OCTOBER 9, 2016
LEE CLAY JOHNSON’S got music and bourbon in his veins, not to mention poetry and a flair for dialogue that rivals Richard Price. His debut novel Nitro Mountain — a drastic and beautiful triptych set in a desperate mining town in Virginia — plunges deep into benighted Appalachia, pulls out the most degenerate, reckless, and wayward souls and magically finds their hearts or something that might resemble such. It doesn’t seem possible for a novel, especially a first novel, to possess equal measures of wit, hostility, humanity, and violence. But there’s a mad sort of genius at work here. Johnson dares to tease out the complexity within the darkest creatures and excavates the reasons that justify, and almost excuse, the depravity. And he does so with startling humor. Johnson’s characters are troubled, sure. Some are even deranged. But they are at core understandably human, no matter how painful their behavior to one another and themselves. So you might have trouble with some of his material — it’s not exactly tailored for the faint of heart — but according to Lee (and rightfully so), it’s not his job to be sweet, soft, and entertaining. Nor is it his job to be pointlessly shocking. And he certainly won’t offer you a tidy sort of redemption on the last page. It’s his job to present life in all of its grotesque humor, its dead ends, and bad choices. And boy, does he deliver. I caught up with Lee on a crackly landline in his cabin in Virginia.
IVY POCHODA: So I’ve got to tell you, I loved your book so much I read it twice. The first time I read it, I’d just come off a somewhat similar book filled with desperate characters in a desperate situation. But the problem was, the entire time I was reading I just knew that the book was steamrolling toward redemption. There is no way that author was going to not pull out of the death spiral. But one of the best things about Nitro Mountain was that I had no such concerns that you were going to tie it all up with a nice bow and everyone was going to discover something great about themselves.
LEE CLAY JOHNSON: I think the problem with those — well there are many problems with the kinds of stories like the one you mentioned — is that you can feel them beginning to wrap up before they get going. You’ve got to understand that it’s a deep cycle that people like that are in, and human beings don’t resolve in the ways that books often try to force them to. There’s a deeper pull of blood, a cycle that people are born into and they’re repeating, and the battle is in trying to break that cycle or maybe even understand what that cycle is. That’s kind of a heroic thing to me, just the perseverance.
I just wonder what the hell happens to your brain when a character like Arnett invades it? Do you second guess it?
Absolutely not. My brain nearly turns off, or the inhibiting part turns off, because Arnett was maybe the one character in this whole book that really took me out of where I usually am when I’m writing and I experienced something different. He was so moving and uncontrollable.
By moving, do you mean he moved along or he moved you?
I felt that I hardly was writing as I was writing him. A character like Arnett, he’s going to put purpose to a book whether you like it or not.
His sections just moved so fluidly. There was something visceral about them, but also really grounded. A lot of times when you have a crazy, psychopathic character he acts out of a black hole of purpose, like the Terminator. He’s just pointless evil.
Right, well I think the creators of those characters have probably diagnosed the character before they’ve dealt with their actions. They know their problems before they write them. “I’m going to write a psychopath,” means you’ve already determined what’s wrong with your character and not figured it out. I never thought of Arnett as anything but himself.
Now that you’re finished with him, would you call him a psychopath? Somehow it doesn’t seem like the right label.
I don’t think so, but perhaps it is. I know the definition of a psychopath and he certainly acts within those boundaries sometimes, but in a way he doesn’t, because we do see at times what’s behind him, pushing him. He’s often fucked up on his mixtures. His homemade candy. He’s also kind of enacting what has been passed along to him. Sure, that’s part of being alive in the world, being accountable for your actions, but Arnett was born into a kind of world that demands one do whatever it takes to get by. In that way, the tenacity in him is strangely and frighteningly admirable.
In my creative writing workshop, I find that students are tempted to write standard-issue psychopaths or sociopaths because they never have to explain their actions. It’s like evil in a vacuum.
The hardest part often is figuring out all the stuff you have to figure out about your character, but knowing you’re not going to be able to write or include that in the book. I kind of ended up learning and thinking so much about Arnett and only let tiny shards of his history come through. That was enough.
Because that’s probably all he lets in.
Exactly. I think there’s a lot he can’t stand. He certainly kind of pushes things out or just won’t admit that either he did it or that there was any other way. He goes beyond reasonable reasons.
Your dialogue is amazing. One of the things I thought was incredibly impressive was how your characters don’t talk with each other, they talk past each other. People are having their own conversations and getting their own agendas across and just every once in a while those conversations sort of ping off each other to form a “dialogue.” Which is the way people actually talk.
It’s true. Exchanging dialogue to me, even a pleasant one if you get it correctly, is a kind of confrontation. The problem with a lot of dialogue is that it’s so boring because it says the same thing and it takes up a page. It’s just ping pong. Good dialogue kind of angles off of itself. And in good dialogue you’re going to see an entire third dimension.
That’s a really interesting visual.
It’s being performed for the reader and it’s there for the reader to perform. A reader, or at least when I say “a reader” I’m talking about myself, loves to come across dialogue that’s open. There’s so much nuance that it could be interpreted different ways and it’s up to me. As a reader, I’m becoming an actor in a way. I’m hearing the tone and how that’s taken and what the response is.
One thing that was pretty damn impressive in Nitro Mountain was how you managed to maintain balance when things were on the verge of spiraling out of control. There’s a lot of incredibly wild stuff that happens, but it’s contained and managed deftly. Was there any moment where things started running away from you?
What you’re talking about is a complex kind of thing. There are many kinds of recklessness in the book, and I had to be careful to keep it all clear. When a character is getting drunk or on drugs, he’s speeding or something, the writer can’t fall into that. You have to maintain clarity, because you have to be able to capture what’s happening clearly in order to convey the recklessness. Otherwise it’s just sloppy and kind of one sided. I did a lot of cleaning up throughout the rewriting, but still some of the wilder moments felt like they had been earned by the time they arrived. I hadn’t planned a lot of it, but when it happened I realized that this is the inevitable kind of way it’s been heading toward. That’s a really amazing experience to have.
Right off the bat you plunge us into something pretty crazy and wildly upsetting, between Leon and Jennifer when she begs him to hit her. Yet we quickly understand her reasons even though we might not like it. I feel like this opened the door and allowed your readers in in a way that they know what they’re going to get. It’s like you’re announcing up front, “It’s going to be a bumpy ride. But it’s going to be justified in the end.”
Yeah. It should be, right? Jennifer, though she’s hidden through a lot of the book, she balances it. In a way, it all belongs to her because of that. The hints we get through her; her history right up there up front. These are signs of what’s to come or this is the kind of world and the kind of people we’re entering. I was constantly wanting to make sure my characters were going to the places physically, literally going to the places, doing the things that a lot of characters otherwise would maybe just think about. She also kind of warns us of what this is and where it’s going, and in doing that makes the other characters go a little bit further or pushes them to a place where folks can be pushed to. I think I get that maybe she’s getting at just who we are deeper down — grotesque and dark. Those things are just the stuff we hide. The stuff that’s back there, which is the fiction writer’s job to dig up. Dig up those bones and bring them to the surface. We have an obligation to be, as they say, readable and entertaining, but it’s not my job to reaffirm to the public that everything is just ultimately great. That would be grotesque.
I’m sure those are words you must have heard a lot in relation to Nitro Mountain. I can imagine you must have had a hell of a time promoting this book. You must get asked all the time if these people are somehow related to you, some part of your personality, someone you know. I mean, you’re a bass player. Leon’s a bass player. You like to drink. They like to drink. And so it goes.
There was a lady who asked that question. Her brevity, the shortness of her question was surprising. “So which one’s you?”
Exactly. They’re all me and they’re not me. It’s a complete composite and this is an imagined place and this is not me trying to get somebody right. I do think that, as scary as it is, I can imagine how each of these characters is where they are and doing what they’re doing. That’s a basic principle. You don’t want all your characters to be good because first of all, that’s just not realistic, and who wants to read a story when there’s not a problem?
Especially with a troubled narrative, people are always so tempted to imagine that there’s a reason the author had to write this particular story. He has to have experienced these things.
I’m constantly pulling everything around me as material and I’m pulling from that, but I’m also using that and going beyond it. You’ve got to take what you have and then go beyond into what you don’t know and learn new things and see new things through that. Imagine.
Speaking of writing about things you know, it’s really hard to write well about being drunk. It’s this thing I encounter with my students all the time. They treat it like a free-for-all, an excuse to run off the rails, which winds up being nonsensical or boring. I thought you did some awesome writing about being wasted. You really got at that moment where it’s just not fun anymore.
There’s a problem here and it’s not being addressed. Writing about being drunk, writing about drunks is difficult. Writing while you’re drunk is even harder, Ivy.
You think it’s all so damn good.
Right. Then you wake up and, “Oh God.” When you write drunk, you just have to accept that 75 percent of it is just going to be trash, but then there’s that 25 percent.
Yeah. It’s better than doing nothing.
It’s better than doing nothing. You’re doing two things.
It only takes 75 percent longer to finish a novel.
I can see the promotional kind of tactics in this.
In truth, it’s hard to write well about drunks or people who are drunk, because it’s boring being the sober person in the room and listening to some drunk rabbit on about whatever. And for what it’s worth, your reader is that sober person.
It’s enough to drive one to pour himself a drink.
But the truth is drunks are boring.
They’re boring if — and this comes back to that psychopath idea, too — they’re boring if that’s all they are. If you’re not getting to what’s driven them to that or what this is going to lead to. Where’s the humanity? Where’s their humanness in it? That’s what I can’t let go of and what people are often tempted to let go of because, “Oh, it’s just a drunk.” And it’s easy to dismiss someone who is whiny, but doing the same bullshit over and over again. That’s all drinking is. That’s why it’s hard and difficult. Take that extra step to uncover what brought them there and where they are going with this.
Well, let’s move on from booze. Hard, I know. I love the way you write about nature in this book. I think people forget that your characters live pretty close to the natural world in a way that is often overlooked. And you really brought that into focus, which added a wonderful dimension that I thought was incredibly compelling.
That’s the big unsaid thing going on in this book. Nitro Mountain is a hazardous place, threatening to explode at any minute because of what it has done. It’s land that’s been abused. It has been penetrated and hollowed out and left. That resonates with the characters and what’s happening. The characters have been affected consciously and unconsciously by the legacy of what the land went through. That said, nature is something that they are close to, physically close to. It definitely shapes who they are.
I wasn’t going to ask you about music, but I can’t resist a little compliment. Don’t let it get to your head. Sometimes books with musicians or music as a central focus can be really alienating and too much “inside baseball.” Like I don’t get it and the author is happy I don’t get it. But you did a great job writing about music in a technical way that I really dug. Who cares if you don’t recognize all the band names or whatever, but I thought your specificity of technique and sound was really compelling. Better than name dropping a bunch of bands.
As a musician, I found myself over-writing. So this is something I kind of thought about. There’s got to be an easy answer to this question. How do you write about music, because so many people are trying and it’s not uncommon for readers to skim those sections, and if they’re skimming a section, that means it’s not working. The simplest that I could get it down is to write well about music, you write about people’s reactions to it. That’s the best way I’ve found so far to be able to hear the music. Write about people’s reactions to it instead of going into the ridiculous metaphors that often just take away from it. It’s merely impossible to work with music without metaphor, but in fiction writing, especially when you have people playing the music, that’s helpful because they’re interconnected and inseparable in that way. If there’s an audience listening to music and someone puts their head back and closes her eyes, what kind of sound is that? That’s very different from head down, eyes open.
What are you working on now, or are you taking a break?
No. Never a break. I’m working on, I guess I’ll be brave and call it a novel. I can’t say much about it because I don’t know if it would be accurate or not, but it feels long enough and sprawling enough and chaotic enough and unmanageable, unruly enough that I think that I’m probably able to call it a novel. I’m suffering enough with it, but yeah. It’s probably a novel. That’s what I’m working on. I’ve been kind of moving toward some more music writing. But ultimately the fiction is where my mind is right now.