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Interview: August 21, 2013

In LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY, his first novel in 15 years, Wilton Barnhardt introduces readers to Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband, Duke, exemplars of Charlotte, North Carolina’s high society. Jerene works tirelessly to preserve her family's legacy, even if her loved ones aren't cooperating.'s Bronwyn Miller gets Barnhardt to open up about his inspiration for this proud-to-a-fault Southern matriarch, and the delicacy with which he had to write her in order to avoid any camp or irony. Barnhardt also discusses his own liberal brand of Southern pride, the interesting --- sometimes jarring --- way the South's past and present seem to intersect, and why he and his book-loving family started the Barnhardt Family Fund at Warren Wilson College. LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY is your first novel in 15 years. Had you been ruminating on it since your last novel, or were there other projects in between?

Wilton Barnhardt: I had been working on my sprawling, multi-century Western out in California, but when I moved back east, I was unable to enjoy all the university libraries and rare documents that I could get my hands on in the Bancroft and Huntington libraries…and so research and writing slowed to a crawl. I moved Novel No. 5, my Southern novel, LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY, up in the batting order. Once I did that, it took six years to finish it, despite the ease of the research. I was directing an MFA program at the time, and my life went into the abyss, I’m afraid.

BRC: This is such a multi-layered family saga. What was the idea you started with first? How long did the writing process take from start to finish?

WB: The trick of the book, as you know, is that all 11 main characters get their own chapter and the narrator looks over their shoulders. The plot moves like a football on a lateral pass among the characters, none of them knowing everything the reader knows (or thinks she knows). The order of chapters moved around up until the last year of writing it (Duke, for instance, was the second chapter, not Gaston), and one family member, the slumming, walk-on-the-wild side Christopher, had his own chapter, but I dropped it. Thanks to magazines and TV, the once-mysterious, dangerous world of meth labs has become standard knowledge. Sorry, Chris, but the book went on just fine without you. It took six years to write it and arrange it --- the arranging and fidgeting taking more time than the initial writing. And the first impulse for the whole book? Jerene.

BRC: You’ve written three previous novels, each one very different. EMMA WHO SAVED MY LIFE is a coming-of-age story set in New York City, GOSPEL is a theological thriller, and SHOW WORLD is a satiric send-up/cautionary tale of Hollywood. What made you finally decide to write a novel set in your home state of North Carolina? How important to the story is the span of years that it covers?

WB: I tend to write to amuse, educate and entertain myself, and I have been blessed and pleasantly bemused that anyone else wanted to read alongside me. I did hold off on the South --- and this will be my one and only Southern novel --- because I wasn’t quite sure I knew what I thought, despite having been born and raised there. I’m defensive about the South, as well as deeply critical, though I DO live here and have lived in Alabama and Louisiana as well. Despite its backward politics and social and economic challenges, it is absolutely the most interesting part of the country, and the rest of the nation owes its music, a portion of its literature, and a lot of good cooking to the region. But I was equally determined not to write a nostalgic, old times on the homeplace kind of Southern novel; this is the South as one finds it now, in the Age of Obama.

BRC: Duke Johnston clings to his family history and Civil War artifacts like they are his life-blood, even though in the end, clinging to the past is what ultimately brings about his family’s downfall. In Book 2, you write: “Now it hardly matters what Jerene and Duke’s children do; the world of proprieties and respectabilities, the patina of Southern grace and elegant public bearing, all of that was nearly gone and smashed to bits.” Did you set out to write a novel that would comment on the New South vs. the Old South?

WB: Yes, and while Jerene Jarvis Johnston, with her grasp on society, her position due to her art collection and her trust, her husband’s family and their Civil War pedigree, seems to be fighting a rear-guard action for the Old Southern proprieties and caste system --- her children couldn’t care less. The racial/class strictures and threat of social embarrassment and shame that steadied her generation seems to have evaporated, yet Jerene still holds out (as do many matriarchs across the South) for the happy society marriage for her children, the placid genteel surface enriched by nice things, traditions, heirlooms, family silver --- things that whisper of a proud history (whether that history was proud or even true!).

BRC: The characters in the novel have their own specific complications. Did you discover during the process that you had a favorite character to write for? Which character proved to be the most challenging? Which did you find was the most sympathetic?

WB: I was surprised when I got to the reclusive aunt, Dillard, with her exaggerated health problems and her virtual agoraphobia following a spectacularly bad marriage and tragic situation with her self-destructive son, how much I liked and understood her. Jerene was fun to write, but I had to watch myself; she is never camp, or used merely for comic effect --- she is too deadly serious in her purposes for that. The most fun was the debauched, intolerant, judgmental, badly mannered Gaston Jarvis, the artistically failed Southern writer. A projection of how I hope not to end up, I suppose!

BRC: Even though it is satiric in nature, the reader does feel for the matriarch, Jerene. She may be obsessed with appearances, but you get the sense she is trying harder than anyone to keep the family (and its myths) intact. How difficult was it to walk that fine line between satire and empathy for a character?

WB: Her children, particularly Annie, the unwilling debutante, would no doubt say their mother is living in the past, deluded, not aware that these trifles are long gone, gone with the wind, but that would be a misreading. Jerene knows times have changed --- oh, she is well aware --- but she would say that contemporary society was wrong to too quickly abandon the comforts of class, a good marriage, family name, propriety and keeping the darker secrets of a family hidden like they should be. I was careful not to “interpret” Jerene for the reader. My friends who got to read the book early had every imaginable reaction to her --- a villain, the sort of matriarchal dragon lady one is right to fear; a heroine, noble in her way; and, in one case, a friend said she was an absolute role model. I am happy for the reader to debate her character and her merits.

BRC: Each character is so richly drawn and detailed, they feel like flesh-and-blood people who you might have gone to school with or could be your neighbors. Did you base any of them on people you know? (You don’t have to mention any names. We wouldn’t want anyone coming after you!)

WB: Absolutely. Better leave that answer right there without elaboration! My mother does wish it known that she is in no way the model for Jerene Jarvis Johnston, and of course, not being Society in any way, shape, or form, that seems true enough. But my mother --- and many of the women in my family --- have that stoic ability to weather disaster and the preposterous antics of their offspring/husbands/relatives, and something of this strength must have imputed itself to the book. I am aware that I am by no means the first to notice the lapidary resilience of women in this region

BRC: You were a graduate student at Brasenose College at Oxford University. Can you tell us a little about that experience? Did you take anything from that time and incorporate it into your own teaching style?

WB: I had a magnificent Irish storytelling scholar for an advisor at Oxford who may well have made up half of what he recited, but it didn’t matter. He, like many in the British tutorial system, believed in 1) intimidation of the student through sheer volume of knowledge and expertise, and 2) providing good entertainment value. I have tried to incorporate those practices in my own benign, curmudgeonly way. If you make it clear to the student how much you love literature, how essential it is to you, how it speaks as nothing else does to one’s deepest feelings, then it proves contagious. Not that there weren’t crazed eccentrics at Oxford from whom you could learn completely nothing --- I could make you that list, too. Any expatriation, of course, is beneficial and educational; I wouldn’t have traded living abroad for anything, and I go back each summer with an NC State study abroad group of students so I can spread that particular gospel. We tend to be parochial in the United States, and that is especially true in the South --- the more international travel for everyone, the better!

BRC: Did you always intend to use the title LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY, a reference to the anthem Dixie,” or did that come later on in the process?

WB: For a long time, it was going to be LOOKAWAY DIXIELAND, like the once-and-future novel of Gaston Jarvis, but my novel, as the years passed and I knew it better, could in no way be confused for Gaston’s, and I didn’t want the reader to think I intended that. LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY is even more lost and wistful, and I liked the echo of ABSALOM, ABSALOM; there are faint allusions to a number of Southern masterpieces throughout if one looks with a magnifying class. It had always been my intention to drop a lyric from “Dixie” for the title, which starts the New South-Old South argument on the cover of the book. By the way, I asked an undergraduate class if they knew where my title came from and not ONE hand went up; “Dixie” has been exiled to the Southern shadows…

BRC: You were raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. How much does your Southern upbringing permeate your work?

WB: Despite having lived for five years in Europe, eight in Los Angeles, three in New York City, I have had to admit that I am, in many ways, culturally Southern. But I’m one of the Southerners who does not sit easily with the flow of the politics or the church or the calcification of white privilege that rarely gives an inch. But there are plenty of us troublemaking redneck liberals; I have plenty of company and, I suspect, through the centuries, always would have had fellow travelers.

BRC: In addition to being a novelist, you’re the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. How does being a teacher inform your writing?

WB: I have recently unloaded that job; indeed, that’s how I was able to finish the book, and without my poet colleagues and an indulgent department head, I might not have finished it yet. That is the downside in a nutshell: Teaching at the university, especially in an MFA program, leaves no time for anything else, much less the dawdling, ambling, false-start process that is writing. The good things, however, outweigh the bad: in the interactions, the fresh talk of ideas and structures and plots and characters, the rules you formulate to share with a class, which you find yourself applying to your own work successfully. Everyone I know who teaches to keep a roof over his head (a peril of the profession --- the day job) generally agrees on this point, that being around talented young people is uplifting rather than dispiriting.

BRC: You started out as a journalist, writing for publications like Sports Illustrated. What made you make the jump to being a novelist?

WB: Those were wonderful, raucous days, being a reporter at Sports Illustrated. Occasionally now, stuck in a misconceived chapter, I yearn for the simplicity of reporting on a simple points race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series…but no. I like a big canvas. Both journalism and novel-writing tell stories, but the novelist is more megalomaniacal, creating a whole universe in which he is an imperfect deity over the lives of his creations.

BRC: The actual day-to-day work of a writer can be quite solitary and lonely. Once the book is published, the readings, talks and appearances begin. Is this an enjoyable part of the process for you?

WB: Book tours aren’t as essential as they used to be, and the era of the 75-whistle-stop tour are no more; there are more sophisticated ways, in the emerging media, to publicize a book. But I miss the old days, even the rainy Tuesdays with three people showing up to the reading (who you suspect were herded in from the breakroom by the bookstore events organizer…). I like meeting the people who read --- the only people I want to meet anyway --- in every town in the country. If you’re lucky, they’ll hang out with you after the reading is over --- fans, future readers, book people who read more than I get to, who will fill a list with recommendations for when I do have time to read. You get to know where the cool coffee shop/cocktail bar/bistro is in every city. No, publication and meeting one’s readers is the fun part.

BRC: Can you tell us a little about the Barnhardt Family Fund at Warren Wilson College?

WB: My mother grew up on a little farm in the Bee Tree Valley of Swannanoa, N.C., a quarter-mile from Warren Wilson College (back when it was Farmer’s College). During the Depression, they took in poor students who couldn’t afford even the bunkhouse up at the college, in return for farm chores and a little bit of money here and there. How strange then that my childhood summers (when I was up with my grandparents), spent biking around Warren Wilson campus, would have a sequel.

In 1997, I was invited to be part of the Warren Wilson fiction faculty, and few associations have ever meant more to me. Their MFA Program for Writers --- the best low-residency MFA in the country --- is enriching for the faculty, too, who live together in the dorm (imagine the late-night discussions!), but also attend each other’s lectures and seminars. The brilliance I have heard! Sometimes I have wanted to crawl out the exit wondering what on earth a clod like myself was doing there in this company. But we’re a big book-obsessed family, a mafia, a mutually supporting literary mob. My mother and I have given money to provide a scholarship that will cover living expenses for a term, but we hope to add to it. Buy LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY, America, and that fund will grow much bigger!

BRC: What are some of your favorite novels of the South, both old and new?

WB: That deserves a semester-long answer, but leaving aside debates as to Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, even Willa Cather, being Southern, one returns to the lodestars that are William Faulkner (his LIGHT IN AUGUST is maybe the greatest), Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, and Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MANfor which we’ll give an Oklahoman dispensation. We all know of Welty, McCullers, Wright, Penn Warren, O’Connor, Percy, Tennessee Williams. Maybe it is more useful to talk of great living writers who are doing interesting work. How about Ron Rash (SERENA), Valerie Martin (PROPERTY), Edward P. Jones (THE KNOWN WORLD), anything by Ernest J. Gaines or Lee Smith --- both masters of what they do --- Percival Everett (ERASURE). There are poetry collections every bit as rich and narrative as our novels, i.e., Ellen Bryant Voigt (KYRIE), Claudia Emerson (PINION), Maurice Manning (LAWRENCE BOOTH’S BOOK OF VISIONS), Natasha Trethewey (DOMESTIC WORK). And stories by the aforementioned Mr. Rash or Jill McCorkle (GOING AWAY SHOES) or newcomer Andy Duncan (THE POTTAWATOMIEGIANT AND OTHER STORIES). I could go on…

BRC: What would you like readers to take away from LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY?

WB: Of course, the characters, the plot twists, the mayhem, the humor. But it would also be worth discussing, like Jerene cries out in a different circumstance, how long the damned Civil War was going to haunt us. Has that 150-year-old shadow of defeat and folly, the vainglorious attempt to perpetuate the abomination of slavery at swordpoint, been washed out of the fabric of Southern life, or are the sporadic public reactionary temper tantrums (the Dixiecrats, the Wallace voters, the Tea Party) disguising a revival of hostilities? Will the South ever blend seamlessly with the rest of the country? Would it be a loss if it did so?

BRC: Are you working on another novel? If so, what can you share about it?

WB: Next, if the powers-that-be will so permit, I would like to publish a pile of my short stories. But I am also at work on the next novel. Number 5 will be a European romantic comedy with global economic overtones (well, it sounds ludicrous, but you’ll see when I finish) --- and I haven’t given up on the Western (Number 6)!