New Bern, NC – INTRO - Seemingly insignificant events can propel a good writer forward. Witness the story of Michael Parker and his fourth-and-most-recent novel. George Olsen spoke with the author and UNC-Greensboro creative writing professor who delivers the keynote address at the Third Eastern North Carolina Literary Homecoming at ECU in Greenville this Saturday and has this.
I've always contended with a writer friend of mine that I'm every bit the writer she is the difference being she gets ideas, I don't. It's a big difference. Pigs could fly and direct aliens to my front yard and I'd get nothing. But among the truly creative, it doesn't always take a lot to get them going.
02:56 I'm a cyclist and I was riding my bike in Randolph County and one morning I looked over and I was way out in the country and I looked over and there was this farmhouse and there were three kids who were in this pick-up truck and their father was on the porch seemingly agitated. I kept on going because I was with a big pack of cyclists because we were doing our 100-mile ride or whatever and so then later I started thinking about that why are those kids in the truck?
That brief glimpse led to the release this year of Michael Parker's 4th novel If You Want Me to Stay and that's also where the novel starts. Three children, including the narrator 14-year-old Joel Dunn Jr., are hiding in a truck after their father, who has bouts with mental illness, has a flare-up. When the middle of the children Joel Jr. is the oldest leaves the truck and is apprehended by his father the other two start the truck up and leave on a journey to find their mother, who left the family years earlier. And that journey is accompanied by music 60's era soul music the Stax/Volt sound, Sly Stone the book's title references one of the Family Stone's biggest hits and Aretha Franklin.
12:20-13:05 Reads from page 81
Michael Parker reading from If You Want Me to Stay. The book percolates with references to soul's early history the death of Otis Redding, the music of Archie Bell and the Drells or the Staples Singers. It's a music that Parker feels speaks to his book's eastern North Carolina characters more directly than, say, classic rock or country music.
13:27 But the other thing about it is soul music in particular seems to be about loving and losing, which is what the book is about. Joel Jr. keeps talking about how he's no good at love and he's just struggling to figure out what love is. He has these people who he's very close to and loves very much who leave him and do harm to him and yet he tries to persist in seeing his father as a good man. That just reminded me of my favorite soul songs which are all about getting left or leaving and feeling bad, but are also very spiritual and filled with hope and desire and these people are complaining about their circumstances maybe and they wish they weren't so miserable, but on the other hand they wouldn't trade that state of desire, the heightened charmed state of desire for anything, because they think that's what life is.
Parker's weaving of 60's soul into the book helps to lift some of the darkness from the book's subject matter in our discussion, Parker even went so far as to say that without the music to lift the mood the book would be virtually unreadable. His handling of his narrator's language is another thing that lifts the darkness. Parker's capturing of the language of a 14-year-old the book is told from Joel Jr's perspective . is adept not too clever, not too hip, not too wise beyond his years it sounds like a 14-year-old. In this scene Joel Jr. describes part of an event when he, his brothers and sister are left at their grandparents house after his father has a mental episode.
06:05-07:08 Reads from page 26
Parker says his ability to replicate a 14-year-old's speech pattern is partly in-house research when he wrote this book his daughter was 15 which meant there were a lot of teenage boys he could use as his words lab rats. But perhaps even more of that ability was also in-house or even in-office or wherever Parker chose to write.
08:08 I think that what we're looking at here is a case of arrested development in a way. I feel like I'm in so many ways, if you're a writer so much of what you write about comes out of adolescence. It's a tremendously important time for everyone because so many of the deepest cuts come from that time in your life and that's when you begin to start to question who you are for the first time and begin to break away from institutions like family and community that you've known, and you fall in love for the first time and maybe you go out on your own for the first time a really incredibly fertile time for artists. It was a time in my life at least that seems very fresh even though I haven't been a teenager for 30 years.
If You Want Me to Stay, for all its sometimes disturbing looks at family dynamics and mental illness, is ultimately about music its ability to hold people together when everything wants to spin apart as well as the music produced everyday from the mouths of people unaware that the things they say and how they say them has a rhythm all its own.
10:07 So I was trying also to approximate in the rhythm of Joel Jr's speech the music that I grew up with which was a weird mix of black and white speech it came out of a region where music was really important and everyone listened, a lot of people listened to the same music which was soul music, and so I was trying to get the music in there and also the music of eastern NC in the way that people talk and how we often use five prepositions when just one will do perfectly fine. We tend to be very verbose in a lot of ways and I was trying to get that in there as well.
If You Want Me to Stay by Micheal Parker is published by Algonquin Books. Michael Parker is the keynote speaker (this Saturday/next Saturday September 30th) for the Third Eastern North Carolina Literary Homecoming Friday and Saturday. The Saturday events, including Parker's 4:00 pm keynote address, will take place at the Willis Building on First Street on the ECU campus. I'm George Olsen.