Lambs of Men author Charles Dodd White (his real name, as far as we know), who read very little as a child with the exception of “choose your own adventure” novels, lives in Asheville, NC, where most artists and writers dream of someday living even if it is, as White says, “becoming increasingly developed and mainstream.”
WHITE: The downtown area still retains a quality of funkiness and individualism that is unusual for this part of the country. And, of course, we’ve been named Beer City USA two years in a row, so you can imagine that’s a pretty congenial atmosphere for a writer! The great resource is the mountains themselves. They are lovely.
White grew up in Atlanta, where he was surrounded by Appalachian emigrants–
WHITE: My grandpa literally had a still in his basement, for chrissake.
—and spent most weekends in the woods hunting, fishing, or clearing brush. “A task,” he says, “which was supposed to justify my presence on the outdoor excursions, according to my uncle’s parsimony.”
It seems only natural, then, that he would later become an “Appalachian writer.”
WHITE: It was hardly a leap. Plus, I’ve lived in Appalachia off and on for nearly 20 years, so I’m really just following the cliché of writing what I know implicitly.
RATS: Did you consciously decide to be an “Appalachian writer,” or did you find yourself sliding into it organically?
WHITE: I see the whole regional attachment as fine, since all it really serves is a convenient way for people to think about your books and stories, but I think of myself as someone who writes about rough customers, the down and out. I’ve spent some time in Canada and Texas and the Southwestern desert as well, and I don’t doubt I’ll spend some point in my career writing about those places. I see myself as a North American writer, and I like the flexibility that affords.
Lambs of Men, set in Appalachia, follows a Marine Corp veteran returning home after the First World War. From White’s website: While dealing with the legacy of a troubled family history, he is drawn into a manhunt for a criminal. The violence he discovers is as harrowing as anything he witnessed on the battlefields of France.
RATS: You were a Marine. How much influence did that experience have on the writing of Lambs of Men?
WHITE: I served in the peacetime Marine Corps of the later ‘90s, so I never deployed because I was a tank crewman and the expense of putting M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks in the field for exercises alone was considered cost prohibitive. Instead, we did all of our live fire field time in the Mojave Desert, where I was stationed for the duration of my enlistment. My own service provided me with an understanding of how Marines think, but the story is really about a man alone, and that’s almost the opposite of the experience you have in the service.
RATS: Tell us more about Lambs of Men.
WHITE: Lambs of Men explores the unusual relationships between family members and what happens to those relationships when faced with the fact of what war and violence can do to men. It’s been especially well received by women readers who feel that the added dimension of a woman’s experience in a male dominated world is authentically rendered.
In terms of inspiration, I’d just read Joseph Boyden’s THREE DAY ROAD, a book about a pair of Native Canadians fighting in WWI, and while I enjoyed the book, I wanted to write something that evoked the emptiness of returning home from war and a realization that that a native land could be as fraught with danger and horror as anything deemed “foreign.” Add to that a desire to write a family drama, and the book assembled itself tidily in my imagination.
Although one would think there are plenty of present-day conflicts that could be turned into a story, White will tell you there’s something different about the World War I era.
WHITE: I used WWI as a way of setting a story that was very much aware of the end of all time, and since WWI was indeed called “the war to end all wars,” it located the story in a very dark, remote era. Also, the story itself is fairly primitive and savage and I wanted a tribal, firelit quality to the narrative. 1920 in the hillcountry was a blend of the worst of the historical and modern ages, so it provided the stage I needed.
White, who dropped out of high school at 16 and only then started reading “seriously” (Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Tolstoy, and later, Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce), has also been a reporter—
WHITE: It bored me to tears.
—and a fly-fishing guide.
WHITE: We worked the Little Tennessee River fishing for small mouth bass mainly, though I did haul out a 22 inch rainbow trout one time.
RATS: Did any of your (clients? guide-ees?) stand out for any reason?
WHITE: Yeah, well, the ones who didn’t pitch in and help when we were in the canoe together. Let me just say, it’s not fun to singlehandedly paddle a canoe through Class 3 rapids while a portly and drink benumbed client sits idly by and quizzes you on the official state flower of North Carolina.
RATS: What IS the official state flower of North Carolina?
WHITE: Don’t be an asshole.
Now he teaches writing and literature at South College, which he says he enjoys more than reporting.
WHITE: You can actually explore nuance and meaning in your teaching. It’s a space devoted to trying to understand differing perspectives. Reporting was about quick copy and conviction, goals I find increasingly less satisfying as I age.
RATS: Does teaching inspire or inhibit your creativity?
WHITE: Long hours can wear you out, but in the end I can’t complain that I work around great books all day. There’s really not a more inspiring environment for a writer.
White says he finds time to write whenever he can “carve out a little bit of untroubled quiet,” and he’s using that time to work on his new projects: a collection of short fiction, and a contemporary novel that tells the stories of two grown brothers—one of them white, the other an adopted Cherokee—and what happens when the Cherokee brother is accused of murder.
The reviews White has received for Lambs of Men (here, here, and here) and his publishing history (his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Fugue, Night Train, North Carolina Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot and several others) give us much to look forward to. Until then, if you’re lucky, you might catch him giving a reading at a book signing.
RATS: Your latest blog entry discusses a recent reading with 60-70 people in attendance. Describe the experience.
WHITE: It was warm and congenial and I had the advantage of two other writers reading before me to warm the audience up. I was a little tipsy, so it was easy to crack a joke and get things rolling. I’m extremely charming once I’ve been drinking.
[Interview conducted by Kris]