Sailing to Alluvium PW
In the novel, Junior Ray refers to himself as a "talkin' writer." What is that?
No reader would believe Junior Ray could write a book, but it’s not hard to imagine he could talk one. It is as easy for him as breathing. And it is precisely that method that allows the reader to suspend his or her readerly disbelief and willingly become involved with one the most awful but most lovable characters anyone could ever meet. Just as important, it is that oral process that brings Junior Ray to life and therefore makes what he says credible while at the same time perhaps not always reliable. But that’s one of Mr. Loveblood’s more charming qualities. Readers must choose the rascals they trust enough to let themselves be entertained by them and also to join with them in a risky but splendidly fresh adventure.
You’ve said before that when you write Junior Ray, you listen to him. Does he talk to you even when you’re not working on a book?
Oh, yes. He will not stop. Indeed I have often said that I am his stenographer. Almost anything in daily life can be viewed through Junior Ray’s perspective. And his reactions are usually unpredictable--for instance, I hypothetically took him with me to a hypothetical political rally. There we were, behind the barricades on one side of the street, facing the opposition on the other. Be mindful that Junior Ray does not know the difference between a liberal and a conservative, nor does he really care. In any case there we were, and a woman quite near us raised her fist and shouted, “Get your hands out of my uterus!” Upon which, I suppose in the spirit of solidarity, Junior Ray shouted: “Mine, too, sumbich!”
Would you say that setting, The Delta, is also a character in Sailing to Alluvium?
The question says it all because of course it is the place--the Mississippi Delta--with which I am most concerned. Thus, quite literally, that place stands sine qua non as the main character in all three of Junior Ray’s books. This Delta, which is Mississippi’s Yazoo basin, bounded on the east by the bluffs of the Loess Hills and on the west by the Mississippi River, is a paradoxical bowl of ravening eccentricity dominated by an insistence on conformity and is, therefore, a place which logically cannot exist. But Deltans have never let logic stand in their way.
In short, more than race, class was paramount, and that issue is at the heart of Junior Ray’s narrational perspective. But certainly one of the great shapers of that odd land’s persona, its speech along with its food, its customs, its music, and possibly its whole way of looking at things, is in the largest of measures derived from the indisputable influence of the Delta’s African-American majority, without whom there would have been no story at all worth telling.
Junior Ray was born with a mouthful of expletives, but how much of Junior Ray is in John Pritchard?
I normally do not cuss as much, except when the computer goes haywire or I can’t get the lug nuts loosened on the wheel of the car. Then I find profanity useful and, I am convinced, effective. Mainly, though, I am highly entertained by Junior Ray. He often speaks in imagistic tropes that remind me of a wonderful friend I had when I was in the Army. I was a young lieutenant, and my friend was an SFC. He loved to hunt and fish and to drink in country taverns near our post in Kentucky. And he loved large women--sometimes very, very large women. And they loved him. In any case he and I--and in fact our captain--spent a lot of time exhausting all the possibilities of the natural world. I learned so much from him. His speech was colorful--intensely so, as I mentioned, and original but it was not at all that profane--“Lieutenant, I was stannin there with my tongue hangin out like a red necktie--red as a fox’s ass in poke berry time!"--and his sparkling, Zorban delight in living made an indelible impression on me.
Junior Ray’s profanity reflects a famous characteristic of one of my mother’s first cousins, and when I was only four years old I knew I was listening to a verbal monument. Later, at the age of twenty, I worked for a construction company in New Orleans, and the fellow who took care of the heavy equipment communicated entirely in a unbroken stream of profanity. In both instances the profanity of those two individuals was not for shock value but served merely as the core of their speech pattern which in each case came close to the status of a legitimate dialect.
You’ve always been a writer, but your first book contract didn’t come until you were 65. Is there anything you’re more passionate about than story?
Yes, I am passionate about my child, who is now almost 44 years old. Had it not been for his arrival I am certain I would have died of terminal egocentricity, but I was fortunate enough to discover that I loved someone else besides myself. I am discounting what we think of as romantic love, which, as most of us know, is not the same thing as parental love. “I love you, Mooney June,” is nowhere near, “Oh my god, there’s a baby!” I believe the subordinating of the self for the sake of the well-being of another person acts as the surest catalyst for the onset of any real maturity one may hope to possess.
But with regard to “story,” along with all that I have just said is the fact that the whole of my life seemed to be “story,” and I became its anti-hero after I observed I had failed so many times to be the victorious, square-jawed hero-hero. Perhaps one of the most surprising things in the life of a young person is the discovery of limitations! -- limitations combined with those inevitable moments when one says, “Wait a minute, this is not the way I thought it would be!” I will add here that just because we have limitations, those with which we are familiar and others that may yet present themselves, it does not mean we have to accept them, so I rise each day and go forth with the deliberate attitude that I have no limitations at all and, like Sir Percival, that I shall snag the Grail.
Did any real-life women inspire the Aunty Belles?
I didn’t know anyone in particular whose personality might have impelled me to come up with the Aunty Belles, but I do indirectly bring in my mother, whose name was Charlie--just that and not short for Charlotte or anything--and her three sisters: Peekyboo, Xylda and Glinda into the three books here and there. My Aunt Xylda was a member of the U.D.C., the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but there is no exact or, really, even any approximate match between her and the character of Miss Attica. Also, when I was in high school, at Sewanee Military Academy, I won the U.D.C.’s medal for the best essay on Jefferson Davis. I still have the medal.
In an abstract way, my grandmother’s house figures into part of the setting for the fictional little Delta town of St. Leo. It was named after a real person, Leo Lesser, who was a president of one of the banks in Tunica and who ran off one day with all of my grandmother’s cash, back before the First World War. Mr. Lesser was never indicted, arrested, or tried. He lived out his life as a free man--a happy condition that in some way he may even have construed as justice.
What would Junior Ray say qualifies as abnormal down in the Delta, and would being a "diktective solving a not-so-mysterious murder" mystery fall into that category?
He’d say “normal” is abnormal down there in the Mississippi Delta. Junior Ray and Voyd’s adventure is really just a vehicle to point out the nature of things in that part of the world. And even though letting people who perpetrate heinous acts off the judicial hook is now pretty much out of fashion, at one time and not that long ago, it was the order of the day because the power was in the whip hand of what someone once referred to as “the interlocking Southern elite.” Miss Attica’s thrice-bungled triple-crime may appear preposterous, but Judge Russell “Rusty” Justiss’s handling of it is not all that far-fetched.
For example, my maternal grandfather, John Thomas Lowe, shot and killed his friend Percy Houston in downtown Tunica, Mississippi, in 1908; then, a few weeks later, Percy’s daughter, Una Mai [pron: Yoona May], shot my grandfather. Una Mai’s bullet did not kill him, and none of it ever went to trial. Plus, the two families remained good friends. The shootings are documented in the Tunica newspaper of that day. And the report was that after Una Mai’s bullet passed through my grandfather, he turned to face his assailant, with his pistol in his hand, but when he saw who it was that had plugged him, he said: “You are a lady. I won’t shoot you.”
How important is revision to your process, and do you ever revise for voice, or is Junior Ray on the page as soon as the words connect to it?
Craft is everything. And without revision and repeated examination of the text, there is simply no writing of much worth at all. The principle of le mot juste is unassailable, but the struggle for precision can sometimes give way to subjectivism. And of course one writer’s choice of “just the right word” may not be another’s. One works with the knowledge that even the very concept of precision in writing can be quite imprecise.
I have to keep the voices of the various characters separate and distinct. Staying in character is a demanding proposition and one that is probably not a hundred-percent achievable. But, to console myself, I like to think a book can be like a hand-knotted oriental rug, filled with inconsistencies of every sort but beautiful in its “overallness,” its gestalt, as it were, because the beauty and the value of one of those rugs lies in its asymmetry and irregularity and not in some machine-loomed perfection. Yet, having said that, I must also declare that the attainment of perfection should always be the objective.
What message do you hope your readers take from Sailing to Alluvium?
It has been my intention to show the reader a strange anachronistic portion of the nation that is, has been, and to some degree still is simultaneously full of violence and high comedy--and that the mating of those two seemingly contradictory elements can easily be effected in literature and in drama, just as one finds them combined in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But I want to tell the reader that this preposterous kind of wild dichotomy defined by mayhem and humor may in fact exist, not merely on the flickering screen but just a few miles south of Memphis...down Highway 61.