Below the Gnat-Line: an interview with JD Hollingsworth, author of The Work

The Work is the first volume of a trilogy – Frankenstein’s Paradox and Screven County Ruby, are forthcoming – published by Casa Forte PressPete McCommons, Editor of Flagpole, calls The Work a masterpiece. That’s not a word you just sling around, not from McCommons. But in this case, he’s got it right. It’s not a large book, page-count-wise, but it makes a large and powerful impact. The Work is a bright new Big Bang in Southern literature. It’s chock-full of weirdness and a near-other-worldly dialect that’ll have you going back twice. You will meet, among other oddballs, one Ansel Bragg, from Utinahica, Georgia (there is not one on any map), who wrestles with a full-blown Godly reckoning.

Hollingsworth is also an extremely talented graphic artist who presently works at MoMA and an accomplished musician, most notable for the band, Star Room Boys and his collaborations with singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who remains a true legend in Athens rich music history. Chesnutt’s actual hand-writing (pieced together from Hollingsworth’s skills) caption the illustrations; a quiet, fitting homage to an old friend. The cover (if it doesn’t want to make you read the book you have a curiosity deficit) and the mind-bending graphics throughout The Work are Hollingsworths.

the_work-congregation-300dpi-to_scale-1

Finally, in the photograph he sent, Hollingsworth is holding up distinctly Southern food bags from Waffle House and Krystals. I’ll leave it at that.

This interview was conducted via email during January and February, 2019. – Mark Katzman

AU: Where were you born and grew up? 

JDH: I was as born in Marietta, Georgia. Moved right away to Decatur, Illinois, where my father’s family lived. Then Marietta again. My father was a government worker so we moved a lot –  I went to first grade in three different towns. Anyway, Georgia to Pennsylsvania, to Boston. Then back to Atlanta for 5th grade until I started college at UGA.

JD Hollingsworth in NYC

AU: Have your parents supported your creative efforts?

JDH: My parents were extraordinarily supportive of my brother’s and my efforts in all things. They – my father in particular – seemed to consider every whim – of which I had many, ever changing ones – to be something to go for. The month I decided I was into rocks, he called the state geologist in PA to find out where the good rock hounding places were. The month I thought that ham radio was cool, he had me learning Morse code with a local club in someone’s basement. An aquarium club downtown, kayak classes in the mountains, judo, fossil hunting, archery, Heathkits, concerts (their music interests tended towards classical and Gilbert and Sullivan, for which I feel fortunate) diving lessons and equipment, music instruments, etc., etc., etc. The real point of all this is that, sadly, for the folks, these all came and went more quickly than the seasons, so their house was littered with the residue of forgotten interests: crystal radios, animals pickled in jars and pinned to boards, a quiver of arrows, chemistry sets and microscopes, a balsa model of the Kon-Tiki… Overall, though, the vast majority of my childhood was spent either in the woods poking under rocks and pulling things from the creek or scrunched over a piece of paper with a pencil.

Neither of those last two required much on their part – though for my childhood in Atlanta we lived on a block that had a glorious Piedmont oak hickory climax forest in its interior filled with wildlife and wildflowers and civil war earthworks, which was heaven to me. And there were always pencils. And Rapidographs.

So, I stole my dad’s classical guitar, took it to school, taught myself to “play” that and so thought I had invented what I later found out were G, C and D chords.

AU: On that note, can you say something about your involvement in the Athens music world?

JDH: It’s not much really. I’ve always pretty much been on the unseen, outermost, Plutonian, orbit of anything that was going on here but, yes, I was around, pretty much, the whole “Athens thing.” But…

I listened to all the rock and roll that everyone else when I was young – and old – but I also, unironically, watched and loved Hee Haw, so I always wanted to have a country band – actually envisioned wearing a Nudie suit. But it didn’t seem like it would ever happen. Then when I started working at Flagpole Magazine in, like, “88 or “89 – where I built ads, wrote things, reviewed shows I hadn’t seen, worked on paste up and layout, and did most of the covers when I was there (last minute, three in the morning sort of things) … also started the annual Flagpole Christmas Album thing for local charities – I got a little more clued in to the scene, musicians, etc.

So I played guitar in the short-lived but fun funk big band, HLD (Hear It, Love It, Dance It) with frontman Vernon Thornsberry, a lounge act/torch song combo called Mother Superior and the Spank Me Boys, but nothing C&W. Then got in with the El Caminos*, playing guitar and, briefly, pedal steel: pretty much a learning on stage kind of thing. (You can – or could then at least, in the late 80s, in a relatively pedal steel ignorant culture – suck at that, but people would think it was awesome, as you simultaneously come to realize the vast, deep chasm between that noodling and being good, or even competent, not to mention extraordinary, like the Star Room Boys eventual steel man John Neff. But, still, Laura Carter (Jack-O-Nuts, Bar-B-Q Killers) stopped me on the street outside Harry Bissett’s one day after an El Caminos show to rave about whatever that thing I was playing was and how great it would be with a ton of distortion, etc. (High praise, I thought.) Then I played with another country band, Off the Wagon*, and with Vic and Tina Chesnutt and…? Jeez, was that Jimmie (Davidson?) anyway, in the the Hillbilly Cover band the Great Speckled Perch. Hylo Brown, Acuff stuff, etc…

unnamed
Vic Chesnutt and JD Hollingsworth, 40 Watt Club, April 10, 1988

Finally, it came together as the Star Room Boys with a fairly perfect in the moment combination of like-minded people: at first just Dave Marr and I, then Gene Wilson on drums, and the legendary bassist and human being John McMahon. Later Andrew Brown, then Bob Fernandez, John Neff. Allan Hughes passed through on steel before John. So… played some shows, wrote some songs, all that. We drew a crowd that drank a lot, so the clubs were usually happy. At least that’s what I heard.

* NOTE: This El Caminos and Off the Wagon were local bands, not any of the at least two American and 1 Australian El Caminos or any of the bluegrass, fusion, cover, etc. bands called Off the Wagon now.  JDH  

Star Room Boys, as seen still hanging above Manhattan’s jukebox, Athens, circa 1995.
l to r: John Neff, pedal steel guitar; Bob Fernandez, drums; JD Hollingsworth, lead guitar;
Dave Marr, lead vocals, rhythm guitar; John McMahon, bass; Andrew Brown, keyboards, vocals.

Anyway, that was OK for a while. A few personnel changes, including me when after, I think, five years, I left. I played with them one more time. Well, not with, but at their annual Merle Haggard’s birthday show where I did three Haggard songs with Vic.

After the band and a long, tangential association with the 40 Watt, I am now retired from the music industry. Though sort of been playing again some recently… working on country songs again. For the exercise. So that’s that.

AU: You reference Bruce Lee‘s Enter the Dragon in The Work. Is that a personal favorite?

JDH: Isn’t it everyone’s? Really, though, I prefer the earlier Hong Kong entries like Fist of Fury and The Big Boss, probably from seeing them at the drive-in. But I thought that Lee did embody, in human form, the perfect combatant and body for Ansel’s revelation and for a taxidermist.

AU: How did you come to know so much about taxidermy?

JDH: I knew a little, but I researched enough to where I could describe techniques and materials and anatomical issues (the Zoology degree helped) and be fairly confident that it would pass muster. Mainly just not say so much as to show my ignorance and hear the entire professional world utter a “hell that ain’t right!” This is one of those things where people who know nothing ask how you know so much and people that know much shake their heads at how little you know. You know? Probably as minimally and technically accurate on its subject as, say, an episode of “House.”

AU: What fiction authors (Faulkner and O’Connor aside I presume) are you most drawn to?

JDH: Well, I read most of O’Connor. Had a teacher in high school – very proper, almost anachronistic schoolmarm – who absolutely adored her and Conrad. It was so adorable to see her get tickled at the most macabre details in an O’Connor story. So I was intrigued, I suppose, at an impressionable time. Came across a first edition of her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find many years ago and burned through that. But that was decades ago. Still in there, (points to head) though.

And, of course it’s easy to be attracted to that vision of the South. If you live here long enough, or travel around you get to see that it’s not some fantasy but a fairly accurate view. That South that folks who haven’t lived here think is made up: that fake “gothic” place that’s all too real: the blindingly peculiar cheek-to-jowel with the most colorless and odorless tasteless mundane, and all equally shoulder-shruggingly ordinary; reason and logic striving to overcome one another while locked in a desperate, lost-love death embrace. It’s the hardened, godless skeptic that’s certain god has put a ghost in his crawlspace. I don’t think you can live here for your whole life without feeling it’s all haunted.

Truthfully, aside from the comic books and science fiction I read as a kid – and being in awe of Bradbury’s abilities and output – the fiction I was most drawn to as an adult – devoted to for a time – was hard-boiled detective fiction and, of course, Chandler in particular. I read everything by him and – in a story I’m keeping for my memoirs – have read some things that I am probably the only living person to have read. (Intriguing, no?) Interestingly, I was provoked to read Chandler via another great Southern author, Walker Percy. Other than that, Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, you know the standard, dark, inevitable, shoulder shrugging universe stuff. I think the hard-boiled genre is sort of the American take on that. At least I appreciate them in the same way.

Melville. The ecstatic poets.

I read nothing new. Haven’t in years. And with my ADD I don’t really read long things anymore. But I will tear up a great short stories compendium. Had a copy of a big fat one that I read over and over until I left it in the seatback pocket of a train in Syracuse. So, if anyone has found that… But through that love affair I came to know Carver and drawn to Guy de Maupassant’s simple, short fragments of life. That and the ADD is probably why I keep falling in the unmarketable novella range in writing. But I like it. It’s conducive to longer but tight, economical storytelling. You may have noticed that when I laid out The Work that I kicked up the font point size a bit. It gives it the look of an EZ Read version for seniors, but I was trying to bump up the page count so it seemed more…“book size.” Not like a pamphlet. Some heft. Overcompensating for lack of substance with mass.

AU: The Work (no spoiler alert), for Ansel, is a spiritual thing. A battle between the forces of good and evil within a world, he believes, is only 6,000 years old. And at the end of this first volume it seems his life has totally fallen apart. Except he sees it as a blessing, somehow. A renewal; a rebirth. He is being tested by God. It seems that all is lost. I presume we have some twists and turns coming in the future volumes?

JDH: Well – and this trilogy thing, I think I mentioned elsewhere, is most accurately three stories in the same place in different times, though, and without explaining too much, there are certain things, let’s say, revealed, if one pays attention – the stories all take place in the same world. Which, odd as it may be, is the world…this world, and as DEVO says, it’s a wiggly world. Never straight up and down. But “fallen apart”… I suppose it’s about how you look at it. Or what you believe life is.

AU: Ansel is a dreamer who becomes “so deeply lost within nested worlds of imagination.” Does this describe your many creative endeavors and dreams of future work?

JDH: I think it might describe me as a child. Or a young man. I get distracted, but I don’t dream a lot anymore. Just sort of riding it out.

AU: You said, “I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands so tried fiction.” Had you written fiction in the past?

JD: Yes, my memoirs.

AU: You note that you created and set the font for the illustration captions from Vic Chesnutt’s handwriting. What’s the backstory on that?

JDH: I worked on the artwork of several of Vic’s albums with him. On About to Choke we had talked about having all of the textual material – song titles, credits, lyrics, liner notes, etc. – be written out, but it seemed like a lot of work. For him. So I had him write out the entire alphabet, upper and lower case, and numbers and punctuation marks, and so on – on graph paper, so they were consistent – and made a font from it. So we just had to type it all out. Much easier to do and to edit. Worked pretty well. He also drew the Capitol Records logo, which we used. I was astonished they didn’t balk on that: corporations being so precious about their branding and logo metrics and all. Anyway, as far as I have seen, it is the only record ever put out by them that did not use their actual, proper, in-house logo.

AU: What’s your writing process? Do you work every day? 

JDH: Well, I guess it all depends on what else I’ve got going on. Writing always seems to come at the end of a long line of things I “have to do.” I wish I was one of those “always write, every day, no matter what… 2000 words!” people, but I need a little more space. I’ve tried, but that dog won’t hunt.  And I’m easily distracted. You may have seen the perfect score I just posted on Facebook for the Huge Beverly Hillbillies Quiz.

I’m not entirely undisciplined (me laughing). I can get into a groove. Even extended ones – writing constantly, late into the night – or wake up because that thing I was looking for is burning a hole in my head to get out, and work on that. I love when that happens. Burning holes in the head… But, yes, sometimes I can be active virtually non-stop for days. When it can happen. I wish I had the freedom. But I’m going to be working a day job until the day I die. So there’s that.

I’m always taking notes: on the subway; when I’m staring at the ceiling – which is often. Sometimes I’ll say something and think, “oooh that’s good,” scribble, scribble…

Traveling’s good for writing, focusing: planes, trains, buses. I made a list of places I had worked on this… like 30 locations and conveyances. Working with Reef Ball was really productive because I found a lot of the kind of time I need in places like the Caribbean, Persian Gulf, Zanzibar, Sarasota… and other travels the the foundation uses. Hotel rooms are great. But by far the most work was in Bed Stuy. Prison might be really good. We’ll see. 

But the fewer shiny – or impenetrably dark – things around to fight for my attention the better. Which is why being out of work for a while worked out so well for that. If I had known it would go on for so long I would probably have spent more time worrying than writing. But as it was I was pretty comfortable filling my “spare” time with fanciful noodling.

AU: How long did it take to write The Work? What was the spark that ignited it? An image, a story, a line?

JDH: How long long did it take? Depends on how you measure. Actually, a while back – quite a few years – I mentioned this particular factoid (which I will not mention for spoiler reasons – though it may not spoil it for many) and they (a writer) said that we should each write a short story involving this factoid. I started. Worked on it for about a week, did hit upon a few of the major points and the general arc even some strangely specific and fully worked out vignettes… then put it down. It was about three pages – with a lot of space – of mostly notes. Pretty much forgot about it. Then a few years later when I quit my job and was bored, I came across those pages in a drawer while puttering around and thought that finishing that short story would be a good way to waste time. So that took about four months. Finished it at a place I go hide out up in Gloucester. And it had grown to a very, very long short story. That was about three and a half years ago, I reckon. Then I started working on the next one, then that and the third at the same time when threads I wanted to continue began to emerge.

Meanwhile The Work existed in this sort of Schrödinger’s Book state of finished/not finished while I pulled it out of the drawer from time-to-time to harass. Never really had any conceit that it or anything else would ever actually be published. Just a tired old dog I kept kicking awake to keep me company. This editing continued right up until the last week of November (2018) Then it was published the next month. So, it took either seven years, or four months or four years. Your call.

AU: Do you plot?

JDH: And scheme. I’d like to think so. Mostly, I start writing and things just go where they go. I, as often as not, find myself saying, “Well, I sure didn’t expect that.” There obviously comes a point when I have to know what’s going on – so I can finish if nothing else. The big parts are there. Then I shoehorn in a bunch of crap to link it all up. That’s really pretty much it.

AU: You invoke a sort of Southern-psychedelic dialect. A language all its own. Did it just evolve as the writing process went on, or did you have an idea to play it that way?

JDH: “Southern-psychedelic.” I like that. But, I wanted to “play it that way” if that’s how you want to put it. It’s quirky, and partially, I’ll say, “enhanced,” maybe, but it’s also pretty spot-on. Phonetically. It does, I think, invoke a certain… otherworldliness. But I think that, if heard spoken, it would not seem quite so unusual and to some would say sounds pretty everyday. But reading it, and deciphering what is being said I know is problematic. Maybe not the way you want to get people to read your book. I hope it has some reward. I did, for a moment, consider backing off on it a bit. But then said, “fuck it, it’s what I want it to sound like.” I did put a lot of thought into how things sound in this. And there is a way it sounds – if read correctly – that I wanted.

One thing is, and I don’t know if this came across, but I wrote this to be, not so much a story being read, but a tale being told. A voice, a cadence, a way of revealing a narrative. Something that I know from hearing Southerners tell stories. They are not all the same voice but there is a voice, a way…

I will warn folks, in the next one (if they get that far) there are characters whose dialogue is pretty difficult and one is, I think, probably almost incomprehensible. Hilarious to me. But, again, as a specific voice, it is real enough.

Now, in the third book I’ve had to actually make up a dialect that encompasses many conditions, influences, ages, etc. But, I’m no Anthony Burgess, so…

AU: How did it evolve into a trilogy?

JDH: Once I got going on The Work, I began to think about continuing to write stories involving the place I made up: Utinahica. I’m sure I thought of the obvious Yoknapatawpha parallel – and I am by no means comparing, but when someone writes multiple pieces about a place, and it is a rural Southern place, it’s just something people are going to refer to. Though I was really thinking more along the lines of, say, Sherwood Anderson. But the real appeal was a place I could control. Entirely. And recycle personalities. Again, lazy. And it’s set in what I refer to in the book as that endlessly piney part of the state where nothing seems to happen. A geographically vague, blurred, indeterminate portion of south central, below the gnat-line, not quite the coastal plain, Georgia: adjacent to, or within, or parallel to, real places down there that whenever I had traveled through seemed to be somehow immune to events or exploitation or apparent activity. Sometimes, traveling through to Florida or Thomasville or wherever, and going by the state and county roads, or when passing through traveling around to various state agricultural stations when I was in grad school and had a job with the UGA Agronomy Department, there was something so mystifying about how it just “was.” By that I mean, it just “was:” this vast pine crop forest that after “the removal,” after the plantations, after cotton ruined the soil, had managed to escape a palpable “thereness.” That’s not a criticism, and not that nobody is there. It just that it seems to have – unlike most of the East Coast – escaped human infestation. de Soto, William Bartram, tourists heading elsewhere, the Misfit…it’s a place people pass through.

So when I began to write it seemed like the perfect blank slate place where nothing happened to make something happen. Then as I progressed I looked down the road and thought, “Well, this is cool, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here.” So settled on a trilogy so I could contain it. Pass through. Then move on.

I have sort of played with a few more short sketches/notions there. But I don’t know, I may be done. When/if I finish this project. There is one more finished short story that happens there – mostly: “What Jimmie Tom Learned From the Man With the Biggest Feet in All the World,” which I sort of like, but is probably too dense for anyone to muddle through or give a hoot about, so it’ll  probably stay in that drawer.

The second one – Frankenstein’s Paradox – is finished. I’d sort of like to work on some illustrations – different from the ones in The Work. In a medium relevant to a detail in the book. So for that reason and some others I’m still uncertain if or when it will be published. Like to just sit on this one for a spell now anyway and rest. Give me some breathing room, write some: particularly on getting the third one (Screven County Ruby) in the can. That one… who knows? It’s a little lost right now. If I get the first two out there, though, maybe that will force the third to find its way home. Home to that place at least. That South with the ghost in its crawlspace.

There will be a book event and show of the illustrations in NYC at Participant Inc. gallery on March 14th, 2019.
 

(The Work is available at Amazon and at Avid Books in Athens, also at Low Yo Yo Stuff Records – downtown in front of the 40 Watt.