The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

An Interview with Dayne Sherman

EssaysInterviews / Books / Music

by Thomas Scott McKenzie

*from Summer 2007

Dayne Sherman is writer both dedicated and determined. A former high-school dropout, he began writing fiction in the spring of 1996. In a little more than three years, he has racked up 13 short story acceptances and has published a novel with MacAdam/Cage. That novel, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise, was named one of the four best debuts of 2004 by The New Orleans Times-Picayune and also garnered a praise as a January 2005 Recommendation by the Book Sense program of the American Booksellers Association. One of Dayne’s earlier story publications was in The Dead Mule.

We sat down to talk with Dayne about his determined approach, his inherent southern-ness, and saving up for a good squirrel dog.

DeaDMule: You have published quite an admirable amount in a short period of time. How did you first learn of The Dead Mule website?

Dayne: I learned about the Mule through The Oyster Boy Review. I had mailed them a story and they never responded. It’s been 3 ½ years, so I suppose they don’t want my damn good story!

DM: What was the story that appeared in The Dead Mule?

Dayne: “Returning Like a Dog.” It will be reprinted soon in the print re-launch of Microcosm, a literary magazine at a community college in Mississippi. The story is about an old man who corrects a much younger man—after the younger man beats up his wife at a boat launch.

DM: While we’re on the topic of short stories and publishing, I know that you have a very methodical and business-like approach to writing and submitting. Can you please describe your approach?

Dayne: Well, with stories—which I have not written much on in over a year—I used to keep those babies out there. I send them out and don’t take no for an amswer. I constantly revise, even after they are accepted. Obsession. I research markets (which never helps) and try to keep them in constant circulation, no matter what. But I’m stuck writing novels, and the stories will have to wait. At least I have a roomful of them, and I look forward to returning to them soon.

DM: Do you ever have any difficulty reconciling this business-like manner with the artistic aspects of writing literature? I personally think your methodology is right-on-track. But many people seem to think that writing is an art that only happens when the muse moves your pen and that true “artists” don’t sully themselves with the business of promotion, solicitation, etc. How do you respond to that?

Interview with Dayne Sherman

Dayne: I like being read. I see little hope of this without vigilant marketing and promotion. Writing is ART. Getting published is BUSINESS. Likewise, selling books is business, too. I like both ends of the stick.

Also, I try to write four pages per night when working on a big project, and have never skipped even one night when doing a long manuscript.

DM: What are your security blankets or crutches as a writer? Do you rely on music to get you in the right frame of mind? Maybe you read one of your favorite writers? What do you use to jump start you when you sit down to work?

Dayne: I prefer silence or instrumental music, no lyrics. Bourbon. No, I write sober. Sometimes I like to take down my mentors when I am stuck: Tim Gautreaux, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, and Flannery O’Connor. Just read a few paragraphs and get back to business.

DM: How did you get your book published? What is your advice?

Dayne: Do something different. I mailed my editor a complete story, the entire magazine. Didn’t ask for jack. Just talking about x-y-z books he’s edited and why I thought they were great. Told him to keep doing what he was doing. And he was—days later—on the phone calling me up. That was June 2003. The editor’s name is Sonny Brewer, author of a top-notch new novel called The Poet of Tolstoy Park.

DM: Your book is in its second printing now, correct?

Dayne: Printing number two is out, and I hope it’s gone by summer, in number three by October, the one-year anniversary of my book’s release.

DM: Many authors such as you, gothic writers, have gotten harassment letters, threats, complaints, etc. Why is this?

Dayne: It’s par for the course. No one seems to want a piece of me up close and personal, though. Actually, writing serious fiction brings out the madness in people. I figure writing a book like mine will make people act crazy as shithouse rats. It just goes with the territory.

DM: Chris Offutt’s 1998 novel The Good Brother deals with many of the same subjects, such as revenge and family expectations, as your book. The blurb from Amazon for Offutt’s work is “Virgil Caudill has never gone looking for trouble, but this time he’s got no choice—his hell-raising brother Boyd has been murdered. Everyone knows who did it, and in the hills of Kentucky, tradition won’t let a murder go unavenged. No matter which way he chooses, Virgil will lose.” This novel also shares a love of the land and wonderful environmental descriptions with your work. Are you familiar with Offutt’s stories or novels?

Dayne: I read No Heroes, a memoir, a couple of Christmases ago and really liked it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the others, though I’d like to read Offutt’s other stuff. He’s an excellent writer.

Suffice it to say, I am deeply interested in the land and landscape. I want to see how much a person will do to defend it. I’m a southerner, after all!

DM: Please tell us how your life has changed after the novel was published. A lot of readers think that a novel gets published and that’s it, their career is established. Please tell us what you life is like now that you are a published novelist.

Dayne: I sleep less. I have made 50 book-related events since October with at least 20 ahead in 2005. I hope to do 100 events within one year of the hardcover release of Welcome to the Fallen Paradise, from New York to Texas. I still work at the library every day. But now people know my work and it usually brings joy, the book to readers. That’s great. It just takes more and more work. People ask me to come speak and read, and often pay me more in a day than in any other day in my life thus far. So, that’s helpful. I’m in the market for a good squirrel dog and a good double barrel shotgun. I hope one day to buy both with a single speaking engagement.

DM: After publication, what type of promotional activities did you do? How much of the promotion did you do and how much did your publisher do?

Dayne: I send out postcards. I call people. I e-mail. I send out copies of the book. I set up almost all events (something like 60 out of 63 so far; events = interviews, readings, signings, workshops, etc.). I talk incessantly about the book to people I meet. I am a walking promotional machine. The publisher picks up some bills for travel, sends out galleys and press packets to review outlets like newspapers, and even bought an ad for my book in the latest issue of The Oxford American.

DM: Your publisher, MacAdam/Cage is a small (compared to a Random House or a HarperCollins) publisher. How would you describe the vision of MacAdam/Cage? Some of its other authors, like Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and others seem to be much more urban, more edgy. While your novel shares many characteristics with theirs (it’s more literary than the usual mystery, etc), what do you see as M/C’s unifying vision?

Dayne: M/C publishes a lot of edgy books, books that somehow seem to be at odds with many big houses. This is simply the territory of a new press. They take bigger risks on the writing. I think the authors you mention are examples of this, and there are many others. Take Frank Turner Hollon’s fine novel Life is a Strange Place. It took guts to publish that novel, and I love it. It’s a nicely perverted book. It should have won major prizes.

I guess they are really working on different voices chance, original voices. Though my novel has plenty of similarities to the Southern Gothic Cannon, I hope I have something new to say.

DM: Are you working with an agent or do you represent yourself?

Dayne: No agent. I’m freelance at this time.

DM: In your interview with Curled Up…, you state “I come from the lower classes, right at the bottom rung of Southern white society. Some time early in my apprenticeship as a writer I decided to tell about my own people… I realized that I was a redneck of the first order.” How do you manage to be true to the hard-working people of the South, the need to be honest and show the good and the bad without also reinforcing negative stereotypes? My own personal opinion is that if I meet another soul in this country who mentions “Deliverance” to me, I’m going to vomit. How do you balance being truthful, without just giving the stereotypes more fuel?

Dayne: Well, first, I try to use language that is non-stereotypical. In other words, I want to elevate the language to a certain level, a little philosophical level beyond the stereotype. I come from a bunch of violent-assed people in a violent-assed place. I like to write realism. The other day a perfectly middle-class lady asked me to make our state look good. I won’t do that. When Louisiana is no longer a political turn hole I will quit portraying it as such. So, I am out to write realism. Realism transcends stereotypes if it’s done well. I could cause people to fall into the “Deliverance” mind, but I can’t worry about that. Writing is too much of a pain in the butt to worry about how the readers take the stuff.

DM: Billy Bob Thornton talked in an interview about how anyone with a Southern accent was immediately pigeonholed and typecast in the movie business. You could only play a bumpkin with a Southern accent. Nothing else. He said that his solution for that problem was that everyone should learn to write, so they can make up their own roles for Southerners, instead of just playing the roles people give us. What stories, or roles, would you like to see come out of the South?

Dayne: Ethnic diversity. With this, I mean something other than black-white race stories. My area has huge Italian and Hungarian populations, for example. More work culture stories. Folklore, urban and otherwise, recast as fiction. Stories in realistic settings. But not one damn story about a writer.

DM: What is your take on alcoholism and the Southern writer? Barry Hannah talks at length about the influence of drink on his writing in the new edition of The Paris Review. What role, if any, do you think it plays?

Dayne: Partner, come to one book event and you’ll see people drunk as shits. I drink very sparingly, so it plays no role in my work, other than the fact that I’ve been surrounded by some of the worst drunks in human history my whole life. Having said this, artists self-medicate. It’s to mute the pain and somehow help them get out of their shell. I choose to feel the pain. Take away alcohol from my experience; I’d have little to write about. When I was 13 years I drank something like 16 draft beers at a wedding reception all in public view of the adults. I didn’t get drunk and didn’t have a hangover. Take away drinking from my family and I might have almost had a decent childhood.

DM: My own personal opinion is that there might be more aspiring authors than any other profession out there. I used to think that I was bumping into so many writers because I lived in Oxford, MS and was taking creative writing classes. But it seems to be everywhere. Why do you think there is such an urge for people to write? Or, at least, people who claim to want to write?

Dayne: Damn if I know. Unless it’s just the human desire to tell our stories. To me, telling my story matters more than just about anything else in this life.

DM: You have a young child at home. For someone who describes himself in interviews as “violent and selfish son of a bitch who ought to do better,” how has fatherhood affected you? Do you see the influences of fatherhood changing your writing at all?

Dayne: My God, I hope my son doesn’t get in as much mischief as I have fallen headlong into. I guess I want my son to say his father amounted to something, which I have many doubts will come to pass. I want to be a father worth a shit, too. It’s all one big complex ball of wax that I can’t quite melt out an Dayne.

DM: What are you working on now?

Dayne: A second draft of Louisiana Public Integrity, a sequel to my first novel that picks up 4 years later. I finished the first draft on Valentine’s Day and just started trying to type out the 2nd draft, editing as I go along. The first draft was written with an ink pen on legal pads, 5 legal pads. I took a 6-week break after finishing the initial draft.

DM: What areas of your writing do you think you need to most focus on and improve?

Dayne: Travel writing. Memoir. The polemic and manifesto. No joke.

DM: Thanks so much for participating in this interview.

Dayne: My pleasure.