David Armand: The Gorge
In the opening scenes of The Gorge, a new novel by Louisiana writer David Armand (Southeast Missouri State University Press) the far reaches of a sunken cave create an ominous presence that fuels the novel’s dark tone. At any point, The Gorge feels likely to break out into eruptions of brutality, or to stoke its characters’ lingering memories of violence.
Armand has built a body of work that explores the lives of blue-collar people against a backdrop of rural landscapes in the Deep South. His previous novels, The Pugilist’s Wife and Harlow, garnered him acclaim, including the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize. In addition to The Gorge, Armand also has two forthcoming works: a poetry chapbook, The Deep Woods, and My Mother’s House, a memoir which was recently named runner-up in 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition.
EMILY CHOATE: The Gorge has at its center haunting images of Fricke’s Cave in southern Louisiana. How did the world of this novel develop?
DAVID ARMAND: As with all of my creative work, The Gorge started off with a simple image: my family and I were walking through the Bogue Chitto State Park in Franklinton, Louisiana, and there’s actually a deep gorge that sort of cuts through the woods there. I’d never seen anything like that in Louisiana before, where the land is mostly flat and marshy. As we walked down a manmade boardwalk that slices through the pit of the gorge and dead ends at a sandstone formation, I started to get this image in my head of a dead body hidden among the brush and the deadfall. I never know where these images come from (perhaps a lot of people have them cross their minds), but as an artist, I feel obligated to start asking questions of myself about the images I see in my head. With this particular one (of the dead body), I naturally started to ask why/how the body would’ve ended up there. I started thinking of scenarios in which someone dumped a body in this place, trying to conceal a crime that was committed. Oddly enough, a few months later when I was drafting out scenes that would ultimately find their home in The Gorge, I was reading Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and learned that a body actually had been dumped in that area, which is known by locals as Fricke’s Cave. The man who was executed for the crime (portrayed in the film adaptation by Sean Penn) had lived not terribly far from where I grew up in Folsom, Louisiana. It seemed like one of those fortuitous moments I just had to cash in on as a writer.
EC: The novel’s characters—young lovers, traumatized men wrestling with their violent impulses—all feel inextricably tied to the storied landscapes they inhabit. When you are creating characters, do you develop their inner lives in tandem with the lands around them?
DA: I think that the characters sort of organically develop out of the landscapes in which they live. People have to understand that where I grew up and lived until I was in my early twenties is a rough place, by most accounts. People there are desperate—whether it be to escape their environment, their history, whatever—and they act out in desperate ways: often hurting other people in their wake. I also think that the land takes on its own human characteristics in response to how people are living on it. So, to me, landscape and character are inextricably bound.
EC: Rural landscapes seem integral not only to The Gorge, but to your whole body of work. How have rural southern places helped to shape your voice as a writer?
DA: As I’ve mentioned, I think that growing up in a rural area where people are often desperate—and hopeless, in some cases—has compelled me to look at the “why” of this. As an artist, I’m at an interesting vantage point from which I am able to look at these things objectively and analyze them with a scientist’s lens. That’s not to say that I offer any analysis of my findings, as I don’t believe art is necessarily supposed to spell out answers, but I think it’s important to put the world we inhabit under a microscope in an effort to perhaps show people what’s really happening beneath the veil of polite society. These are the places people don’t want to look at necessarily, places that people tend to shy away from, but I ultimately want to show that there is indeed hope and room for love and real human connection, even in some of the darkest recesses of our land.
EC: Your work seems to share a lineage with certain southern writers like Larry Brown, Chris Offutt, and Tom Franklin—sometimes called the Grit Lit tradition—whose works emphasize working class characters and violent crimes. Is this crowd a conscious influence on your work? Do you self-identify as a Grit Lit-er?
DA: Well, I would definitely say that I am influenced by the writers’ work who you mention here. I am also influenced by Faulkner, Quentin Tarantino, Cormac McCarthy, and even Shakespeare. That’s not me trying to sound lofty or anything, but I think all of us are ultimately concerned with what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I don’t particularly care for the term “Grit Lit,” to be completely honest, as I feel like with any label, it sort of tries to pigeonhole works of art into a tidy little category. Sure, my work may be gritty in nature, but I think the term “Grit Lit” kind of serves as a short cut to real analysis, real thinking about the written work in terms of what it really is: and that is a story that tries to say something new (and hopeful) about the human condition.
EC: In addition to your novels, you also have a memoir and poetry chapbook forthcoming. What does it mean to you to write across several genres? Has that always been a feature of your writing life?
DA: I was initially trained as a poet, so I learned early on the need for concision, preciseness, and originality of utterance: that is, saying something that’s been said before but in a wholly new way. I honestly never thought that I would return to poetry once I started writing fiction, but I have found that it’s been a nice respite from the longer form, which can be both mentally and physically taxing. When I’m working on a novel, for instance, I can’t seem to think about much else except for that inner world I’m working to construct. With poetry, I’m usually in and out in one sitting, and then I can come back later and sort of chisel off the rough edges. I end up feeling satisfied a lot quicker than I would when in the throes of making a novel. I guess that’s the impatient part of my personality, that need for instant gratification that I think most of us have, but don’t necessarily want to admit to.
The memoir was something totally unplanned and unexpected. I sat down one day thinking about trying to write up a little sketch about my mother, who’s schizophrenic, and who had come into my life after a long absence. This little sketch just grew and grew until the next thing I knew I had 20,000 words in front of me. I finished the rest in exactly six weeks. It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything of that length, and it was almost completely finished when I typed the last period. Very little revision was needed. So I started sending it around to some agents and publishers, but quickly accepted an offer from Texas Review Press, which came just one month after I finished the manuscript. I guess I could’ve continued to shop it around, but it’s that need for instant gratification I was talking about earlier, I suppose.
EC: Not only have your books all been published by small presses, but you also work for one, Louisiana Literature Press. For you, what is the particular draw of small presses?
DA: Simple: freedom. University presses tend to publish stuff they like with very little regard for numbers. On top of that, they tend to have less people to answer to, so as an author, you get more control over editorial decisions. I was even able to take part in the cover design of each of my books, having almost complete artistic control. I don’t think many people publishing with the bigger houses can say that. Also, I often think about the trajectory I’d like my career to follow, and I’d rather start off publishing with small houses like I’ve done, then maybe moving to a bigger house someday, if they’d have me. But the idea of starting big scares me: it’s like, where do you go from there? I’ve seen so many writers start off with bestsellers and then just sort of disappear. I want to be around for a while and prove myself so that if I get picked up by a bigger house one day, I’ll already have an established track record and will be less likely to be what they call in the music industry a one-hit wonder. I’ve just seen that happen to too many good writers. Once they go from big to small, it seems as though they lose respect from their audience or something. It’s truly bizarre, but I think it’s just human nature to view things that way.
EC: What can you share with us about your upcoming memoir, My Mother’s House?
DA: This book is pretty much my experience growing up with a schizophrenic mother who gave me up for adoption when I was three years old. It recounts my early childhood growing up in the country and some of the early traumas I experienced. The latter half of the book delves into my reunion with my mother after she made a failed suicide attempt and came to live with me and my young family. I ultimately had to cut her out of my life, but I want readers to know that this book is not intended to disparage my mother in any way. It is my tribute to her and I hope that if she reads it one day that she’ll see it that way.
I have to add, too, that this book in no way was an emotional catharsis for me. I hold tightly to Ray Carver’s dictum: “writing is not self-expression, it is communication,” and so even for a non-fiction book, I tend to write about my life from that artistic vantage point of objectivity and of love for my characters. So while all of this stuff in the memoir is true, at no point do you get any authorial intrusion, claiming to have some special insight into what happened to me. Like with my novels, I just tell the story in the best way I know how and then let the reader make his own judgments. And at the end of the day, I think that’s all we can truly aspire to.
Order a copy of The Gorge here.
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He now teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, was published by Texas Review Press in 2013. He has a chapbook, The Deep Woods, coming out later this year from Blue Horse Press; and his memoir, My Mother’s House, is forthcoming Spring 2016 from Texas Review Press. David lives with his wife and two children and is working on his sixth book, The Lord’s Acre. (Author photo by Lucy Armand.)
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.