Interrogation—Jeff Newberry

10384904_10103342406532360_7234422824777333013_nWho: Jeff Newberry

What: Author of A STAIRWAY TO THE SEA (Pulpwood Press). He is the Poet in Residence at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, where he teaches in the Rural Studies program. His essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of print and online magazines.

Where: Georgia

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

I’m currently reading your haunting debut novel, A STAIRWAY TO THE SEA. How did you come up with this story?

That story originated in a creative writing workshop at the University of Georgia in Athens. I was pursuing a PhD in English with a focus in creative writing. My focus in the program was actually poetry, and I had begun to wonder if I could do in poetry what Larry Brown, William Faulkner, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and other Southern writers do in prose. That is—could I write a gritty Southern story in verse? So, I tried. I had the elements in place:  Justin, St. Vincent, and Donnie Ray’s death. I tried to write this sequence of persona poems that would unfold the mystery. As I worked more, I realized that I couldn’t do it. So, I put it away.

A few years later, after I finished my degree, I picked up a copy of James Lee Burke’s THE NEON RAIN at my local library. I loved it. Burke’s prose reminded me of what my Southern literary heroes did, but he was embracing genre fiction. I remembered the abandoned narrative poem and dug it out. From there, I began to refashion it as a novel.

StairwayWhy is Florida’s Gulf Coast the right place to set this novel?

I have a love of the Gulf Coast the people there. I live in South Georgia these days, so I miss it fiercely. I have salt water in my blood. My mother and brother still live on the coast. My best friends are there. The Gulf Coast is to me what Mississippi was for Faulkner—it’s a postage stamp of soil, yes, but it’s also my muse and my energy. I wouldn’t be a writer without my childhood on the coast.

There’s a wonderful mix of people in North Florida, from outlaws to in-laws, from liberals to conservatives and all stripes in between. I love that diversity. There’s a jazz to it, as is there to the place names that ring in my ear like music:  Carabelle, Apalachicola, Wewahitchka, and so forth.

So much Florida writing is about South Florida—Disney Word, Miami, the Keys. Those are all great places. As a matter of fact, Michael Lister is the first writer I ever read who fully and truly understands the Forgotten Coast. His work is set there, too, and he’s a real inspiration to me.

While there is a mystery at the core of A STAIRWAY TO THE SEA, there is a ghostly quality to the writing that definitely has its own pace and rhythm. How did you develop this voice when writing the novel?

I wanted a slow pace. I had in mind a couple  of books as I wrote it. First, I was thinking a lot about Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST. I love the way the book’s slow pace moves to a simmering boil by the end. I was also thinking of Tom Franklin’s CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, a novel that inhabits the worlds of literary and crime fiction simultaneously.

The pacing, of course, is Justin’s voice. It’s his world we’re in. He knows the place. This is his town, and he’s haunted by his ghosts. He’s a laconic character who moves through the world like swamp water, still and slow and taking everything in.

In addition to writing fiction, you are also a published poet. How does your experience with poetry influence your prose? Do you approach them in the same way?

I actually began my writing life wanting to be a novelist. I was a student at the University of West Florida in Pensacola in the MA program in English. I was focused on creative writing. One term, I took a course in contemporary poetry and fell in love.

I think that my work as a poet helps me to focus on small details. I think, too, that my poetry self is interested in lingering in a moment. So much crime fiction is rushed—and I admire a quality of that speed. Think of Elmore Leonard or someone like Anthony Neil Smith, whose writing I greatly, greatly admire. But for me, I love to inhabit that lyric moment of the self. I know I risk alienating some readers, so I try to amp up the prose quality to keep them interested.

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How does your position as a college-level teacher of composition, literature, and creative writing change your view on your own writing? 

I’m constantly reading, and I couldn’t be a writer if I weren’t a reader. I teach a broad variety of classes, ranging from creative writing to first-year composition, from world literature to the literature of rural America. As such, I am exposed to all kinds of good writing. This past term, I had a chance to lead my classes in a reading of Ira Sukrungruang’s book of essays, SOUTHSIDE BUDDHIST. His command of the first-person pronoun just floors me. I learn a lot about writing this way.

At the same time, I stay super busy. It’s hard to find time to write. So, I tend to do it in the summer. I finished A STAIRWAY TO THE SEA over three consecutive summers. When Pulpwood Press took the novel, I was in the middle of yet another round of revisions in the heat of July. For me, summer is all about writing.

Have your students read your novel? What has the response been?

A couple of them have. The greatest compliment my students give me is their continued support of me. They come to readings. They sign up for my classes. They ask thoughtful, probing, creative questions. It’s because of them that I can continue to do my job. They’re amazing.

BrackishWho are some of your literary heroes?

Faulkner for his sentences, O’Conner for her vision, Burke for his prose, and Larry Brown for his ability to tell a story.

My poetic heroes are Southerners, too:  the late Jake Adam York (from Gadsen, Alabama) helped me learn to write about the south. Yusef Komunyakaa (from Bogalusa, Louisiana) taught me rhythm and jazz.

There’s a connection between the land and the art in Southern writers. I identify with that strongly. To quote one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Wendell Berry, what I stand for is what I stand on.

What are your publishing plans of the rest of 2016 and beyond?

I’m working on a sequel to A STAIRWAY TO THE SEA now, tentatively titled IN THE PINES. I will be spending some time at a residency in North Georgia this summer working on it. I’ve got another book of poems, too, but it’s unrefined and in need of revision.

Right now, I’m focused on this sequel. Beyond that, I have a couple of other things in the works. I’m always casting out, hoping to find the fish that bite.

Find Jeff Newberry: FacebookTwitter

Previous Interrogations:

CROSSWISES.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now from Down & Out Books.

1 Comment

  1. I always learn something from your interviews and this one is no exception. Ira Sukrungruang’s Southside Buddhist sounds very cool, so I will be checking it out. And so does the book by Tom Franklin. And Burke, but of course! Thanks much, for another great interview!

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