Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with JW Young
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: In “Welcome to Avalon,” you describe the town of Avalon in wonderful, colorful detail. Do you have a personal connection to the town? What is your process for writing such expansive settings?
Joyce Wilson-Young: The only personal connections that I have to Catalina are the two trips I made there—once in college and another time in my late twenties. But I could see Catalina Island while on my daily drive to campus in my senior year of college. On my second visit, I took detailed notes. I didn’t plan on writing a story set there. I actually thought I’d write some sort of essay about it and didn’t want to forget details. I was in graduate school then and one of my writing professors, Tom Franklin, made us catalog details for his workshops. So I’d gotten in the habit of paying careful attention and recording what I saw, smelled, and heard. I knew I wanted to open with a description of Avalon because I wanted to show the insular nature of the place. I wanted it to seem like this safe, orderly hamlet. Then I wanted to drop into it a mentally ill man. I was going to graduate school in Mississippi, in Oxford, and one of the things that struck me as unique about Southern small towns was the willingness of the citizens to care-take one another. My first job in Oxford was working at the University Museum and Rowan Oak. I helped to archive and catalog, and learned a lot about the town’s inhabitants. Every generation had an “eccentric” cousin or aunt or someone for whom the town felt responsible and worked communally to keep out of Jackson. There were a few people like that in Oxford during the years I lived there, and that kindness really awestruck me. But I didn’t base Mike on any of them, and I didn’t want to set the story in Oxford or another Southern town because I’m an outsider to that landscape—physical, emotional, mental. And, no one can write Oxford better than Faulkner. I know Southern California. Catalina Island was the perfect place to put Mike—a place away from a large population where he could keep the delusion of John and get medical help, and the people of Avalon could keep an eye on him. So I had these notes about Avalon and the idea for Mike. And I started to write.
RR: The story has strong themes of familial relationships: good ones and dysfunctional ones. Can you tell us a little about your approach to character and how you developed the complex relationships as they play out in the story?
JWY: Charlie and Mike’s relationship is, for me, the most important in the story because it underlines the caretaking aspect of Avalon. Charlie has humored Mike’s delusion, rather than confronting him about it. So when a physical kid shows up, his perception of reality—that Mike is delusional—is flipped. I imagine him going home from work that day and saying to a partner, “Crap, Mike’s not as crazy after all.” That makes me chuckle. Maggie’s involvement with Mike is more involved because she’s a medical professional with a duty of care, but she’s a member of the community that cares for him, too. The idea that a village can care for someone who may be ill, but can still function and be productive, is a reminder of our kindnesses as humans and our capacity to recognize in others the need for that human kindness. The central father-son relationship was harder to build. I wanted it to be as real as possible, and real relationships are complex and, sometimes, unrealized or incomplete. I wanted Jud to realize his father’s problems at some point, but not as a kid. I wanted Jud to be able to reflect on something he’d experienced and connect dots. I knew I wanted him estranged from his father, and I wanted that estrangement to unsettle him but also be subconsciously accepted. I pulled from things I remember from growing up—divorce was normal in my family and a lot of lip service was paid to it. At some point I remember wishing all of the women in my family would stop talking badly about their ex-husbands and let the kids come to their own minds. So I built Jud’s mom that way. I wanted her to be the saint that kept the truth about Mike out of her relationship with Jud. Of course, that kept Jud from understanding the divorce for, maybe, far too long. But I think kids who’re told all of the dirty details about divorce actually get more damaged.
RR: In “Welcome to Avalon,” you are writing from the perspective of an eleven year old boy. How do you approach character and voice when writing from a view so different from your own? How do you get into the head of a character who has a very different set of life experiences from what you may have?
JWY: I steal from my own kids. I write down what they say, how they say it, and I ask them about how they think. And I started keeping a diary when I was seven years old, so I have boxes of thoughts and memories from which to pull.
RR: What helps you keep your focus while writing a longer piece?
JWY: Time. I actually started this story ten years before I finished it. I worked on other projects—mostly essays—and drifted away from fiction. I was constantly reading fiction, but I’d found a love for essay writing. I returned to this story because I’d taken a break from writing anything new and thought I could finally finish it and tell the story that I wanted to tell ten years before. It’s not an ideal situation, taking ten years to write one story, but it’s what this one needed. I had to figure out if Mike was suffering from delusions or not. I’d written the story two ways—one where he actually had a sick kid named John, and the other with John as a delusion—then finally decided to do the brave thing and make John imaginary, a symptom of Mike’s mental illness. It seemed to be the right time, for me and my fiction, to delve into mental dysfunction, something that is in my blood, passed down.
Are there any writers or works that have been particularly influential for you? So many. Nearly everyone I’ve read or heard read, for sure. I’ve been really lucky—I’ve been tolerated and nurtured by some amazing writers. They’ve been patient and kid and so willing to push me to write better. If I had to name them all, I’d have a list hundreds of people long. My husband is a writer and creative writing professor, and he’s my first reader. His comments and help are invaluable. Joan Didion came to me early, while I was still in high school. I read “A Book of Common Prayer” and thought, “Holy shit, what was that?” It’s the first novel I read more than once. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson really began my love of actual words, the sound they make. I reread at least one novel from Louise Erdrich and William Faulkner every year. I got to study under Barry Hannah and it’s his voice I hear when I edit: “Beginning. Middle. End. Thrill me.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez scratches at the periphery of my process always, specifically “Light is like Water.” That story is so spooky but so literally bright. Since I teach, I stick with a nest of the same authors or short stories every semester to introduce students to the elements of fiction, one of which is “Araby” by James Joyce. That story was running through my head while I edited “Welcome to Avalon.” It’s one of the best stories ever written. The teenagers’ dialogue at the end of the story is some of the best dialogue ever written—the ambiguity, the flippancy, but the accusation and denial are central to the narrator’s rite of passage. I love when writers are deliberately vague like that, yet the reader feels exactly what is meant. I like the idea that a character can be crushed then reborn from a snippet of an overheard conversation. I also love the symbolism and imagery of the setting for this story—the dead priest, the needles of rain, the emotionally-empty house—without those things, this narrator’s fall is not nearly as hard or life-changing. I’m always reading two or three books at one time, and when I read passages like that, I always stop and write them down and tell myself, “Okay, now you do that somehow.” I try and fail and try again and fail again and try.
JW Young’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.