Tony Earley is hardly a country bumpkin, despite his small town Southern background and the homespun appeal of his plainly styled first novel, Jim the Boy. But days after his trip to New York as a featured reader in the New Yorker's 75th anniversary celebration, he continues to marvel at the glamour of the event. "I still can't believe that I was one of the relatively few writers chosen to read at that particular birthday party," says Earley, who turns 39 this month but retains the babyface looks, easy wit and self-assuredness of a precociously achieving grad student. "But I had a blast. They gave us badges to wear around our necks that said 'Festival Talent,' and we had big, black chauffeured cars to take us to all the events. I walked into a party and the first thing I saw was Stephen King talking to Salman Rushdie." After the return flight with his wife Sarah--a non-ordained graduate of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry in Pittsburgh--to Charlotte, the nearest city to their hometown of Rutherfordton, N.C., picking up their Ford Taurus and driving back home was "something of a shock," Earley admits.
Ford Taurus notwithstanding, ever since Harper's magazine published two of Earley's stories in the early '90s, the North Carolinian has been on the literary fast track. "Charlotte" and "The Prophet of Jupiter" were anthologized in Algonquin's New Stories from the South, and Houghton Mifflin's Best American Short Stories, and Earley's own story collection, Here We Are in Paradise, came out in 1994 from Little, Brown. Two years later Earley was included in Granta's "Best of Young American Novelists" issue, and last summer he was among the "20 Young Writers for the 21st Century "tapped for the New Yorker's "Future of American Fiction" number. Now Jim the Boy is being published by Little, Brown to stellar pre-pub reviews and considerable industry buzz. Time Warner Audio Books will feature the crisply resonant account of a year in the life of a 10-year old boy in rural North Carolina, and BOMC/QPB, where it's an alternate selection, successfully vied with the Literary Guild for book club rights.
It is a warm spring day when PW meets up with Earley in Nashville, where he teaches creative writing and a course on Hemingway at Vanderbilt University. At first glance, the assistant professor's neat office in the English department seems to be that of a former newspaperman with a fondness for sports and family history. The room is furnished with such sentimental memorabilia as a tinted, 1950ish photograph of Earley's father (a welding supervisor at an office furniture factory), a plaque honoring Carl Sandburg found in his grandmother's house, a poster of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey star Mario Lemieux and a few typewriters of varying vintages.
In fact, Earley worked on two small-town newspapers in North Carolina as a features writer and sports reporter between 1983, when he graduated with a B.A. in English from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, and 1988, when he received a fellowship to study creative writing in the M.F.A. program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A closer look around the office, though, confirms his link to the world of literary publishing: a stack of author's copies are arrayed on the packed shelves, and a message scrolls across his screensaver urging viewers to "Read Jim the Boy." That's "sort of a subliminal thing," the former Little Leaguer says, nodding toward the computer while thumping a baseball into a well-used mitt. "When I'm having conferences with my students, over my shoulder they are reading this. Or at least that's my intent. But really it's a joke, although they've all been too polite to mention it."
Students have not always been so polite in their assessment of Earley's talent. All the way back in second grade in Rutherfordton, when his teacher told him he should be a writer and got the story she praised published in the local newspaper, he won no popularity points from his jealous classmates. And his M.F.A. peers at Alabama unanimously dismissed the over-the-top nature of "Charlotte," a story about a fern-bar owner in Charlotte obsessed with professional wrestling. Earley remembers writing the story in a week, and attributes its frenetic energy to caffeine. "I probably got my worst workshop for it, worse than for any of the stories I wrote there. The class didn't like it at all, and all the time I was thinking, 'Man, these people are nuts! This may be the best story I ever wrote' "--including those that had been accepted by some smaller literary quarterlies.
But "Charlotte" was best suited for "the slicks," he intuited, and, undeterred, he submitted it to editor Colin Harrison at Harper's, who accepted the story and the next year published Earley's "Prophet," one of three stories cited when Harper's won the 1993 National Magazine Award for Fiction. The M.F.A. graduate's career got another boost when Harrison advised Earley to sign on with an agent and introduced him to Gordon Kato, an assistant at ICM who was planning to set up shop for himself. "We've been a good pair," Earley says, "and have sort of grown up together, since at the time he was just beginning on his own and nobody had heard of me as a writer." Even then, though, Earley's renown was spreading, and among Kato's first sales was a story collection and novel by his start-up client to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown.
Here We Are in Paradise won reviewer acclaim as the debut of a unusually promising Southern writer, but Earley has mixed feelings about being pigeonholed as a writer from the South. Without denying the importance of place in his work, he is uncomfortable with the clichÃ©s often used to characterize Southern writers. "I hate being lumped in with writers whose characters all have beehive hairdos and live in doublewides and sit in naugahyde La-Z-Boys drinking RC Colas and eating Moon Pies and saying colorful things. I've never been to that cartoon version of the South, nor do I ever expect to be."
After the publication of Here We Are in Paradise Earley hit a rough patch. At the time Granta was proclaiming him one of the nation's outstanding young novelists, he was finding the novel form problematic and had just destroyed his first attempt at a full-length work. He wasn't suffering from a lapse in creative vision; rather, he was spiraling downward into a lengthy bout of depression. The Granta accolade came as "a shock. One minute I'm a depressed guy lying on the couch, and the next I'm one of the best young novelists in America, although I had not been able to complete a novel. But I was thrilled to be on the list with Lorrie Moore, who I think is the best prose writer around now."
With his depression under control, he finally began the novel that grew into Jim the Boy in January 1996 as a visiting artist at the Seaside Institute in Florida, although the cause of his slump still remains elusive to him. "One d sn't really need a cause to become depressed," he surmises. "As for my family history, no one was ever diagnosed with it. But remember, this was in the country. I've always heard stories about crazy unmarried aunts who would 'take to the bed' and stay there for awhile while everybody else went about their business as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening."
Neither was he was so deeply depressed when the Granta selections were announced that he was unable to use the honor to his advantage on the job market. "Sarah was close to getting her degree in Pittsburgh, and I was making a minimal living there as a freelance writer. We always had a nickel when we needed a nickel, but never had a dime. So when the Granta list came out and I was on it, I was smart enough to realize that if I was ever going to get a date for the prom, it was that year. So I took this new certification of me as a 'good writer' and hit the job market." And Vanderbilt, after a semester as writer-in-residence at the University of the South in nearby Sewanee, was where he wound up. "It's a good place for me to be now, and I love teaching creative writing, the best part of the job." Evidently he's good at it too; one of his students, Kevin Wilson, has published an essay in Oxford American and was one of five finalists in Esquire's recent fiction contest.
Earley is not finished with his novel's title character, and foresees what he calls a "Jim Glass saga." There are three stories about Jim as a grown man in Here We Are in Paradise, he notes. He had already been thinking about exploring Jim's boyhood when, around 1995, he heard at a cocktail party back in Rutherfordton of a privately published book titled Jim the Boy and it struck him as "a great title. I never read it, and understand it's a thinly veiled memoir that's nothing like my novel. But probably that was when the idea for this novel began fermenting in my mind." Included in the novel's acknowledgments is a nod to Jim the Boy, published by Jim Washburn of Lake Lure, N.C., in 1952.
Earley's novel has a vaguely autobiographical slant, although it's set in an era prior to his youth in Rutherfordton, and Earley grew up with a younger sister and both parents at home, while Jim is an only child being raised by his widowed mother and her three brothers. "I now wish he had a different last name, but that was the name I gave him in my first Jim Glass story, 'Story of Pictures,' and I was stuck with it. The metaphorical construction of the story involved pictures and ways of seeing, so 'glass' just fit into that. This is how Painter Creek in the stories and novel got its name, as did Lynn's Mountain, which to my ear sounds like 'lens.' But maybe that's just my graduate school pointy-headedness." And there's no connection between Earley's small Glass family and Salinger's much-larger Glass brood. "I was aware of that, certainly, but my Glasses and his are quite different, and I hope no one is going to think I stole the name from him. But Fred Chappell has an Uncle Zeno in I Am One of You Forever and Jim has an Uncle Zeno, and I didn't steal that either since I didn't read his novel until mine was well underway."
Nonetheless, the author and title character share a love of baseball, as well as the same birthday, June 15. And Earley family stories were admittedly appropriated. "My mother still tells about her great grandfather taking the whole family out in the yard and everyone facing his house when the lights came on for the first time. This big old dark barn of a house suddenly lit up like a castle. I used that story for the chapter when Jim g s with his uncles to see the lights finally switched on at one of their houses."
His grandmother's hallway--where he discovered the Sandburg plaque now hanging in his office--became the setting for his contribution to Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own, a 1995 Habitat for Humanity fundraiser edited by Sharon and Steve Fiffer. Published by Pantheon, the volume's in-house editor was Sarah Burnes, who later moved to Little, Brown and inherited Jim the Boy from Pietsch when Pietsch was named editor-in-chief. " 'Hallway,' " Burnes posits, "was Tony's first nonfiction work. It's amazing how he can shift between different styles and voices. It was a delightful surprise."
Earley's next book, a personal essay collection slated for publication by Algonquin next spring, may bring more surprises. Editorial director Shannon Ravenel[?]--she is also editor of the New Stories from the South series, for which Earley wrote last year's preface and has had five of his stories selected--describes the collection as "the work of a great writer who rips open his chest and skull and takes the reader inside for a no-holds-barred tour." The working subtitle, Earley tells PW, is "Stories That Are Mostly True." And the title? "That's Somehow Form a Family, the punch-line from the Brady Bunch theme song."
Now there's a son of the real New South.
Bob Summer is Publishers Weekly's Southern correspondent.