A Shelter of Others, by Charles Dodd White (Fiddleback ltd), is set near the southern border of North Carolina, in a rugged holler punctuated by alcohol abuse, drug trade and brutish policemen. While the extremes to which these characters are pushed nears the surreal, White never allows them to become the other. By the time their real trouble arrives, their danger feels like ours. While the story has an engaging and fast-paced series of events, the character’s details are so precise that the action never overtakes them.
Lavada, the woman around whom much of the action revolves, merely exists. Her husband, Mason, has been serving out a jail sentence, a fact known to the whole town. Her situation, constricted and dependent on mercy, is summed in one elegant line: “Shame simply accrued.”
Lavada is left to care for her father-in-law Sam, who suffers from dementia. He proves to be one of the most intriguing characters in the book, despite the fact that we never can be sure of his mental state. Sam’s internal thoughts are like the terrain of this place: timeless and nuanced, yet distressed.
White’s scenic descriptions are elegant, alternating between lyric and spare. He builds layers of desire for this place, whilst at the same time ratcheting one’s fear of it.
A Shelter of Others at times felt like two books overlaid: one lyrical and expressive, the other harrowing. White places an action-packed narrative within a love letter to a region. Whether the holler is real or imagined, the reader gets why these characters stay and also understands what it means to be of such a place.
You have written inherently decent characters with shortcomings (say, Irving) as well as those with barely any redeeming qualities (Cody). Can you talk about writing characters with few soft edges? What do you risk in going so dark?
I believe character portrayal is ultimately one of the most moral concerns of the novelist. You must be as ethical as possible, showing the depths where they exist (or fail to exist) regardless of the convenience such a portrayal might have on the book’s larger plotting. So, with a darker or more troubled personality, you have to risk being misunderstood by showing something that might confuse what the reader expects to see. But that’s okay, because ultimately it’s the character you have to honor, so to speak.
At times, I wasn’t sure what Sam, who suffers from dementia, actually comprehends. I suspect what you have done here, is to have the reader experience that same flux in realities that Sam would have been going through. This felt different from the situation where the reader is a step ahead of the characters; as I read those sections, it was as if I was a layer further in than the characters, that I knew things that were never to be discovered by any of the characters, and soon lost forever to Sam. I am curious about the strategy of showing Sam’s thoughts, and what it was like to imagine them.
Yes, I wanted there to be a tension between Sam’s first person monologues and the rest of the narrative. And it was important too to not only show confusion but make the reader experience it as a means of knowing the burden he shoulders. The writing of Sam’s section was actually some of the most fun for me because I was able to excavate a kind of secret history and the exclusiveness of his narrative seemed somehow richer to me for this reason.
I was sympathetic towards Mason for a good stretch of the story, despite the fact that he hadn’t come home to his wife and father once he was released from jail. But in a very succinct section (not to spoil anything, but it’s the flashback to the night before he went to jail) he went from being a guy caught up in local vice to something more sinister. Talk a bit, if you will, about writing this character and shaping him into someone who we sometimes like and sometimes really do not.
I guess this kind of goes back to the opening question in that I don’t really like characters that stay in the same track. I want them to be disappointing at times, even the ones we want to root for. It doesn’t make their stories less accessible. I think we recognize ourselves in the flawed. That’s where we find strength, I believe.
Your writing is both spare and lyrical and has a very specific aesthetic, in that it creates a longing for a place where, at least as far as we see it in this novel, not a whole lot goes right for the folks who live there. Assuming that the place of the story is based off of actual locations, could you say a few things about writing an area that you know so well but that your reader might not?
Well, I do have a specific place in mind, but my writing isn’t meant to be a realistic depiction per se. I write what many would called Gothic fiction, which is certainly stylized and intensified, but yes, a lot of these bad things do happen where I live. The book is what I would call my psychic historiography of my fictional county. But I don’t think you need to “know” Appalachia or the South to understand the story. It’s about trying to find a way to come home. Most people have struggled with that at one time or another.
Much of the ‘trouble’ or its root structure is in place before the story begins. A Shelter of Others was nearly pure escalation. I can’t help thinking of the stories of Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash, in that they, too, carry a strong sense of urgency and place is such an integral character. Do you feel that your choice of site is critical to that on-the-verge feeling?
Being in the country removes a degree of artifice. So, being out there in the wilderness makes consequences much more immediate. If you’re writing a book that benefits from physical tension, then this is certainly something to consider. However, I think this sort of thing is just as plausible in urban fiction. Consider someone like Denis Johnson, for example. His stories practically burn your hands. It’s a matter of narrative immediacy and investment.
One might ask: Why don’t these folks just leave? Do you feel that in fiction, as in real life, rural settings have a deeper grab, that they get into the blood easier, and therefore are more difficult to shake? Were it not for Sam, would Lavada have been out of there?
Thomas McGuane once said the reason he didn’t like Faulkner is that because nobody in Yoknapatawpha County ever decided to just up and move to Miami. He has a point. Writers that work in a mythic mode where place is such an imposing force sometimes end up constructing very hermetic worlds. I think this is probably somewhat true of my work. So, I guess I’d say Lavada is tied to where she is, just as we all are. It just so happens that the boundaries of her world are a little smaller than ours.
Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer and artist living in Arroyo Seco, a tiny rural village in northern New Mexico. She has taught metalsmithing to jaded college students, mentored middle schoolers in creative writing and facilitated installation art with kindergartners. When all that isn’t going on, there is way too much skiing. She received an MFA (visual arts) from the California College of the Arts and is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Bennington. She has published stories and essays in a number of small journals, and is a reader for some larger ones.