Interview: Writer David Koon

David Koon of the Arkansas Times is also a fantastic fiction writer. He’s a recent winner of Glimmer Train’s Fiction open with his story “Four Sisters” and he’s published work in Crazy Horse and New Stories from the South.He did his undergraduate work at UALR (where I first met him in a Creative Writing workshop), did an MFA at Iowa, and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Currently, he lives in Little Rock with his wife and son, Sam.

I asked David mostly about his relationship with Arkansas and his fiction writing.

As an Arkansas native, how much does the culture of the place influence your fiction?

Oh God, that’s a tough one. I guess the thing I love about being from Arkansas is that it has — both in terms of terrain and culture — all these different areas: mountains and hillbillies in the northwest; river delta along the Arkansas and White and Ouachita; big city in the middle; piney woods and oilfielders down south; Mississippi River and gone-to-seed plantation culture over in the east. What I’m saying is, I suppose: If you’re a writer from Kentucky, you kind of have to write about mountains and hillfolk. If you’re a Texas writer, you kind of have to write about cowboys and the lonesome prairie (or at least the legacy of that). Here in Arkansas, though — unlike any other state almost — we’ve got a little bit of everything, and each place really does have it’s own culture and food and way of speaking. That leads both to a delicious hodge-podge of people, but it can also lead to these horrendous collisions of culture. That gives a writer a lot to write about.

I find myself often moving back to landscape over and over again in my own writing. There’s something about certain vistas, or views of the world, I guess, that keep me fascinated. Do you have any particular images or subjects in your work that you think are inspired by Arkansas? What about the landscape of Arkansas influences you as a writer?

I hate to compare myself to Faulkner, but I am like him in as much as I find myself writing again and again about the same little piece of dirt — a place that can be contained in maybe a hundred square miles. I can even tell you where it is: An area just southeast of Little Rock, in a rough triangle formed by Redfield, England and Sweet Home. That’s all Arkansas River delta through there, and it’s the place where my father’s people came from before they starved out and had to come to Little Rock during the Great Depression. I’ve known that area solely through my father’s and grandfather’s stories, so in my mind, it’s this place where just about anything can happen. Back during college, I wrote a whole series of stories about an enchanted swamp down there that my grandpa called The WIllie Bell Woods. There really is a Willa Bell Woods down there, but mine was full of ghosts.

I read a quote that I’ll try to repeat here. I never figured out who said it. The quote goes something like “All children born in Arkansas are born with boomerangs on their asses, no matter how far they go away, they always come back.” You “came back” to the state, so to speak, after doing your MFA in Iowa and your PhD in Louisiana. What did you think about the place when you left? What do you think about it now?

You know, though I’ve known a lot of people who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Arkansas as soon as they could pay for a bus ticket and a duffle bag big enough for their stuff, I missed it every day that I was away. I’m glad I lived elsewhere — I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who are born, raised and die in the same zip code. But when I was gone from here, in the back of my mind there was always this nagging sense that the background noise wasn’t right — that in a crowd, the accents weren’t right somehow. Though I met loads of fine people and made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, I really couldn’t wait to get back. I hate to sound like a xenophobe or a rube, but I’m only really comfortable here.

You’ve done some great work at the Arkansas Times over the past six years. What have you learned about the state that you didn’t know before you started working in journalism here?

I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned over the past six years is that there are people out there walking around Arkansas right now that are more fascinating, twisted and funny than any fictional character somebody like me could dream up.

Considering your journalism has you working for a “liberal” publication in a state that, until recently, was pretty “red,” what stereotypes have you had reinforced since you came back? What stereotypes have you had destroyed?

You know, I try — and I encourage my creative writing students — not to think in stereotypes, just because they tend to lead a writer to the easiest possible conclusion. For one thing, the stereotype never really fits once you get through the shell every person sort of exudes over time to protect themselves. For another, it’s just plain old lazy thinking — the refuge of those who can’t imagine that a person outside of themselves might have deeper motivations than their class or race or job or political affiliation. However, I can say that as far as assumptions I’ve had destroyed since I became a reporter, the biggest thing is the idea that there’s a rigidly enforced divide between blacks and whites in Little Rock. As a reporter, I’ve found, time and again, people trying to tear down the old walls that have separated us in Little Rock, Arkansas and the south in general. While that doesn’t extend to everything, I’ve seen blacks and whites honestly and humbly reach out to one another often enough over the past six years that I’m sure the idea of a Black Little Rock and a White Little Rock is more politically expedient myth than anything else.

You went from being a writer in academia to a journalist and editor for a weekly newspaper. Do you approach fiction writing differently now that you’re out of the ivory tower, so to speak?

You write what you know, I suppose, so back when I was a student, my writing was — I’m sad to say — a lot more self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s kind of the lot of the student, when you think about it: whether you’re going to school to learn air conditioning repair or quantum mechanics, that0 quest for knowledge is an inherently selfish act. It can lead to a lot of unselfish things, but for the time your in the class room and absorbing, it’s all about you). That has been the experience of many, many writers I’ve talked to. ON the flip side, getting out of college — getting married, and a kid, and a house and a job — makes the circle of your worry broaden, and writers always do better with that dark cloud of pressure hanging over them. Given all that, I think my writing has really matured over the years. I can really feel my characters’ pain when they’re worried about the rent or the car or that child with a 103 fever. You can read that as a student, but you’re never going to be able to fake it until you’ve experienced it.

What is your definition of the word “hillbilly”?

My mother’s people are all from the mountains above Conway, so when I think of the word Hillbilly, I think of them: proud people. full of music and laughter. Beer drinkers, churchgoers, pulp wood cutters. Excellent singers and hunters and cooks. People who can find you a ginseng root or a quinine tree or a fender for a ’52 Dodge. The best joke and story tellers in the world.

Where is your favorite place in Arkansas? What do you like about it?

My favorite place in Arkansas is pretty much anywhere on or along the Arkansas River near Little Rock. I haven’t been on the river in a boat in probably fifteen years, but I love to stand on the bank on summer afternoons and just watch it roll by.

Where is the one place in Arkansas you try to avoid at all costs? What’s so awful about it?

I have to say that I don’t like Pine Bluff much. Though I hear it was once a really beautiful place, it’s a big, sprawled out afterthought of a city these days. My family and I have to drive through there to go visit my wife’s relatives, and it just seems to get seedier and seedier.

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Tipper said,

    Very interesting interview.

  2. 2

    j said,

    I’m still exploring that thought that David brought out about being a student with a self-centered and maybe naive writing style as opposed to being a mature writer living in the real world. I found that once I was living adult life outside of an academic environment, while I had more exposure to life and therefore to more subject matter, I wrote less because of having less time and because the reality had spoiled my imagined view of the world. Or maybe I’m just lazy. 😛

  3. 3

    Vladivostok said,

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Vladivostok.

  4. 4

    hillbillymfa said,

    Vlad,

    Just a little interview of an Artist living & working in Arkansas and his relationship to the place. I think place influences what we produce as writer and thus, ta da.


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