Jay Varner comes to Penn State Behrend

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 at 12:43 PM
Jay Varner comes to Penn State Behrend by Toby Keller

Penn State Behrend’s Creative Writers Reading Series is bringing Jay Varner, author of the memoir Nothing Left to Burn, to campus this Thursday, Oct. 11 for a reading at 6 p.m. with a reception starting half an hour earlier.

Varner has worked as a journalist, writing instructor, teaching assistant, and editor. His work has appeared in The Georgetown Review, The Southeast Review, Oxford American Magazine, and elsewhere. His prose are crafted with mastery; it’s evident that Varner has been influenced by, and responds to Appalachian literature, and his name will, no doubt, be added to those who have found and conveyed the heart of America through great writing in their own specific time and place.

Nothing Left to Burn deals with Varner’s past in the central Pennsylvanian town of McVeytown during his childhood as well as the time he spent after college working for the town’s newspaper. The memoir deals with the relationships within his family, as well as the personality of the location.


Toby Keller: I grew up in Russell, Pa., just outside of Warren near the Kinzua Dam and Alleghany Reservoir. It's a town with one traffic light that always blinks yellow, and generations of families have lived on the same backroads for years. Everyone knows everyone. Your work speaks to that sort of upbringing. Do you think your work is dependent on setting? How important was it for you, and the stories written about your childhood, to get away from McVeytown and the atmosphere of central Pennsylvania?

Jay Varner: Setting certainly plays a big part—whether that’s Central Pennsylvania or other areas I write about. I think it’s important to focus on the cultural mores of people, and those are usually specific to a certain town or region. More than likely, it’s going to be telling of character. In terms of getting away, I would think I’m like many when it comes to hometowns—when it’s all you know, you can’t really stand back and try to make sense of things. So moving away and gaining distance is a good thing but it also has its risks. Some people will get offended that you dared to ask a question or look at something critically. Others will misconstrue what you discover—even if you discover that you really do love the place. And I love Central Pennsylvania and McVeytown. It might mean you can never go home again, either figuratively or literally.

TK: Do you personally feel like you can't go home now, either literally or figuratively?

JV: I feel both ways about home. My family—my mother and her mother—have pretty much disowned me over the book. It was a surprise since I had the best of intentions in terms of their portrayal—really, they gave me nothing but support and love right up until the book came out. And disowned is actually downplaying it. It was a straight three or four months of letters and attacks. Whatever I tried to convey in terms of my intent fell on deaf ears. I think in their eyes I had crossed a line and nothing I did would ever explain that fact. Hopefully that changes some day. But I'm not welcome back home, I know that. It's hard to not allow all of those things to color years and years of fond memories.


TK: The author's note of Nothing Left to Burn confronts the issues inherent in non-fiction writing: what is fact, and does one perception of reality have weight over another? What are your concerns when writing in terms of the "truth" being told?

JV: I probably have too much newspaper ink in my blood. Facts can be proven and confirmed. I’m pretty rigid on that as a writer. But truth is a whole different beast. What I remember as true someone else—my family, for instance—most certainly does not. Memory is faulty and self-serving. Everyone remembers an event or person differently—and they are entitled to that. But if our memories clash, does that mean one is necessarily wrong? I don’t think so. I think Tobias Wolff says something to this effect in This Boy’s Life but basically memory has its own story to tell. And as a writer, I try very hard to either be true to my memories or straight-up admit that I don’t know or am recreating something out of conjecture. As long as you’re up front with a reader, I think they will go with you. But nobody knows if you’re true to memories—except you.

TK: When I read This Boy's Life, I had wondered about the extensive amount of dialogue from the past which had to have been fabricated; unless the narrator was carrying around a recorder knowing he would someday need it. Where do you stand on creating dialogue for characters?

JV: I think dialogue by nature is artifice, even in straight literary nonfiction. At certain publications, quotes are fact-checked and might be amended, with a subjects approval. With memoir and personal essays, there's an inherent leniency that I think readers give an author. If any author replicated speech verbatim, it would be unbearable to read. We naturally edit, whether that's in memory, recanting the conversation later that night, or writing about it years after the fact. I always try to pin down specific cadences or phrases a character might use. And I try to capture the essence of the conversation. How much did Wolff really remember? How much did Jeannette Walls remember during those early chapters of The Glass Castle? It's tough to say, but they certainly sell it credibly. It's always possible to go back and ask others for their views, but that's not necessarily reliable either. David Carr tried to do that with Night of the Gun, which is essentially a journalist writing a memoir of his years on drugs and alcohol. Naturally, there were a lot of black-out moments and he had to interview and research to recreate his own life. But in his case, some of the people he interviewed were just as addicted as him at that time.


TK: You're involved in a podcast, Talus, Or Scree. How has the transition been from written word to speaking? Have you found that one, or the other works more effectively for certain things your trying to convey? What made you decide to start one?

JV: I always try to push my students at James Madison University to consider audience—what changes if you’re writing an essay for class, for a magazine, or recording a podcast? How do you keep an audience and clearly convey your thoughts? The podcast started for purely selfish reasons. My buddy, poet Patrick Culliton, and I talked on the phone a lot. Usually we talked about our obsessions—weather, music, literature, sports, whatever. At the time we started, podcasts were just beginning to gain attention as a creative medium. The first few episodes were terrible. We took them off iTunes once we realized that. But it was a matter of finding our voice, the same as in writing. Sometimes we just talk about whatever is on our mind—in that case, I try to think of it as I would an essay, approaching the subject from as many vantage points as possible. And there is editing. If we don’t like something, out it goes. We have a lot of guests as well—writers, filmmakers, folk historians. It’s really just whatever strikes us as interesting. If we’re not entertained, others won’t be either. The guest interviews have influenced how I interview people, as well. I learned to largely be silent. Most people get too uncomfortable in silence and then say something unexpected. Everyone has an interesting story to tell so long as someone listens.

TK: You worked for a while with Ecotone, a literary journal. What was that experience like? In their "About" section, they write, "Ecotone is a transition between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground." Do you see your work as an Ecotone? How was your experience with that publication?

JV: Ecotone was really just a toddler back then. I came aboard for the second or third issue. And I was lucky because all of the staff came from the MFA program and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. So there were incredibly talented people behind the scenes, plus some really generous support from the faculty and the school. I love the idea of the Ecotone in writing. Too often people write things that can easily be pigeonholed into a particular type of essay. I think it’s important to challenge yourself and your readers, so long as it fits the story you’re telling. Not to get too pretentious, but when I start out writing an essay, I’m usually in some form of Ecotone, uncertain of how I feel on a particular subject. By the end of the essay, I always know—and if I don’t, I’m not finished writing.

TK: Your website, has a link for users to get involved and support the Red Cross, local volunteer firefighters, and the American Cancer Society. Where do you see artists, especially writers, fitting into the world of philanthropy?

JV: It certainly helps to have the platform in order to gain attention. Those causes are pretty uniformly accepted among the populace. We need firefighters, want to cure cancer, etc. If I picked something more controversial, you risk driving people away. But why shouldn’t a writer set out to try to get people involved in society? You want to bring attention to something but not turn people away—If you harp on something all the time, people will zone out. But ultimately, I write about the things I care about. And if I care about those things, I’m going to support those causes no matter what.

TK: What other writers have inspired your work?

JV: The first one that really made an impression on me was Breece D’J Pancake. I discovered him during college at a professor’s urging. Pancake wrote from a very hardscrabble Appalachian upbringing. His short story “Trilobites” is one of the finest I’ve ever read and I still read it a few times a year. I always seem be reading something by Richard Ford or Richard Russo as well. Russo is such a wonderful writer. Both Ford and Russo write from that blue-collar tradition and I think all three—Pancake, Russo, Ford—write about people in the fringes of America too often overlooked in life and literature.

TK: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

JV: Learn discipline early. I think it’s my background of growing up blue-collar that informs this, but writing is about working. I’ve never believed in muses or things like that. If the work doesn’t get done, there’s nothing to talk about. Some days I’m hotter than others—I know it but force myself to keep plugging away until quitting time. And then I read. Just as you might make a work schedule, make a reading schedule. And I mean reading everything you can get your hands on. Read the greats like Faulkner and then rinse him out of your system with Hemingway. Read contemporary writers that you love—someone like John Jeremiah Sullivan is going to give you a jolt of energy. And read stuff you might not love—Jodi Piccoult might not be your thing but she can manage a plot and there’s something to learn there. But don’t compete with any of those people or your peers. Best yourself. Steinbeck used to tell himself that whatever he was writing was the most important thing ever written. Writing takes work, reading, and a little delusion.


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