Interview: Dale Marlowe

Color-headshot Hi ResMidwestern Gothic staffer Giuliana Eggleston talked with author Dale Marlowe about episodic narratives, Appalachia versus Midwest, the role of interlocutor, and more.


Giuliana Eggleston: What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Dale Marlowe: My people are Appalachian to the core, but my immediate family moved to the midwest in the 1960s following my great-grandfather’s murder, settling in Cincinnati, Chicago, Louisville, Columbus, Dayton, Detroit, southern Indiana. I’m one of a handful of us not born in Colts, Kentucky, in Harlan County.

My parents, my sister, and I lived in Northridge, a working-class enclave at Dayton’s north end. My folks and maternal grandmother still live there, in my childhood home. Northridge had, and has, a healthy mix of white Appalachians, African Americans, Roma, Arabs, and Latinos/as, as well as a smattering of second and third generation descendants of eastern European immigrants. Strip-clubs, adult bookstores, and liquor stores line Dixie Drive, the main drag. Prior to the Reagan era, there were even some brothels and gay bathhouses.

Well into the ‘70s and ‘80s, most residents took middle-class incomes from heavy industrial players like McCall’s, General Motors, Chrysler (or one of the dozens of machine-tool shops supporting them), Wright Patterson Air Force Base, NCR, and International Harvester. They claimed their slice of the American Dream, but guarded their heritages jealously. The neighborhoods were noisy, conflict-laden, and often hilarious.

The jobs are gone now. They took levity with them. Noise and conflict remain, but the noise comes from the conflict, and the conflict invariably arises from prostitution, drug abuse, or human trafficking. My forty-one years have tracked personally the collective, clearly criminal razing of the industrial Midwest. I’m not so much connected with the region as braided to it.

I did my first year of undergrad at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. I completed my undergraduate work at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. I took my JD from the University of Toledo College of Law, and did an MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Iowa is technically “the west,” I guess, as it lies map-left of the Mississippi. I’ve also lived in the Southwest, and in California. Iowa and Iowans belong to the Midwest. Iowa’s a tomato. It may hang out in the garden, but it’s really a fruit.

I started my family in Phoenix, and returned to Ohio when my father threatened to kill me if I didn’t get his grandbabies closer to home. For a decade, we lived in Tipp City, north of Dayton. For a day job, I teach English at a community college in Piqua.  I should probably have a cardinal or a cornstalk or something tattooed on my ass.

GE: Is there a region that influences your writing? A type of recurring landscape or people?

DM: I seesaw between Appalachia and the Midwest, to the extent I think there’s any reality to those geographical labels. The Hocking Hills of Southeast Ohio—think Mothman—is a good example of a frontier joining Appalachia to the Midwest. It’s neither-nor, and both, and illustrates what’s better imagined as a mental continuum, rather than things to be compared.

I think of my childhood as a first-generation immigrant experience. We lived in Ohio. I’m an Ohioan. Despite that, our accent, vocabulary, slang, faith, music, and customs, all of it, came from the hills. Sometimes I feel too city for the hills, and too hill for the city. My cousins sure would tell you that. Still, Kentucky’s not home, but it’s where I’m coming from.

Sort of like the tales you hear from time to time about travelers whose countries are beset by some tragedy that removes state legitimacy? Now you’ve got this worthless passport. Stateless. What was that movie, with Tom Hanks, in the airport? The Terminal, yes. Instead of wandering around an airport in my robe and slippers, I sit behind a laptop, listing between identities.

For me, place is a spiritual portmanteau blending bluegrass and buckeye, formed of patched-together memories built of observations of environment, collected near enough in time they’ve become a “there,” a wholly new thing.

Memory, experience, time, and place generally sync up for me, but the result is a kind of authorial multiple personality disorder conflating the headspace and space-time.

I’m linked to, and influenced by two locales, and limited by neither. The “region” that influences me most lies between the ears. The disoriented familiarity jumpstart my creative faculties. That energy provides the moxie I need to move beyond off-the shelf identities prescribed by an appropriation-phobic culture. Psychic rootlessness makes me just harebrained enough to imagine I have the right, no—obligation—to inhabit any character who shows up demanding trance-channeled transcription, no matter how peculiar  or foreign to me.

This has caused me to modify the “write what you know” dictum to “write what you know to be true.” I mean that. Write what you know to be true, even if it’s not. If you’re working in good faith, the worst that happens is you learn something. Most likely, even if you fuck it up, your assumptions spur dialogue.

What do I know to be true? Places more than things; narrative over “facts”—to paraphrase Faulkner: “fiction is truer than fact.” The gaps between spaces where we definitively belong, but are bad for us, where we suffer slow, gangrenous soul-rot and alienation; foothills, neither heres-nor-theres, where plains begin their rise into mountains. Tales grown in that rich black soil bloom best north of the old Confederacy, between the Alleghenies and the east bank of the Mississippi.

DUTBWebCover-smallGE: Your new book Digging Up the Bones, is written over the course of three generations, starting in the 1960’s. Was any research needed to write about the past?

DM: What research I conducted had more to do with little details, rather than long arcs of time. For instance, despite knowing plenty of bigots, I had trouble getting in Junie Nash’s head for Interlude at a Rather Low Order. I lurked on Stormfront for a while, watched some documentaries, and endured as much growly hate-rock as I could.  To answer the question succinctly, no. Not in any formal way.

I’m one of those unfortunates cursed with good memory. Not quite eidetic, but close enough to sting. I’ve got nothing from the ‘60s, as I was halved at the time; but, I remember lots of stuff beginning in the late 70’s.

One of the first mental images I can recall is a man on television who’d dyed his beard red, white, and blue for the Bicentennial. I remember most every spurned woo I’ve pitched, lines from parts I played as high school thespian, verbatim casual conversations, affronts, and even long passages of scripture, which I adore, especially Revelation.

I’ve reinforced that “gift” with mnemonic methods cribbed from the medieval sorcerer, Giordano Bruno, and techniques popularized in The Memory Book, by NBA star Jerry Lucas. When I sat for the Ohio bar, I could locate, recall, and paraphrase long sections of the Revised Code. I’ve lost much of it in the past couple of decades, which I think proves God exists and loves me very much. The lobbyists who penned the statutes wrote so poorly laws read like cat piss smells.

The flow of Digging Up The Bones traces my life’s arc. It’s fiction, but draws on myth, told and retold, from both sides of my familyyarns that are themselves bullshit, of course. Then there are the habits and behaviors seen in friends, family, strangers, even myself. I also wove in a few threads of Southwest Ohio urban legend, as well as some nasty rumors so juicy they got stuck, permanently, in my mental grease trap. The Nashes exist only in the sense ideas do (by which I do not dismiss the “immaterial”). The meat hung on their bones was cut in physical, and emotional space, over four decades, one excruciating slab at a time.

My father, Ernest, is nothing like Errol Nash, Jr. But, like Nash, my father fought in Vietnam; he left the service with a Purple Heart and a scorching case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I gained what knowledge I needed about Vietnam, and the men it scarred, in my living room.

The hippie gangsters in All Things Old Must Pass Away would’ve fit well in my dear maternal aunts’ clique; they lived with us in the late 1970’s. As teenagers, they kept the company of a dozen or so lecherous trouts. When my parents were out, the girls had their crew over.  I was a well-behaved kid and I didn’t need much babysitting, so I hung back, watching people digging very, very good tunes on the hi-fi, boozing and stoned and pawing each other. These shindigs drove my parents crazy, but I loved them.

Again, I was there, but not of there.

GE: How did you go about changing the times for each generation?

DM: Nice “craft” question. That kind of stuff comes about in revision. Tiny embroideries, great fun in the gilding: I get a sly grin when I catch a gap in the text I can fill with subtle detail that, in a few words or a phrase, evokes time and place. As is often the case, less is more.

In White Folks Just Ain’t Made For This Heat, the narrator mentions the late-70’s/early-80’s Triscuit ads featuring the Partridge Family’s Sandy Duncan. That image will mean nothing to Millennials and younger, but should strike folks X-er and older like a lemon madeleine.

Yeah, tiny embroideries.

GE: Digging Up the Bones was written as a set of linked stories—what was the effect of this style of storytelling? What do you think it adds to the story? Could it have been written as one story?

DM: NYC big-pub mugwumps would call it, derisively, “episodic.”

So what? Episodic narratives can be problematic, in a structural sense, but for this effort, I embrace the epsod…episoddity?…episodicity? Whatever it is, I embrace it.

I’m not sure how to define family, but I can tell you it’s formed of discrete myths, lies, rumors, embellishments, and  agreed-upon fictions that link individuals to a common narrative arc.

I can’t think of a more natural way to tell a tale where the real protagonist isn’t human, but a mutant notion of “family” built of a long string of traumas-in-common. Each character has his or her take on the crippled Nash oversoul, but even if they’ve removed themselves, they’re defining themselves in opposition.

As for “story,” v. “linked stories,” v. “novella,” v. “novel,” I’m trying to break the habit of labeling work according to structure and length. Those designations have more to do with marketing than art, have little to offer readers, and can frustrate an author’s intentions.

I have drafts of the text in novel form. My ideas of how novels work, or how they work best, made me to fret over issues neatly resolved in a less rigid format. I don’t think Digging Up The Bones worked as a novel; the benefits a unified structure gave didn’t outweigh the advantages of glimpsing defined, critical moments in the Nashes’ lives.

GE: The people featured in your novel Digging Up the Bones, seem to live on the grittier side of life, a side many are not accustomed to. What inspired you to write about these kinds of characters?  

DM: I’m accustomed to these folks. They’re who I know, and who I know to be true, warts and all. They were my neighbors for the better part of my life. They’re my aunts, uncles, cousins, schoolmates and friends.

If you work in criminal law or bankruptcy or some other triage area of law, you meet lots of broken, hurting people spanning the whole socioeconomic spectrum. They may be venal, but often are justifiably so.

You come to consider bourgeois normalcy a veneer hiding common human foibles. The only difference is “the grittier side” can’t afford the camouflage.

That doesn’t mean their shortcomings are worse, just more obvious. And I sort of respect people who own their shit, even if unfortunate circumstance accounts for the disclosure, rather than some commitment to honesty.

I’m blessed in many ways, especially by acquaintance. While I bear the scent, and accent, of my background, work in law, publishing, academe, my affiliation with The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and pure dumb luck, I’ve had the privilege to lurk among my betters.

My grandmother chides I’ve “gotten’ above my raisin’.” She gives me a hard time, but now and again I do feel like a Forrest Gump of modern American Arts & Letters. In this way, I’ve been privy to bullshit 1% cocktail-party commentary on the grittier side, but I’ve noticed there’s nuance and thoughtfulness there, too.

To the extent I think about such things, I’m inspired to take the role of interlocutor, doing my people’s stories justice while setting the scene for those who, as you put it, may not be accustomed to the gritty conditions in Appalachia, fetid trailer courts, and shitty urban neighborhoods.

GE: Aside from being a writer, you also represent people in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio as a consumer bankruptcy attorney. What draws you to this work? Do you see this work having an influence on your writing, or vice versa?

DM: America has two systems of law; one for elites, another for everyone else. The law may ostensibly apply to everyone, (though it’s written increasingly with shameless, explicit carve-outs for the rich and powerful) but instead of guaranteeing fairness and justice, it punishes poor whites and minorities for being poor whites and minorities. In America, 2015, you get the best justice you can afford. Since 2008, not one banker has gone to jail. Think about that. Not one. If you, or I, stole $5,000, we’d do time. Steal a trillion? Well, you know.

In 2005, George W. Bush (2nd worst president in American history, after the appalling James Buchanan) and his pals enacted a bankruptcy “reform” meant to intimidate Bankruptcy attorneys, while punishing and humiliating consumer debtors. I seem to remember reading the law was written almost entirely by credit-card company lobbyists, but don’t quote me. If it’s not true, it ought to be.

Even with Bush’s, and the Congress’, spite, consumer bankruptcy remains one of the few areas of law left where an attorney can make a difference in the lives of the working class and poor.

Sure, I see jackass deadbeats. I hold my nose when to represent them. But the majority of people come to me after tragedies like divorce, illness, job loss, spousal deaths, or failed businesses. Even deadbeats disgust me less than the banks and insurance companies they inconvenience.

You know what? At least these deadbeats didn’t borrow a trillion dollars from China on my grandchildren’s behalf to pay off their buddies’ gambling debts to anonymous, private third parties. So fuck ‘em. I’ll take the deadbeats, any day, if I have to choose the quieter of two flatulent arsepuckers.

Since 2004 I’ve helped stop foreclosures, liberated hundreds from usurious credit-card debt, crammed-down predatory loans, spurred clients’ financial rehabilitations, and bested pay-day loan sharks.

Lots of lawyers think of our profession as a miserable way to make a living. That’s true for many, but it’s more fun to champion the underdog. I love the smell of unsecured debt held by a major bank in the morning.

One reason I studied law is many people in my life found themselves on the business end of criminal prosecutions, or as defendants in trifling debt-related lawsuits. None of us understood how those processes worked. And, we assumed we couldn’t afford a lawyer. I hoped to learn the law’s habits, so I wouldn’t fear it, and also maybe help those I love, and people like them, navigate its mysteries. Besides, if you can write and speak with any facility, and you don’t have other plans, the college career services lady will make you go to law school

Also, before going to law school, my for-publication writing (by which I mean formal writing subject to relentless revision, usually fiction, as opposed to less formal, conversational writing like email interviews) was much weaker. There’s an emphasis in legal writing on clarity, brevity, and an obsessive attachment to active voice that beefed-up my prose, while at the same time, curiously, caused me to prefer a less casual syntax that gives the prose what some commentators call “baroque” flourishes. I was able to bring that to the fiction, and I think the fiction is better for it.

GE: How do you begin making characters, what is first aspect of a character that comes to you? What is the process that you go through before you know a character will be part of a story?

DM: I think in mystical terms on this subject; I’ve had astrological and tarot readings done for particular characters. I meditate on the their personalities, letting them percolate in the hind part of my mind. Like materializing ghosts, they form from elements taken out of their environments, those things near them that are most like them in essence—shading, clothing, accent, posture. I listen for the character to speak in the text, as I write.

In many cases, characters arrive at Casa de Marlowe fully formed, after a flash of the epiphanic moment in a story arc that will define them. Knowing how that character will change gives me a nice before/after snapshot.

Characters can be infuriating. Sometimes they show up with their own ideas about how the story goes, and trash 5,000 hard-won words. That sucks, but when characters become real enough to disrupt their worlds I know it’s time to stop writing, and start transcribing, and get the fuck out of the way. That’s when we touch The Song, when we’re hearing it as writers, in that meditative state where we’re channeling anew some variation on that Story the Universe is telling us, ceaselessly.

I think of the craft as a vocation. Vocations usually prescribe means to cultivate awareness in those who’ve taken those vocations. Writers are disciples of the Word. Our work is a religious observance. It’s a means of prayer. The process draws many of us into a mental state akin ecstasy. The reverie is subtler, but no less potent.

GE: What’s next for you?

 DM: 2014 was a watershed for me. I broke my back, had two major surgeries, two minor ones, a dozen other procedures, three lengthy hospital stays, and got some sort of slow-grow infection that tried to hollow my spine from the inside out.

I spent a year in bed, opiate-numbed. My muscles have atrophied to the point my daughters renamed me “Squishy.” We had move, as I am now too decrepit to handle two flights of stairs.

(An aside: I kicked Oxycontin, Percocet and morphine in a single month. I sat in bed and cried for two weeks. It was horrible. Now, I have nothing but empathy for addicts of any sort).

Thankfully, I’ve recovered as much as I will, but I’ll never be the same. I wish I hadn’t taken vigor, stamina, and strength for granted. I sure do miss those things.

To my surprise, the world kept spinning while I healed. Projects I was involved with concluded, for better or worse, without me. My law practice dwindled. It’s as if I watched my own midlife crisis from the outside.

I had no idea a clean slate would be so liberating. In that spirit, I’ve abandoned, at least in the near term, a trio of long-form fiction projects that have vexed me for a decade. Man, that feels good. It hurts to give up on them for now—kind of like leaving a toxic, but comfortable romance—but there are good things stirring in this silence.

Where the muses lead, I will follow.


(Stephen) Dale Marlowe’s work has appeared in numerous publications. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. From 2004 to 2012, he wrote features columns at Chapati Mystery, under the nom de guerre Farangi. A story collection, Digging Up The Bones, The Weight of This Life, a graphic novel (with Aaron Lindeman), and Honky Fatwas, a retrospective chronicling a decade’s-worth of essays for Chapati Mystery, are each scheduled for 2015. He is COO at Potemkin Media Omnibus, Ltd, an English professor at Edison State Community College, and as the spirit moves, he represents people in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio as a consumer bankruptcy attorney.

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