Lee Cole’s debut novel, Groundskeeping, opens with an commentary by Owen Callahan, an aspiring author who works as a groundskeeper at a small faculty in Kentucky. I’ve at all times had the identical predicament. Once I’m house in Kentucky all I would like is to depart. Once I’m away, I’m homesick for a spot that by no means was.
Owen’s wrestle to seek out his footing at house when the bottom has shifted — due to political, spiritual and sophistication divides within the run-up to the 2016 election — intensifies when he falls in love with Alma Hazdic, a Muslim Bosnian whose migration to the US was precipitated by struggle. Although their tales of displacement are of a special magnitude, Owen’s and Alma’s understanding of how cracks can shortly develop into chasms serves as a stand-in for bigger points within the nation.
Like, Owen, Cole labored as a groundkeeper earlier than being accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “It was fairly grueling, monotonous work,” he says. “However I did be taught loads from my co-workers, particularly the best way to write good office dialogue. I paid consideration to the way in which we talked, the jokes we advised, the methods we killed time. Loads of that discovered its method into the ebook.”
Prematurely of his discuss and ebook signing at A Cappella Books this Sunday, Cole shared his views on homesickness, navigating class and cultural divides, and discovering empathy for characters regardless of his impulse to evaluate them.
ArtsATL: Early in Groundskeeping, we be taught the Cherokee phrase for Kentucky is “a darkish and bloody floor.” Why did you need your reader to ponder the territory from a Native American perspective?
Cole: A lot of the ebook is about political and cultural strife in America and whether or not we are able to belief nostalgia or our notions of the previous. The concept that Kentucky was “a darkish and bloody floor,” a land that was fought over by varied Native American tribes, is just not exactly true, and was most likely used as a justification by European colonizers to put declare to the territory. What’s clear is that if the land wasn’t contested earlier than, it actually was after the Europeans arrived. It’s been a website of bitter division ever since, whether or not within the Civil Struggle, which tore households aside, or extra just lately, as present political turmoil continues to divide households. However I believed it was value mentioning the provenance of the phrase “Kentucky” if solely as one other instance of the methods during which our tales have mythologized the previous and due to this fact can’t essentially be trusted.
ArtsATL: Partially, Groundskeeping explores the strain between Kentucky’s agrarian previous and the “Walmartification” of the area? Why does this stratification curiosity you as a plot system?
Cole: I believe that consumerism’s colonization of rural life is the first challenge that every one Southern and rural writers ought to be serious about of their work. Perhaps not overtly, or in any type of didactic method. However it’s modified life fully in Kentucky, erasing traditions, folkways and dialects, changing what have been as soon as vibrant small cities with strip malls and chain eating places. This course of is occurring in cities, too, after all, however it’s metastasized extra quickly in rural areas. Epidemics of weight problems, opioid dependancy and despair aren’t occurring in a vacuum. They’re tied on to materials circumstances that produce alienation. I believe that as a author, I’m obliged to discover that alienation in my characters.
ArtsATL: The love-hate relationship with house, homesickness and homecomings are recurring themes all through the novel. Did you begin out meaning to discover these combined feelings? Or did they develop into obvious because the narrative unfolded?
Cole: I knew from the start that I wished the ebook to be about homesickness. It’s been a perennial downside for me — that once I’m house in Kentucky, I get antsy to depart. However once I’m away, I get homesick. Although I can by no means fairly inform whether or not I miss my house or my childhood. And there’s an enormous distinction between the 2. If I miss my house, I may conceivably return and reside there. However I can’t return to my childhood. I believe that Owen is wrestling with comparable points. It’s not simply that he misses Kentucky. It’s that he misses an easier time when his household was nonetheless collectively and there wasn’t a lot turmoil. On the similar time, he’s unsure whether or not to belief this nostalgia.
ArtsATL: As somebody who was born and raised in rural western Kentucky, held blue collar jobs earlier than being accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and presently lives in New York Metropolis, you perceive Owen’s predicament of getting to straddle class and cultural divides. What did you wish to convey concerning the complexity of occupying a number of areas concurrently and the defensiveness that may come up when outsiders depict complete areas or populations in a reductive or stereotypical vogue?
Cole: It’s true that I discover myself defending totally different teams relying on the place I’m. I believe it’s because individuals who reside in several “bubbles” not often have event to spend time with each other. It’s straightforward to badmouth somebody after they’re an summary caricature reasonably than a dwelling, respiratory human being that you simply’re taking a look at nose to nose. I believe that I, like Owen, have had the expertise of spending time in several bubbles, and attending to know and love individuals in every.
ArtsATL: Whether or not you’re writing about love that’s romantic, filial, platonic or Owen’s love for Kentucky, the feelings are by no means one-dimensional. As a substitute, they’re conflicting, fraught and messy. What did writing about love educate you concerning the nature of affection?
Cole: Owen, at one level within the novel, discovers a citation by Freud that “love is homesickness.” The implication is that what we lengthy for in one other individual is a way of the acquainted, or maybe the acquainted in a brand new type. Owen has this simultaneous aversion and attraction to his house — to the acquainted — and I believe there’s an identical dynamic to his relationship with Alma.
ArtsATL: Regardless of Owen’s disdain for his household’s politics and provincialism, you keep away from rendering them as caricatures. Did any specific character encourage your most empathic and nonjudgmental instincts as a author?
Cole: Uncle Cort was most likely the toughest character to empathize with. Beginning out, I wrote him as a personality who says tough, ugly issues. Folks like him appeared to emerge in droves after Trump gained. He gave them permission to say the ugly issues they’d been holding again. However as I wrote the character, I started to ask myself, why is Cort the way in which he’s? The place does his anger come from? And I developed this backstory, the place he’d been concerned in a brutal automotive accident and was now hooked on painkillers. I don’t assume this ache excuses his habits, however I believe it makes him a bit of extra comprehensible as an individual.
ArtsATL: Did any of your characters shock or baffle you as Groundskeeping unfolded?
Cole: In some methods, Owen stunned me as a personality. I gave him loads of my life experiences, however they’re typically exaggerated, and the character virtually functioned as a counterfactual exploration of what my life might need been like if issues had gone in another way. I pushed him to transgress and make selections as a personality that I wouldn’t essentially make, and his reactions to these selections, and the way in which he handled their aftermath, typically stunned me.
ArtsATL: Did your time on the Iowa’s Author’s Workshop hone your listening expertise as a author, or are you naturally inclined to note individuals’s speech patterns, colloquialisms and/or idiosyncrasies?
Cole: I believe my ear for dialogue was fairly properly honed earlier than Iowa. What I discovered on the workshop that was really invaluable was the best way to write a scene. Scenes are the constructing blocks of a novel or story, and although I had some sense of how they labored, it wasn’t till I bought to Iowa that I started to grasp their significance. To be extra particular, Iowa taught me the best way to write utilizing concrete, sensory particulars, and the best way to handle the strain in a scene so that each beat is shifting the story ahead.
ArtsATL: Owen and Alma attain an deadlock when she feels he’s crossed a line as a author. The place do you stand re: who will get to say a narrative and the ethics of telling another person’s story with out their permission? Is your place fastened, or evolving?
Cole: I’d prefer to assume my place is evolving. The inherent battle of two writers laying declare to the identical expertise is endlessly fascinating to me. Personally, I believe that some writers have a higher declare to materials than others, however that more often than not, something is honest sport so long as it’s not a gross invasion of privateness. By writing about Alma’s household secret, I believe Owen is responsible of this transgression. It’s not one thing I’d do as a author. However there’s at all times this query of, the place is the road? That’s a query loads of writers must ask themselves commonly. I do assume that real-life experiences have a hoop of fact to them that’s arduous to copy. A few of these tales are too arduous to go up while you hear them. However that query of who the story belongs to might not be totally answerable. In some methods, it belongs to whoever can inform it properly sufficient, or whoever sees its worth as a narrative to start with.
Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and coproduces Collective Data, a conversational collection that’s broadcast on THEA Community, and incessantly moderates writer talks for the Atlanta Historical past Middle.