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Dancing to His Muse

An Interview with Jackson Tippett McCrae

by Pam Kingsbury 


Jackson Tippett McCrae always knew he wanted a life in the arts. So he left his home in northern Alabama for an education at Julliard. He's worked as a composer and musician. After the sleeper success of his debut novel, The Bark of the Dogwood, McCrae is back with a collection of short stories that dance to his muse.

The Bark of the Dogwood has become a bit of a cult classic -- I'm thinking about the women in Georgia who have read it several times. Would you like to offer suggestions as to why?
I was fortunate enough to have the book fall into the hands of a group of English teachers in the South-you couldn't ask for a more perfect audience. They're called the Bluestocking Society and they've been incredibly supportive and generous. As we speak, they're still analyzing the book, looking for any and every detail they may have missed at the first reading, which is exactly what I wanted.
When I was in high school in the South, metaphor, symbolism, adjectives, writing style, and color were drummed into my head constantly. I rarely put pen to paper without thinking about my high school English teachers and what they taught me. Also, because these particular women study literature, especially Southern literature, they had an inkling as to how my mind worked. They were also apt to appreciate all of the references to Capote, Helen Keller, and the connection the book has to several famous works.
I wrote Dogwood to be read on many different levels. First, just as a good story. Second, as a novel with hidden meanings, relationship puzzles, etc. Then, there are the anagrams and the references to things that only an educated person would get. What amazed me was that the women in Georgia and some others in the South figured out some of the intricacies of the book before the New York critics did. Then again, it was meant to be an homage to the South. Speaking of the Georgia group in particular, they even have meetings where they prepare foods mentioned in Dogwood, and send me pictures via email. There are also two groups in Arizona and one in California that do similar things.
There's a notion that short stories don't sell. So why did you follow up a successful novel with a collection of short stories?
Yes, it's true that as a rule, short stories don't sell -- But again, I pressed ahead without regard to what success the book might have. I think it's some of my best writing and really believe that the stories will have an impact on the reader.
Even so, I'm cognizant of the fact that they might never have the success that Bark of the Dogwood has enjoyed. A part of me also felt I needed to take a chance on a collection of short stories.
You're a trained musician, composer. Do you see parallels in writing?
I'm not usually asked about the connection because I don't advertise the fact that I'm a musician. Yes, it has influenced my writing quite a bit. In music, we're trained to know the basics, follow every rule, research everything to death, but do exactly what we want in the end, ignoring or at least greatly modifying what we've learned. Much attention is paid to analyzing as many elements as possible-motives, themes, colors, styles, etc., and I've tried to do the same with my writings. I discovered something quite interesting when I was composing twenty years ago and have never forgotten it, and it is this: the subconscious mind is infinitely more interesting and intelligent than the conscious one. For example: I was working on a piano sonata many years ago and came up with a counter subject -- accompaniment for those not versed in music-speak -- to a theme I had written.
I didn't know where it came from and didn't care-it just worked perfectly and sounded right. About a year after I had written the piece, I went back and looked at it. It was a mirror image of the theme, only backwards and in a different key. Had I tried to do this intentionally, it would have taken me years, but somehow my subconscious mind knew what it wanted and gave it up. The same thing happens all the time with writing. I'll find out that certain characters are related or that the plot has turned in a different direction for seemingly no reason, only to discover that my subconscious knew where things were going long before my conscious mind did. The lesson is not to filter and let things flow when putting your ideas down on paper. At least for me.
What have you learned about book buyers/readers that might be useful to other writers?
That's a broad question so let me take one aspect. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Did I mention marketing? And promotion. Seriously, it's so important, and the sad thing is that most writers are, well, writers, not promoters. It is, unfortunately, more important to market a book properly than it is to actually write it properly. And an even bigger problem is that no one has the answer; there's no magic formula-each book and its audience is different and the selling and/or promoting has to be done virtually on a day-to-day basis-things change just that fast.
What do you do to prepare a book before it goes to print?
I generally write several books at a time. Then I let them sit for at least a year and "age." I completely avoid them and then try to look at them with a fresh eye. Sometimes I'm pleased; sometimes I'm horrified.
Then I begin rewriting. Usually ten to twenty rewrites before I'll show it to someone to see if it works plot-wise. I try to let about ten people read it at this point to get a feel for what works and what doesn't. Then I take their suggestions (or not) and do about five or six more rewrites. Then I let it sit for another six months to a year and get it out again. Five or six more rewrites and then, if I'm happy I give it to my editor who marks it up. Then a few more rewrites, to the copy editor to check for mistakes, and then back to three or four proofreaders. Hopefully it will be ready at that point. I learned long ago to take suggestions from editors and copy editors with a grain of salt. At one point I had two copy editors, neither of whom knew about the other. One would send the manuscript back all marked up with commas. Then I'd send it to copy editor number two. She'd send it back with all the commas taken out. You have to trust your gut instinct and do what you want in the end. After all, it's your name that going to be put on the front cover.
Talk about the stories in The Children's Corner.
I picked the ones in Children's Corner because I liked the way they played off one another, that is, the range they had. That said, they all have a great deal in common with each other. Not to sound morbid, but virtually every story I've written centers around death, and certainly the stories in Children's Corner do. Some are (hopefully) funny, and some are Southern Gothic. It might be a physical death or an emotional one, but that idea is always present. But because like to experiment with styles and really tailor each story so that the form and style is connected with the content, they're all different.
In the story "The Diaphanous Leaves of the Alocasia," we're dealing with New Orleans-probably the most atmospheric city in the world. You can't set foot in that town and not "feel" the history, the culture, the food, the sounds; everything. So the writing style of that particular story is atmospheric and somewhat ethereal. In the novella "Crook," the writing is more like that of Capote or Grisham in his Painted House. A sort of "down home" remembrance, and since the story is set in northern Alabama, it works. In "Summer Music," because the story is set in trendy Westport, Connecticut, I wanted a more sophisticated feel-almost like one of those New Yorker stories you might read. I wanted each one to be its own world and I hope that's what I achieved.

The Enolam Press

Jackson Tippett McCrae Interview with Southern Scribe from 2002 


The Children's Corner
By Jackson Tippett McCrae
The Enolam Press, 2004
Hardcover, $21.95 (176 pages)
ISBN: 0-9715536-1-0

      Southern Scribe Review




2005, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved