C. D. Albin was born and reared in West Plains, Missouri. He earned a Doctor of Arts in English from the University of Mississippi and has taught for many years at Missouri State University – West Plains, where he founded and edits Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His stories, poems, and interviews have appeared in a number of periodicals, including American Book Review, Arkansas Review, Cape Rock, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, and Slant. His first collection, Hard Toward Home, was published in May 2016 by Press 53.
Morgan Drish: Are the stories from Hard Toward Home drawn from your own personal experiences? And if so, what about the Ozarks inspired this story collection?
C. D. Albin: I don’t consider myself a highly autobiographical writer, so the stories are not drawn from personal experience in the sense that I’m recording the events of my life through fiction. My personal life doesn’t really enter my fiction in that way. Instead, I’m inclined to think about the conflicts that all people go through, and typically my stories start with some type of image. For instance, the story “The End of Easy Breathing” began with an image of the bottom of a lady’s skirt where the hem had come undone. In that moment the image seemed to suggest a conflict between the impressions most people try to give—keeping everything together, having a sharp appearance—and the ragged reality that our lives are constantly fraying at the edges in some way. From that point concrete characters seemed to step onto the stage of my mind—not characters modeled on specific people, but characters struggling with the conflicts and anxieties I have witnessed throughout my life. Once such characters make their appearance, my responsibility is to tell the stories of imagined people with the same seriousness and respect I would employ when writing about flesh and blood people.
The question of regional inspiration is always challenging for me to answer. I’m a native Ozarker and have lived here most of my life, so the easy response is to say that I write about Ozarkers because I know them better than any other group of people. That answer is incomplete, though. It leaves out an Ozarker’s sense—I’m generalizing here, of course—that his or her story has never been truly told. Ozarkers are sensitive to the stereotypes, the caricatures, so commonly and unthinkingly attached to hill people. Sometimes we even indulge in those stereotypes ourselves, but we’re never at ease with them, not in the more remote corners of our souls. So my regional inspiration, if I have such, is to render in an accurate way the intricate and complex inner lives of my neighbors. If I succeed at that, I’ve managed to do my job.
MD: Deciding on the order of the stories in a collection is notoriously difficult. How did you make these decisions and are the stories from Hard Toward Home placed in any particular order that contributes more to the overall theme?
CDA: I followed the general principle of opening and closing the collection with stories I considered particularly strong, then I thought about the interplays that would be created by the various possible orderings. For instance, I followed the first story with “At Woods’ Edge” because Lid McKee, the main character in “Hard Toward Home,” is so deeply embedded in the Ozarks that he can’t even bring himself to complete the journey to Memphis. Lauren, the main character in “At Woods’ Edge,” is very much the opposite. She is not native to the Ozarks and is struggling because she feels displaced from her former home in St. Louis. I liked the questions raised by placing Lauren’s story next to Lid’s, and I followed a similar principle in ordering the stories throughout the body of the book.
MD: Your characters rarely exchange dialogue. What effect do you believe this style creates for the readers?
CDA: Again I’m generalizing, but many Ozarkers keep a good deal inside. They don’t tend toward automatic verbalization of thoughts and feelings, especially during moments of building tension, and fiction is made up of such moments. Also, in composing characters’ exchanges, it’s possible that I follow, almost subconsciously, Hemingway’s notion that the most powerful part of a story is what is left unsaid. Laconic characters sometimes invite readers more deeply into a story than those characters who speak a great deal. I operate under the theory that if there are blanks a reader feels compelled to fill in, then that reader is likely to be engaged in the story and its conflicts.
MD: Do you have a favorite story from the collection?
CDA: I think my favorite has to be the title story, “Hard Toward Home.” That story was rejected by nearly twenty journals, and I kept working on it, revising it, because I knew there was something at its heart worth dramatizing. If I remember correctly, the germ of the story was inspired by a news clip I saw with the father of Ozark fugitive Alis Ben Johns. Johns was wanted for murder and was the subject of a southern Missouri manhunt for nearly six months. Something about the bewilderment in the father’s face sparked my notions of Lid McKee. I wanted to explore the feelings of a father whose son had done something the father found inconceivable.
MD: Was Hard Toward Home inspired by the style or aesthetic of any particular writer’s?
CDA: There are certainly authors I admire, and I’m sure the way they use words or shape stories has influenced me as a storyteller. Certainly reading good writing is one of things that inspires me to write. I’m not aware that Hard Toward Home was inspired by any particular writer though. I’m certainly indebted to Faulkner’s example of exploring native soil, but many writers share that debt. I also find the work of Ron Rash inspiring, because he writes about characters whose cultural backgrounds are similar to those of my own characters. The Louisiana writers Tim Gautreaux and Ernest J. Gaines have taught me a great deal, Gautreaux as both a classroom teacher and an author, and Gaines as someone whose work I find consistently revelatory. Ultimately, though, Hard Toward Home is just one writer’s attempt to create a record of his place and time.
MD: How do you know that you have reached the ending of your story?
CDA: I’m usually looking for that point in the action when the main character makes some gesture indicative of emotional and/or episodic completion, some sort of movement, maybe even a statement, which suggests an appropriate sense of closure. In my mind that sense of closure should have resonance, so that what has gone before coalesces with the reader’s sense of what may follow. When I say “what may follow” I’m not talking about unwritten plot details, but rather the reader’s sense of who the main character is and what life may be like for that character as time goes forward. For instance, at the close of “The End of Easy Breathing,” James Gann has just been released from jail after a drunk driving arrest the night before. He’s hung over and bickering with his daughter, who is taking him home in her new pickup. The morning sun shines through the windshield, tempting Gann to close his eyes and give in to sleep. Instead, he fights his eyes open and tries to stare into the sun. For me, that small, final gesture has significance, since it resists the direction he’s been traveling and the habits he’s appropriated.
MD: What is your next project?
CDA: There are several underway at the moment. I’m making final edits to a poetry collection called Axe, Fire, Mule, which I hope will soon find a publisher. I have also started another story collection, with about five stories currently spread out on my workbench in various stages of completion. And I have a few disparate scenes down on paper which might eventually coalesce into the beginning of a novel. We’ll see how that goes. If the scenes don’t grow into a cohesive narrative, they will probably become separate short stories.
Morgan Drish is an English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.