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Photo by John Russell/Vanderbilt University

Without irony

Q&A | Novelist Tony Earley has found success in writing about "folks who are simply doing the best they can"

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

Tony Earley is a noted novelist and short story writer, perhaps best known for a novel, Jim the Boy (2002), and for stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Best American Short Stores. He teaches fiction workshops and seminars at Vanderbilt University. When I introduced myself to him and mentioned WORLD, he smiled and said, "My wife is not going to believe this. She is a subscriber. We have a mixed marriage. She is the conservative (laughter)."

As a writer, how do you approach the reading public? My books are written from a Christian standpoint, but I never want to end up in the Christian bookstore. If I do, I'll know my career is shot. Being too overt is not good for your career. The part of the establishment that publishes and reviews is the issue, not necessarily the reading public. My aim is to fly in under the radar.

When you say you are a "Christian," what do you mean? If I didn't believe in the Resurrection, I'd just sleep late and play golf. I would just try to be a good person via secular humanism. It is possible to be an atheist and a fine person, just like it is possible to be a Christian and an awful person. But I would like to be a Christian and a good person. I am not actively seeking to convert anyone through my writing as much as I am trying to provide a positive example. I know a lot of writers, and Southern writers, who are Christians. They show more than they tell. That is for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

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When did you start thinking about becoming a writer? I grew up in small-town North Carolina, Rutherfordton, pronounced "Ruthfton." I got the idea that if I didn't become famous, I'd be a failure. My second-grade teacher, Doris Freeman, would have us write every Monday. I still remember turning in a paper and Mrs. Freeman responding, "This is good, Tony. You should be a writer." Thus, I assumed, from age 7, that I would be a writer and a success. And here I am. I actually got to be my dream.

A happy childhood? My sister died in a car accident when she was a senior in high school. In the year following, my dad had a conversion experience. This led to something I had not had, a close relationship with my father. . . . Which reminds me, I showed you my daughters, didn't I? (He pulls out photos.) That's Clara Eudora, and that is Willa Ruth. We adopted them from China. (Pause, eyes welling up.) I love being a daddy. My childhood wasn't that great, and it feels like a do-over. The thrill of my life is riding bicycles with Clara each day to school.

What happened after you left "Ruthfton"? I went to nearby Warren Wilson College, just outside of Asheville. I then became a newspaper reporter at The Daily Courier in Forest City. That is why Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather are my models for writing. They were reporters first. Then I got married and went on to earn an MFA at the University of Alabama in 1992. I wanted Sarah to realize her own dream, so we moved from Tuscaloosa to Pittsburgh, Pa., where she attended Trinity Episcopal School of Divinity, a very traditional Episcopal seminary. We are in the Episcopal church, but Sarah is not ordained.

How did the success of your writing affect you? I was a "success" at least in the sense of being noted by peers within the profession. But then I had a serious bout with clinical depression. I was taken to the brink of myself. It became clear that there was no guarantee that I would write another word. Over time, my "success" came into perspective. I began to see my ability for what it is, a gift from God, not something self-generated. The central question posed by this revelation was, "Given the opportunity again, what will you do with this gift? How will you steward it?" My answer to that question was Jim the Boy.

You have described Jim the Boy and The Blue Star as "children's literature for adults." So much of contemporary life is dark, nihilistic, hopeless. Reading contemporary fiction, one gets the idea that all children are abused, all marriages are bad, all people are in danger of being murdered in their beds. I know life is horrible at times, I get that. I have experienced it firsthand. But I like to focus on the folks who simply are doing the best they can. I wanted to honor these people.


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