A Conversation with Joe Samuel Starnes
SAM STARNES is my friend; let’s just get that out there. I’ve known him for thirteen years. We make it a point to attend a writing conference once a year; we’ve been keeping up a weekly correspondence about our writing for the past two years; and we shave each other’s back hair. (One of those three things is not true.) However, even if I had never fallen for Sam’s Georgia-boy charm, I’d still love his writing. He’s one of those small-press authors who will very soon become a big-time, top-hat and monocle-wearing author. And on April 7, his third novel, Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel (Breakaway Books) comes out, which might be the book that shoots him to the top.
Joe Samuel “Sam” Starnes was born in Alabama, grew up in Cedartown, Georgia, and has lived in either New Jersey or Philadelphia since 2000. Red Dirt is his third novel. His first novel, Calling, was published in 2005, and was reissued in 2014 as an ebook by Mysterious Press/Open Road. NewSouth Books published his novel, Fall Line, in November 2011, and it was selected for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Best of the South” list. He has had journalism appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and various magazines, as well as essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, an MA in English from Rutgers University in Newark, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. He was awarded a fellowship to the 2006 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He works in the administration at Widener University and has taught writing courses at Widener, Rowan University, and Saint Joseph’s University.
KEVIN CATALANO: Thank you for coming all the way out here to my houseboat in the dead of night to do this interview.
JOE SAMUEL STARNES: Thank you, Mr. Suttree. Nice boat you have here. Knoxville is beautiful in the springtime.
Here’s a catfish. Now go on, get ye a drink. Here are some warm-up questions: Dinosaur Train or Dora and Friends?
Dinosaur Train. I love that Johnny Cash-like theme song and the show’s vibrant colors, but I have no vote on the kid programs we watch in my house.
The redheaded stranger has long been one of my favorites, and I include him up on the same shelf with my favorite fiction writers and poets, as I do other great songwriters like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and the Drive-By Truckers. So much to say about Willie, but one of the most inspiring parts of his story is how, when he reached his forties and the Nashville system wouldn’t make him a star — telling him he didn’t have the voice, he cut out for Austin, Texas, and became an icon. Had he stayed in Nashville and listened to the naysayers, we wouldn’t know who the hell he is. I’m hoping for the day when an outlaw movement of the fiction equivalent to Waylon, Willie, and Billy Joe Shaver will come along and bust more books loose from New York’s stronghold on publishing.
Okay, let’s get to it: I’m really excited about Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel, out next week. Tell us a little about it.
The short version is that it’s the redneck Rocky of southern tennis novels. A longer version is that it’s a story of a blue-collar country kid who breaks through into the world of competitive junior and then professional tennis, falls, and then fights his way back into the game in his late thirties, sometimes living in his van while on the road. It’s also a story about social status, a father and a son, a divided family, a tempestuous relationship or two, and a few tennis eccentrics.
How did you arrive at the idea to write a tennis novel? In the long list of sports novels, there seems to be very few about tennis.
I grew up playing tennis, and with the exception of a few layoffs, I’ve played all my life. I love the game. It is remarkable how few books there are about tennis in comparison with golf and baseball. The germ of my novel’s idea goes back about fifteen years or more when I grew tired of hearing John McEnroe’s perennial lament about the lack of tennis movies. I started writing a screenplay, maybe getting only ten pages down on paper, before putting it aside. I went on to write three novels, two of which were published, but the idea was always there, lurking. After it percolated for seven years, I started writing this novel. Eight years after that — years of writing and revising very long drafts and then bouncing it around in search of a publisher — here we are.
Every writer has bad days — days when you doubt the project you’re working on, doubt yourself as a writer, and you want to crawl inside a whiskey bottle and sing Hank Williams and weep. Right? How do you deal with these bad days? Did you have any while working on Red Dirt?
Bourbon therapy is not good for your health or well being. Old Hank probably did a good bit of that bourbon-addled weeping, and he died at the age of twenty-nine, after all. Faulkner did his fair share of it, too (Think of the scene he inspired in Barton Fink: “Where’s my honey?!”). He expired at sixty-four. I want to be around longer.
As for bad days, I certainly had them while writing Red Dirt — bad weeks and bad months, even. I mentored a grad student once who said that seven out of eight of her writing days were bad days, but the one good day when it came along made the bad days worth it. (Her name is Laura Koenig, by the way, and she has a great draft of a novel in search of an agent or publisher.)
I agree with Laura, although I hope the percentage of good days is a little bit higher, but it’s not up to fifty-fifty. You have to keep going, and keep your eye on the big picture, remembering that only the final draft matters. When you are having a bad day, remember the good days are coming, and keep putting the words down. And the more bad writing days you survive, the less difficult it seems. Sooner or later you realize these are not bad days — these days are just part of the process.
One of the unique aspects of Red Dirt is that it’s very much a novel of place. The novel is set in the South, to the extent that I would say this is as much a Southern novel as it is a tennis novel. Can you talk about the importance of the South in Red Dirt, and in your other novels?
I grew up in rural Georgia and for the first fifteen years lived about half a mile from a paved road, about a mile from the next house. We could go out in our backyard at night and look up at the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen. That setting, and the South, will always be with me, be part of who I am, regardless of how long I live in or near big cities up north.
One of the drawbacks of publishing with an independent press is that, for the most part, the author has to do much of his own promotion. Being on Facebook and Twitter, we’re constantly bombarded with writers promoting their stuff. Of course, some do it better than others. How do you feel about this? Is social media a gift to bourgeoning writers? Is it a necessary evil when it comes to self-promotion?
Can you imagine William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor tweeting? “The Violent Bear It Away — in stores now!” Of course, what we know from their letters, they would have been hilarious.
In some ways I enjoy the digitalized socializing — writing is a lonely endeavor, and it’s good to be able to communicate with others so easily. On the other hand, how much mental energy do we writers spend composing tweets and posts when we could be working on the next poem, story, essay, or novel? I worry about wasting my time when I should be writing.
And I am often uncomfortable with the self-promotion, but I spent a great deal of time writing these novels, and I’d like for readers to find them, so I tweet and post. And I wouldn’t mind getting paid for my time. However, I sometimes feel like the cyber version of the man by the subway entrance who is opening up his raincoat, asking passersby if they want to buy a watch.
Now is the time in the interview when you get the special privilege of asking me a question. Really, any question at all.
How fortunate were we that we took classes and workshops with Alice Elliott Dark at Rutgers-Newark more than a decade ago? I learned so much about fiction writing from her, especially point of view. She influenced not only how I write, but how I teach.
Agreed. She’s such a quiet, wise instructor. I also learned a lot about writing from your writing and workshop comments during those years.
Your previous novels, Calling, Fall Line, and even Red Dirt, one might call ‘literary,’ even though all three have exciting, plot-driven narratives. I know that in the past couple years, you’ve been working on writing crime novels with the hopes of making some real money. Since we’re friends, and you’re a damn fine writer, I know you’re not ‘selling out.’ Still, does one sacrifice art when trying to write for money?
I think if making money is one’s primary objective, he should enroll in an investment banking or biomedical engineering program.
I love much literary fiction, but I also always have read and enjoyed crime fiction, all the way back to devouring Hardy Boys books when I was young, so I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m selling out or not. (And you can’t accuse me of selling out yet, because I need to make some money first.) And I don’t feel the need to assess some forms of literature as art and others as commerce. I am a firm believer that there are many crime writers — both past and present, such as Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, James Lee Burke, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Carl Hiaasen, and Megan Abbott — who are just as artistic and talented as writers who many people consider ‘literary.’
When your novels start raking in millions of dollars, what percentage of that will you give to me? I mean, you see how much work this houseboat needs.
If this is your plan to save yourself, Mr. Suttree, your boat is going to sink down into the Tennessee River muck and rot away.
It’s already sprung a leak.
You had the opportunity to meet and hang out with the great Barry Hannah before he passed away. Tell us about what that was like, what he was like, and what you admire about him.
Yes, I’d corresponded with Barry (He would write letters in pencil.). I met him a few times in Oxford, Mississippi, and I was fortunate to be in his workshop at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006. He was a tennis player and encouraged me to write about tennis, giving me a boost that inspired me when I started writing Red Dirt.
He was funny as hell, often speaking in sentences much like he wrote, with language that surprised and turned everything upside down in a way that makes it seem it should have been upside down to start with.
He also was a very warm and supportive teacher, but if he didn’t like your work, he let you know. He referred to a slow-moving passage in my novel, Fall Line, as “abject naturalism.” I took the advice and trimmed it. Not everyone loved his tough love, however. One humorless Iowa MFA graduate never came back to the workshop after he referred to her story as “trivial fluff.” But he was right.
My last question for you is this: of all the characters from your novels, which would you least like to be trapped in a houseboat with and why?
Elmer Blizzard from Fall Line. He spits frequently, scratches himself often, and he doesn’t have much to say — or at least can’t express himself. He wouldn’t appreciate my empathy for him, nor would he be impressed with the time and trouble I put into creating him. Since he’s always armed, he would probably shoot me straightaway.
Sam, thanks again for meeting me here. I’d let you crash for the night, but I plan on crying myself to sleep, and I don’t want you to witness that.
It has been my pleasure, Mr. Suttree. Tell Oceanfrog Frazer hello for me if you see him.
Interview originally published on 4/3/15