after “The White Horse” by Yasunari Kawabata In the low light…
“I’m trying to show characters that endure despite terrible things that happen to them,” says Charles Dodd White about his most recent novel In the House of Wilderness, published by Ohio University Press in 2018. Striking a balance between darkness and beauty, between violence and joy, the novel brings to life a band of hippies, a college professor, and a photographer whose images have made a splash in the art world. All the while, White asks hard questions about Appalachia, examining the way two characters cope with both wilderness and wildness—and how they ultimately find each other in times of tribulation.
As with his novels A Shelter of Others (2014) and Lambs of Men (2010), as well as his short story collection Sinners of Sanction County (2011), In the House of Wilderness finds White unafraid to push boundaries in his writing. He recently spoke to Appalachian Heritage about the challenges of writing photography on the page, his views on environmental issues, and the inspirations for his recent novel.
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EMILY MASTERS: Photography plays a major role throughout the narrative of In the House of Wilderness. Which Appalachian photographers were most inspirational to you during your writing process?
CHARLES DODD WHITE: Inspiration can be such a tough thing to define. In a way, pretty much every picture I’ve ever seen about Appalachia figured into the composite that Liza Bryant [from the novel] eventually became. One of the central concerns I had was exploring what it means to use something or someone as a means of making an artistic statement. So, it’s impossible to think of something like that without Shelby Lee Adams coming to mind. I remain ambiguous in my own reaction to much of his work, though it’s impossible not to recognize its artistry. But I’m also aware of the good and striking work of some contemporary photographers like Roger May, Rob Amberg, and Stacy Kranitz. I’m lucky enough to call Roger and Rob good friends, and I think the world of Stacy’s work, though I’ve only talked to her a couple of times across social media. If I were to step beyond the strict influence of Appalachia, I’d say Sally Mann would be another person at the top of the list.
In terms of why I attach to them as touchstones, I think it’s part of my fascination I have with people who follow artistic pursuits outside of writing. I’m interested in how they use a completely different but still recognizable language to get after the big concerns of life, death, love, and loss. I feel like I learn more about the person behind the camera each time I really spend time with their pictures. That’s likely my projection, of course, and probably sounds more grandiose than I mean it to.
EM: What were some of the challenges you faced in describing photographic images on the page, in translating their essence to readers so they would be able to recreate a photograph in their own minds?
CDW: It can be a real balancing act. You want to convey without belaboring. Really, I think I end up seeing the emotional response of the characters being the engine that drives the rendering. If you were to try and capture all the ineffables of visual art, you would end up writing yourself in circles and certainly end up boring the reader. But if you can show some essential relationship between subject and object happening in the text then maybe the reader can become more tuned in to their own subject/object relationship they’re having with the book they’re holding in their hands. If that happens, the reader will remember the emotional narrative the image communicates.
EM: In one scene of your novel, you choose to reference Deliverance, one of the most controversial films about the Appalachian region, in a positive light. Knowing how controversial the film’s representation of the region is, what made you decide to include it?
CDW: I don’t remember being particularly positive or negative, but I think it has been such a lightning rod for Appalachian scholars for the last several decades that any response to it other than condemnation might be viewed as decidedly favorable. It’s such a huge piece of the American imagination about what Appalachia is that it’s taken on a kind of hyperreality, and I think if you’re going to talk about image and identity in the region as created by artists (in this case twofold, since both the [James] Dickey novel and the [John] Boorman film adaptation are about the region). Although I understand and agree with much of the criticism of the story as it constructs old tropes of the inbred hillbilly killers, it remains an excellent novel. The scene when Ed climbs the cliff face with his bow is one of my favorite scenes in fiction. And the film still has the ability to surprise contemporary audiences with its building menace. I think it would be a mistake to jettison it from what we consider worth our attention as Appalachian writers and thinkers.
EM: When a couple of the characters are street performing as stereotypical hillbillies in Asheville, North Carolina, to make a little cash, the scene feels reflective of the rise of the tourism industry in Appalachia, especially in places like Gatlinburg. What do you think about people in the region championing stereotypical behavior for their own financial benefit?
CDW: I’m not a big fan. There’s this idea out there that a single act, whether it be a song or a dance or a picture or a book, that there aren’t consequences to portraying characters like they don’t matter. Poverty porn, I guess is a way of thinking about what I’m trying to say. Well, there are consequences. Each time you put your words or your images out in the world, your voice is amplified and that means a certain ethic needs to be considered. If you are lucky enough to have people listening to things you come up with then you owe it to your characters to get things right because if you’re working right those characters come from your idea about what people truthfully are.
EM: In the novel, you write about a lot of touchy subjects including environmental issues, polygamy, police corruption, abortion, and adultery. Since wilderness is a major theme throughout the book, I found your meditation on disappearing wilderness especially interesting. On page 199, one of the main characters meditates, “He wasn’t exactly sure when it had happened, but a spirit of resignation had settled over those who had once been so ardent to defend the integrity of the natural world.” This line seems like one of the darkest in a novel filled with violence in various forms. Does this reflect your beliefs about the wilderness, especially that in the Appalachian region?
CDW: I don’t know. It depends on the day and that largely depends on how much of the previous night I sat up unable to sleep because I was worrying about whether humans are ever going to become serious about the world dying. I struggle with where we are in the natural world. I’ve never been famous for my sunny disposition to begin with, but the many environmental failures in the last few years coupled with the realization that things are probably much worse than we initially believed, makes me fearful in a way I wasn’t even five years ago. There are some brighter patches like the fact that forestation seems to be consistently if slowly growing in North America, but the larger picture is grim. I think of books starting to be published now like William Vollman’s No Immediate Danger, David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, and Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed, and how they point toward a new kind of environmentalist work. The kind that grapples with the heavy deed of what we have done and how we may be facing something beyond our ability to overcome.
EM: You strike a delicate balance between the darkness and the beauty of the human experience, the Appalachian experience. Do you see yourself as an activist through your writing?
CDW: I think that I’m trying to show characters that endure despite terrible things that happen to them. I hope that their actions carry weight for the reader. As corny as it may sound, I still believe that the act of writing novels can be a revolutionary practice. So, I would like to believe that my work is pointed in the direction of a philosophical good. I think that if we want our world to improve then it has to come from a place of imagination. Fiction is slow and small but it is an insistent factor in how a society tells the story of itself.
EM: What inspired you to write In the House of Wilderness? When the writing got tough or you felt like you were hitting a wall, what did you turn to for motivation or further inspiration?
CDW: I was interested in a story about two characters (the widower Stratton and the young woman Rain) both trying to escape something. In the case of Rain it was a literal wilderness that is the setting of her abuse at the hands of the man who calls himself Wolf. Stratton’s wilderness is more metaphorical in that it is how I conceive of grief. So I wanted to see how these two people could mean something to one another and what that might say about their ability to heal.
As far as overcoming the blocks, there weren’t any tricks. Just time in the chair and plain, old-fashioned obsession.