Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock
Interviews with
Jonis Agee

Taking the Wall
Copyright © 1999
by Jonis Agee
Coffee House Press
Why do you think cars capture the imagination of so many people?

Cars are the perfect embodiment for the American experience: from the first immigrants to contemporary ones, cars conquer the two most important external obstacles to human existence — Time and Space. The faster cars go, the more quickly we overcome time and space — the more dramatic they are in terms of size, design, luxury, special features, the more spectacular our journey is — faster, bigger, better. We desire to project through space and time — even past them, if possible—therefore, the car is our vehicle of choice. Cars also allow us to express our individuality: the democratic ideal of this country. We are not and have never really been a collective culture, thus the car permits the individual to overcome obstacles individually. We do not have to partake in the journey with others, but are able to lead it, alone. We're very suspicious of group activity in this country — even though we love being fans and joining organizations — we also love single dwelling homes as opposed to apartments. Cars provide the ultimate promise of mobility, spatially and socially — we judge and are judged by our vehicle of choice.

In another sense, perhaps more metaphorical, most car lovers truly feel their vehicles as animate and discuss them as such. They are kin to horses, old sailing ships, and railroads. In this sense, the object of transportation and earning a living becomes part of our psyche — our identity. Moreover, there is the same beauty, power, design, and mystery one finds in locomotives. The mystique may have to do with the idea that the individual can own an engine capable of such power and production. Who hasn't lusted after a more and more powerful car, one with more and more special features, one that can turn the freeway commute into a trip in a space shuttle? Cars are the chosen vehicle of dreaming. They are transcendent dreams. Dreams of flight and power to escape the demands of the everyday, the brutalizing work and burdens of society — in the right car, anyone can be freed.

How has your move to St Paul effected your race car-related habits?

I still watch my car races every Saturday and Sunday on television and follow the nascar, cart, and IRL news. There are a fair number of people I encounter in this area who are fans — many of them in secret because they're afraid of being laughed at by their friends. I was recently at a fairly high-brow literary event and discovered another fan like myself, so we spent the evening talking about our favorite drivers in Winston Cup instead of books. There's a secret fraternity out there, and it's growing.

Why do you think car racing has had a sudden boom of interest and success? Car racing is fraught with the unpredictable and fueled by the competing urges of order and chaos: the track implies order and control, as do the rules of the race. Yet the unexpected is a constant in every race. No one wins or finishes in the same way or place every race. Anything and everything can go wrong — sometimes it's human error, sometimes it's mechanical, sometimes it's fate. Watching a race is like watching a play written by Shakespeare, directed by Thomas Hardy with dialogue and extra scenes thrown in by Virginia Woolf and Andy Warhol, who have been resurrected as a couple for the occasion. It's one of the few sports that rewards the act of even finishing the race with points. You are supposed to keep going, no matter what happens. It so resembles all the conventional wisdom about the nature of existence and living that you can really understand that the rules of the sport aside, the larger rules at work here have to do with accidents and fate and chance and luck — the unforeseeable for which there is no insurance or regulation that can protect you. In this sport, people have favorites who never win but who struggle nonetheless, and that seems to be worth a lot. There are fast laps and caution laps, there are accidents and people who survive them, there are the oddest of mechanical breakdowns, and there are heroic moments. This is a team sport—the pit crew can make or break a race — and no individual, not a single one, is ever bigger than the sport.

How hard was it for you to infiltrate the racing community?

The nascar world is very fan and family friendly — the race car drivers are available directly to fans before races and at other times. This is unusual when you consider the last time a basketball, football, baseball, or hockey team invited their fans down on the field or met them in the parking lot before the game, to just chat, shake hands, and give autographs.

On the other hand, the technology is so complex in race cars that there is a bit of distance in the mechanical aspects of racing. It's definitely a language and a world that has to be learned in order to function with any sort of knowledge base in a conversation. Like any sport, the more one knows, the clearer what's at stake becomes. Consider watching tennis at Wimbledon without ever learning the rules or having touched a racket; then consider watching it after you've taken lessons and tried your hand — learned the strokes, the difficulties, your own limitations and those of your partner. Racing can appear as if it's a bunch of people driving fast in a straight line, in ovals, in figure eights, on roads or in and out of city streets — so the fastest one wins, right? No — that's only a small part of the entire race. Often the one who qualifies fastest doesn't go on to win — there are a great many other factors involved.

Although you are a big fan of racing, your book centers around many of the seemingly negative results of this sport — the drivers who failed to accomplish their dreams and their families who are struggling to get by. Can you explain this?

I believe it was William Faulkner, among others, who suggested that winning the war didn't teach one a great deal. But in losing, one learned what it meant to be alive, to surrender so much of your life. Through defeat, one begins to understand the nature of existence and is capable of tragic grandeur, not through victory which doesn't lead you to your humanity, to any iota of understanding about pain and suffering and living with loss, which is finally the one experience we share in common throughout the ages. Surviving with dignity in the face of defeat, keeping your dreams alive, is what gives you stature — not being triumphant with all the marbles in your bag. So, of course, I'm interested in the smallest of victories a person has, of a less obvious sort, where they come to reflection and insight about how this tangled mess became their life, and how they contributed directly and indirectly to it. I'm interested in the nature of dreams and obsessions, how they persist despite defeat — that as long as we don't surrender to their loss, we have hope. It's the hopefulness of most human beings that is so moving, and that's what I was trying to get at with these stories. By having a passion, being driven by desire, being in the throes of obsession, the people in these stories can momentarily, perhaps sporadically, transcend their small worlds for much larger ones. And in that fashion, we share something with them. Too often these are the small lives that are looked down upon, disregarded, mocked, yet these people have as much dreaming in them as anyone. This isn't about the multi-million dollar winners, who are so few to begin with. It's about the multitude of people who fuel that possibility with their own dreams and hopes. As I see it, most people are managing to just get by in this world, either on a material, physical, or emotional and psychological plane — but that struggle is so fraught with intensity and beauty that it is worthy of our attention.

You have a great interest in competitive sports. Does competition play a large part in your life?

Yes, although I didn't realize this until I entered my thirties and forties. I usually think of myself as a happy, laid back kind of person. My friends will laugh at this, but I figure we're all subject to our delusions, right? Then when I started learning dressage and showing horses, I discovered how truly competitive I am. My father coached basketball and softball for women and I used to go to the games with him when I was a child. Maybe it all rubbed off. I've always liked watching competitive sports, and they tend to follow my state of mind. When I was in graduate school, I loved basketball because it was fast, no dull moments. Then a friend told me I wouldn't really mature and deepen until I learned to love baseball which has much more pacing. Now, just about any sport can grab me — even golf, if Tiger is playing. It seems as if one of the big enjoyments of competing and watching is the involvement with specific people — with individuals who stir interest in me. I'm a writer, after all, and this competition business is part of the meat of characters — it brings out all kinds of qualities that fascinate me.

How do cars and road trips connect to your idea of a person's fixed emotional place?

There is a dichotomy inherent in the American psyche. We're both fixed and longing to be liquid at the same time. The great premise of our society is our mobility — don't like it here, things didn't work out, you can pack up and leave, with your own self in your own car on your own time table. My own life has a fixed place of reference for stability. I have and need a home base, a regular job, a family in my daughter, and yet I am constantly longing for other places. The car allows me mobility at a rate I can stand. I like to drive more than anything because I can determine the journey — the time and places, the lingerings and gatherings, the hurrying to and from. I hate planned vacations. My idea of a good time is to point my truck in a direction and head that way whether I ever arrive at any place specific or not. Sometimes I don't even end up in that direction. Once my sister and I started out for Michigan but ended up in Mississippi instead — good discovery. We toured the backhills of Arkansas and Louisiana that trip and I found a pre-Civil War brick in a tumbled down building in Vicksburg that I carry everywhere. We had dinner in an old shack in the swamps one night and it was so dark I finally understood Faulkner's place. I work on my novels on road trips, taking in the scenery and places and following my nose to just about anything that interests me since I'm in my own vehicle and I'm the boss. I used to try travelling with my husbands or boyfriends, but they had that male thing going — they wouldn't ever stop for an interesting rock by the side of the road or take a side trip. We were always in some kind of marathon trying to make time pay for our journey. Now I forget about time as much as possible on the road and simply enter the place like wading into a river or lake. I might get twenty or thirty miles in a day, but I'll know what's at the bottom. I often write while I'm actually in motion, in fact, taking down the impressions, the things that poke out of the world at me: signs, people, structures, animals, weather, plants, rocks, etc. This wouldn't be possible without my ability to slow down the world, and follow its randomness to a conclusion in my own car.

Do you have any new obsessions?

New Obsessions? Oh, I'm always looking. Let's see, a brief fling with orchids and growing them, the New Madrid earthquake, and all areas of hard science. I can't get enough science facts these days. Sometimes the Civil War ...

Strange Angels
Copyright © 1994
by Jonis Agee
Your new book is set in the sandhills of western Nebraska. quite an out-of-the-way place. How did you discover it?

I come from a long line of explorers, visionaries, and outlaws that includes Lewis and Clark, the Younger brothers, and Jesse James. We started as Huguenots who got land in the New World in the 17th century, and we've been on the road ever since. Growing up in Nebraska, the sandhills, the beginning of the West, always existed on the periphery of my attention, and it seemed natural to wander out there first in my imagination — and I suppose that's where all traveling begins — then in reality.

You live in Minnesota. Yet you talk about traveling to the sandhills and the book seems so detailed. Did you spend much time out in the hills?

For two years, while I was working on the book, I went almost every month for a few days. The trip to Valentine, Nebraska, in Cherry County — the largest in the country — takes about nine or ten hours, depending on how feisty the state troopers are. I found that I could write in the car, driving across South Dakota in those vast areas that let your mind sweep along pretty freely. Then, when I got to the sandhills, I'd drive and stop, work on identifying plants and birds, places, and history, and talk to people.

Did people out there ever think it was unusual for a woman to travel alone in such a vast unpopulated area?

Actually, no. Women in the hills and on the reservations have taken on a lot of responsibility for their lives and life in general. They don't have the luxury of always traveling in herds, groups. Often, I'd be on a road where I hadn't seen another car in an hour, and I'd pass another single woman going the other way. Sometimes we'd raise a finger in salute. Depending on where you are in rural America, people raise one, two, three fingers off the steering wheel, to say hi to strangers as they pass. Makes you feel like you belong.

But I've heard that people can be pretty closed-minded in small towns something you wrote about in your last novel. Sweet Eyes.

That's true, but not any more than any single group of people you're a member of. When I choose to write about small towns or remote areas, it's because it is easier to explore human behavior in that setting. Small towns have all the internecine workings of large families. And families (which I also write about quite a bit) are the source of just about everything we learn and know when we live. Obviously, the family is an incredibly imperfect system, but that's also what makes it so intriguing. That people keep trying, keep reinventing them, over and over, is astonishing to me.

Do you see the family as destructive then?

It can be. In Strange Angels, Heywood Bennett has gone to extraordinary lengths to force a family into being despite his magnificent flaws as a human being. He brings his bastard children home, but at a high price. Cody suffers most obviously, but I see Arthur, the legitimate son, as wounded because of the displacement in his father's eyes, and Kya as wasting so much of her potential. All of them are a little less than they might have been because of family, but also — and this is key to what I'm saying — all of them become more because of family. It's a paradox, isn't it?

Is forgiveness the key to that paradox?

I do believe in forgiveness — that's kind of a mainstay — and mostly because it's the hardest thing in the world to do. I figure if it's that hard, it must be the right thing to try. That's the Calvinism in me, I think, anything easy of the soul must be wrong. And for these siblings forgiveness is the only way that they are going to escape the burden that Heywood Bennett, their father, has placed on them, the only way they can ever achieve any real semblance of family.

In the end, though, the balance that is achieved within the community of Babylon, Nebraska, and the Bennett family is based on a Native American view of the world more than a Judeo-Christian one isn't it?

Yes. At the close of the novel, Joseph Starr, by combining Christian and Lakotan symbolism on the walls of the church on Latta Jaboy's land, is trying to create the Lakotan ideal of harmony. The Lakota philosophy maintains that all life is equally important. The Lakota believe that diverse worlds don't have to compete, they can coexist.

Your title, Strange Angels, what's that about?

It has to do with my vision of human beings — the often bizarre combination of qualities that make us seem both divine and completely ordinary. We're not angelic angels, but any of us is capable of incredible acts of mercy, love, forgiveness, ingenuity, courage, and fortitude — and that's strange, given how ordinary we are most of the time.

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