Jay Atkinson of Methuen, Massachusetts is the author of two novels, a collection of short fiction, and five narrative nonfiction books. His work appears regularly in the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He teaches writing at Boston University.
David Daniel of The Storyside: You’re a novelist, short story writer, critic, investigative journalist and, most notably, a writer of creative nonfiction—in sum, a writer. How do you perceive yourself? What are some of challenges you face in being so multifaceted?
Atkinson: I guess, when I think about it, my interest begins and ends at the level of the story. If it’s a good story, you just have to figure out the best way of telling it. Sometimes that takes one form of writing and sometimes another. I sort of do it by feel.
Daniel: You’ve been called the “bard of New England toughness.” You grew up in Massachusetts, and although you’ve been away—college in Nova Scotia, graduate school in Florida, extensive travels—you’re known as a Merrimack Valley writer. Why is that? What qualities does your past bring to your writing?
Atkinson: Flannery O’Connor observed that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime. Truer words were never spoken. I grew up in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts, in Methuen and Lawrence. It’s a unique mixture of gritty, inner city neighborhoods located only a few miles away from rural ponds, hills, fields, and rivers. I like to write about the people I knew when I was growing up, the places we inhabited, and the way that we talked and acted. I’d guess a lot writers would say the same thing. We are who we were.
Daniel: You have undertaken a fascinating and varied bag of writing projects, including retracing Jack Kerouac’s crisscrossing travels across America and Mexico (Paradise Road) and riding shotgun with cops and private detectives in crime-ridden Boston neighborhoods (Legends of Winter Hill). Tell us something about your current book, Massacre on the Merrimack. How did the idea to write this come to you?
Atkinson: I heard this story when I was a kid, but didn’t know the details. Early on March 15, 1697, a band of Abenaki raided the English frontier village of Haverhill, Massachusetts. (My hometown of Methuen, MA, was part of Haverhill until 1726, so this story is about as local as it gets.) Striking swiftly, the Abenaki killed twenty-seven men, women, and children, and took thirteen captives, including Hannah Duston and her week-old daughter, Martha. A short distance from the village, one of the warriors murdered the squalling infant by dashing her head against a tree. After a forced march of nearly one hundred miles, Duston and two companions were transferred to a smaller band of Abenaki, who camped on a tiny island located at the junction of the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers, several miles north of present day Concord, New Hampshire. On their first night there, Duston and her two companions, a 12-year-old boy and a 51-year-old woman, killed their captors, who included two men, and several women and children, and escaped in a stolen canoe.
You don’t hear many stories better than that. At least, I don’t.
TSS: You’ve played hockey and rugby for forty years (and have written about both: Ice Time and Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man). Beyond using sports as material for writing, are there life lessons that each has taught you?
Atkinson: Playing contact sports at a competitive level is 97% grinding it out, leavened and lightened by 3% of what I’ve referred to as peak moments (if you’re lucky), where things finally come together. Writing narrative is the same thing. You grind and grind and once in a blue moon, you find everything clicks and you are doing the thing you were made to do. Those are the only two worlds where I have had that feeling, however infrequently.
TSS: An important teacher/mentor in your writing career was the late great Harry Crews, whom you had as a teacher at the University of Florida. I believe that at one point he chided you for not sticking to fiction. Talk about your relationship with Crews. What are some of the lessons he taught you?
Atkinson: Harry was an outsize figure, at the University of Florida, and in Southern Lit. Beyond the wild stories about Harry and his take-no-prisoners lifestyle, what is usually overlooked is what a fine teacher he was. I learned many of the small details of the craft from Harry. I will cite just two examples.
a.) On the page, a character is defined as much as by what she does—by her actions—as what she says.
b.) Effective dialogue is not people talking; it’s the illusion of people talking. Harry was a taciturn guy, an Old School man of few words. “What I will say in class tonight far exceeds the total amount of dialogue in Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” Harry once noted.
From that, I learned that good dialogue is a stylized or condensed—distilled—version of the way a certain kind of people talk. And it was one thing to learn what Harry was teaching, and another thing to put it into practice in your writing. I took his graduate Fiction Writing seminar every semester for seven consecutive terms. When the English department finally told me I had to leave, Harry said, “See you in ten years.” I published my first piece of fiction, a short story called “Imagine Lawyers Behind Every Chippendale Armchair,” in a journal called The Chattahoochee Review, exactly ten years later. Harry wasn’t kidding.
About sticking to fiction, that’s a funny story. Occasionally, I write narrative travel/adventure stories, or investigative pieces, for the New York Times, various magazines, etc. I do it for the money, and also because that particular story fits that sort of publication, that style. But Harry felt there are only so many people out there who can write good, literary fiction, and God bless him, he would often mention that I was one of them. Referring to journalism, he said, “Even if you’re the world’s champion tiddlywinks player, you’re still just a goddamn tiddlywinks player.” My son Liam, whom Harry would rather talk to on the phone than me, thinks that’s hilarious, and so do I.
A writer named Ted Geltner will publish a biography of Harry Crews with the University of Georgia Press next spring. Mr. Geltner started the book before Harry died (in March 2012 at age 76), and I was pleased and honored when Harry suggested that Ted speak to me.
From Harry Crews, I learned that writing narrative is a craft, and that you must study it your entire life and honor it with hard work. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be doing it.
Daniel: What one question do you wish we’d asked, and how would you have answered it?
Atkinson: Q. Do you need any money? A. Yeah, I could use ten bucks to get home.
David Daniel has published a dozen novels and more than 150 short stories. Among his books are Reunion, White Rabbit, and The Marble Kite. His short fiction can be found in the anthology Insanity Tales and his collections Coffin Dust and Six Off 66, all available at Amazon.
He teaches at the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School. Visit him on Facebook or at Macmillan Books.