Interview with Jon Sealy, author of The Whiskey Baron
by Denton Loving
DL: Congratulations on your first novel, The Whiskey Baron. It’s been well-received by readers and critics. How does it feel to have the book out in the hands of readers?
JS: At first it was a bit strange. You never know how readers will react to something you’ve written, and I was unnerved to have something that had been so private now out for public consumption. But I’m glad it’s out there so I can really say it’s done and focus on the next thing.
DL: The Whiskey Baron is set in a South Carolina mill town during prohibition. I know you did a lot of research for this book so that you’d get the time period right, as well as geographic setting and the culture of the mill town. Do you remember how the idea for the story started? And how much did it change as it progressed?
JS: Two ideas converged. First, I had this image of a man standing over a grave with a shovel in his hands, in a landscape that was more or less my grandparents’ old farm. He took off for the bottomlands, washed himself in a creek, and headed out into the countryside. A second idea was that I wanted to write this family novel about life in a cotton mill village back when my grandparents’ generation was young. I thought I was writing a labor novel about life in the mill, but there was no real story in following characters as they got up, ate breakfast, and then went to work. To get some story going, I threw in a dead body on page 2, which let me incorporate the man-on-the-run image.
DL: I love that The Whiskey Baron opens with a double murder but that it isn’t a mystery novel centered on knowing who committed the crime. Even though the details are revealed slowly, the big questions surrounding the murder and the culture of this town are far more important than “who dunnit.” How conscious were you on that line as your wrote, and was it difficult to maintain?
JS: I never really thought I was writing a classic who-dunnit. I was more interested in the why-dunnit, or the dunnit’s fallout. I think I’ve written a novel that fits in the groove between what commentators call “literary” and “genre.” There’s a story here, and plot, but ultimately I was as interested in the language and the characters as I was in spinning a yarn. I didn’t feel like I was trying to maintain a careful balance. Rather, I was just writing the kind of book I wanted to write, which was the kind of book I wanted to read.
DL: I’ve seen that you said some of the novel’s central concerns are “the nature of American enterprise” and “the limitations of the law.” In reading the book, I see your exploration of those themes. But on a simpler level, the book is basically and pleasantly a real page turner. Was it difficult to balance those layers of the writing?
JS: I suppose I did have to work at keeping the tension alive and not stray too far into the poetic mode. The real difficulty was in tightening the focus, because the temptation was to meander all over town. There’s a relatively wide cast here, but originally I had about twice as many central characters, which diluted the story too much.
DL: I also see the ideas of “free will” and “predetermination” as being integral to the novel. How important do you see that debate within the narrative?
JS: There’s a branch of literature called “Naturalism,” which is primarily American (writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Jack London), and this group of writers were interested in the materialist view of the world. In this view, humans are determined beings, products of our biology, the natural and economic environment, and the role of chance. I do think I was wrestling with this worldview in the novel. Many of the characters in The Whiskey Baron are running up against the limits of their own agency, yet I would argue they are nonetheless free, even if biology, the environment, and chance all impose some limits. Of course, this whole debate might just be a geeky English major thing. I don’t think you need to worry about any of this to enjoy the story.
DL: Both lines of thought are supported by incidents of tremendous violence. I saw Susan Tekluve wrote a great review of the book where she wrote, “Jon Sealy loves writing about people who behave badly.” Is that true, or do all characters in fiction behave badly by necessity?
JS: I think all fiction relies on characters making choices, and it creates tension when you see characters making bad choices, because as the reader you want to argue with them, or you want to warn them, or you despise them for their folly. If I remember correctly, Susan and I were discussing villains, so maybe a more nuanced way to say it is: I love to write about characters who behave in such a way that, were most of us to behave in a similar way, we would be behaving badly.
DL: Castle County, South Carolina, where The Whiskey Baron is set, is a place you created. But how much of it is based on real places you were familiar with from growing up and living in South Carolina?
JS: Castle is a fictionalized version of Chester, which is in a rural area off I-77 between Columbia and Charlotte, where much of my family is from. I drew heavily from the landscape and what I know of the place, the people, and its history, but I fictionalized it because I wanted to play fast and loose with the geography and the history. As far as I know, there is no historical correlative to anything that happens in the book, and I didn’t want readers coming up to me and saying, “That’s not how it was in Chester.” I’m sure I missed some details, but I wanted to focus less on history and more on the story.
DL: You’ve been living for the past few years in Richmond, Virginia. Was it beneficial in any ways to be away from the place you were writing about? Did it allow you any freedoms?
JS: Maybe leaving South Carolina has given me some perspective, and depending on what day it is, I might tell you I was writing my way back to rural South Carolina in my mind from my home in suburban Virginia. But I’m not sure I left because of any notion of artistic freedom, so I wouldn’t mythologize myself as an exiled Carolinian the way we mythologize, say, James Joyce for leaving Ireland.
DL: I know that you’re a voracious reader. Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they’ve influenced your own work?
JS: Oh, everything I’ve read or done has influenced my work in some way. I will say I love the writers generally classified in the Southern or Appalachian tradition, though I’m hesitant to make a list because I’m sure I’d leave somebody out. I tend to favor writers who write about place, southern or not, so I feel some kinship with what Alice Munro does with Canada, or Philip Roth does with Newark, or Annie Proulx does with Wyoming, the same way I feel a kinship with what Ron Rash and George Singleton do with the Carolinas.
DL: Do you see yourself as part of any particular writing tradition?
JS: Yes and no. I feel a kinship with a number of other writers, such as regionalists and crime writers, and I do look at writing a book in terms of T.S. Eliot’s “tradition and the individual talent”—that when you publish a book, you’re adding the next link in the line of literature. At the same time, we’re experiencing an unprecedented deluge of “content”—books, traditional media, social media, blogs, GIFs, quizzes, podcasts, and the like—and I feel this deluge poses an existential threat to history and tradition. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said we seem to live in the perennial present, and that nothing written today will last in any meaningful sense. But this week, I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a 1971 novel in which the narrator makes similar commentary about how kids today (or the kids in 1971) don’t appreciate history and nothing lasts and yadda yadda yadda. So on the one hand, my feeling is nothing new. On the other hand, how many people are reading Stegner anymore outside academia? Maybe he was onto something.
DL: Now that the book is finished and out in the world, do you ever find things about it that you wish you could go back and change?
JS: Here and there, when I read out loud, I mentally fiddle with the punctuation. Overall, I’m happy with it, though I haven’t reread it start to finish since it came out.
DL: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling to promote the book. A lot of people forget or don’t know that writing is both an art and a business. How do you enjoy the promotional aspects?
JS: It can be unnatural. As a writer, I believe I’m supposed to practice what Keats called “negative capability”—that is, getting rid of my ego in service of the characters and the story. Book promotion, on the other hand, is all about saying, “Hey there, this is my book.” Swapping back and forth between those two hats will make you schizophrenic (or drive you to drink). All that said, I do like getting out and meeting people. It’s humbling when a stranger comes up to tell you they liked your book.
DL: You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time before the release of The Whiskey Baron. I know you’ve published a number of short stories. Do you have a preference between the short form and the long form?
JS: I much prefer the long form. I wrote short stories in graduate school to learn some technique, but that’s not my form. Some writers can move around from one genre to the next, but I feel like the novel presents such a challenge, and the form has so many secrets, that I don’t have enough time to master anything else.
DL: What are you writing now, and what will we see from you next?
JS: I have another novel currently with my agent. Where The Whiskey Baron is about a bootlegger’s crumbling whiskey empire in the thirties, the new one is about a financial officer’s crumbling business empire in the eighties. He gets overleveraged while involved in an ill-advised money-laundering scheme.
About the author:
Jon Sealy’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including The South Carolina Review, The Normal School, PANK, and The Sun. His story “Issaqueena” won the 2012 fiction contest at Still. A native of upstate South Carolina, he has a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Charleston and an MFA in fiction writing from Purdue University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia. The Whiskey Baron is his first novel.
About the interviewer:
Denton Loving is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds. He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water. His fiction, poetry, essays and reviews are forthcoming in River Styx, [PANK], The MacGuffin and Fiction Southeast. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.