Jim McGarrah: Marine, social worker, carpet layer, janitor, bartender, race horse trainer, and college professor, McGarrah now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. Jim McGarrah’s poems, essays, appear frequently in literary journals such as The American Poetry Journal, Bayou Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, and North American Review. He is an award-winning poet and author of four books of poetry: Running the Voodoo Down (Elixir Press, 2003); When the Stars Go Dark (Main Street Rag, 2009); Breakfast at Denny’s (Ink Brush Press, 2013) and the Truth About Mangoes (Lamar University Press, 2016). His memoir of war, A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007) won the national Eric Hoffer Legacy Non-Fiction Award, and the sequel, The End of an Era, was published in 2011. He is editor, along with Tom Watson, of the anthology Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana and the former managing editor of Southern Indiana Review. His memoirs Off Track and Midemeanor Outlaw were published by Blue Heron Book Works.
- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing does both things, especially if you feel like you’re writing well. The energy that generates my creativity is often very emotionally intense and when that energy is spent, I’m drained emotionally for a time. I had a mentor in grad school years ago, a very highly respected poet, who cautioned me that the type of writing I did would cannibalize my emotions and I would need to rest from time to time and replenish that autobiographical material. I’m one of those people who live to write and write to live. This isn’t my job. It’s me.
- Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
No. That would defeat my purpose, I think. My identity is at the core of my writing.
- Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers and the audience what they want?
This requires balance. Solomon said in Proverbs that there was nothing new under the sun. And, there was an Egyptian writer whose name I can’t remember and couldn’t pronounce even if I did who wrote about his battle 4,000 years ago to say something that hadn’t already been said. So, the struggle for originality lies in the “way” we say things, not the themes we reflect on. To answer the question, I want to be original in how I write and connect with my audience in what I say. But, for me that requires a certain honesty that means I can’t always give the audience what they want to hear. As a poet and an essayist, I think my function is more related to describing what it means to be human, which isn’t always pleasant and doesn’t always have a happy ending. I want what I write to be true and in a way that is accessible to others both.
- Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Certainly. The emotionally depth of what is written depends on context. A writer of a brilliant technical instructional book does not have to be emotional invested in the information to communicate it. On the other hand, literary writers are most assuredly and deeply connected to plot, character development, and themes in their material. And in telling a story or writing a poem, the writer needs to communicate that emotional connectivity to a reader. Literature we understand, but don’t necessarily feel, tends to be a huge sleep aid.
- What other authors and creative people are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I have a fairly large network of writers and poets that I stay in touch with, some whose names you would recognize instantly, and some who are better writers that you’ve never heard of and probably never will. I have two or three close friends that I rely on for “first” readings of my material because they are excellent editors as well as writers and they’re honest with me. If something isn’t working they have no qualms about saying, “Jim, this sucks.” That forces me to re-evaluate, revise, and reflect on what I’m doing and why. But, I don’t limit my association to writers. That seems a good way to limit rather than expand your thinking.
- What sort of projects are you working on now?
I’m in the process now of putting together a “New and Selected” volume of my poetry from over the past twenty years for a university press. Also, I’m trying to help sell copies of my newest nonfiction work from Blue Heron Book Works – Misdemeanor Outlaw. Unfortunately for my editor Bathsheba Monk, I’m a terrible business person.
- Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Each of my ten books so far does stand alone, but although I’m not attempting to make connections, they are inherently connected because I’m an autobiographical-type of writer. Most of my work is based, in some way, on my life experiences.
- If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Live more. Be less afraid.
- How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Fifteen years ago I won a national book competition with my first full-length collection of poems. One of those good writers and friends we were talking about earlier, Victoria Redel, laughed and said over a celebratory drink, “Enjoy yourself tonight because tomorrow you’ll wake up and find that the world is the same. Nothing has really changed. You just go back to work.” She was correct.
- Is there any one author that influenced you somehow?
I’d have to say Hemingway and Mark Twain in how to tell a story, Dylan Thomas in the use of language, Bruce Weigel and Tim O’Brien in how to write about the hard things in my life. But, I’d hope that everything I read teaches me something.
- What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos
- As an artist, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I’m going to answer that with a poem from my latest collection of poems The Truth About Mangoes (Lamar University Press, 2016)
How to Find the Animal Inside
Today I took a quiz,
one of those internet pseudo-scientific lists
that some fool thought up while snorting bath salts,
and found out my past life was spent roaming
among trees and rivers in the American West.
No, I was neither cowboy nor Indian.
As it turns out my personality evolved
from Canis lupus in various tell-tale ways.
I am swift, agile, and cunning. Well,
at least I’m a cunning linguist.
If you ignore the bad knees and arthritic hip,
one out of three ain’t bad.
I value my family’s well-being above all else.
That’s true, but they refuse to believe it if I’m driving.
As far as being master of both day and night,
I nap well in darkness and light.
This quiz states that the wolf has a fiery temper,
which may explain my multiple marriages and a face
remodeled several times by knuckles. To be fair,
my father compared me more often to a catfish than a wolf.
He said, “You’re all mouth and no brains.”
Of all the answers given that prove my swap
from wolf to human, the most accurate is “not very social.”
Ask a friend of mine, if you find one. I’d like to say
this self-examination, like my last testicular one, found no
abnormality or tragedy,
but the wolf may not agree.
- How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
- What does literary success look like to you?
A better brand of bourbon
- What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Most of my research comes from living as vividly as I can. I will do some historical research, especially news media, when writing nonfiction (names, dates, places, etc.)
- Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I’m not really sure what this question means. I’ve always believed that fiction (i.e. the writing and telling of imaginative stories) is an art form that far surpasses the recording of history itself in what it reveals about the society and culture that creates it because it allows the reader into the minds of the characters. I guess some would argue that since its conception of an actually form called the novel, probably somewhere around Cervantes and Don Quixhote, novels have entertained and educated us in ways no other genre has done. And, some would argue that the form of the novel has become stagnant since Barthelme and post-modernism, that it has reached the outermost limit of its evolution. I can see both sides. My favorite period in fiction runs from Conrad and Joyce through Hemingway and Faulkner. I guess critics call that the Modernist period. Certainly, the current darlings of the critics like Jonathan Franzen bore me to death. But, I still see really good stuff, especially in historical fiction, because written well it speaks to contemporary issues as your own The Master and The Maid speaks to present roles of women in our society, how they’ve changed and how they still need to change even more.
- Do you read your reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Sure. Even the negative ones give the book free publicity. I deal with them like I deal with writing workshops. I listen. What improves my writing I incorporate, what doesn’t or is personal, I ignore.
- Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Not really secrets. I deal with nonfiction-memoir events that really happened to me personally and how I remember them, so I do often change the names to keep from embarrassing the innocent and the not so innocent. Maybe in that way, I hide certain things.
- What was your hardest scene to write?
I think the scene of combat in which I lost a very close friend and my violent reaction afterward in the book A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007)
- Do you Google yourself?
Sure, when I’m drunk. It helps me remember that I’m only a legend in my own mind.
- What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
I don’t have the slightest idea since it is so tied with my own identity, my self as it were.
- What is your favorite childhood book?
As a pre and early teen I was fascinated by the romantic adventures written by authors like Alexander Dumas (The Three Musketeers) and Raphael Sabatini (Scaramouche) and Stevenson (Treasure Island) and the biographies of famous 20th century baseball players like Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and others. One I especially enjoyed was the story of Jim Thorpe, the great Native American athlete.
- If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I haven’t the slightest idea.
- How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I’ve written ten books, twelve if you count two not good enough or ready to be published, in the last 15 years. Sometimes, I’ve worked on two at simultaneously. But, I’m seventy years old and slowing down somewhat.
- Do you believe in writer’s block?
Not as most people believe in it. There is a difference between writing and writing well. There are no periods when we can’t write, but there are certainly periods when we don’t write well. I’ve learned to adjust to those periods by labeling them hot and cold in my mind. Although my shrink tells me that most writers have to deal with some bi-polar traits, I simply call them my times of writing new stuff (hot) and my times of revising old stuff (cold). My doing that, I stay busy and don’t get bogged down by inertia or existential dread.