A Q and A with James Driggers on his novella collection, Lovesick
Perhaps the most obvious place to begin is with the question, why Lovesick? Is it a romance or a love story?
A romance? No. Romantic. Perhaps. Love stories. Definitely. But love stories with a twist. The tagline for the book says, “There’s always a price to pay.” That captures a great deal of what I think the book is about. Characters who chase their desires, only to find that is the very thing that destroys them. It would probably be a good place to mention that the collection is deeply rooted in the traditions of Southern Gothic and Southern noir which typically deal with those who violate social norm. Some are lonely, some are selfish, greedy; all of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. They are each willing “to pay the price.”
You describe the book as a collection of interconnected novellas. Can you explain that a bit?
It has been my experience that story collections fall into one of two categories: either the collection is named for an anchor story or it is named for an idea or image that links the stories together. Lovesick falls into the latter category. Yes, there are elements from one story that may overlap with another, and the setting is fairly central to the fictional town of Morris, SC; but these commonalities are little more than echoes or wisps of smoke. They do not carry a greater meaning. The stories do not link so that at the end, the reader solves a larger mystery, answers a deeper question. The whole is not the sum of its parts.
What do the stories have in common then?
I would have to say that the characters each transgress in some way. Butcher and Miss Virginia are trying to pull a scam, Freddie and Jewel murder men for money, Sandra is obsessed with the televangelist Shep, and M.R. Vale is an accomplice to murder to protect his romance with Lonnie. These people do some very bad things, but I agree with what Lynne Barrett wrote about them when she said, “the object of forbidden love may be indifferent, unworthy, or just plain poisonous, but what matters to the lovestruck is to give all and so find a way to be, however briefly, truly alive.”
The next obvious question would seem to be, what makes them different?
Now that they all connect and are tied to one another, it is difficult to remember sometimes that they did not start out that way. The stories were not written in order; in fact, when I began writing the first story in the collection, Sandra and the Snake Handlers, I did not see beyond that initial story. It wasn’t until I was working on the third novella, Butcher, the Baker that I began to see the connections between them. So, in that way, each story is its own unique entity.
I also like to set new challenges for myself with a project, so I tried to use a different style for each story. M.R. Vale is the first story I ever wrote in the character’s voice, but the more practical truth is probably M.R. would not let anyone but himself tell his own story. I experimented with some writing in the present tense with The Brambles. So, in that way, as well, I think each story is distinctive.
What attracts you to a story?
I love a good story, but ultimately I am attracted to character. That is what I enjoy so much about the novella as a form. Novellas are a real exercise in character, discovering the unexpected edges. Before Lovesick, I had written primarily short stories, which are more propelled by a moment, a shift in consciousness. But these stories seemed to me to be more directed by the central character. I see each of them all as outsiders. I have heard it said that in the South you always know your place – you are either an active participant within the Southern culture, or you are on the outside looking in. I wanted to tell the stories of people who didn’t fit in, who are queer – not necessarily gay, but queer in the broadest sense: people who can’t fit into the roles that have been prescribed for them, people whose existence is proscribed and stigmatized by their very being.
Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
Absolutely. I am a Southerner by birth, born in North Carolina. My parents were raised in Hope Mills, North Carolina and my Grandfather’s people came from Clio, South Carolina. It is, as they say, “in the blood.” We moved several times when I was a kid because of my Dad’s job, so I also lived in a variety of locales, and because of the time, saw the South in a time of tremendous transition. Worlds and institutions that had existed for generations passed away almost overnight. For example, we would spend time on my Grandfather Garner’s farm each summer. As a kid growing up in a very suburban environment, to go to this extremely rural landscape helped me connect to a different time and place. And with that connection come the stores about the people, and the time, and the place.
But being a Southern writer isn’t just about location, though that is a big, distinctive part of it. It is also the sensibility of the people. When I first read stories by Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, I remember thinking, “Yes. I know these things, these people.” And I wanted to tell those stories.
But I am curious in a way, as well, because I also spent a great many years away from the South, and so it became a place of memory for me as well. In that way, like Tennessee Williams writes in the opening of The Glass Menagerie, my South is not as realistic perhaps as some other writers. That might sound odd, given the brutal and graphic nature of some of the stories.
The book is set in four distinct time periods. How do you approach research?
I love research. I love where it takes me and what it tells me, how it helps to inform the story. It is important to me to get the details right. I think it respects both the characters and the readers. I am also a very visual person, so often I go hunting for a picture that will help me “see it in my head” better. For example, when I was writing The Brambles, I kept an image of a vintage tea cup up next to where I was working. In a certain way, that helped keep Freddie close to me every day.
What would you hope that someone takes away from the collection?
Some of the early reviewers have noted the humanity of the characters. That makes me very happy since their stories themselves involve murder and betrayal, violence, desire and sex.
I hope people remember the exploration of characters who struggle to fit into a world that wants little or nothing to do with them, characters who decide to play by their own rules, and in doing so, cut the net between them and the abyss. Characters, who for lack of a better word, are simply lovesick.
Lambda Finalist Award Nominee
Spanning the 1930s to the present day, James Driggers' evocative Southern Gothic collection introduces the intriguing inhabitants of Morris, South Carolina--a small town where a mix of rich, poor, and in-between co-exist, grappling with desire, ambition, hope, and loneliness. . .
Amid a landscaped dotted with farms, trailers, and genteel homes, there lives a talented baker who desperately needs to win a cooking contest but must team up with a down-on-her-heels society matron to do it. . .the Bramble sisters, whose husbands tend to be short-lived and wealthy, but whose latest prospect arrives with complications. . .a widow who becomes dangerously obsessed with a snake-charming televangelist. . .and a lonely florist who will do anything for the sake of a ruthless local mechanic.
With wit and insight lurking beneath a palpable air of menace, James Driggers' debut is a tautly plotted, evocative exploration of love--and all that we do in its name. . .
"Jim Driggers's Lovesick is a collection of novellas that are just as heartbreaking as they are wise, just as beautiful as they are devastating. While spanning nearly the entire 20th century and tackling some of our nation's greatest social and cultural issues, Lovesick anchors its heart to the fictional town of Morris, South Carolina, and its collection of seemingly eccentric citizens whose traumas, loves, and comedic turns simultaneously charm and repulse us, and that's what good - dare I say great - fiction is supposed to do. Lovesick does this in spades. Like Allan Gurganus and Doris Betts, Jim Driggers gives us small town life in a way that reveals big, heartfelt ideas and universal themes." --Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home
“In Lovesick, Jim Driggers takes us behind polite surfaces across a century as old plantation land turns into subdivisions, unraveling the concealed tragedy next-door, the romantic yearning behind a tabloid scandal, and the scheming and sacrifice hidden between the lines of a legendary Southern cookbook. Witty, compassionate, yet unrelenting, Driggers knows what ties a fatal loveknot: the object of forbidden love may be indifferent, unworthy, or just plain poisonous, but what matters to the lovestruck is to give all and so find a way to be, however briefly, truly alive.” --Lynne Barrett, author of Magpies
“We may think we know some of the personages that populate James Driggers’ tour de force, Lovesick. Here is the overweight insurance salesman, the sisters jealous of each other, the shiny-hair evangelist, and the faded southern belle. But then we watch them think and do things we could never have imagined. There’s a hint of Erskine Caldwell here – with a strong dash of Grand Guignol. We may never understand, but we are convinced. Yes, he gets away with it.” --Fred Chappell, author of Look Back All the Green Valley
“Like a swiftly moving train rolling through the deep South, Lovesick takes you on an incredible journey filled with history, lies and deceit. I couldn’t put it down.” --Lisa Jackson, # 1 New York Times bestselling author
“Lovesick is aptly titled. These four interrelated novellas, each a bit more twisted than its predecessor, hinge on lovesickness of one kind or another. The characters live in a South where violence blooms like ditch lilies along an unpaved road. Not for the faint of heart, these stories will not quickly fade from the reader’s memory.” --Wayne Caldwell, author of Requiem by Fire
“While James Driggers' ensemble of unforgettable characters are unified by the blood-soaked daggers of lust, greed, and ungovernable passion, Lovesick is ultimately a gorgeous exploration of humanity--our sorrow and hope, loneliness and joy, and above all, love, how it lifts us, and how irrecoverably lost and shattered we are without it.” --Patrick Michael Finn
James Driggers with Bookmark It Bookstore owner Kim Britt and Moira Russo
Cake: Publication Party for Lovesick