When M.O. Walsh released his debut novel My Sunshine Away, reviewers named him the newest member of the Southern gothic literary tradition. The novel, which I reviewed on Late Last Night Books here, offers the rich atmosphere and haunting darkness associated with the Southern gothic school, but it also offers many-faceted characters caught in some of life’s profound dilemmas. In recognition of its excellence, My Sunshine Away won the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction. I was delighted when Walsh agreed to answer questions about his inspirations, writing techniques, and more.
S.W. What is appealing about the U.S. South in general as a setting? Would you ever consider writing a novel set somewhere other than the South?
M.O.W. I think what’s most appealing to me about the South, or at least the Deep South, is that I know it. I’m from here. This gives me a sense of ease when writing because I don’t feel like I’m putting anything on. The way things look, the way the natural world behaves; these are easy for me to imagine. When so much else about writing fiction is hard, it makes sense to me to play to your strengths. There are of course other things I enjoy about Louisiana, in particular; our sense of community, our spirit, our fishing birds. I suppose some part of me wants to try and communicate that pleasure, as well, because I’m so grateful for it.
I’ve considered writing about other parts of the country and world before and likely will again, if I’m lucky enough. However, none of those ideas have panned out. For a long time, I thought this might be a coincidence, that all my stories set somewhere other than Louisiana were doomed to failure, but now it seems pretty obvious. They were bad because my heart wasn’t in them. It had nothing to do with Iowa or Ohio or whatever place I was trying to set something. It had to do with me.
S.W. How long did you spend developing the idea before you actually started writing?
M.O.W. The story this novel is based on has been in the back of my head ever since I was a kid, as it’s something that (unfortunately) really happened in the neighborhood I grew up in (the rape of a young girl on our block). However, I never thought to turn it into fiction until I had already been writing for a long time. I’d published a collection of short stories and had abandoned a couple of other novel projects about midway through and then one day, just sort of out of the blue, I began the first chapter of My Sunshine Away, almost verbatim to how it still reads today. Once I had that down, it took me about 7 years to finish the rest. But, if you count all the years it bubbled around in my subconscious before that, then we’re probably looking at close to 30 years. The more novelists I meet, the more I realize that this sort of decades-long incubation period is not that rare. What I’ve yet to figure out, though, is if that is good or bad news.
S.W. Do you use an outline or other techniques to organize your ideas before you start writing? How is your particular method of organizing helpful to you?
M.O.W. The only constant for me is that I like to be in a totally quiet place. I don’t listen to music or have great films showing in the background or any of that. I just want a quiet room, even if it’s a kitchen when the kids are at school.
I haven’t ever done a full outline, but I’m always jotting down ideas or scenes that I might want to happen later on in the novel I’m working on. I put these on little index cards or scratch them out in a notebook. They are likely unintelligible to anyone but me. I wrote one the other day that said, only: Hair Jelly! I know what it refers to, the scene it will appear in, the characters it will involve, etc., but I’m not ready to write that scene yet. So, I’ll keep seeing it over the next couple of years as I flip through my notes. I’ll be reminded of it, and when I finally get to that place in the plot where I’m ready to use it, I will be a happy fellow.
As a note: I don’t recommend this method of organization for anyone else. I’m sure there are much better ways to get things accomplished.
S.W. Why did you choose the late 1980s and 1990s as the timeframe for the story? Could this story have taken place at any other time? Why?
M.O.W. As with any question about setting, I think much the same can usually be said about the time period of a novel. Could the plot of this novel take place in another time or place? Probably so, unless you are dealing with aliens or dinosaurs or something dependent on some yet to be discovered technology. There is violence and loss and redemption in all places and settings so what is the difference between a murder in Clinton, Mississippi and a murder in Victorian England? It’s usually the characters surrounding the action that make the book; their manners, personalities, hearts. These things are usually shaped by where and when they are from. So, I guess that’s a long way of saying of course the story could take place at any other time. However, it would be a completely different book (which I think is different than saying it could not take place at any other time or in any other place).
I think what binds My Sunshine Away to its setting is the narrator. He has a deep connection to Baton Rouge, and his feeling of defensiveness about the way some people misinterpret the South is crucial to his feelings about the way his own story might be misinterpreted. So, I suppose there is a version of this novel that could exist somewhere else, with redwood trees instead of oak trees in the background, but I don’t think the narrator, and therefore the heart of the story, would be the same.
As far as the time period goes, there seems to be a certain amount of naivete that readers will allow pre-internet era kids that they no longer allow modern day kids. This is sad, of course, but understandable due to kids’ access to adult images and attitudes at a much earlier age than we ever had access to them growing up in the late 80’s and 90’s. I think one of the most surprising things I came across when talking to people who read the novel was how nostalgic they felt for this time period. It seems weird to me to have great nostalgia for something that occurred only 30 years ago. However, it became clear to me that what people were nostalgic about was just a time, any time, before the internet. That makes a lot of sense to me. I miss people without computers attached to them, too.
S.W. The narrator in My Sunshine Away is so focused on his relationship with Lindy that he isn’t as mindful of other significant events happening around him as he could be. Why was this phenomenon important for you to write about?
M.O.W. I think this is adolescence in a nutshell. It’s also called self-absorption or narcissism. It was important to write about only because I think it is true of that age. Most of the people I know have had that moment, when they enter their 20’s or 30’s, and their eyes suddenly open. They are like, whoa, my parents are real people. They did this in their lives, and they did this for me, all while having their own personal struggles. And, wow, I was such a jerk to them. I was so selfish. How can I be better now than I was then?
I imagine there are some people in life that do not go through that period of self-realization and reflection, people who don’t realize that they can be better, more sensitive, more aware people than they were in their teens. However, I try not to vote for these people.
S.W. If you could, is there anything about the novel that you would change?
M.O.W. Oh wow. If there was, I would be a very depressed person right now. No, there is nothing I would change at this point. I understand that it is not a perfect book, but I believe it is the best that I could do. If I didn’t feel it was the best that I could do, then I never would have tried to publish it. That’s probably one of the reasons it takes me so long to write. I usually don’t move to paragraph #2 unless I feel like paragraph #1 is the best that I can do. And then, of course, the next day I start at paragraph #1 again and find a little something maybe I can tweak and so the process starts all over again and same goes for paragraph #2. When it comes to the point where I am just reading and not tweaking anymore then I usually know it is as good as I can get it. It may not be as good as someone else could get it, but it’s not their book so that’s ok.
S.W. Has anything surprised you about the way readers have reacted to the novel?
M.O.W. Everything surprised me. Nothing more so than the fact a stranger picked up my book, looked at the cover, read the first page, and then took time out of their lives to read the rest. Nothing is more surprising than that.
S.W. What do you hope readers will remember about My Sunshine Away?
M.O.W. I would like people to remember it as a hopeful and uplifting book, despite many of the disturbing things it involves. After all, I believe the world is ultimately a good (although complicated) place, and that people are good, as well. If what I’m writing doesn’t communicate that worldview in some small way, then I’m not doing a very good job of writing.
S.W. What are you working on now?
M.O.W. I am currently working on a new novel called The Big Door Prize, about what happens to a small town in Louisiana when a new machine shows up that can tell people, scientifically, what they were truly meant to be in life. It is due out in 2020 by Putnam. I’m having a lot of fun with it so far, so I hope it goes well. For now, though, back to paragraph #1.