Four years after being prematurely tapped for Granta's Best of the Young American Novelists club, Tony Earley finally released his debut novel, Jim the Boy (2000), a Depression-era pastoral about a 10-year-old and his North Carolina family. Eight years on, Little, Brown is releasing the sequel, The Blue Star (Reviews, Dec. 3), in which 17-year-old Jim falls in love in the months before WWII.
How did Jim the Boy's reception—including laudatory front-page coverage in the New York Times Book Review—affect your career?
Jim certainly got a lot of attention, but it's also a pretty odd book. It's not smart and hip and postmodern, so I didn't get invited into that club, and it's not violent and gothic and bloody, so I didn't get invited into that particular Southern writing club. After the initial brouhaha, things got pretty quiet again.
How did the attention affect your work on the sequel?
My big concern was that I was going to mess up Jim the Boy. If it had had a horrible critical reception, I'm sure it wouldn't have taken eight years to write another book. It's a good problem to have, I don't want to sound whiny, but it freaked me out a little bit.
What's changed for you in those eight years?
The big thing is, we adopted our daughter, Clara, three years ago, and it gave me some needed perspective. I didn't worry so much about writing. Although the summer before last, Clara wandered up to my office and said, “So, dad, you finish that book yet?” And I said, “Who sent you?”
Like Jim, you were raised in the shadow of the North Carolina Appalachians. How much of your own family do you see in the Glasses and their world?
I swiped some family stories, but there's little that happened to me that happens to Jim. I grew up in the foothills, and I was noticing over Christmas when we were home that the mountains do feel kind of haunted to me. There's just something wonderfully mysterious about that part of the world. I always looked forward to that place where the road curves and the mountains begin, the feeling that, “Oh, I'm in a different place now.”
What is it about Jim and the Glass family that keeps you coming back?
I got sort of stuck with the people. I guess that's a mixed blessing. They show no signs currently of moving out of my head. There's at least one more Jim novel to come.
So should we settle in for another eight year wait?
I don't seem to do anything until the noise dies down, and people sort of forget about me, and then I'll write a new book. I'm 46, so obviously I'm hoping to change that pattern.