Interview Conducted by Shaun McMichael
Grit lit Novelist, Daren Dean, opens up about his new novel This Vale of Tears (Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press; October, 2021), a torrential tragicomedy of manners, miracles, and mortal wounds.
Cuckolded scofflaw Troy Scofield kicks off This Vale of Tears’s torrential tragicomedy when he kills old Bobby Lee Phelps, the lover of his wild-thing wife, Alisha. Troy’s prison release seven years later rekindles the brooding enmity between the pugnacious Scofield and Phelps families who because of their similarities are destined to conflict. Both rural Missouri clans mirror each other’s dire money trouble, generational curses, and cults of patriarchy alive and well in the novel’s 1970 epoch. “Old wounds ran deep. A shared genealogy spooled behind them but was powerless to heal the rift. The men…liked to think of themselves as figures of some grand tragedy and knowing all along that their own flaws of character would eventually bring them low” (60). The liquor-pickled men carouse and pick fights while their women leave, cling, or manipulate in ways that unintentionally double their misery. For example, young Raelyn Phelps flees her family’s abusive confines just to run into Troy. The two entangle in a star-crossed love affair further enflaming already combustible Phelps and Scofield patriarchs. I spoke with Daren Dean about his process writing This Vale…
Shaun Anthony McMichael (SAM): What was your entry point into this novel?
Daren Dean (DD): I wrote This Vale… a while ago and over a long stretch of time. I would have loved to start publishing this stuff when I was thirty-five instead of in my forties and fifties, but it wasn’t ready. But what I remember is that for “This Vale…” I wanted strong-structured sentences that flowed like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay’s style of writing.
In terms of the story, I had this idea of writing about a deeply troubled character like Troy Scofield meeting a much younger character like Raelyn Phelps and about how she affects him. Then I wrote the first chapter, which operates as a kind of prologue. I didn’t call it a prologue though because of the immediacy and impact it possesses. After I wrote it, I wondered how I was going to keep up with that intensity and pace. The way I tried to achieve that relentless pacing was to cut out all the boring parts, which has always been a goal of mine. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader. As the chapters go along, some of them are more languid as certain dynamics take more time to develop.
SM: Let’s talk some more about Troy: “Everyone knew or had heard of Troy Scofield, he wasn’t a real person anymore in their minds, he was an evil spirit haunting the backroads of the past. An evil man who belonged in a tomb” (255).
Troy is a rage-filled, entitled mess, yet a reader can’t take their eyes off him. We’re compelled to him the way women are. At outset, Troy appears as a bad seed. But as the narrative unfolds, we see he’s a seed trying to grow in a shallow cowpie. This brings me to the topic of likability. Tell me about what draws you to depicting characters whose unlikeable qualities may turn the average reader away.
DD: I knew I was never going to be the kind of writer who writes to a market. That’s just not who my role models were. Let’s take Flannery O’Connor. You would be hard pressed to think of a single likable character in her prose, yet you still want to read about them. The matter of likability just isn’t something I think about. I wanted Troy to read like a real person whose life is fucked up from the beginning. I wanted to show his progression.
I grew up around people like Troy—people with good qualities and bad. Let’s take my step-father, a truck driver and a local charmer. Though he and my mom weren’t married that long, I loved the guy. He was great with kids. He was always carrying around a Reader’s Digest to improve his vocabulary. Occasionally, he’d throw out new words at you, only he’d use them in a way that wouldn’t make total sense. Like when we were bickering, he’d argue, “well, that’s immaterial!” And I would scratch my head wondering what he meant. So in my first published novel, Beyond the Pale (2015; Fiction Southeast Press), I give that quirk to my main antagonist, Vaughn so he’s not just a relentless evil.
Or let’s take one of my great aunts who passed away a few years ago. She was always exasperated, saying “Oh my god, all you kids do is mess around!” Whenever I would see her, she would look at me and say “Haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” When I first brought my wife by her house, I said it to my aunt first, trying to get her goat. “Auntie, haven’t seen you for a while. Don’t you love me anymore?!?” But then she said, “Oh, shoot. I’m the old lady. You come see me!”
I like using little details like these in my fiction, giving mixed qualities to my characters.
To go back to Troy, he isn’t Hitler, but he’s never going to join the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t even say he’s in the middle. He’s just a regular person. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just regular people.
SAM: Troy makes the most sense in the context of his environment: Fairmount, a town in Kingdom County, Missouri. Tell me more about the setting.
DD: Fairmont is fictional, though based somewhat on Fulton and a few other small towns that I grew up around and where my mom and dad still live, separately. These towns were established by Southerners, which is funny because I don’t consider myself Southern exactly. My fictional county “Kingdom County” comes from The Kingdom of Callaway County. Around the Civil War, citizens of this county tried to remain neutral and succeeded officially from the United States. But as with a lot of places that tried to remain neutral during the Civil War, the towns in The Kingdom of Callaway got taken advantage of; both sides hated them. I write about that in The Black Harvest (2020; CJ Press).
Like a lot of writers who write about their hometowns, I write about these places to gleefully expose their underbellies. Though I’m aware that people from the place may get mad because my novels aren’t PR pieces about how wonderful the towns are and how great the Soybean Festival is, etc.….
SAM: While plot convention necessitates foreboding tones to some degree, I felt a profound sense of ominousness throughout this novel. Even after the climax’s catastrophe, in the denouement, a reader feels that the real storm has yet to break. To what extent did the disturbing nature of our contemporary times fuel this sense of foreboding that floods the novel?
DD: Not so much. The story takes place in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up in those times and it wasn’t hard to write about those feelings from back then. As a kid, I remember not understanding exactly what was going on or why people were saying what they said. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. So it seemed natural to try to capture that experience.
SAM: This is a language driven work as much as it is character driven. For these characters, bottle openers are “church keys”; to be armed to the teeth is to be “loaded for bear”. You’re a college professor. Tell me how you keep your ear low enough to the ground to maintain authenticity?
DD: You pay attention to the language, the cadence, and the diction of the people around you. Of course, many of the people who were adults in the ’60s and ’70s don’t speak in the same way anymore; they’ve been exposed to more things and have become more ‘sophisticated’. But in writing this novel, I wanted to remember how people spoke back then. So again, I turned to memories of my great aunt. She still spoke the way she had when she was young. We were out driving down a gravel road to visit some of my cousins and she said, “When I drive through here of a night, I have to watch out for deer and the like.” And, like an idiot, I said how interesting I thought that was, “of a night”. But she just thought I was making fun of her. I love to capture things like that and put them in my fiction. When someone says something in a natural way from the heart, I pay attention.
SAM: The intertextuality with music is enjoyable in This Vale…. Thank you for sharing your soundtrack for the novel on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/58qZpSttC27ZEbF7rD4oSA#login), which makes a wonderful companion for the novel. In addition to musical artists, I hear the following literary artists’ voices in This Vale…: O’Connor, Faulkner, and McCarthy. Who were you listening to when you wrote it?
DD: Two early influences come to mind. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) was a book that felt really close to my life. I could really understand it in a tangential sort of way.
In the ’90s, I read Flannery O’Conner for the first time. She’s not a writer they introduce you to in high school because she’s so subversive. I remembered thinking, who has been hiding Flannery O’Connor from me? And I read everything she wrote. Wise Blood (1952) had a particular impact on me. I had a strange childhood—four or five childhoods really. Part of my growing up was with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a holy-roller, lay-preacher who spoke in tongues and did the laying-on of hands. When I was about eight years old, they asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. At the time, I had this weird obsession with Elvis, so I said I was going to be a singer. They were very irate. “No,” they said. “You’re going to be a preacher and serve God!” We didn’t just read the Bible. Biblical language was your whole life. You memorized it. You had to do citations of it. I went to this little Christian school where you had to recite whole chapters. I memorized 2 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, in the King James, of course, because as they’d say, “if the King James was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you!”
So when I read Wise Blood and Hazel Motes came along with his Church of Christ without Christ… It hit me hard. After I finished it, I knew I had to start writing again, that it was my true calling.
Everybody said it was crazy and that I couldn’t do it. It’s funny. Now that I have these degrees and am a professor, suddenly everyone comments on how I’m so intelligent. But I don’t remember anyone saying that when I started. They told me to pull my head out of my ass.
A few years after reading O’Connor, I came across Mississippi writer Larry Brown, who became another big influence. I’m nothing like Larry Brown, but his characters really spoke to me. I could really understand them. And I thought I could work in that school of writing.
There are writers I read now just for language. Let’s take Barry Hannah, a master of the non-sequitur. He has this great short story called “Ride Fly, Penetrate Loiter” (1983) about these guys hanging around a gas station. They see this beautiful, well-dressed woman and the guys start speaking Shakespearean. With a turn of phrase, Barry Hannah can pivot genres. He’s a genius with language. Reading Barry Hannah or others like him, I get emotional and have to share it with somebody or exclaim “can you believe they wrote that?” When I was younger, I used to read everything, but now, if a writer doesn’t move me that way, I don’t want to read them.
SAM: A reader can’t help but be dazzled by well-limned scenes in your work rendered with fugue-like detail. How do you go about composing a scene?
DD: The secret I’ve learned to writing isn’t much of a secret. It just takes a long time to develop, and you can only progress so far beyond a certain point unless you grasp it. Madison Smartt Bell writes about it in his Narrative Design(Norton, 2000); Robert Olen Butler devotes his book From Where You Dream (Grove, 2006) to it. What the secret is, is what they’re talking about: writing from your subconscious.
Some writing teachers say you brainstorm, then outline. But when I try to write an outline, as soon as I really get into a scene, the outline is no good anymore. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from the unconscious mind, from where you dream, as Butler says.
Since we were kids, we’ve been getting in trouble for daydreaming. “You’ve got to work harder,” they’ve said. “You’ve got to diagram some sentences. That will be good for you.” But as a writer, none of that will help you unless you have great ideas. How many ways can you polish a turd? It might be grammatically correct, and your sixth-grade teacher would love it, but it could still suck.
So how do you write from the subconscious? You get distracted a lot by everyday life: taking out the garbage; telling your kids to do their homework; helping your wife with something; dealing with a student plagiarizing… All those things detract from being able to get your head in the right place. You have to do those things, but they do detract from being able to dream your stories. Of course, those daily happenings can also enhance your stories. I find that inspiration usually doesn’t happen when you sit down and say “Okay, now I’m going to write.” You might be in the shower and suddenly, a scene starts happening and you’ve got to get out of the shower and write it down or it will be gone forever. So when you’re washing dishes and inspiration happens, if you can maintain that state of mind, that’s where you can start.
SAM: I found that the most gut-wrenching scenes in This Vale… were those in which an adult tries to fill up a child’s need for love with good manners. Yet one of your epigraphs is a quote from William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932): “Perhaps they were right in putting love into books,” he thought quietly. “Perhaps it could not live anywhere else”. Tell me about the love you put in this book? To phrase the question another way, how/why is it loving to write a book depicting such tragically unloved characters who act out in unlovable ways?
DD: To me, what fiction is all about is expressing the things that go unexpressed. Even if we love people and they love us, the words ‘I love you’ are inadequate most of the time and we hurt each other. Even with the best intentions, we don’t communicate well. I don’t propose how to fix this in my fiction. I’m trying to capture it. My aesthetic is not to teach moral lessons. That’s what I admire about Cormac McCarthy. He states what happens and you see the story unfold. But he doesn’t tell you how you should feel about it. It’s frustrating because you sometimes want him to. But for me, it goes back to the Bible. If you read the stories in Genesis, there’s very little ethical commentary on what happens. Much like literary fiction, it happens, and you’re left to ponder what it means. Life tends to be that way. I don’t want to give a sermon and tell people what to think. Not to argue with John Gardener too much; there’s a responsibility you have as a writer. But it’s not to tell the reader what to think or how to live.
SAM: There’s a Romeo and Juliet comparison with Troy and Raelyn’s relationship. Indeed, the Phelps vs. Scofield dynamic alludes to the Capulets-vs-Montague tension. Was that in your mind at all when constructing the narrative?
DD: It wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing it. But I was talking to a reporter who did a review of the book and in trying to think of a way to explain the novel to an average person I remarked that it was a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet story.
SAM: The strongest thematic tie for me between your work and the Shakespeare play is actually in how ineffectual the older generations are in helping the younger generation. Take this quote for example:
“Walker Scofield (Troy’s grandfather) was crazy and the inheritance he had passed on to his kids and heirs was that each had their own brand of peculiar to contend with” (295). Along with generational curses, This Vale… depicts vicious cycles: sexually-charged relationships imploding and rebirthing anew; the toxic relationship between alcohol and masculinity; neglected children who beget children they then neglect. What inspired these vicious cycles?
DD: It’s been observation and thinking through what I’ve seen in my family and other people’s families.
Parents now want to help their kids and they try so hard to cocoon and protect them from all the negative experiences that it also can hinder your growth as a person. I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone. I’ve tried so hard to protect my kids, I worry if they’ll have the necessary grit to make it through truly bad times when mom and dad aren’t there. I’m sure they will, but I can remember growing up and seeing the complete opposite.
During the time that This Vale… is set, it was a different generation. When I was a kid, adults had more of a WC Fields approach to parenting, like “go away, kid. Ya bothering me!” kind of thing. A parent’s attitude back then was, “I’m doing my thing here, you go do your thing over there”. My parents’ generation was all about doing your own thing and making yourself happy. My mom was married five times. My dad was married three times. People were trying to find themselves. That’s what you used to hear all the time.
And they had it tough. My dad told me a story about how his mom got remarried to this really big jerk. The guy was huge, but he also horded food from the kids. The ice man would come once a week and stick a brick of ice in the icebox. The Iceman Cometh, right? Well this guy would stash food in the icebox and not share any of it with my dad or his brother. And they were hungry. So one day they made a plan to wake up early and gorge themselves on the food and attack their stepfather when he came down after them. And that’s what they did. They attacked their stepfather and felled him to the ground. His mom screamed “you’re killing him”. My dad said, “Well, he’s been trying to kill me for years!” He realized after that that he couldn’t stay there anymore and ran out of the house. He was twelve years old. He moved around with different family members until he joined the army because he could get paid and get his three-square meals without having to asking somebody if he could sleep in the backseat of their car.
As for my mom, she was only seven years old when her mom died in childbirth.
These are the situations I want to capture in my stories set back in time.
SAM: Though the novel ends in tragedy for some of the characters, one of your middle-aged characters has a somewhat surprising repentant turn around by the end of this novel. If there’s a glimmer of hope in the ending, it’s for this middle-aged character. How did you decide to have this shift happen?
DD: I wanted to show that he had changed over time too. He’s not a perfect character. But I wanted to show this man in the position of acknowledging his own failings as a father while preserving what there is left to preserve. I see this play out a lot with parents who had it hard and were really stern with their kids. But then, when they have grandchildren, they spoil them. I didn’t want the story to just end in death. Sure, you’re the main character in your story, but when you’re gone, life goes on. And that’s the rebirth.
Daren Dean’s next novel Roads is forthcoming from Cowboy Jamboree (CJ) Press in 2023.
About the Interviewer: Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of two collections of poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (June 2021). Over 40 of his short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print, such as The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, Nude Bruce, and others. Shaun’s book reviews and author interviews can be found on PopMatters, an online arts and culture magazine.