David Armand, a presenter at All Write Now 2016, tells us about his multi-genre output and how working in one genre can help you in another genre.
Bill Hopkins - On your website, you list most of your previous work in what I'd call "manual labor." I've often thought that farmers, ranchers, manual laborers, etc. are overlooked when it comes to literary output. Tell us how your working life has affected your work.
David Armand - Well, some of our best writers, in my opinion, have been “manual laborers” first—I’m thinking of Faulkner, who painted billboards and worked in a boiler room at Ole Miss and as a postmaster; Steinbeck worked on a construction crew that build Madison Square Garden; Larry Brown was a firefighter; Stephen King worked in an industrial laundry; and William Gay was a drywall hanger. The list goes on. I think our working lives can be fascinating when turned into fiction, regardless of what that work may be. When you think about it, work is what most of us do more than anything else in a given day, so it stands to reason that we would know that best, right? One of the adages you always hear in a writing workshop is “write what you know,” and that is one that I agree with wholeheartedly. The more varied our experiences are, the more we “know,” and the richer our writing will be as a result.
BH - In a memoir, how much (if any) should be fictionalized? For example, "My great grandmother watched as a neighbor's son slaughtered five hogs in a row. Enough to feed the neighborhood for three months. She was astounded." Obviously, we have no way of knowing if this literally happened. But if we know in general that this sort of thing went on at that time, is that a legitimate sentence? In other words, should we be journalists or creative writers when we write memoirs?
DA - I think that memoirists are beholden to the truth, first and foremost. We cannot stray from it. Not for any reason. Of course, I think we have license in how we tell that particular truth—through our use of figurative language, sensory details, dialogue. That’s where the facts are elevated into art. But at the core is the truth and we have to give allegiance to that before anything else.
BH - Some of your fiction has been compared to Oedipus Rex by another of our speakers at the conference, Dixon Hearne. What is your reaction to that?
DA - I actually am incredibly honored by that comparison. I think another reviewer from the New York Journal of Books made a similar observation, and I was thrilled to see that as well because I think archetypes are so integral to literature, and the father/son archetype is epitomized in that play, in my opinion. I was both consciously and unconsciously working with those same themes in Harlow, my second novel about a boy who’s searching for his father. I think this is what that comment was referring to in both of those pieces, and as a writer, when you hear something like that, you feel as though you’ve succeeded at something.
BH - Deep South magazine said this: "Armand's first collection of poetry was written in the downtime between novels as an exercise in being concise." Would you recommend poetry as an exercise for people writing, say, murder mysteries, or romances, or horror? How does poetry help you be concise?
DA - Yes. As someone who first aspired to be a poet and one who agrees with Faulkner’s assertion that all novelists are failed poets, I strongly believe that poetry should be the basis for all good writing. Since the poem concerns itself with the precise use of language and making every word the right word, a lot can be learned by reading and writing poems, even if one is a fiction writer. I think even “genre” writers can learn a great deal from reading good poems as well as from writing them. Telling a complete story in a fifteen-to-twenty line poem really forces one to cut needless details/words from one’s fiction, and it teaches one the importance of the economy of language.
BH - Other than Louisiana, what state or area or country would you like to have as a setting for a novel?
DA - I think that I will always write about Louisiana as long as I live here, which I hope is for the rest of my life. And I really don’t see myself living anywhere else, though I would like to travel more. I think, to quote Faulkner again, that I’ve been lucky to find my own little postage stamp of native soil to write about and that I’ll never live long enough to exhaust it.