After four years of struggle, Nashville writer Tony Earley prepares to release his first novel
By Beverly Keel, Photos By Eric England
OCTOBER 4, 1999: While the city's top songwriters donned tuxedos to be honored at the recent annual CMA Awards, fiction writer Tony Earley toiled in relative obscurity just a few miles away, in his methodically clean, understated office on the campus of Vanderbilt University. Clad in khakis wrinkled from a morning's work, a blue cotton vest, a white T-shirt, and blue sneakers--he breaks out his trademark seersucker suit only for big occasions, like the first day of class--the bespectacled academic quietly went about his day of meeting with students while nibbling on saltines and peanut butter.
With his soft-spoken, nondescript demeanor, Earley, 38, has remained inconspicuous in a city that exports flash and flamboyance to the rest of the world. But his seemingly everyday presence masks an extraordinary writing ability that has captured the attention of the literary world. Earley has been called nothing less than "the future of American fiction" by The New Yorker, the nation's premier magazine of good writing. In June, the publication named Earley one of the 20 best young fiction writers in America, an accolade that followed his 1996 inclusion in Granta magazine's "Best of Young American Novelists" issue.
"[His writing] is always meaningful," says Marc Smirnoff, editor of Oxford American magazine. "He's always writing about something that reveals itself to be relevant, and it's not just pretty prose on top of emptiness. When he grapples with something, he goes as far as he can go to find out exactly what something means. The best reading experience is when great prose and great meaning are combined, and that is what Tony does."
Says Colin Harrison, the deputy editor of Harper's who discovered Earley, "There's something about Tony's sensibilities that's tragic that has to do with him personally and also has to do with the South. He is someone who feels that it's his burden and responsibility and duty, as well as his opportunity, to represent the South in literature. That doesn't mean he's narrowly a Southern writer, [because] he's not. He's a national writer in importance and ability, but his identity is Southern."
Amazingly enough, the Vanderbilt assistant professor hasn't even published his first novel yet. It was his book of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise, and his numerous articles in such magazines as Esquire and The New Yorker, that identified him as a writer of distinction. But all this glowing praise should only help bring attention to his debut novel, Jim the Boy, which will be published by Little, Brown & Co. next June.
Already, expectations are high for the book. An auction ensued between Book of the Month Club (the top bidder) and Literary Guild for exclusive book-club rights, which is virtually unheard of for such a literary project; the book has also been picked up by Quality Paperback Book Club. National reviewers are likely eager to opine on whether Earley's work lives up to his reputation. "It will be interesting for people in the grandstands of the literary clubhouse to watch him get on the field with his novel and see what he does," Harrison says.
Now that his book is finished and his promotional activities haven't yet begun, Earley is enjoying a brief period of excitement and anticipation. "This is the best time of my life," he says. "Good things are happening, and I'm more confident about what I can do and where I've been."
This success isn't without a price, however. Earley has been plagued with depression since he was a child, and typically, he's more depressed than not. When his depression is at its worst, he explains, it's all he can do just to get out of bed and wash the dishes; sometimes watering the plants can be too overwhelming a task. When he's lecturing to students, he says, there are times when he'll arrive at the end of the sentence and not know if there's a sentence to follow. His novel was completed four years past deadline--a testament to the crippling effects of his affliction.
But Earley is quick to point out that he isn't a whiner, nor does he want to be considered a depression survivor. He accepts what he's been given to work with in life. "The things that make me a good writer also make me a wreck," he says. "I think creative people are missing an emotional membrane that everybody else has. Because that membrane is missing, it allows the creative stuff to go out, but also the bad stuff to go in.
"Nothing is free. If it wasn't for depression, as ambitious and as arrogant as I can be, I could have become a nightmare of a writer stereotype. Being depressed over the years has just burned off a lot of crap, particularly arrogance. After all, it's not hard to be humble when you can't get off the couch. I don't take things for granted so much anymore. There's no guarantee that I'll ever write another word. Before I finished this book, there were years when I thought, 'I'm done. I can't do anymore.'
"When I come out of the other side of a depression, I'm a lot lighter, [more] focused, and humble. All that's left is, 'I'm supposed to do something. What is it?' "
What Earley believes he's supposed to do is write, a calling that he heard at age 7 while growing up in a four-room house in Rutherford County, N.C., bordered by the country on one side and the mountains on the other. "My second-grade teacher made us write a story every Monday about what we did over the weekend," he recalls. "And one Monday morning she read mine and said, 'This is very good. You should be a writer.' I thought, 'OK, I'll be a writer,' and I never really got over that."
Later that year, he became a published author when the town newspaper printed his description of the Easter story. At a young age, he began narrating his own life in third person. "The bully would be beating me up, and I would not only be aware that the bully was beating me up at school, but I would be aware of why he was beating me up and what made him beat me up. I knew way too much about it."
A self-described "small boy with a big head," Earley was the elder of two children; his sister Shelly was 15 months younger. His depression first appeared around age 8, although it wasn't diagnosed until high school. Until then, Earley thought he was just lazy.
After high school graduation in 1979, he majored in English at Warren Wilson College in Swannonoa, N.C. During his freshman year, his sister was killed when she wrecked their mother's car on Christmas Eve, and his father left his mother. "I think [my sister's death] derailed me," Earley says. "I had started out as completely different than I ultimately wound up being. I was really a sweet kid until my sister got killed, then the rest of my college career I was pretty acerbic and nasty.
"After my sister died, I thought, if there's a God, screw him. I gave up on him, but he didn't give up on me. Even as I was pretty overtly trying to screw things up, I was never able to. I would start to sabotage things--I wouldn't go to class, I made bad grades, and later there were periods when I drank too much--then this miraculous thing would appear in front of me which I knew I didn't deserve, so I would make another mess and another thing would appear. I think God and I have a deal: I'll keep writing and he won't make me do something stupid."
Even as he battled grief and depression throughout college, Earley continued to feed his interest in literature and writing. He delved deeply into Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather. "Mostly I chased girls and then wrote really awful poetry about not catching them. I learned a lot about writing but apparently not much about girls.
"When I was in college and after college, my philosophy was much darker and more cynical, and I thought art just for the sake of flash was cool. Now I think it's my job in a way to advocate a moral universe, not necessarily to come with the answers, but to ask the questions and make people think, 'Why are we doing that?' Or 'Could we do it differently?' "
After graduation in 1983, he spent four years as a reporter in North Carolina, first as a general assignment reporter for The Thermal Belt News Journal in Columbus, and then as sports editor and feature writer at The Daily Courier in Forest City. "That's where I really learned how to be a writer, just how to write prose," he says.
Realizing he wasn't cut out for journalism--he liked to mull over one story all day when the job required him to work on several--Earley decided to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Alabama in 1988. "I just reached the level that I thought I would blow up if I didn't write fiction.... By the time I left to go to grad school, I thought I could do anything I wanted with a sentence, I just needed to learn how to write a story. As a feature writer, I would write a story and get to a place where I would say, 'If they had just said that, it would have been a really great story.' "
He quickly found success writing short stories, first with smaller literary magazines, then with Harper's, which published two of his stories--"Charlotte" in 1992 and "The Prophet From Jupiter" in 1993. The latter story helped Harper's win a National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994. "What attracted me to the stories themselves was the richness of his imagination and the prose," says Harper's editor Harrison. "You don't always get those two things in the same package. If we hadn't published those first stories, we really should have lost our license."
"The Prophet From Jupiter" is told through the rambling stream of consciousness of a damkeeper in Lake Glen, N.C. Through lush, vivid, yet seemingly everyday details, several of the town's unusual characters, as well as the narrator, are profoundly yet subtly revealed. "Each of Tony Earley's stories is like a little novel: fully imagined, fully realized," writer Lee Smith said upon publication of Here We Are in Paradise. "Like the damkeeper in 'The Prophet From Jupiter,' he sees beneath the surface, the calm water of everyday lives, into the hidden depths of the soul, where giant catfish glide and whole towns are hidden, full of our unrealized lives, our untold stories."
Harrison says "The Prophet From Jupiter" remains a memorable story today. "The question could even be asked whether Tony will write stories that good or has written stories that good since. That's a reasonable question he's asked himself, because there just aren't that many stories ever that good in a writer's life."
In 1993, Earley married Sarah Bell, a teacher's daughter four years his junior who grew up eight miles from his home. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, where she began working on a seminary degree while he focused on his writing. Based on his two Harper's short stories, Little, Brown offered Earley a two-book deal. "It wasn't a big financial windfall, but it kept me from having to get a job," he says. "Emotionally, it screwed me up. I used it to manufacture a lot of pressure on myself."
Since he'd written a number of short stories, Earley already had his first book essentially completed, so he began the painful process of penning his first novel. "Every time I would type a sentence, I would say, 'God, that's awful.' I thought, 'I have to be better than my first book, I have to make this extraordinary.' I put so much artistic pressure on myself that it got to the point where I couldn't write at all."
Published in 1994, his story collection Here We Are in Paradise sold about 15,000 copies, selling out both in hardcover and in paperback and garnering generous reviews. Earley had little to celebrate, however; he was battling a lengthy, severe bout of depression. "He would check in every few months to let me know he was working on [his novel]," says Michael Pietsch, Little, Brown's editor-in-chief. "He'd go through a hard path and say, 'When I told you it was going well, it really wasn't, but it is now.' I always believed I would receive this finished novel because the talent who created this novel is enormous. The promise that I saw in the beginning was so clear."
At one point, Earley completed 150 pages of a novel and then trashed it. "I was writing it for all of the wrong reasons," he says. "I was writing that one to be a bestseller. I made a character gay just because I thought it was hip. It was just a train wreck." Earley found himself even further beyond his deadline with absolutely no ideas for a book.
It was his wife who helped solve his crisis and inspired him to create Jim the Boy. When she discovered that he had never read the children's book Charlotte's Web, she began reading it to him aloud in bed nightly. "I had to read the last chapter to her," Earley says, "because when Charlotte got sick, she was incapable of reading that part out loud. She melts every time Charlotte dies, and she's been reading that book since she was 8.
"It's just perfect," he says of the E.B. White book. "On one level, it's a children's book. But on another level, it's actually pretty dark and kind of sad. While she was reading to me, I had the idea of Jim the Boy. My idea was, I'll just write a simple novel, using real simple language and real simple story lines. It would be easy to write, and I'll get out of this mess--which of course isn't true, because it looks like a simple novel, but once I started it, it became extraordinarily hard to write."
Actually, Earley had introduced the novel's lead character, 10-year-old Jim Glass, in previous short stories. But in these earlier stories, Glass was an elderly man, so Earley revisited Glass' youth. He sat down at his computer and just followed the story as it evolved. He spent two-and-a-half years writing the first 65 pages and nine months completing the last 180. "I sort of generally knew where I was going," he says. "It's like knowing you are going to drive to California, but you can't say where you'll stop and eat."
Of all of Earley's characters, Glass is the most autobiographical--but only in spirit, the writer explains. "Basically, he has my heart and feels the way I feel. He's just romantic and probably way too sensitive, so he gets stepped on emotionally a lot because he doesn't have a lot of defenses. He has my heart, but I made him the biggest kid in the class and the best athlete, a leader. I never was that."
Jim the Boy recounts a year in the life of a poor North Carolina kid during the Depression. While the year remains mostly unremarkable--his widowed mother contemplates marriage, and he makes and almost loses a friend--it describes the boy's attempts to understand a changing world. The writing is brilliantly simple; Earley doesn't rely on highfalutin words or long sentences to impress the reader.
"What I was most surprised about is he's done the whole novel from the voice of a child, and it's very sparse and different from his earlier writing," says Deborah Treisman, deputy editor of The New Yorker's fiction department. "Yet he's captured very perfectly the perspective and voice of a child, and you find a whole world in what he writes."
The book, which Earley describes as "post-ironic," paints a portrait of a family of flawed individuals who are deeply committed to their loved ones. "This book asks how to keep going," Earley says. "There are a lot of people in that book who aren't doing so great by themselves. How do you help other people and how do you get other people to help you? How do you keep moving forward when you don't feel like moving at all?"
Even when Earley doesn't feel like moving, he aspires to inspire his creative writing students at Vanderbilt University, where he accepted a teaching position in 1997 after a brief stint as the Tennessee Williams Visiting Writer at The University of the South. He has two classes, beginning fiction and a personal essay workshop, each of which has 15 students. Earley says he's not necessarily a hard professor, but he remains a zealot for good writing.
"We're the people who leave the records of what it is to be alive," he says. "Stories are the difference between knowing that somebody else has been through what you're going through or thinking you invented this misery on your own."
Senior Kevin Wilson, who is now taking his fourth course from Earley, says he was immediately mesmerized by the sight of Earley entering the classroom in his seersucker suit on the first day of class. "He walked in, and he was funny. I was like, 'This guy is a writer.' The minute I sat in his class, I thought, 'This is what I want to do,' and that's how it's been since." Wilson says Earley is the least intimidating professor he's had, and the main reason why he has decided to pursue writing as a profession. "He starts off admitting that whatever you are going to say is generally valid; it's just a question of how you are going to tell it. He's more concerned with helping you out, whereas others just flat-out say, 'I don't know why you decided to write this story.' "
Wilson, who is from Winchester, Tenn., wrote an essay on his fear of glass for Earley's workshop last year, and after a bit of editing, Earley recommended that Wilson submit it to Oxford American. The professor placed a call to the magazine's editors to ask them to take it seriously. Which they did--Wilson's essay is the cover story of the magazine's current issue. "It makes me feel like a proud papa," Earley says. "I've got five or six kids here with that kind of potential. Whether or not they go on and do it remains to be seen."
Earley now has nine more months to wait on the delivery of his own literary creation, Jim the Boy. So far, he's been amused by the attention, but it hasn't gone to his head like it would have a decade ago. Little, Brown's Pietsch recalls a vivid image of a seersucker-clad Earley mingling amidst the jaded literary set at a New York party this summer. "He was positively shining," the editor says. "He was the happiest person in the room."
"I'm starting to get excited," Earley says. "I didn't feel excited for a long time, but now I'm thinking it's pretty good, people are going to like it. If people like it and it's highly regarded as a serious, well-done book, that's enough. If I get a big pile of money on top of that, that would be gravy. But first I want a well-done book that people appreciate.
"I'm either going to make a lot of noise or I won't. If it doesn't happen, I know that I'll first get depressed and stay depressed for awhile, and then eventually that pathological ambition will start filling back up, and I'll say, 'All right, I didn't get it this time but next time I'll get it,' and eventually I'll write another book. If it does hit, I'll probably get depressed and stay that way for awhile. It's the same pressure with nicer toys: Then the pressure becomes, what are you going to do next?"
Right now, Earley can't even think about what comes next. He's still enjoying the relief of finishing his novel, and it's too soon to feel guilty about not starting another one. "It's like Huckleberry Finn said at the end of the book," he offers. " 'If I'da knowed how hard it was to make a book, I wouldn't a made this one, and I ain't gonna make another one.' "
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