as literary writers continue to stare life in the face with the courage to not blink first, the serious literary novel will always exist. And the serious novel will always have readers.
And the novel (as an example of long-form writing) will not die either. This goes back to the quote by Maggie O’Farrell above. Big decisions are not made at the moment they need to be made. They take into account a past history of experiences, pain, mistakes and happiness.
You can’t capture that in a tweet.
Want to find out more about Jay and his writing?
Jay is also willing to visit book clubs via Skype and he’s very kindly offered 10 free Kindle copies of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot in the hope that readers will repay the kindness with an honest review on Amazon. If you’re interested, please leave a comment.
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