The stories are so exact in their sense of place and time, phrase and voice, they disturb and delight, and make the past as alive as the present. The stories are celebrations connecting us with the living and with those who have come before us. Marlin Barton is one of the most distinctive new voices in Southern fiction.
Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, on The Dry Well
Marlin Barton’s short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review and The American Literary Review. “Jeremiah’s Road,” a story from his first collection The Dry Well was included in Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards. Barton was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts in 1992, and received the Andrew Lytle Prize in 1995. Barton’s debut novel A Broken Thing was published in 2003. A new short story collection, Dancing by the River, is due this month. Barton lives in Montgomery with his wife Rhonda. He is assistant director of the “Writing Our Stories” project, a program for juvenile offenders.
I have often been asked to define the term “Black Belt.” So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.
Booker T. Washington, 1901.
In the 1820s and 30s, the Black Belt identified a strip of rich, dark, cotton-growing dirt drawing immigrants primarily from Georgia and the Carolinas in an epidemic of “Alabama Fever.” Following the forced removal of Native Americans, the Black Belt emerged as the core of a rapidly expanding plantation area. Geologically, the region lies within the Gulf South’s Coastal Plain in a crescent some twenty to twenty-five miles wide that stretches from eastern, south-central Alabama into northwestern Mississippi. The unusually fertile Black Belt (or Prairies) soil is produced by the weathering of an exposed limestone base known as the Selma Chalk, the remnant of an ancient ocean floor.
Allen Tullos, Southernspaces.org
EG Your stories take place in the Black Belt of West Alabama where you were born. There is much history and suffering there. Were you aware of this growing up and how did these aspects of existence affect you?
MB I was actually born in Montgomery, which is a Black Belt city in the central part of the state and the capitol of Alabama, and lived there as a young child, but I grew up and spent what might be called my formative years in West Alabama in Greene County in the very small community of Forkland, so named because it sits in the fork of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers right above Demopolis, which was settled by French exiles from Napolean’s army.
When I moved to Forkland and spent time in and worked in my grandfather’s general store, I suddenly saw a very different world from what I’d known in the middle class neighborhood where I’d lived in Montgomery. I saw people I’d never seen before, or at least spent any time around. Most of the people who traded with my grandfather were poor, black, and many who were of a certain age had been sharecroppers and had lived on the same “place” for years but were no longer living there since sharecropping had died out with the invention and use of the mechanical cotton picker. Also, cotton, as a cash crop had really given way to soybeans and cattle. In fact, my grandparents owned a small 100 acre cattle farm, and the property is still in my family.
During the time I was growing up there in the 1970s, Greene County was the fifth poorest county in the United States, and the second poorest in Alabama. All the Black Belt counties are poor, and yes, to answer your question a little more directly, I was aware of the poverty around me. I saw people living in tarpaper shacks and wearing old ragged clothes, people who couldn’t read and write or count money. I have to say I felt for these people, but I wasn’t outraged by the way they had to live. I was a boy, and it was just the way things were. But I was fascinated by these people and listened to them and observed them as closely as I could.
I was also very aware of the history around me, mostly through family stories and the very buildings in the community. The stagecoach inn where my great-great grandfather Barton first stayed when he came to Forkland in 1857 was, and still is, standing. The dog-trot style log house he built when he returned home from the Civil War stood until I was in college. The house I lived in all through high school was 150 years old, and my grandfather and father had both been born in same bedroom. Our old family plot lay in the back of the graveyard; to get to it you had to walk down a narrow dirt road surrounded by woods on both sides, and even as a boy I remember feeling as if those woods created a tunnel that I had to travel through to reach the past where my ancestors lay. And when I looked at their names on their tombstones, the stories that I’d been told about them made them come alive in my imagination. It was almost as if I could see them walking around the streets and buildings in Forkland.
As for how I was affected by all of this, I guess it made me want to tell stories.
EG How far back can you trace your family’s roots?
MB We know that there were three Barton brothers who came over from Ireland, via a stay in England for some time, at some point in the late 1700s. One of the brothers settled in or near Durham, North Carolina. We don’t know a lot about the early family because my great-great grandfather Barton ran away from his home in Durham at the age of 15, in 1855, and never returned. So there was a break there, so to speak, in the history because of the break he made with family ties.
EG When did you decide to become a writer?
MB I can’t point to a particular moment when I knew I wanted to write. My parents both read to me as a child, especially my mother. And both my maternal grandmother and mother loved fiction. When I was a child my parents discovered that I had dyslexia. They were told by a doctor that I would never learn to read or write, at least not very well, but they learned of a program at a place called the Philadelphia Institute in Pennsylvania that worked at correcting dyslexia and took me there. Then through a regiment of eye exercises and physical exercises called patterning, my dyslexia was completely corrected; I am no longer dyslexic. What I’m trying to get to here is this: while I did those exercises my mother read to me day after day to make the time go more quickly. She often read from a series of books called “Childhood of Famous Americans.” My favorite book was Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox and I also have vivid memories of her reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Another great memory is my maternal grandmother, who was from Wisconsin, reading Thomas Wolfe’s Civil War story “Chickamauga” to me in her great Yankee voice, though this wasn’t during my patterning.
All of this reading, and all of the old family stories I heard from my father and paternal grandparents lead, I think, to my wanting to write. Then in college, at the University of Alabama, I had to keep a journal for a freshman English class. I didn’t care about doing this at first, but discovered after some time, and really for the first time, that I liked to write. Then I began to write poetry and took a poetry writing class. I know that I really wasn’t much of a poet, but I still learned a lot about writing, about using language and images and about the power of a single word. I dropped out of school for a while but continued reading, and then became curious as to whether or not I could write a short story. I don’t know where this notion came from exactly, but it came. So I tried my hand at it, took some more writing classes when I went back to school, and ended up going to Wichita State University and got an MFA in Creative Writing.
EG The stories in The Dry Well are about several families living in a rural Alabama town from 1865 to the present. The characters include a young Confederate soldier Rafe Anderson whose son, Phil, (when grown) and he appear in other stories, an elderly poor black man Jeremiah, born at the turn of the century, who appears briefly as a child in “A Shooting,” Aiken Reed, a man confined to a wheel chair from birth, who we first meet in “A Visitor Home” and later in the powerful story, “The Minister,” and Lydia who brings the life of a dead member of the Caulfield-Hitt family to life when mourning the loss of her child. Why did you link these stories instead of writing a novel?
MB When I first began writing fiction I was most interested in stories because I’d always loved reading short stories. And I noticed as I wrote stories early on that they always had rural, small town settings, so I decided to make it the same small town each time. I think Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio was a major influence here. Then I began to become more and more interested in the connections between the stories as far as place, character, and time. The Dry Well doesn’t read like a novel, or as a novel-in-stories, exactly, but I hope by the end of the book that a reader has a strong sense of Riverfield, the fictional town where my stories are set, and it’s history and culture and people. I hope the whole is more than the sum of its parts, though I tried to make sure that each part, each story, stood completely on its own.
EG As I read the stories I gradually developed a sense of Riverfield and its inhabitants and also a sense of the physical landscape. Seeing a familiar name appear in a new story or the mention of the location of a building in relation to another (even if in different stories) gave me that “ah ha” moment like I could finally understand how to use a road map and get where I wanted to go. And each story stood alone. It is obvious you reached your goal.
MB Well thanks, I hope so. And I hoped that readers would notice some of those small details as far as landscape and buildings that get repeated. I wanted those details to help pull the stories together more tightly.
EG You graphically depict violence in several of the stories. The murder of the Yankee soldier in the title story of The Dry Well was horrifyingly real and abhorrent but somehow I did not hate Rafe for doing it. He, like other characters, for example May in the “Conjure Women,” has an inner explosive rage or fear that appears at inappropriate times, when there is no real threat. I did not see the violence in your stories as gratuitous though, not like TV dramas where death and blood seem so pointless many times. Are you comfortable writing violent scenes?
MB I try to be careful about using violence because a good writer doesn’t want to be gratuitous. Faulkner, I think, grew tired of people complaining about the violence in his stories and novels and once said that complaining about a writer using violence is like complaining about a carpenter using a hammer. I think he meant that violence is a tool for a writer, at least one tool; it allows a writer to go deeply and quickly, and in a dramatic way, into human character or human nature, granted, perhaps down to the worst in human nature. But it’s a writer’s job to look at all parts of human nature, both the good and the evil. I’ve often written about what I think of as the capacity for evil within my characters. And I do think we all have this capacity. I don’t think we’re all terrible evil people, and I wouldn’t call any of the characters in The Dry Well evil, but the capacity is in all of us (and in my characters), and we best acknowledge it so that we can guard against it. I think Rafe and May are two good examples, and I’m glad that you didn’t hate Rafe for what he does. The key there, I think, is to help the reader understand why characters do what they do, even if what they do is abhorrent and makes us want to turn away.
EG What triggers these characters’ bizarre behaviors, like Aiken Reed biting his sister in the ass?
MB It’s essentially the very worst of themselves made manifest because of anger or fear. And I don’t think Aiken is evil, but he certainly has a capacity for it. And he can be mean as hell!
EG Oh yes, you described his meanness well in “The Minister”:
So they said then, the blacks, that Aiken was a child of the devil. Said a child of the devil always dies in fire. And the old ones are sure that that’s the way he’ll go. I don’t know if he was any child of the devil or not, but he did grow up to be mean. He bit his sister Caroline one time. Bit her when she bent over near his chair. And he’s got big square teeth, too, like a horse or a mule. This was after they were older and had to live in that shack out behind Anderson’s store after they’d had to sell the family house. He tried to kill her once, too. Got one of the little black boys who pushed him around in his chair to hand him his sister’s .32 from out of her drawer, and he tried to pull that trigger with those fingers of his that he can move a little.
EG Do you think people are held accountable for their actions by some higher universal plan or force? Aiken did die a death by fire.
MB What’s more important than my personal religious beliefs is that in the story the townspeople have a strong fundamental belief in the Bible, and this gives rise to the myth that surrounds Aiken.
EG Do you give a lot of attention to your stories’ pacing? They have a slow drawn out feel to them that heightened my interest and made them feel like mysteries.
MB I do think about pacing a great deal. I think all writers do. I hope the stories aren’t too “drawn out” or slow. You want them to move and carry the reader forward, but I’ve always tried to bring to bear a certain emotional intensity in my stories, and hopefully depth. I don’t want my stories to be “quick reads.” I want the reader to become absorbed in them. There’s a line in an Emily Dickinson poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” That line has a great deal of resonance for me, and I’ve tried to use that idea in stories like “The Cemetery,” which needs to take its time in order to explore what Lydia feels after the death of her child.
I’ve never thought of my stories as mysteries, but I like that you use that word. I think I know what you mean.
EG Tell us about your novel A Broken Thing.
MB It’s also set in Riverfield and concerns the breakup of a family that you see in several of the short stories in The Dry Well, the Anderson family, to be specific. The novel is told in multiple first-person points of view, the voices coming from the principle members of the family: the mother, father, older brother, and younger brother Seth, who’s really the central figure I suppose, and lastly the paternal grandmother. I wanted the fragmented narrative to mirror the fragmentation of the family (really the fragmented modern family), and I wanted to explore all the complex relationships that happen within a family. The shifting points of view helped me do that, and also helped me deal with the various perceptions of the truth among the characters.
EG Author/editor Dabney Stuart commented on A Broken Thing: “Barton includes the dimension of mercy, too葉he mutual forgiveness of failures by family members who, finally, find ways to realize they can’t live without each other. An impressive, uncompromising book.”
MB A nice description. I particularly like his phrase “dimension of mercy.” That’s a quality that I hope I bring to my fiction.
EG The characters you portray are alcoholics, beer guzzlers, thieves, child abusers, child arsonists, poverty stricken farmers, husbands and wives who cannot tell each other their inner feelings, fathers and sons who do not treat each other with respect, animal murderers, and racists both white and black. How do you make the reader like them and where does this sense of forgiveness you hold come from?
MB Lord have mercy, I didn’t realize they were all so terrible! But I think of them, at least the central characters, for the most part, as good people who are flawed like we all are, and, as I suggested before, if the writer can take the reader deep enough into who they are and let the reader see why they do what they do, then there can be compassion and forgiveness for them, and sometimes between them.
EG The forgiveness between people is an exceptionally powerful part of your stories, as in “A Father and Son.”
MB All stories are built around conflict, within characters and between them. I think most writers take their characters into these conflicts and hope the characters can find a way out. You want to try to end with some sense of affirmation, if you can, but you don’t want to force anything. It’s a paradox. The writer creates the characters, but then has to be true to who they are and can’t have them do something they’re not capable of. But when characters do have it within them to forgive themselves or others, that’s a nice way to be able to end a story.
EG A sense of place and tradition “ooze” from your stories. Is this sense of time and place and heritage felt by most Alabamians today?
MB A difficult question that’s hard for me to judge. I think young people today spend way too much time with technology, television, computers, the internet, cell phones, and I think too much technology, or at least too much reliance on it, is dehumanizing. They, young people, some of them and maybe older ones too, need to put down the electronics and learn to listen and connect. But I do think that all people need stories. I think there is a basic human drive for it. Stories, it’s been said, tell us who we are. They help us to see ourselves and understand ourselves. They define us. It’s another paradox. We create stories, but they help to create us, remind us of the best of ourselves and our world. And stories don’t come out of a vacuum. They come out of time and place and history. I do think there are people in Alabama, in the South, and in this country, who care about where they came from and who they are, and it may be a bit stronger in the rural areas, what you’re asking about, where there is still more of a connection to land and place where earlier generations sprang from. If we can get off the interstate and the internet for a little while, those places and people are still there, waiting.
EG When did you become involved in the “Writing Our Stories” project?
MB I started in 1997, at the very beginning. The program was created by Jeanie Thompson, a poet, who is the executive director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum. That first year there was just one class of twelve students at Mt. Meigs, the juvenile facility right outside of Montgomery. I now teach three classes at Mt. Meigs and another writer/teacher, Danny Gamble, teaches a fourth. We also have two classes at each of the Birmingham facilities, Vacca, for boys, where Gamble also teaches, and Chalkville, for young women, who are taught by Priscilla Hancock Cooper, a poet and performance artist. So we now have a total of eight classes and we teach as many as 130 students each year. We also publish anthologies of student work every year from all three of the facilities. We’ve now produced eighteen of them, which are free and available from the Forum. People who might be interested can go to the website, www.writersforum.org, and click on Programs to find out more.
EG Was it hard to motivate your students and how did you begin?
MB I began by having my students read and discuss stories and poems by contemporary writers such as Larry Brown, Steve Yarbrough, Edward Falco, Eric Nelson, and Andrew Hudgins; work I felt they could identify with. Then we worked from various exercises that we created over time (which are now available in a Curriculum Guide), and that are designed to teach certain skills such as simile or personification and that prompt them to write poems and stories, often similar to the ones we’ve been reading. In other words, the way we teach is craft based. The students don’t simply write down their feelings. They learn about form so that they can have something concrete to work with and to give voice and shape to what they feel.
The students take the class by choice, so it’s generally not difficult to motivate them. And they tend to write about, without my forcing them in the least, the difficulties they’ve had to deal with in their lives, everything from drugs and crime to poverty and problems with absent or abusive parents. We feel there is a strong therapeutic component to the program, and when they see their work in print and hear praise for what they’ve written, they’re clearly proud of their work and what they’ve accomplished.
EG Your new short story collection Dancing by the River is coming out in July. Will there be any of the same characters from your first collection in this book?
MB Yes, it’s really a companion volume to the first collection. The stories are all set in the same place and many of the same characters appear. The stories in the first collection essentially move from the past to the present if they’re read in order, and the stories in the new collection are pretty much in the reverse order, present into the past, though that’s a bit of a simplification. One of the ideas that I’ve always been interested in as far as my fiction is the connection between past and present, how one shapes and colors the other. I could have put all my stories set in the past in one book, and all the contemporary stories in another, but I don’t think time divides that easily or simply. I hope the two volumes together have a completeness to them.
The novel that I’ve been working on recently is set down the road a ways, and has none of the same characters. Its setting is also completely contemporary as far as time. I was ready to do something very different.
EG Do you ever have thoughts, even if fleeting, that you would have liked to have been born in another country or time or section of the U.S.?
MB My answer probably won’t surprise you. I sometimes wish that I’d been born in the last half the 19th century, in the community where I grew up, so that I could witness my ancestor’s lives, but then I’d want to come back and be able to write down what I saw.
EG I guess you are a good candidate for a time machine ride. Barring that event, I think readers are grateful that you were born in this century with a gift for writing stories that capture the lives of people, relatives or not, in a way that lingers in the mind after they are read.
MB Thank you, and thanks too for reading my stories and caring enough about them to want to ask me questions.