Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the Mary McCarthy Prize and long listed for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the Quarterly West Novella Contest. He is a recipient of the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Seattle Pacific University, a Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College, and A Tennessee Williams Scholarship at Sewanee School of Letters. His work has appeared of is forthcoming in various journals, including The Kenyon Review, Ecotone, Narrative Magazine, Image, Shenandoah, Quarterly West, and The Chattahoochee Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama.
On an April afternoon, Professor Poole and I sat down for this interview in his office, located on the second floor of the University of South Alabama’s Humanities Building in Mobile, Alabama. The window on the office’s southernmost wall allowed a soft afternoon light into the room, illuminating several bookshelves, sparsely decorated walls, and a neat desk featuring only a closed laptop and an open notebook.
Abby Plowman (AP):
If we could be anywhere other than Mobile for this interview, where would you prefer to be?
Nathan Poole (NP):
I have a lot of nostalgia for this one place in Swannanoa, North Carolina that’s called Dogwood Pasture. When I was teaching at Warren Wilson, I used to go there every day. But I say that right now because it’s Spring, and I know that the dogwoods are blooming, and I’m missing them.
AP: When did you first understand that fiction writing was possible? And was there a narrative or any piece of writing that sparked that discovery for you?
NP: There was a piece of writing that sparked me as a reader long before I gave fiction writing a shot. It was a piece that I discovered on my own after being assigned a Hemingway story, in a composition class for some reason, at the University of South Carolina. It was my first semester of freshman year. I liked the sound of his name. I didn’t grow up in a family that was interested in books or putting books in front of me. I grew up in Blythewood, South Carolina, in a place that was a bit of a cultural kind of desert, in some ways. You either did some sort of sport. [pause] That was really it, I guess. [laughing] What other options were there? Or I guess you could hunt. You could shoot things [laughing] if you weren’t interested in sports. So, I didn’t get to read a lot. I didn’t know what was out there, other than the few things that were assigned to me in high school. So anyway, I got this collection of his stories, and it’s funny because a lot of students now have an aversion to him. I was flipping through and found this short little story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Really simple premise: there’s two waiters who are talking about a deaf, drunk man who likes to come and sit in this café, and they decide to offer him sort of a sense of place and a sense of sanctuary. The story acknowledged something about reality and humanity that I’d never seen acknowledged before. It was something inarticulate, but it was so important to me. No one in my life had said to me what that story was saying to me. Not my parents, not my youth director, not my friends, not my coaches. It was acknowledging me, in a way, you know? It ratified something in me that had been dormant. It’s hard to talk about this stuff.
That was a before and after moment for me. I thought, “I’m a reader now!” It was something I never considered would happen to me. I started reading voraciously at night, as soon as I was done with my course work. A few years later my roommate was taking a Creative Writing class as a senior. He had heard it was an easy A, and that you didn’t have to do any course work if you didn’t want to. He suggested that I take it with him because he didn’t want to take it by himself, because he was scared. [laughing] Again, I had no inclination to be a writer. When we got in there, we found out that he was basically right. The class had no structure. It’s nothing like the classes y’all take here. The first day the professor was saying things like, “Who wants to write a story?” And people would raise their hand. And if you didn’t want to write a story, you just didn’t. And if you volunteered, you had to print off thirty copies of it and bring it in. The class would read it on the spot and react to it immediately, or just not react at all. The author would take up half the class reading a twenty-page story in its entirety to their classmates. For some reason I found this thrilling and I volunteered. I went back to my apartment, and did nothing else for two days but work on the story. It was as if I lost myself, I lost track of time. It was like falling into a wormhole or something. I had never felt that present before, as a person, in my life. All of my energy, all of my neuroses, that part of my consciousness that makes me feel like I’m in a thousand places at once, it was gone. That was also a wakeup call for me. That was powerful. The story wasn’t even good. And I sort of suspected that while I was working on it, that it wasn’t good, but it didn’t matter, it was an incantation or something. You know what I mean?
And then I became something of a hobbyist, I would write stories occasionally. I wrote a really short novel that I ended up throwing away after I graduated from college. It wasn’t until I went into seminary, because I was going to be a counselor – I got an undergrad in psychology and then went into seminary, thinking that I would do some sort of counseling within the Judeo-Christian world view – I started reading writers like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was a novel that just blew the top off my head. And that’s when I realized that, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be a counselor. I think I’m supposed to be a writer.” The kinds of things I was interested in saying were not the kinds of things that counselors say. So I dropped out of seminary and when back to get an MFA, which strangely didn’t seem like a departure. It was like trading one religious calling for another.
AP: Which writers would you say have influenced your relationship to your own work?
NP: Well there’s a lot of writers that messed me up because I tried to write like them. Flannery O’Connor being one of those writers, Faulkner being one of those writers, Robert Penn Warren being one of those writers. So, there’s a lot of folks that influenced me with their power but also threw me off track. Finding Breece Pancake’s stories was a big a-ha moment for me because of the scale of his drama. I realized that I didn’t have to write these loud, Southern picaresques to be a writer. And then I started discovering more writers that are in that vein. Lydia Peelle’s collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, was another collection that was an a-ha moment for me. Yeah, there’s a lot of them. Gosh. Who else? There are writers who aren’t as well-known but whose work is strange and also operates on a smaller dramatic scale. Gogol is one of those writers. He has a story called “The Overcoat” that was one of the first short stories ever, one of the first modern versions of the short story I mean. I had never really been interested in Chekhov until after I’d gotten into Pancake, and then I sort of came back and was like, “Oh, these stories are amazing.” I read his story “Gooseberries” I think after reading Pancake, and I’d read that story first and thought, “This narrator’s so strange, and the way these stories are told is so weird, and they don’t seem to be about anything.” But once I’d realized that stories don’t have to be – they don’t have to end in a bloodbath. [laughing] I started coming back to some of the classic short stories and finally getting it. So, I like to think that Chekhov and Gogol are two writers that, I hope, are influencing me, you know? [laughing] I hope I’m under their influence.
AP: What does the moniker “Southern writer” mean to you, and would you categorize yourself in such a way?
NP: I think the best answer to this question is actually by John Jeremiah Sullivan, that what sets Southerners apart is an overinvestment in their own meaning. Southern exceptionalism, in other words. We believe it means something to be Southern, which is the thing that perhaps makes us Southerners. So, you get in this dialectic cycle. But I also don’t think anyone should try to categorize their own work. And I would be scared to put my name in that hat and maybe flattered if someone else would put it in for me. [laughing]
AP: From reading your work, I’ve noticed that, while there is a lot going on, many of the climactic moments or the sort of revelations might be articulated as longing for or expecting something that’s absent. I don’t know if you feel that’s accurate, but these revelations and the characters themselves are often rather internal. How do you approach narratives and characters that are centered around that kind of negative space?
NP: Yeah, well I think the negative space is the psyche, right? The part of us that exists in a kind of ungovernable dark. It’d be nice if we could speak to our id and tell it to behave. [laughing] But it’s really in that ungovernable part of who we are. It’s kind of appropriate that we just recently had pictures of the first black hole, but all we’re really seeing is the way that matter’s behaving around that space. And I guess that on some level, that’s what all fiction is doing, right? We’re being shown something that suggests something within the character. Like T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative, you know, that’s all related, I think, to what we’re trying to do. And maybe I’ve become more conscious of that as a writer just because I did study psychology, and I’m constantly thinking about characters as having impulses that they themselves are not fully able to name or, if they do, they’re misnaming them.
AP: As a Creative Writing teacher, what do you hope students achieve in your classes?
NP: Something that I want everyone to have is an audience. I really believe that’s one of the best things about those classes, you know people are going to read your stuff. I want students to have that rush. It seems basic, as if that would be easy, but it takes lots of care and experience to create a place where that can happen safely – it can be a little tricky, is an understatement. [laughing] When you start teaching creative writing, you learn that fast.
I also want students to make friends. That’s huge in writing. Understanding that writing is as much about community as it is sort of a habit of being. I should be saying things that are pedagogically sound, like “I want them to leave with a strong sense of process.” If this was a job interview, I would’ve given you a list of ten things along the lines of: “To enter into a discourse community of formal traits” or whatever, but those things are actually not as important to me as a strong sense of audience, a safe community where friendships can be made, some things as basic as inspiration. Learning to read is good too. [laughing] Learning how to read a short story. It’s interesting because there’s that outside question of, “Can writing be taught?”
John Gardner answers this question by saying that writers don’t learn how to write, they catch on, that it’s a matter of catching on as opposed to being given a set of rules and figuring it out. So a space where we can catch on together, that’s what I want.
AP: What are some of the more important experiences you had when you were a Creative Writing student?
NP: Well, I only had that one class as an undergrad. [laughing] It was such a weird class. When I was in my MFA program, I mean obviously, some of the really powerful moments were just working with my mentors and feeling that those relationships weren’t – the thing that’s great about a low-res MFA is that it kind of feels like summer camp, more than school, because you’re all coming to this one place for two weeks at the beginning and ending of each semester, and you do all your course work in those four weeks, split up. And it’s so intense, and you’re with the faculty, and you’re with the other students, so much that they begin to feel much more like mentors and peers. I’m still in touch with mentors from that program. A good friend, Megan Staffel, will have my family up to come for a week and stay on her farm in New York with her, and work in the garden with her, and talk about writing and stuff. Those are the things that make me feel like I want to keep writing, especially when it’s a hard week or whatever.
AP: Are you working on something now?
NP: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’m always working on something. I’ve been working on a novel for quite a few years now that’s kicking my butt. At the moment, it’s really kicking my butt. I’ve got a short story collection that, thank God, will be finished this summer. It’s almost done, so that will feel very good, to get another book done. So, I’m really excited about that. Right now, I’m rounding out the last two stories of that collection. Really excited to have another body of work to try to peddle. [laughing]
AP: Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you would like to address?
NP: [laughing] That’s such a funny question. [pause] The teacher in me always needs to answer this question, which is, where do stories begin? I try to encourage students to think about stories beginning with very little, almost nothing. A single image, a scrap of language, a single metaphor. That stories begin in very small places, a physical object. Not as an arc of plot. That for me was a huge watershed, when I stopped trying to insist on stories ending a certain way or containing a certain anything. Just the very notion of insistence can kill a story so dead, so fast. Yeah, so, that’s a question that I always want to answer because that was such a pivotal moment for me as a writer, realizing that I can look at one sentence, and it’s going to contain the organic possibilities of the next sentence. That’s so crucial, and yet, it’s like you have to learn it for yourself, you have to insist and then fail [laughing] until you sort of learn your art of making something organic. And you’ve probably noticed by now that that’s a central part of my interest as a teacher, conveying the importance of building stories organically. It’s hard because it’s not sexy. We like to think that story writers are these very brilliant people who invent these incredibly intricate plots, and none of the writers that I love write that way. It’s all an illusion, right?