Today, I'm thrilled to bring you a conversation with Far Beyond the Pale author Daren Dean. Far Beyond the Pale is a dark, disturbing, at times comic, at times heartbreaking tale of a tough thirteen-year-old coming of age in 1970s rural Missouri. There is a raw, urgent authenticity to Dean's writing and it is no wonder that fiction masters such as Robert Olen Butler and Kent Wascom have been touting its praise. Read on as we delve into regionalism, Flannery O'Conner, and what it means to write through all that darkness.
Steph Post: Far Beyond the Pale is described as a Southern novel and indeed, it has all the hallmarks of a Southern gothic tale in the grit-lit tradition. It takes place in Missouri, however- a place that I wouldn't necessarily consider part of the South. (Folks don't consider Florida part of the South half the time either and they're far from right....) Is Far Beyond the Pale a Southern tale? How does its Missouri setting set it apart from more traditional Southern stories set east of the Mississippi?
Daren Dean: This is a complicated question, as I’m sure it would be for you to answer this about Florida. I’d say the short answer to your question is: It is, and it isn’t. Missouri was settled in certain areas by Southerners in a big swath of an area I write about referred to as the Little Dixie. The name says it all, huh? My mom was born in small town called Fulton with a Southern past although her family was German. Wolfmeier is the surname. Doesn’t really sound like a Southern name and it isn’t. Germans weren't accepted in the old days by the Southerners in Missouri because they were new immigrants back in the nineteenth century and usually had leanings away from just about everything Southern. That being said, Fulton was the county seat of Callaway County and they decided to remain neutral, if I have it right, and secede from the Union, but they didn’t necessarily consider themselves Confederate either. They were mostly Union occupied anyway during the Civil War, if that’s how we want to judge Southerness by, but they created "The Kingdom of Callaway" as the story goes. The last I heard they had never rejoined the Union—not that the government is worried about it, but it's just a fun bit of trivia. All that being said, Pale is more Grit Lit than purely Southern for that matter.
SP: The strength in your writing clearly lies in your ability to perfectly capture and convey the authentic voice of your characters- both in dialogue and narration. How do you go about crafting this voice? Is this something that comes naturally to you or do you have to work hard at its development?
DD: I appreciate that compliment. I’d say a little of both. I’ve always been attuned to how people talk, but the challenge for this novel was to remember a language that, in many ways, has changed over the last 30-40 years. I mean, I wanted to capture how people talked and acted as I remember it, but at the same time not allow it to get in the way of telling a story people would want to read. Flannery O’Connor spoke of not eliminating mystery—and to me people are mysterious as hell. I guess I didn’t always get the references they were making as a child and I wanted to capture that.
SP: Without beating around the bush, I'd have to say that Far Beyond the Pale is one of the darker novels I've read as of late. What is it that draws you to such dark characters and their situations? Did you ever find it difficult to move around in the head of characters such as Vaughn?
DD: I intended the story to be dark. This is a complex question for me. Rather than say it’s a foreign feeling, the darkness is just the opposite light we all experience. There’s beauty in the light, but we appreciate it even more when we come out of the darkness. We all know we only have so much time on the earth and this is a kind of beauty I’d compare to giving someone a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The flowers may be beautiful, but after several days they’re going to shrivel and die. This doesn’t take away from the vibrant colors and the enjoyment of their beauty while we have them, but there is the underlying sense of regret that is quite haunting to understand this mortality of ours.
To make it more personal, I’d say as a kid I don’t remember my own parents being married. Many people don’t, but I’d say it’s not a competition. Having one parent can make it tough on a family economically speaking and to that sense of belonging and feeling physically and emotionally safe, protected and loved, and that sense of being connected to your family. So, I’d have to say I could not have articulated the concept of alienation as a boy, but now I know it for what it is. Maybe that’s where it starts. I didn’t grow up with my dad, so if I felt threatened by something or someone that sense of going to your father for help or protection was something I never experienced. Maybe it intensifies fears that shouldn’t be that threatening. Also, I have an older brother who was born mentally handicapped. One day Mom received a letter saying he had to attend a state sponsored school. Essentially, she had to give him up to the state system. It was sad, but at the same time maybe she was relieved a little, too. He couldn’t talk, communicate, or even walk very well. He had many physical besides mental problems (and still does today), but I can remember visiting him in foster homes and at facilities in Sedalia and Hannibal. We’d go visit him and see all of these children with many different conditions and problems who lived in these facilities. This made a profound impact on me. Most children probably don’t see this and if they do it’s not something that’s part of their lives.
One image from that time that haunts me until this day is from one of the foster homes Lane was in. It was a family that had a child of their own who was mentally challenged and they decided to be a foster family for other children. Their entire house and life was devoted to I don’t know how many of these children, but quite a few. The lower level of the house had at least 3 beds in the living room and bedrooms. There was a crib in one of the bedrooms and I was just tall enough to see over the sides and right on my level was a baby with encephalities. That is to say, the baby’s head was as a big or bigger than it’s body. It was like a watermelon shape or the head of an alien from another world. A “watermelon baby.” It was terribly sad, confusing, and terrifiying all at the same time. I think I was about 7 years old. I will never forget how I felt in that moment.
Vaughn was a challenge to write. I’ve known some people who were bad news, but not quite at his level. Actually, I’d say I tried to give him a few good qualities, so he didn’t seem too cartoonish or pulpy, that I took from actual people I knew, like his penchant for improving his vocabulary through Reader’s Digest vocabulary tests.
SP: Because of the dark overtones, I'd like to ask you about your readers. In writing Far Beyond the Pale, who did you envision your audience to be? Were you ever worried about alienating readers looking for a story a little more soft around the edges?
DD: As a writer who wants people to read his work, I’d say this is a totally legit question to ask. It is tough, because some people read fiction because they want to be a taught a moral or read a story to make them feel better. This is the message children get. What’s the moral to the story? There are certainly those kinds of writers out there. They do quite well it seems, even if their stories seem a bit unreal to me.
I used to work at the Columbia (MO) library back in the 1990s and there was a man who worked at the Reference Desk named Yancy Taylor. I liked Yancy, even if I was a bit intimidiated by his manner. He was a bit gruff sometimes and so I found it kind of ironic and amusing that he loved those Signet romance novels. He’d go cruise the new book shelves and pick out a new paperback romance and stuff it bravely into his back pocket. These weren’t one of the so-called “good” romances, just those little paperbacks. I didn’t have the guts to ask him about it, but another lady, my twin as I called her, Jane Loudermilk, told me that Yancy said he read them because they had happy endings. I loved that, because he never struck me as Mr. Sensitive and yet he must have had a great need for the happy endings these romances provided him with. The real irony was that his cousin was the famous Tennessee writer Peter Taylor. We had a conversation about it once, but there was no convincing Yancy that anyone had read or enjoyed the Pulitzer winner’s prose. Maybe his stories didn’t have the right kind of happy endings Yancy was looking for.
I like to think my readers are like me and want a little grit in their stories. I don’t think I could do what Nicholas Sparks does for instance, but wouldn’t it be nice to get those big checks?
SP: Like me, you attended the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Although we were in different graduate programs, I'm curious as to how this experience influenced your writing. Did you develop any parts or precursors to Far Beyond the Pale while in the MFA program?
DD: I’m very proud of being a grad of UNCW’s Creative Writing Program. I know those stories always pop-up about how MFA programs ruin good writing and I call bullshit on that. I think the roots of this idea might go back to the 1980s and the minimalist Iowa Writers Workshop story. I think many a talented writer wanted to write like Raymond Carver. Who can blame them? Who wouldn’t want to write like Carver, but that being said, an MFA program will help a writer find a voice, find a community, and learn discipline in writing. Or, like that famous quote by the acerbic Flannery O’Connor: “My opinion is that they (Universities) don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” In the writers I went to school with, I saw a hell of a lot of diversity in writing subjects and styles. As a matter of fact, I started Pale there at UNCW. I submitted a couple of sections in workshops. Some students in my first workshop didn’t know about writers like Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, and Harry Crews. I don’t think they knew what the hell I was writing. In fact, I remember a couple of 3rd year students who expressed horror and dismay, “Why are your characters so mean to each other?” I tried not to laugh, but I surmised that those students came from an upper middle class suburbia where bad things apparently didn’t happen in families or between neighbors, except behind closed doors. Clyde Edgerton even stepped in at one point and talked about some of the writers like Brown and Lewis Nordan who were good friends of his and much to my relief told everyone that was the traditiion I was writing in.
I amazed myself as a student by writing 6 days a week every morning and wrote the first draft of Pale in about 4 or 5 months. While I was waiting for feedback on the novel, I started another novel and proceeded to write the rough draft of a second novel in about 6 months. It was a very creative and productive time. I think because I knew someone was going to read my work. I found that very motivating.
SP: Because of how well you owned the setting and characters in Far Beyond the Pale, I can definitely see you becoming known for writing about this particular part of Missouri. Do you see yourself as a regional writer? Are you working on other novels or stories that have the same setting?
DD: I seem to remember Toni Morrison answering that question once by pointing out that even a writer who lives in NYC and writes exclusively about the five boroughs is essentially a regional writer. That being said, if someone wants to call me a regional writer, then at least I’m in the conversation. It doesn’t bother me at all. But it seems like it’s sometimes meant to put a writer in a box or to say they aren’t relevant—an accusation to be responded to like being a Trump supporter! I’d say most of what I’ve written in terms of novels (I have a few unpublished waiting patiently in Dropbox) takes place in Missouri, like Daniel Woodrell’s more recent novels. I’d like to write about Louisiana at some point, since I’ve lived here for a number of years, but I’m slow on the draw. I think I have to wait until a story idea comes along that I can tell about the Sportman’s Paradise.
SP: Finally, I'd like to be sure that we spread the book-support-wealth. Who are three contemporary writers whose work you'd recommend to anyone in a heartbeat?
DD: Roberto Bolano—Everything, Brad Watson— The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, Michael Farris Smith— Rivers.
Thanks to Daren Dean! Be sure to check our Far Beyond the Pale, available now from Fiction Southeast Press. And keep reading, reviewing, recommending and supporting authors! Cheers!