Interview with Clint McCown, author of 'Haints'

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Clint McCown’s newest novel, “Haints,” (New Rivers Press) tracks the disruption a devastating tornado inflicts on the residents of a small town in Tennessee. McCown is a professor in the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, part of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. McCown has written three previous novels and four collections of poetry. His stories and essays have appeared widely. He’s also a former creative consultant for HBO and screenwriter for Warner Bros. He’s won the American Fiction Prize twice and earned the AP Award for Documentary Excellence for his investigations of organized crime in Alabama in the late 1970s.

The circumstances of this novel concern a vicious tornado and its impact on a small Tennessee town. What inspired this scenario?
The circumstances of the novel are also the circumstances of my birth. A real-life tornado destroyed my hometown of Fayetteville, Tennessee on leap day, 1952, one week before I was born. Miraculously, only one person was killed, but it happened to be a relative of mine. I'd heard about that community-defining event my whole life, and somewhere along the way I developed my own fascination with what happened that day. Finally, I created my own version of the catastrophe.  
What appealed to you about a town-wide disaster as a backdrop for a novel? What are the opportunities and challenges it presents for an author?
One of my first writing teachers was the poet A.R. Ammons, and he advised me always to "pile entanglements on." I took that advice to heart. In that way, I suppose I'm in line with the Naturalists, who believed in putting the most pressure possible on characters to see how they behaved when the chips were down. I always try to have setting play an active role in whatever stories I'm developing. The challenge is in thinking through the consequences of each choice. If a tornado obliterates a town, how does that immediately affect daily life? How does a community cope with it? In what ways do people have to deviate from the norm?  

Your novel moves seamlessly among several characters, switching the point of view with each chapter. Why did you choose this approach for this particular novel? And how difficult was it to inhabit so many different characters and to see the world from their diverse perspectives?
In one sense, the form of the novel chose itself. When I wrote the first chapter, I had thought that first character would provide the sole point of view for the entire novel. But when I finished that chapter, I wanted to add another character's point of view, thinking that second character would alternate with the other in telling the story. But after the second character, I found I wanted to hear from a third, and then a fourth, and so on. I ended up with fourteen points of view. It was like writing that many individual short stories – though each chapter had to remain consistent with everything I'd established in all the other chapters. There was a lot to keep track of, but I liked letting the town's story unfold through so many different voices. And even though the voices shift, the time line remains steady from beginning to end – like runners handing off the baton in a relay race. The final chapter returns to the original point of view character – a sort of completion of a circle.
"Haints" movingly illustrates the ties between the many characters, for better and worse. The ties become increasingly clear to readers as the book progresses, and the novel acquires new depths with each new chapter. What interested you about exploring these characters and the influence their decisions have on each other?
My guiding metaphor is that of ripples in a pond. Each character has his or her own rocks or boulders to drop into the pond of the story, and the ripples and waves radiate in all directions, intersecting with the ripples and waves generated by all other characters. For me it's entertaining to play with that kind of overlapping complexity.

"Haints" is a Southern term for ghosts. Would you discuss how ghosts play a role in this book and the lives of its characters?
Each character is haunted by something – some fear, some betrayal, some failure, some past identity. For me the key to fiction lies in context – the backstory of a character. Only by understanding a character's past can we understand the consequence or significance of present-moment actions. The ghosts provide motivations in the novel, and help us – I hope – understand who these people really are.    

This novel is your fourth, following "The Member-Guest," "War Memorials" and "The Weatherman." Do you see a common thread that runs through these novels or does this book represent a departure for you? Or do both apply?
Each of my novels starts with a different abstract idea that the book will attempt to explore. One was about insiders vs. outsiders, one was about the bridges and walls created between people by foreign wars, one was about free will vs. determinism. “Haints,” in addition to being about the ghosts we carry with us, is about the nature of identity and how it evolves or splits – not in a schizophrenic sense, but in the sense of our having to play different roles for different people at different times of our lives. If there's a common thread among them, it may be that, to some extent, they are all books about forgiveness.  

What are you working on now?
I've just finished a memoir about my time as a journalist investigating organized crime and political corruption in Alabama in 1978. My next project will likely be a craft book about writing.

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