Questions & Answers
Digging Up The Bones
Stanley Holland, Dale Marlowe’s Great Grandfather, stood for this photo at the Clover Mine in LeJunior, Kentucky in 1946. This image has become an icon of the long-suffering, quiet dignity of Kentucky miners.
What can a lawyer from Ohio know about Appalachia?
My childhood was that of an immigrant’s son; we lived in Ohio, but everything about our lives — accents, religion, music, customs, social mores, all of it, came from the hills. We went “down home” every summer. Our culture, while fairly common in Southern Ohio, remained distinct.
One of the characters in Digging Up The Bones tells another, by way of describing a relative they share in common, “Kentucky’s not home, but it’s where [I’m] coming from.” That’s me.
I don’t buy into the Write What You Know nonsense. Write What You Know is a Baby-Boomer-fetishized dictum that creates small, solipsistic lit. It presents the real risk of limited writing, reducing craft to memoir and identity reportage. This is evident from the past quarter-century’s appalling pileup of autobiographies of the uninteresting unfamous, and autobiographies of the uninteresting unfamous veiled poorly as fiction.
Write What You Know gives writers a “beat.” That’s a kind of creative journalism, but it’s usually less than real, lasting art. It’s a fearful, late-20th century, Boomer-dodge meant, in the case of white writers (principally white male writers) to assuage liberal guilt, avoid conflict, the chagrin of exposed ignorance, and accidental offense. Failing that, it sequesters writers into classes according to the phenotype hosting their genius.
I want black writers exploring the worlds of poor white-trash. I want to read Arabs inhabiting the lives of Israelis. Give me Rushdie skewering a faith he rejected, gleefully pissing off Ayatollah Khomeini. I want Vietnamese-American writers opining on the best barbecue in Tulsa and writing Vegas noir.
Why shouldn’t bourgeois white men in the Midwest — a class to which I barely belong in socioeconomic terms — expose any point of view they can imagine? Whether the writing is good, such experiments spur discourse, useful if awkward, to serve as correctives to misperception, if nothing else.
Writers must be free to comment on any facet of the world they want, as they see it. No aspect of the human condition should be taboo but the sin of allowing their work to be circumscribed according to identity.
Don’t Write What You Know.
Write What You Know To Be True.
Soon enough, real writers learn, and earn, the margins within which their work works. Otherwise, and perhaps despite, there can be and must be no barrier between a writer and the story but time, will and a keyboard.
How did the book come about?
You know the old saw about it “…takes a village to raise a child?” I wrote a piece about a man whose mistakes, as a very young man, landed him on death row. Seemed to me that saying could lay blame just as well as urge folks to care for one another. I took it a bit further and explored the environment that produced a man society thought dangerous enough to execute.
These are unpleasant tales.
So are people’s lives, usually, if told in truth.
Is it tough to write about race?
There are two episodes in Digging Up The Bones treating race, racism, and racists.
In one, an older fellow seems delighted when his prejudices seem to have carried over to his grandchild.
In the other, a young skinhead has second thoughts about his allegiances. These folks drop N-bombs. They do, in fact, hate. Even if they don’t know why, or if the reasons turn out, as is the case with the older fellow, to be more complex and sympathetic.
There’s another thread in Digging Up The Bones where a young man has an unexpected encounter with an older man, whose refusal to abide sexual and racial taboos forces the younger man to regard himself, finally, and in truth, without euphemism or hiding. A Come-To-Jesus thing, if you will.
The world — America, for sure — needs that kind of experience. White people deal with race lots of times by not dealing with race, or excusing themselves from the subject by pretending they don’t harbor bigoted notions. Bullshit. As an observant human, as a parent, it’s obvious to me that original sin — original sins, rather — are real.
Racism is one. All humans suffer it, inflict it, abide it. American white folks are quite insane about it all — nursing horror for things they never did, guilt for things they did, or continue to do, all combined with ambivalence, or hypocrisy, about the benefits and privileges resulting; all the while, they hate the parts of themselves reflexively repeating, excusing or protecting the whole setup.
My job as a writer is to get out of the characters’ ways and, when at my best, transcribe them. It’s uncomfortable in a bigot’s skin, but I’ll not sugarcoat a second. So, right. It is tough to write about race, but it should be a tough subject for anyone in America to treat, if they mean it any justice.
Writing about race as a white man lets me box myself around the ears, and test my comfort with the topics at hand. If spending measured time in the worst ‘hoods of the white psyche is the heaviest load I lift, in terms of race and racism, I’m one lucky bastard.
An aside: one big problem is we say one thing in private spaces and another in public. If people from different circumstances overheard one anothers’ dinner-table conversations, things would get sorted out, tut suite, or, if not, some of the more unpleasant ideas would be out in the open where we could use a ball-peen hammer to drive a pointed stake through their fatty, grizzled hearts.
You wrote many of these stories some time ago. Was there much work bringing them up to date?
I toyed with the idea of changing Yahoo! to Google in one of the passages, but decided to leave it. Short answer, then, is no — but it was a nice surprise to realize with all the changes in the world in the past decade, the work still stands. That’s a good sign.
Is Digging Up The Bones true?
This is fiction. There’s no Nash family. I mean, there’s one somewhere, or a hundred of them, probably, but I don’t know them, and they’re not these Nashes.
What a writer pens comes filtered through his consciousness; that means everything — journalism, history books, The Bible, the Chinese takeout menu in your desk drawer, whatever — it’s all fiction. All true, all false, all artifice and approximation taken from summary experience.
What does the title mean?
It refers to an event in one of the stories. It also refers to the — wait, really? I mean, isn’t that obvious? Okay, okay. It’s about unearthing the buried, digging into the past, all that. It sounds so damn pretentious when you explain it, but there it is.
Most call you Steve. What’s with “Dale?”
There are a few reasons for it; some, symptomatic of a bias to frivolity. Another is I’ve been accused of having a clutch of disassociated identities, or MPD, over the years, because I’m conservative, in terms of how my personal life is organized. I’m a happily married father with cats and a dog and a house in the ‘burbs. I want everyone to get along.
I also have a manic Dionysian impulse that surfaces irregularly — thankfully, with less frequency now that I’m the paterfamilias. Some pals have nicknamed those aspects, and the pen name is a wink-nudge at all that.
A couple of reasons for the distinction are serious. There was a successful author mid century — Milton Lesser, whose books are still in print, or else highly prized by collectors — and he adopted my entire name, exactly, long before my birth.
Digging Up The Bones hitting ink feels like an emergent moment. One chapter of my life is drawing down, and I’m partaking of the long tradition of folks celebrating such milestones by refashioning their identities.
I have some thoughts on the matter, all of which are probably blasphemies whispered by one of those loin-clothed alter-egos who’ve long overstayed their welcomes.
Originally published at stevemarlowe.net on June 29, 2015.