The Journalist Who Slows Down Long Enough to Write Novels: Interview with Author Dale Neal
Last year I met Dale Neal at The North Carolina Writers Conference. This conference is one of the best kept secrets in the state. It should not be confused with the well-known North Carolina Writer’s Network Conference that is held every spring and fall. The NCWC is an invite and membership only, volunteer based organization that’s been around for over six decades started by writer Paul Green. Every year it honors a significant NC writer; last year it was Janet Lembke. And, the theme was ‘Skinny Dipping’ based on Lembke’s book of the same name—a meditation on nature.
My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson invited myself and Karen Pullen to go as her guests—she was that year’s organizer. I had no expectations and felt no pressure as I understood that the purpose of the gathering is to honor a well-known NC author, listen to some academically oriented panels and to connect with writers. This not a conference about pitching your work to agents. The conference was absolutely lovely and relaxing. One of the writers Marjorie told me to look for was Dale Neal; she said she was a big fan of his work and that they both had graduated from the same MFA program. I was lucky enough to get seated next to him and his wife at the lunch banquet. He was kind, encouraging and I enjoyed talking with him so much that I made it a point to pick up his first novel, Cow Across America. I’m glad I did. It’s a rollicking tale that chronicles a young man’s coming of age journey and the wisdom that he learns from his grandfather’s tall tales. Cow Across America possesses a strong sense of place and biting humor that reminds one of Mark Twain. I enjoyed it very much. I’m happy to welcome Dale Neal here to talk about his second novel, The Half-Life of Home that is winning rave reviews.
1) What inspired your new novel, The Half-Life of Home?
My grandfather’s farm. How strange and alien those 20-odd acres on the side of the Frozenhead Mountain near the N.C.-Tennessee border seemed to me. Taking U.S. 441, the old Thunder Road, from the Piedmont to the mountains was like traveling in a time machine, out of the suburban 1960s into almost forgotten America. I wandered the woods and dangled my feet off the Raven’s Rock, overlooking the whole cove, a place preserved to my young eye in amber. But only children believe that nothing changes, that paradise is what stays put. The world as we know it is always ending. Without change, without choice, there is no drama, no novel. But writing out of those memories, creating people who live and breathe on the page is a way to hold clearly to that past.
2) Your novels take up questions of place and region in multiple ways. How did this interest find its way into your work?
Losing the land is an ongoing concern. In my part of Appalachia, Mountaineers have been forced off their land since the Cherokees were herded along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders were forced out by the federal government in the 1930s to make way for hydroelectric dams. After the war, they left their farms to find jobs in Piedmont cotton mills or car factories up north. As a cub reporter in the ’80s, I covered hearings where federal bureaucrats earnestly debated turning remote mountain coves into a national nuclear repository. That image haunted me: what if radioactivity leaking out of these ancient mountains forced people off their land?
3) Can you name the moment that you felt you were really a fiction writer and did it come before or after publication?
Sorry. In some ways, I’m still waiting for that feeling, that moment of “I’ve arrived, I’ve made it into the published author’s club, someone’s going to give me the secret handshake now.”
Ain’t going to happen. If you keep writing, you keep failing. As Beckett said, fail better.
You have to remember the advice Rilke gave his young poet friend who kept pestering him about publications, which are the right magazines, what’s the right agent, etc. Quit asking those questions. Those aren’t the most important ones. Learn to interrogate your dreams rather than your ambitions.
4) What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see?
Glamor is a word better associated with films. Writers, I don’t think, are performers in that sense. The life of a writer is not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s extraordinary to meet and talk with readers who love good fiction, but the real payoff is on the page: repeatedly sitting down and putting one word after another into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books until you simulate the real world. You get to meet both your best and worst selves on that page if you persist.
5) How has your career as a journalist supported your work as a creative writer?
Well, it’s certainly paid for the groceries and light bill along the way, and for that I’m most grateful to be among that dwindling tribe of American journalists. It’s also taught me to be continually curious, which of course helps when you’re researching facts that often seem surreal or imagining fictions that seem real. Journalists work hard to grasp and say things very quickly. Novelists have to work equally hard to say what can only be said slowly, now the passage of time shapes character.
6) What’s your best writing tip?
Play hard in the dark. Remember the primal exhilaration of running free through woods and fields on a moonlit night, feeling a howl coming up your throat? Good. Write like that. We are the boy who cried Wolf.
Remember that writing fiction is not a rational activity at this stage of Late Capitalism and celebrity culture. Very few people will listen, but I can’t think of a more serious game.
Dale Neal is the author of the novels, The Half-Life of Home, and Cow Across America, winner of the 2009 Novello Literary Prize. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Arts & Letters, Carolina Quarterly, Marlboro Review, Crescent Review and many other literary journals. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, he has been awarded fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hambidge Center and the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland. One of the last surviving American journalists, he is a prize-winning writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times, having covered entrepreneurs, police, local government, religion, arts, books and technology. He is a lifelong native of North Carolina and lives in Thomas Wolfe’s old hometown of Asheville with his wife and dogs. When his nose is not buried in some book, he’s bound to be out on the trails of the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains.
Find out more about Dale at his website!