Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He is the author of the novel North Dixie Highway and his fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.
Daniel M. Mendoza: From reading your bio note many of your readers may know a little bit about your background and how it relates to the geographical areas of North Dixie Highway. But, beyond that, why take the happenings of these characters and settings as your subject matter?
Joseph Daniel Haske: As a younger writer, I’d always hear the same bit of advice from more experienced authors: that old cliché, “Write what you know.” I was stubborn for a while, and would go out of my way to avoid writing about where I grew up, just to spite people, I suppose, or because I didn’t recognize the full potential of the U.P. as literary subject matter. I thought that other places made for better fiction, all those other exotic or cosmopolitan places that other authors wrote about—anywhere but home. Over time, I realized that most of those great authors I’d read and respected set their respective works in their own stomping grounds, whether it was Faulkner’s Mississippi, Twain’s Missouri, or Dickens’ London. I began to appreciate the many benefits of writing about the places and people I knew well, especially after spending some time away from home. Rural Michigan truly is a place worthy of fictionalization and distinct from just about any other location I’ve been. Hemingway even wrote about it, after all, which inspired me and sort of pissed me off at the same time, because he didn’t get it quite right. I wanted to write about it from an insider’s perspective and represent the area in a more idiosyncratic way, delving beyond the natural beauty of the place, which is only part of what the area has to offer from a literary standpoint. Beyond the seemingly tranquil landscape, there are countless themes worthy of literary treatment, including the economic disadvantages and geographical isolation of the place. And, you might have noticed that none of the various places that Buck travels to would be considered cosmopolitan; even the secondary settings are typically geographically disadvantaged regions. Having lived away from the region for some time now, I can see the ripe literary potential of the eastern U.P., and few authors have written about northern Michigan this way, exposing the darker sides of this beautiful and seemingly benevolent landscape, and focusing almost exclusively on the working class and poor in a way that isn’t condescending or too didactic.
DM: What other contemporary writers or publishing houses are putting out similar work. And, do you think they are doing a good job of making fiction out of this particular subject matter?
JH: I’m aware of other kindred spirits among contemporary writers like Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell, Paul Ruffin, Patrick Michael Finn, Ron Cooper, Steve Davenport, Marc Watkins, Donald Ray Pollock, writers who focus on similar themes and characters from their respective regions, and their settings are typically rural. I want to read more from writers like Bobbie Ann Mason, Rusty Barnes, Buffy Hastings, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, writers who I’ve been told share similar interests. Writers like Larry Fondation and Eric Miles Williamson, are similar in spirit and theme, even though they focus on their respective urban areas in California, L.A., and Oakland. Richard Burgin focuses on the interaction between the upper class and the underclass in society, often creating a type of literary noir that’s similar to the rest of these authors. Also, I was recently introduced to the fiction of Chilean author, Gonzalo Baeza, who tackles rural America and the working class through the perspective of the immigrant. These writers are scattered around the country and publish with various presses, from large New York houses to university and indie presses. My colleagues, Juan Ochoa and Brian Carr sometimes deal with related issues in their books. It would be great to see the work of all of these authors get more recognition on national and international levels.
DM: What have been the most important books for you?
JH: I’ve read hundreds of books that have been useful to me in one way or another, books that, beyond entertainment value and their philosophical depth, have taught me to be a better writer. There are so many influences that I couldn’t possibly list them all, and I have a hard time naming some as more important than others. But off the top of my head, I think of the complete works of storytellers like Flannery O’Connor and Anton Chekov. I think of Shakespeare’s best plays, and great texts like Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, Ulysess, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and so many more great established works, where a writer learns about structure, plot, nuance, pacing, and so on. There are countless more contemporary books that have influenced me in various ways, including, style and dialogue. Many of these contemporary works are well-known, others still forging their reputations: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Robinson’s Gilead, Williamson’s Two-Up, all come to mind as examples, along with scores of other great contemporary books and authors.
DM: What about other artistic experiences?
JH: I tried painting for a while but I’m a total hack. I’ve experimented with and have been inspired by all sorts of art, though. Where the visual arts and painting are concerned, I’m a big fan of everything from dark romantic painters like Caspar Von Friedrich to more abstract painters like Helen Frankenthaler. My taste for art is broad, eclectic really. I like all sorts of music too and spent some time writing songs and lyrics when I was younger. I used to sing and mess around with stringed instruments, and still do when I get the chance. I don’t know if it’s coincidental, but the majority of writers I know personally seem to share this sort of interest in music, whether they were formally trained, or learned informally, the way I did.
DM: Literary fiction is not the most glamorous high art form out there today. So what worth is there in writing in this type of form?
JH: There’s seldom financial reward in aspiring to high art, as you imply, and it’s difficult to receive any sort of recognition in one’s own lifetime for aspiring to artistic work as opposed to popular genres. It’s really frustrating when critics and other writers, those who are supposed to get it, don’t. There’s no logical reason to submit oneself to such torture. Even those fortunate enough to get some recognition are subjected to more criticism and the envy of peers, so it doesn’t make sense, does it? That’s why I think anyone who partakes in this game of literary fiction is a bit crazy. I suppose that there’s a sort of hubris involved in these acts of indulgence when we dare to dance with the immortals and compete for a place of subjective greatness. Maybe we hope that in some distant future, people will look back and recognize our genius. At least that’s the consensus from talking to other writers about why we even bother. Some manage to garner popular appeal and still find a place in the “canon,” like Twain and Garcia Marquez, but most literary greats are tormented souls, wondering why their merit isn’t rewarded in some form or another.
DM: Why should readers read more literary fiction?
JH: In contemporary society, the capacity for abstract thinking is declining at an alarming rate. An antidote for that problem is and always has been an engagement with art, and the more exposure to great art, the better. Reading literary fiction expands the mind, which is reason enough for people to do it, but I wonder how effective that argument is these days.
DM: There are a great amount of small presses out there who are publishing strong writers. But how does one go about finding these new writers? How have you come across contemporary writers you enjoy reading?
JH: The deck is stacked against literary writers trying to find their way in a corporate-minded culture that tends to undervalue art and sophistication, and many such writers have found opportunities on small university and indie presses, as you say. I’ve come into contact with some excellent like-minded authors almost accidentally at times. Other times, I’m introduced through friends and other writers I respect.
DM: Were there any parts of NDH that didn't make it into the published draft for some reason or another and you wish they had?
JH: Not really. I’m mostly satisfied with the final product and the final cuts and revisions. There is more to Buck’s story, but everything I left out was intentional. I hope that a significant part of NDH is that which is not told, so in that sense, there are no regrets really. The beauty of working with a smaller press such as the Texas Review Press, is that the folks there respect the artist’s vision and don’t interfere with it. At least that was my experience.
DM: The delivery of NDH is a unique one for realism—the narration moves in and out of the present. What motivated you to choose this kind of narration?
JH: Well, I’d say that NDH is written in a form that imitates realism while conveying an awareness of realism. I used this structure for several reasons, but most importantly, I wanted to connect several significant, formative experiences of the narrator that spanned a significant period of time, without losing pace. The structure also reflects the narrator’s thought process, his sort of schizophrenic state, or at least the anxiety of someone suffering through countless traumatic experiences.
DM: Do you have a writing schedule?
JH: Writing, for me, isn’t much different than alcoholism or some other type of addiction. Maybe that’s why so many writers drink or succumb to other vices. When I’m at my best, I’m sort of a binge writer, losing track of time and ignoring the world around me, but that’s not practical, teaching full-time, supporting a family, so I try to keep a regular schedule, typically with little success.
DM: Do you work from outlines, notes, or just dive full into chapters and drafts?
JH: I’m more productive when I work from notes, unless I’m on a sort of roll, then it doesn’t really matter. If I had unlimited time to just dive in every day, I’d probably work that way. I’ve found that keeping notes and outlines, regardless of how unorganized they might be, makes life as a writer easier for me and it prevents me from backtracking so much or from forgetting things, especially when putting together longer works. I try to achieve a certain idiosyncrasy with my work and jotting things down helps me keep track of as many details as possible.
DM: How much are you thinking about your readers when you are working on a piece of fiction?
JH: When I’m writing, not at all. But that doesn’t mean that my work is solipsistic or that I don’t care about audience, because I ultimately do. It’s just that such things don’t really concern me until I’m in the process of revision. That’s the point when I decide what should be released into the public. Of course, this involves some speculation because nobody can ever truly know what people will respond to or not, but we use our best judgment and go from there. No single writer or work will ever satisfy every reader, but I’ve always admired writers who are able to achieve great literary art while still appealing to the masses on some level.
DM: What are your writing plans for the future?
JH: I’m hoping 2014 will be the year I finally settle into a regular writing schedule. I’m working on two different novels now, one set mostly in south Texas and Mexico, using a minor character from NDH as the protagonist, and the other is a continuation of the Buck story. I’ve also got a poetry manuscript that’s been sitting around for a few years. Most of the work actually predates the novel. I’m also looking forward to translating Gonzalo Baeza’s La ciudad de los hotels vacios. If all else fails, I’ll binge my way through it all.
DM: Do you think it’s important for aspiring literary writers to study literature either in or out of the university?
JH: To create the type of literature that aspires to greatness, one must understand the history and spectrum of great literature—it’s as simple as that. There is subjectivity in how “greatness” is defined, of course, but if people actually read what are traditionally considered great books, first hand, it’s sometimes less subjective than many contemporary scholars would have us believe.
DM: Do you see yourself in a particular literary tradition?
JH: I think it was Melville who said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” I make a conscious effort to deliver my fiction in a unique way and provide a distinct narrative voice. Even if one’s writing is unique, though, there is no escaping one’s origins and influences as the echoes of our literary forbearers always manage to come through. I’ll let critics decide where I fall: it’s an exercise in futility for me to place myself within any tradition other than the very broad tradition of literature itself.