"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of The Big Reap, The Wrong Goodbye and Dead Harvest.

"Bagley's got the poet's eye, but that doesn't mean everything is prettier in his work. It means the ugly stuff is more vivid. More intense. Like a sudden switch from analog to HD. And that's a trait to very much admire in his work." --Anthony Neil Smith, author of Hogdoggin', Yellow Medicine, The Drummer and Psychosomatic.




Sunday, January 27, 2008

Traditions

What follows is the final section of the 15-page preface to my MFA creative thesis (which consists of the first 125 pages of Bitter Water Blues). It's as close as I'm likely to get to an artist's statement.
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V: Traditions

My fiction has its roots in the darker aspects of rural life. I came to Maine when I was 14 years old and lived with a working-class family that held few aspirations for the future beyond having food on the table and a roof overhead. Reading was something you only did when required by a teacher. Unless it was part of an assignment, writing of any kind was viewed with open contempt. My father labeled all writers, musicians and artists as "faggots." I was a stranger, a family member who had lived all of his life until then in a small city in upstate New York. I might as well have been from Mars.

I spent a lot of time locked in my room with books and records. When I did interact with other people, it was mostly as an observer. Since I did not fit in, I decided to sit back, to watch and listen. I learned the speech patterns and mannerisms of Mainers. I saw the inherited traits in faces, in ways of walking or standing. All the while, I dreamed of finishing high school and getting out…but by then the place and the people were under my skin and—after a few months in Hollywood—I came back to stay.

Rural life is far more complex than city dwellers might think. There are unwritten rules that we all learn. To break them is to be branded for life; in some cases, that stigma goes on for generations. People can become trapped by their environment here just as surely as in some urban ghetto.

When I was 18 years old, my girlfriend’s father loaned me a copy of Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine. It was a revelation. I had grown up reading the fantasies of Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, Roger Zelazny and Fritz Leiber, as well as the horror novels of Stephen King. Literature, as it had been taught in school, held little interest for me. With few exceptions, the stories were all about upper-class Englishmen, while the poems were about Greek gods and long-dead kings. Such material was irrelevant to my life.

Chute’s writing was raw and intense, her characters alive. More to the point, I knew these characters. They were just like the real people among whom I lived and worked. I have read that novel many times over the last twenty years and, though the writing no longer impresses me as it once did, the characters still break my heart. In some ways, Hag is a bastard son of Reuben Bean.

As an undergrad working toward my BFA, I wrote stories about such hardscrabble characters. I was obsessed by their troubles and their small triumphs, by the strength that kept them going through tough times. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God and Blood Meridian, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, all of which I read for the first time as a college freshman, were major influences on my developing stories.

I discovered crime fiction in 1993, when I read James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam. Though Burke’s hero, Dave Robicheaux was a detective, the story bore no resemblance to the polite drawing room mysteries my grandmother had loved. In those stories, the solving of the puzzle was everything, and all the characters were flat. Burke wrote down and dirty fiction that lived, breathed, kicked and screamed. His protagonist was a sort of knight errant who often came close to crossing the line into criminal behavior himself. I started writing crime fiction myself, at first imitating Burke’s style.

After Burke, I moved on to Walter Mosley, Elmore Leonard, then Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. More recent writers like George Pelecanos, Ken Bruen, Victor Gischler, Daniel Woodrell and Scott Wolven—especially Wolven—have also affected my work.

Crime fiction is the best way to explore the themes that matter to me: loss, poverty, abuse, and the consequences of violence and of keeping secrets. My characters steal to eat or pay the rent or support their meth habit. They drink, smoke, burp, fart and use foul language. They commit violent acts and attempt to cover them up. I do not glorify violence, though. I try to portray it realistically: brutal, ugly, degrading and messy, as when Hag makes his first kill. Many of my characters come to bad ends, sometimes dragging their loved ones down with them. This is what novelist J.D. Rhoades has called “redneck noir.” It is what I do, and I hope that Bitter Water Blues will someday be considered a classic example of this sub-genre.

2 comments:

Chris said...

I, too, grew up an outsider, in rural upstate New York. Though I wouldn't tag my novel redneck noir, one of the things I very consciously decided to do was to write a dark, gritty story about what lurks beneath the surface of a seemingly idyllic small town. Now, I've got no beef with cozies (I think the crime umbrella's plenty big to encompass all kinds of stories), but it drives me nuts that gritty tales are for cities, and small-town crimes are somehow thought of as quaint, or aberrant, or the result of dangerous outsiders. That doesn't square with what I grew up seeing -- like a high-school kid getting damn near kicked to death because he made out with the wrong girl (her boyfriend, a decent, upstanding jock-type, was too smart to do it himself -- he stole a quarter-bag of weed from his dad and used it to buy the services of a kid who was probably never going to leave his parents' farm, unless it was to head off to prison.)

Man, you keep me away from a computer for a while, and when I come back, I don't shut up...

anne frasier said...

love this, patrick. i'm currently writing nonfiction and have gone back to my roots, so i can really relate to so much of what you said. i might be wrong, but i also think very few people can tell these rural stories because very few writers come out of such places anymore.


i hope we hear some good news from you soon!

anne