A Conversation with Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer is the author of four novels and has also published many short stories, articles, and reviews. His previous novel, The Contractor (2007), was praised as “stylish, fiercely funny and frightening” (Kirkus) and as “a compelling mix of thriller, psychodrama and political commentary” (Booklist, starred review). My full review of the book can be found at Small Press Reviews.

Charles’ next novel, Back in the Game, is scheduled for release in June 2012.

This is your first book in five years. Tell us about it.

It’s about a schoolteacher named Stanley Mercer, who got his job by faking his credentials and a short time later becomes romantically entangled with the mother of one of his pupils. She’s still married, and the kid’s father is a methamphetamine addict. So Stanley jumps headfirst into some pretty troubled waters. Along the way he meets plenty of other characters who have their own stories, their own problems. Their own jokes, too. It’s not only Stanley’s story, but the story of a place. Back in the Game is a going-home book for me. I wish I’d finished it sooner.

What do you mean by “going home”?

The story is set in southern Iowa, the part the Midwest where I grew up. I live in Europe but I still get back there every year, I haven’t fallen out of touch. My parents still live on the farm where I spent much of my childhood. And it’s not only the setting—I mean this book feels like going home. Back in the Game has been brewing for years, I’ve been living with these characters for a long time. This is the first novel I ever started and I wrote and published three other books in the meantime while I was working on it. Parts of Back in the Game came out in some good magazines but in my head they were always pieces of a larger story. It was always my baby and it’s probably closest to my heart. It’s both new and not new. Anyway, here it is. Finally!

Why did it take so long? Did you feel blocked?

Not exactly. Maybe I wasn’t blocked enough. The novel kept getting bigger and bigger, it became a huge monster of a thing and got out of control. I have boxes and boxes of chapters. But anyway, to make a long story short, eventually some things clicked in my head and, as a consequence, I bit the bullet, very hard, and cut hundreds of pages. Got it down to one voice, three parts, a dozen chapters. Only about 60,000 words. A skinny book, in the end! I feel sort of stunned after the whole process, actually. I never would’ve dreamed that it would take so many years to get it right.

Two issues that emerge in the novel are the ravages of methamphetamine addiction and the complicated relationship between corporate agriculture and small-town economies. Do you see a parallel between these issues?

Yes, there is a parallel, in the way both have contributed to hollowing out quality of life. It’s a vast subject but there have been fundamental changes in the last generation. When I was a kid riding a country school bus, most of the stops along the way were family farms. I don’t want to romanticize family farming—it was often a tough way to make a living—but now everything has changed. Only a fraction of those family farms still exist. Now when you hear about the “family farm,” it’s mainly a marketing slogan for corporate agriculture or political lobbies. It’s pretty cynical. It’s not that I’m saying corporate agriculture is all bad—there are nuances—but you’d have to be a sucker to take them seriously when they play the sentimental card of supporting the “family farm.” I mean, how many people in upper management of the swine industry would consider living on site near their huge sewage lagoons? It would be unbearable. There’s a major disconnect from the land, from the animals. Local economies don’t have much say in this story. The “family” in charge is bigger than the community, bigger than the state, even. And meth, in an insidious way, found a niche in this new arrangement.

What do you mean?

Well, take the meat packing industry. Those are tough jobs and they’ve been around for a long time but nowadays they don’t pay as well as they used to. It’s been argued by investigative journalists that that’s how meth made its first major inroads in the region. People were working overtime or double shifts at the plants in order to make ends meet, and some started using crank to maintain. Soon it spilled over into the families and friends of the users, and moved out into the culture in a more general way. It’s cheap and it spread fast. Meth isn’t a “glamour drug”—you know, like the image of celebrities snorting cocaine beside their swimming pool. Meth is a largely blue collar thing, not for “beautiful people” as much as working people. For the short term, it gratifies and helps them deal with pressures and keep working. But it’s a dead-end proposition and usually the dead-end comes pretty fast. The drug is just too damaging.

Back in the Game also focuses on a number of children. How do they fit in this mix? Was there a particular source of inspiration?

Well, children make a story bigger. I don’t mean this in an exploitive way, but they raise the stakes, and increase the range of emotions. As for inspiration, I don’t know, these are characters I’ve lived with for a long time. And there’s literary inspiration, of course. I could cite a bunch of examples but a basic one that was one of those “clicks” that helped me find the heart of the story and finish the book comes from a poem called “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. At the end of Back in the Game Stanley Mercer is with Jim and Christine and Billy Snow—these children are key characters in the novel. I’m not going to give away the ending, I hope people will read the book, but part of the ending, at least, springs from this poem, an assertion of what we should do “while there’s still time.” Larkin has a reputation as a misanthrope and there’s truth to that description but he was an excellent poet and this particular poem finishes with a generous sentiment that would be a platitude in less able hands. The poem works. I hope the novel does, too.

Thank you, Charles. Best of luck with Back in the Game.

Thank you.

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