Oh yeah, in fact, chapters start with Greazy’s musings over some classic question, which then relates to the plot. But you don’t need formal training in philosophy to follow the discussions, although a number of inside jokes are thrown in. There’s humor of all sorts here, and some of it will especially appeal to all who’ve attended an academic conference and wondered which level of Dante’s hell they’d stumbled into.
Would you then describe Hume’s Fork as an academic novel, say, like David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man?
Let me try two answers. One is “yes.” One side of Greazy’s life is academic, much of the plot takes place at an academic conference, and many of the characters are academics. And, like the novels you mentioned as well as Jane Smiley’s Moo and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Hume’s Fork is largely a satire of academia. You could also call it an academic novel in that many discussions, either dialogues or Greazy’s narration, are about the issues that typically arise in philosophy class, such as does God exist, do we have free will, and what is consciousness. So, if you like academic novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one.
The other answer is “not entirely.” The other side of Greazy’s life is his rural Southernness. Much of the plot takes place at the Hume home in the woods of Low Country South Carolina. I hope my writing is original, and I’ve tried to avoid imitating those authors I admire, but this novel is surely in the tradition of great Southern writers like John Kennedy Toole, Harry Crews, Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah, Charles Portis, and Lewis Nordan who poke fun at their bizarre characters yet at the same time treat them with respect and tenderness. So, if you read and enjoy those great writers, I think you’ll like Hume’s Fork.
Walker Percy might be the Southern author who has most infused his fiction with philosophy, although not as outright as I have. My novel is largely a tribute to him.
Are those your favorite writers?
Yes, along with the Great Southern Dead: Faulkner, O’Connor, McCullers, Warren, Capote, Agee, and the greatest of all, Twain.
Would you say Hume’s Fork is autobiographical?
Well, like Greazy I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers, teach at a small college in Florida, enjoy fishing and bluegrass, and grew up in a trailer in Low Country South Carolina. But the similarities pretty much end there. I don’t have an uncle with zombie slaves, nor did anyone ever pull a gun on me at a philosophy conference, although I’ve felt like doing it a few times!
Many of the characters, especially the Humes, are composites of family and childhood friends. So, Greazy’s parents are not mine, but some elements of my parents are in them and can be found distributed into several other characters. Some of the events that Greazy relates from his childhood are similar to things that happened to me, but some entirely fiction.
You mentioned that some passages in the novel are similar to classroom discussions. Could this book be used as a text in philosophy classes?
Absolutely. Some instructors use fiction in their classes as illustrations of philosophical issues, and philosophers are notorious for inventing wild scenarios to push the limits of a concept, which goes back as far as Plato. Introductory courses sometimes include works like Voltaire’s Candide, John Barth’s The End of the Road, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and nearly anything by Dostoyevsky, Camus, and Eco. Jostein Gaarder’s international bestseller Sophie’s World is probably the best example of a novel that tries to do what an intro to philosophy text does, and it’s been used in many classes.
One thing that I think Hume’s Fork does particularly well is show that you cannot make sense of your life and world without attempting to work through issues the way philosophers do. Greazy has a Ph.D. in philosophy but for the first time has to put his formal training to the test. For all its boasts of dealing with the “big” questions, can philosophy really pay off in a concrete way? Greazy finds that it can. Students can read this novel as exhibiting a character who not only knows what Aristotle and Heidegger said, he also applies philosophy to his own situation; he lives the philosophical life.
What is the meaning of the title?
Greazy Hume shares a surname with perhaps the most important philosopher in the English language, the 18th-century thinker David Hume. Hume made an important distinction about two sorts of knowledge, and that distinction has come to be called Hume’s fork. In the novel, the phrase takes on other meanings regarding other “forks,” such as the fork between the redneck and academic sides of Greazy.
You’ve written some philosophy. Why the switch to fiction? Did someone influence you directly?
My philosophical writings include a book and a number of essays and reviews in philosophy journals, all fairly standard, boring stuff that only a few people care about. But I’ve been interested in writing for as long as I remember. In fact, through my youth and through college, I wanted to be a poet. I still write a poem occasionally and even won a few minor awards, but nothing spectacular. Also, whatever I wrote usually contained a dose of satire.
I got the rough idea for this novel in the early 80s, and in the mid-90s I made some notes and sketches of scenes and even wrote a chapter. The hard drive of my little Mac II crashed, and, like an idiot, I hadn’t backed up anything. I was so upset that I set the project aside and went back to focusing on philosophical works. All along, I read quite a bit of fiction, and somehow reading Salman Rushdie pushed me over the edge. Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh was the first book I read by him (since then I’ve read them all), and not only was I amazed by his acrobatic style, I also imagined the fun he must have had constructing those incredible sentences. I decided I had to have some of that fun myself.
So, was it fun?
It was a blast, but it was also difficult work. You asked about people who influenced me, and perhaps the most important lessons I ever learned about writing cam from Paul Allen, my creative writing professor at the College of Charleston. Paul is a terrific poet, a great singer/songwriter, and maybe an even better teacher. He was quick to tell his students that ink is sweat. Writing—good writing, at least—means agonizing over the right word, endless revision. I learned that when people chirp about how the Muse swept them away and the words flowed like a river, I should ignore them—they are either liars or bad writers.
When I was a grad student at Rutgers, Rebecca Goldstein had, I believe, a temporary appointment in the philosophy department. I found out that she had just published her first novel, which I read and loved. (She has since enjoyed a highly successful career with four acclaimed novels and several other books.) When I told her that I had some dim ideas about a novel, she patiently and sincerely told me that I should follow my dream but also recognize that it is hard work. Read many, many novels, and write great piles of pages that you expect to through away, she said.
I got similar advice from Katherine Ramsland, who was just completing her Ph.D. at Rutgers. Katherine was starting a career as a novelist and has since written many books on a dazzling array of topics. When I asked her how she found time to write, she said that you have to make time. She said, in effect, that unless you’re Stephen King, you will never have the luxury of writing full time. If you wait for the period in your life when you have the time, it’ll never happen.
I suppose that they told me the same things that most other writers would say, but these are very special, caring people who had distinctive ways of making their points, and I’m glad I listened.
How did Hume’s Fork make it into print?
When it was done, I sent queries to agents, dozens of them. Many never responded. Most who did, which took an average of five months, did so with a form letter that said something like, “Thank you for considering the Whammy & Kabosh Literary Agency. We regret that we have to pass.” I was struck by how many of them used the phrase “to pass” and how it made me think of the synonymous “to excrete,” as if they were purging themselves of any impurity associated with the fowl manuscript.
Those who did offer a personal response said something like, “This is really hilarious, but I’m afraid I’d have a tough time selling it.” What they did not say was, “I’m afraid I’d have a hard time selling it to one of the big publishers, which is how I make money.”
None of them, not one, had any advice for me, whether editorial or about another agent or publisher. None said, “This is pretty good but not quite ready for publication. Keep it up.” And, none said, “Your work is dreadful. I will keep a page of your manuscript in my medicine cabinet in case I accidentally swallow poison.”
I decided that agents either have no sense of literary worth, or, if they do, aren’t interested in offering a writer any evaluation. What they know is what the big publishers are currently interested in, and they look for similar manuscripts.
Were you discouraged?
Good God, yeah. It was torturous, one of the most agonizing things I’ve ever been through. The publishing ordeal is not for the thin-skinned.
In the meantime, though, I revised the novel, published a few short stories, and researched publishers. I decided to find four or five small houses that had published something related to my novel and with which I’d like to work. I had a conversation with an author years ago on the comparative merits of big versus small publishers. The good thing about the big ones is that, if you are lucky enough to break in, they will publish a larger run of your book and do more publicity. However, if that first printing doesn’t sell well, the book will probably be dropped, never to be in print again.
Small publishers, on the other hand, usually keep their titles in print indefinitely. You may not sell as many copies initially, but perhaps in the long run you will. You can also count on personal, tender loving care from the small press, while you might be left in the cold by the big press if you aren’t its current darling.
When Bruce Bortz of Bancroft Press called me to express his interest in the manuscript, I had a really good feeling about him right away. We seemed to hit it off on the phone, and I knew that I’d like working with him. When the rubber hit the road and we got down to the serious editing, Bancroft offered me exactly the right blend of firm instruction, gentle suggestion, and respect for the integrity of the text.
We haven’t talked very much about you, your family, where you live . . .
I was born and raised in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, which is in Berkeley County, where my parents and my sister still live. Most of my relatives are two counties over in Florence County. I went to the College of Charleston for a BA in philosophy (1982), then to the University of South Carolina for an MA, then to Rutgers for a Ph.D. I met my wife Sandra, who’s from Gloverville, South Carolina, at USC where she was studying for an MA in English, and we married in 1985. When I finished my coursework at Rutgers in 1988, we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where I completed my dissertation.
In 1995 I took a teaching position in Ocala at Central Florida Community College where Sandra, who’s also a writer, is on the faculty, too. We have three children: Stetson, 13, Levi, 9, and Grace, 7.
How did you end up at Rutgers for your Ph.D. Was moving to New Jersey a shock?
One that I’ve yet to get over! Except for a visit or two to an aunt who had moved to North Carolina, before I went to Rutgers I had never been out of the state of South Carolina.
My best friend in college, Garrison Somers, himself a terrific writer, was from New Jersey. He graduated just ahead of me and returned to New Jersey and encouraged me to come up to Rutgers for grad school. I went instead to USC for an MA, not sure at the time if I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. Later I decided that I did, and when I researched Ph.D. programs, I found that one of the Rutgers faculty, Bruce Wilshire, was someone I really wanted to study under.
I met some wonderful people in New Jersey, and the philosophy department members did a great deal to make me feel welcome, but I was not prepared for the cultural differences or how much I would miss the South. A bigger shock, though, may have been experienced by my students, most of whom had never met a Southerner. For years I had tried to eliminate my accent, trying to sound more sophisticated, and I was largely successful. But my students immediately recognized that I was a hick who was probably still struggling to get used to wearing shoes.
What advice do you have for budding writers?
Pretty much the advice I got. First and foremost, read, read, read. Study your favorite authors closely to learn their techniques. Read a variety of genres. If you want to write novels, read stacks of them, but also read poetry and essays. Poets, particularly, can show you how to say so much with so little. Notice how Enid Shomer, for example, can crystallize an entire, complex experience into one concrete image. Study David Bottoms, many of whose poems are like short stories, to see how so much of a character’s life story can be distilled into a single movement of a hand.
Next write, write, write, but don’t think that everything you write is worth keeping. Think of the pieces you write as exercises to learn from, not masterpieces to publish.
Take creative writing classes at your local college. Don’t, however, think that this is where you’ll be discovered. Rather, this is where you’ll be humbled. Some creative writing professors are remarkably good at nurturing a young writer’s talents and at instilling the lessons of craft and style. Others may not do that so well, but they may at least toughen you up and get you to work harder. If an instructor tells the class, however, that writing is magical and that you must tap in to the creative energy of the universe, drop the class and get your money back.
Join a writer’s group. Someone in that group will have good advice, and even the ones with bad advice will give you some sense of how audiences will respond to your work.
Are you working on another book?
I’m finished my second novel, Purple Jesus, also set in the South Carolina Low Country. It is currenlty under consideration by an agent, and I am currently working on a third novel, the fictionalized story of Jesus' brother.