Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight:
Interview with Tad Bartlett
Katie Diemer, Assistant Editor, Rappahannock Review: What inspired this story? Did you start by envisioning a certain scene?
Tad Bartlett: Certainly every story is its own beast, as far as inspiration goes. Some start with a particular concept or theme; others with a particular emotional place I want to evoke. A very few spring forth fully formed in that moment right as I wake up and somehow manage to survive until I can write it down. “Hung Over,” though, probably like most of my stories, is inspired by a visual scene or a line. In this case, one of each. The visual scene was two kids arriving by canoe under a bridge, a particular bridge known for a couple Civil Rights Movement marches (the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where I lived from the time I was 5 until I was 18), a bridge that brings its own history, but for the bridge to just be a bit of shade for these two kids, a place to rest before turning back around. As I was trying to figure out how the two kids would get to the bridge, the opening line popped into my head—”One Sunday morning in late spring when I was twelve, about to turn thirteen, I woke up with a hangover.” From that point, it was just a matter of filling in the space between that opening line and the bridge.
KD: The story of boys drifting down a river captures many iconic elements of American literature, and Joe and Shaun are self-aware enough to grasp their own connection to Huck Finn. How has the coming of age experience changed in the decades between Huck’s development in the nineteenth century and that of your characters in the twentieth century?
TB: Very interesting question. However, probably more central to “Hung Over” is how that experience has not changed. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” and all that. Large-scale social, political, and sexual explosions blossom around kids at a great rate, and always have. To think that things are worse or more dynamic or more difficult now than in the past is arrogance of the present. And to think that kids walking through this minefield are not aware of it or don’t have reactions to it is naive. Huck was all too aware of the evil adults could do. But he was also aware of what he couldn’t know about Jim. In “Hung Over,” Joe and Shaun bring at least rudimentary knowledge of sex and racism and violence to their voyage, but discover that it isn’t greater knowledge, but the murkiness of what they don’t know that is the hallmark of growing up.
KD: There are a lot of great details in this story, especially when you describe the Alabama River and the town. How do you approach plot and setting in drafting your work? Do they arise in concert, or does one precede the other?
TB: Every piece is different, or course. Sometimes plot dictates setting. Sometimes setting is the driving force. In “Hung Over,” because I started from the image of the two boys canoeing to the bridge, setting came first. I knew the river would, of necessity, run through it, and had to develop the plot around that setting.
KD: What are you working on currently?
TB: Too many different things. “Hung Over” is one of a cycle of Joe stories that consist of a series of stories—most of those complete now—following Joe from age ten through his early twenties, and focusing primarily on issues of race, class, and inter-generational debt in the modern small town South. As part of that project, currently I’m working on a novella-length work that will be the centerpiece of that collection. At the same time, I’m being pulled by a series of more experimental and grittier non-Joe stories; and finishing a rewrite of a collaborative epistolary novel structured around correspondence between an older Joe and a character developed by J.Ed. Marston, an excellent writer and friend of mine.
KD: How has your birthplace (Ankara, Turkey) affected your identity as a writer?
TB: My writing is fueled by raki, a strong Turkish liqueur; and by listening to lots of Clash, whose lead singer, Joe Strummer, was also born in Ankara. We Ankarites like to stick together. Seriously, while the content of my writing may be more affected by the town I grew up in most—Selma—having been born overseas and moved around a bit my first few years has given me the status of outsider in the places I’ve lived since. That’s a real gift for a writer, though it’s a pain socially. I’ve naturally assumed the position on the periphery, and observation comes by necessity. I would think it might be more difficult to dissect the dynamics of a group if I’d been a central participant in that group instead of watching from a place of more detached reflection. Or perhaps it’s really just about the raki.
Tad Bartlett’s work in Issue 1.2: