Daren Dean’s first book, a novel, Far Beyond the Pale, was published by Fiction Southeast Press in 2015. I had the pleasure of reading it pre-publication. It’s the story of young Honey Boy Kimbrough’s search for his father and his fascination with the violent local outlaw Vaughn. Robert Olen Butler has referred to Dean as “the laureate of fallen angels,” and the title is appropriate. At its best, Dean’s fiction poetically renders the lives of people who are desperate, rash, lost, and searching, sometimes criminal, sometimes just overlooked, often violent, and not infrequently spiritually driven. He also writes poignantly about love and family. His new short-story collection, I’ll Still Be Here Long after You’re Gone was published earlier this month, in December 2019. An excerpt follows. Currently, Dean is an assistant professor of English at Lincoln University of Missouri. http://darendean.wixsite.com/daren-dean
Evelyn Somers: I’ll Still Be Here Long after You’re Gone is your second book. Your first book, a novel, Far Beyond the Pale, took you over a decade to write. You’ve also written a Civil War novel, Black Harvest. Were you writing stories all along too?
Daren Dean: I’ve written about five full-length novels now, but only one is published. I wrote the first one when I was twenty-two. It was an SF novel, a blatant rip-off of Frank Herbert’s Dune. I did it just because I wanted to see if I could sit with a manuscript that long, and it turned out I could. I wrote it some of it on an old Selectric typewriter by feeding in sheets of perforated computer paper so I could type in a continuous scroll à la Jack Kerouac, since I couldn’t afford a computer. I really had fun working on it, but I knew it was bad writing. When I was in graduate school I started Far Beyond the Pale. I wrote the rough draft in about four or five months. I was on fire. If I were going to argue about why you should get an MFA, it’s motivation: you know that when you write something, a whole roomful of your fellow aspiring writers and your professor are going to read it. That expectation was the kick in the ass I needed. I had an agent interested in representing the book, and later a book editor gave it serious consideration. Rejection seems to grow rejection, and soon I was locked in a sequence of various editors and agents asking for changes for about ten years. In some cases, I tried to revise to their specifications and in others not so much. The changes to the manuscript for each editor or agent took four to six months to make. In the end, it was published by Fiction Southeast Press in 2015.
The writer David Gessner told me I needed to start writing short work and get it published to enhance my credentials. Most of the stories in the collection were written and published in various literary magazines since 2011. I think it’s more traditional to learn your craft with the short form, but I was on fire to be a novelist. Now, I’m circling back to short stories. If you write a good short story you can place it somewhere, but publishing novels—that’s a different animal.
Somers: You completed your MFA at the University of North Carolina, where you studied with Clyde Edgerton, who has also been featured at Bloom. How did working with him impact your work?
Dean: I can’t say enough about working with Clyde. He’s a beloved figure in the Southeast. He was a great mentor when I needed one as a graduate student. I was lucky that he was my adviser and the chair of my thesis committee. He really understood what I wanted to do with my writing because I was an ardent disciple of Southern writing. There were a few students who seemed genuinely shocked by the rough relationships among my characters, and he pointed out that I was writing in a vein of writers like his good friends Tim McLaurin and Larry Brown. It’s a wonderful thing to be understood implicitly.
Somers: Are there other practitioners of Southern writing, or “grit lit,” who have also influenced your fiction?
Dean: I always come back to the first writers I came across: Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, and Daniel Woodrell. The Death of Sweet Mister in particular was a singular influence on helping me find my narrator Honey Boy’s voice in Far Beyond the Pale. I found an ARC on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, and the cashier just gave it to me since it wasn’t supposed to be shelved. About grit lit: these labels are mostly for outsiders. Actually, I spent many years trying to write a certain kind of grit-lit story, but now that I’m in my fifties I’m beginning to allow my characters to be who they are. Which is to say, I’m allowing for more contradictions within them. Like many writers, I hope to transcend all labels. Frankly, many people haven’t heard of “grit lit,” and if they do, they sometimes decide to be offended by it or by Southern literature in general. I’m just happy if someone wants to include my work in the conversation. But my reading is a lot wider than that genre. I’ve been rereading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a book I first encountered in ninth grade, and now his book seems to understand me a little better. Some of my favorites, contemporary writers I turn to regularly for inspiration, are Tim Gautreaux, Aaron Gwynn, Brad Watson, Donald Ray Pollock, Ron Rash, Bonnie Jo Campbell, George Singleton, Barry Hannah, Jesmyn Ward, Sheri Reynolds, Toni Morrison, Michael Farris Smith, and Roberto Bolaño.
Somers: As I was reading the stories I made a note to myself that said, “Religion, violence, alcohol.” I have a question I’ll ask shortly about religion—but tell me a little about the violence in your stories. Do the stories emerge out of an idea of violence inside the characters, or do they begin with characters that frequently turn to violence because of the world they’re part of? Or is that an impossible distinction?
Dean: Both. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” There is physical violence in my stories, but there is also tenderness, love. As a writer, I’m interested in those things and everything in between. Often violence arises in a character who feels misunderstood. Words fail them, and they turn to what should be a very last resort. I’m not much interested in gratuitous violence as shock factor. Like everything else in a story, it should arise organically as part of that character’s milieu. What may seem like shocking violence, fanatical religion, or alcohol abuse is another person’s everyday experience. I should add that besides grit lit I’ve also been influenced by the so-called “dirty realists” like Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Raymond Carver. More recently, novelist Gillian Flynn’s take on creating her own female antagonist that goes against the grain of current social expectations and criticism really resonated with me. People are complex, and they are going to think (if not say) things they wouldn’t want broadcast on social media. The capacity for violence is inside us all. If you’re teaching moral lessons instead of focusing on your character, that’s a problem. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to be taught lessons when they’re reading fiction.
You mentioned alcohol earlier. Well, I’m not against it. For a few years my mom worked at bars, lounges, and country clubs as a bartender. (I could probably write a book about her and all the different things she did to make a living.) Often I would go to the bar after school to see her. When I was allowed to hang out, I sometimes played pool, pinball, and shuffleboard with those who were getting an early start on their day-drinking. Just about everyone I knew, unless they were religious, seemed to drink and smoke. These were the men and women I grew up around. The title story of my collection, “I’ll Still be Here Long after You’re Gone” is one of my more autobiographical stories, and it gives a peek into what I’m speaking to here. It’s not a story about why readers shouldn’t drink. That would be ridiculous. It’s about what happens to this “nontraditional” family. It’s really more about relationships and how tenuous they are.
Somers: Much of your fiction is set in and around the counties of central Missouri where you were raised. Have you ever been tempted to write about a place that was completely foreign to you?
Dean: Well, I’ve set stories in places I’m familiar with: Missouri, Colorado, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and others. I’m not tempted to write about Paris, for example, since I’ve never been there and wouldn’t know what to say about it. I’ve seen how geography makes for character.
Somers: Religion is often a theme in your work. Your story in this collection, “The Mail-Order Jesus” is characteristic of a Daren Dean fiction in that it portrays earnest, believing faith but also shows how belief can edge over into the ridiculous. How does your own religious background affect your writing about religion?
Dean: For me, it’s very natural to write about religion. My attitudes and beliefs about it have evolved over time. To be very honest, when I was young, my mom was not very religious. However, my great aunt and uncle became very religious in the early 1970s. They were holy rollers, spirit-filled Christians. The world, as we know it, was about to come to an end. Christ was going to return like a thief in the night. I remember a popular painting at the time was a bridge over fiery flames that I assume Christians were traveling over to get to heaven. I lived with my great aunt and uncle off and on for several years growing up. My life was about as normal as it ever was when I lived with them. When I was in my twenties, I attended a Bible college for a year. I was serious about doing something in the ministry, and I was really searching for meaning. It was then that I read Flannery O’Connor for the first time. An English teacher required us to read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and then I read “Wise Blood” and was really mad because I felt like someone had been hiding her from me. From there, I suspected that writing was my true calling. I just didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. John Gardner said, “Fiction is the only religion I have.” He may have meant this tongue-in-cheek, but I understand the sentiment behind it. I guess I’ve gone on a roller-coaster ride with religion. I was passionately religious at one time, then rejected it completely, until studying and practicing Buddhism and Eastern philosophy caused me to see the beauty and humanity of religious experience.
Somers: You’ve made several forays into literary publishing, even founding your own journal(s). Now you teach creative writing in central Missouri, at Lincoln University. Have you left literary publishing behind for good?
Dean: I’ve learned never to say “never,” since when I do, that’s usually an indication of what I’m about to do next. I worked for a few years in academic publishing at the University of Missouri Press, but I can easily say that teaching suits my personality better. If the right opportunity came along, I would strongly consider a leap back into publishing, but I’m not sure what that would look like at the moment. I have writer friends like Chris Tusa (Fiction Southeast) who are doing incredible things on the publishing side. The idea of working in literary publishing still interests me, but it would need to be a good fit.
Somers: Your family had a rough period a few years ago when you became seriously ill. You emerged from that time writing more than ever, it seems. Did illness change how, or how much you are writing?
Dean: A few years back I had colon cancer. I went through chemo treatments. It was a trying time to say the least, but it did help me see more clearly who I was. When we’re young we think about becoming something, whatever it might be—we don’t imagine that we’re there yet. When I was undergoing chemo, the side effects literally brought me to my knees in pain. I continued to teach, since the last thing I wanted to do was sit around and think about death. There was a moment when I had just left class and one of my students was asking my advice about life in general, when it hit me. I thought, “I’m no longer becoming. I am.” I knew I was a teacher and a writer. I was a husband and a dad. That was it. I knew I was good with that, too. I can’t claim to be the most brilliant writer you’ll ever read, but it’s what I do.
Somers: How do you see grit lit as interacting with the growing awareness of and interest in diversity in American literature?
Dean: This is a difficult one. I, for one, find it very difficult to balance political anger (no matter how righteous) with the deep empathy it takes to write good fiction. The best writers are good at understanding the person they’re writing about with honesty and tenderness. On the other hand, if you have a character that’s a bastard—let the reader know by what the character says and does. I have felt this pressure of being “politically correct” in my writing, but this pressure doesn’t come from readers or writers as much as it comes from academic criticism that’s made its way into the mainstream. I think maybe we hoped it would change people’s hearts and minds and make them more compassionate. However that hasn’t entirely been the case.
Larry Brown was one of the most compassionate writers on the page I can think of. He took these regular guys and showed us what made them tick without condescending to the readers. His novel Dirty Work is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Dorothy Allison is another writer who writes about “grit” characters and ultimately from her point of view as lesbian Southern writer without sentimentality, and I guess this is where some readers may think what they’re reading is uncaring. The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” This is what grit writers do the best in my view. However, I don’t think this style of writing needs an apologist. The work speaks for itself.
Somers: What is your favorite story in I’ll Still Be Here Long after You’re Gone?
Dean: “Faith Baby” was a more mature work for me. That being said, I had the most fun writing comic stories like “Captain Marvel Goes Down in Literary Hall of Fame” and “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” in the Barry Hannah or George Singleton vein. I took chances with both. I wasn’t sure if they were working at that time, but I tried to give myself over to the story and characters and write from the subconscious. That’s when writing is intensely pleasurable for me.
The following excerpt from Dean’s story “Fever” is taken from I’ll Still Be Here Long After You’re Gone by Daren Dean, courtesy of Cowboy Jamboree Press.
I was burning up. My shirt was drenched in sweat. I just let go of the mower and it went off by itself. Almost immediately the cicadas started their screeching. Dark clouds were forming a gunmetal gray bank of clouds full of static and thunder. A yellow jag of lightning flickered in the distance. The storm was well off from us I could feel the electricity building in the air and in my veins. Inside our little ranch style house was cool and dark. The silence was ominous. Riley normally filled the void of our angry silences with her toddler’s chatter. Angie looked back over her shoulder at me and stepped into Riley’s room.
“She won’t wake up,” Angie said.
“What do you mean?” I stepped into the blindingly pink room.
“When I laid her down she had a little bit of a fever,” Angie said. “I didn’t think too much about it, but then it seemed like she had been asleep forever. When I tried to wake her up she made some noises, but she wouldn’t wake up. Her entire body shook like she was having a seizure and then nothing. I said her name over and over, but it’s like she can’t hear me.”
Angie’s voice had reached a strident tenor that clearly told me I had to do something, but as usual I felt completely impotent, defeated. “Riley, Riley!” I knelt down next to her little bed and gave her a little shake. The baby continued to sleep, but her body didn’t tense up or react to my touch.
“What’s wrong with her?” “What are we going to do, Dylan?” She stared at me as if I had caused this to happen. I picked Riley up and carried her to our unmade bed. I’m not sure why I did that, but it felt like the right thing to do. Her little body was limp in my arms and hotter than a woodstove. The seconds seem to go by like very important fireworks in my mind signaling a limit of precious time for my daughter. Angie was anguished, beside herself, as if I could bring Riley back to us. I went and got a washcloth out of the linen closet, wetted it, and folded it before laying it across her forehead.
“Should we drive her to hospital?” Angie said.
“No,” I said. “We’re both too keyed up. “Call 911, Angie,” I said. “When they get here they’ll have what they need to help her.”
“What are we going to do?” Angie wailed. Mascara ran down her face. She rested her face in her hands.
“Listen to me,” I said. “Call 911 on your cell phone now and then go out in the yard and flag them down so they know where to go.”
“Okay,” Angie said. She dashed for the phone. I heard her talking to the operator.
“She’s so hot,” I said as much to myself as Angie. “Riley, Riley.”
“They’re on the way,” Angie said.
“Go out and wait for them.” Surprisingly, she did. Angie is someone who does things so I think she was happy to have an action to perform. I didn’t want her to see me crying.
“Riley,” I said. “This is one hot mess.” I held her delicate hand in mine. We’d only just recently discovered that the reason she seemed to be constantly sick was all of her food allergies. She was allergic to milk, eggs, tomatoes, beef, and pork. Feeding her was a challenge. I could already hear the sound of sirens.
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. Her two concurrent writing projects are a supernatural novel-in-stories about two dueling female divinities and a comedy about a single-mom empty-nester and her unusual pet.