Radney Foster on Writing, Reading, and Redemption
Place pulls Southern writers so strongly that they can never fully move away from their Southern ground. Although he lived in Oxford, Mississippi, and spent years in Hollywood cranking out scripts, William Faulkner created his own little postage stamp parcel of Yoknapatawpha County in an effort to illustrate how deeply place shaped character. You can’t read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings without being immersed in her rural central Florida surroundings, and in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, rural south central Florida shapes Janie’s character as much as any person in her life. Thomas Wolfe, of course, declared that you can’t go home again in the novel of this title, but never could he drain Asheville and its surroundings from his blood.
Texas songwriter Radney Foster now joins this group of Southern writers as he immerses us in an overwhelming sense of place in his first book of short stories, For You to See the Stars (Working Title Farm). It’s not just the can’t-get-shed-of-you nature of physical place that haunts these stories, though Foster paints his settings with broad, colorful strokes. It’s also the emotional places we all inhabit — loss, uncertainty, despair, love, hope — that Foster poignantly, and sometimes humorously, so cannily reveals. Whether it’s the pain of coming-of-age in “Bridge Club,” the devastating agony and quiet desolation of aging, memory loss, and death in “Slow Dance,” the ragged ecstasy of rock and roll and religion in “The Night Demon,” or the persistent nagging of love and redemption in “Isabel,” Foster guides us into worlds where hearts and souls often lay bare to spiritual brokenness or fulfillment and where bodies often break against the hard walls of disease or death.
The themes of Foster’s stories are best summed up in the final sentences from “Slow Dance”: “The trick is to know that there are no points at which we stop loving, only those points at which we can no longer communicate it.” We’ve known for years how well Foster tells a story of love and loss in his songs — and there is a new album by the same title that came out with this story collection — but we now have the chance to see how he elegantly and almost effortlessly creates worlds that we’ve all inhabited, in which we continue to live, and where we’ll continue to toil, despair, and love.
I had the chance to sit down with Foster to chat with him about For You to See the Stars and about books and reading.
What’s the story behind this book?
Well, I’ve written articles and essays, like an article on songwriting for Acoustic Guitar magazine. I’ve written liner notes, and I write in my journal as part of my quiet time. I use my journal entries as fodder for my songs. But I’ve never written fiction. About two years ago, I got really sick and developed laryngitis and had to cancel months of gigs. I was writing notes to my wife and children to communicate with them. One day I wrote to my wife and told her, “I think there’s a short story in my song ‘Sycamore Creek.’” When I showed her the story I had written — which is the last song on the album and the final story in the book — she told me it was really good and that I should keep doing it. That was the first short story I had ever written. About a year ago I met Shari Smith, the publisher at Working Title Farm, the publisher of my book. Our mutual friend Mary Gauthier suggested that Shari get in touch with me about writing a song for her project called Trio. I told her which book I’d like to work on, and then I told her I wrote short stories and asked her if she’d read one of them. She read a couple of my stories, and she said, “Goddamn, Radney Foster, you can write a pretty sentence, but you’re hiding the pretty.” She read one story in particular, “Bridge Club,” and showed me how it could be even better by showing me that I’d hidden the best paragraph deep in the story and telling me to write more paragraphs “that pretty.” She had me rewrite the story, and she taught me how to self-edit. She asked me to be a part this year, so I’m working on a song inspired by this book. [Foster holds up an advanced reading copy of Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad. He debuted his song, “Elly May,” at the recent Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.]
What’s the hardest part of writing stories?
The hardest part of writing a short story is getting an idea. People always ask me about “Raining on Sunday.” The second verse of that song is so integral. [Your love is like religion/A cross in Mexico/And your kiss is like the innocence/Of a prayer nailed to a door/Oh surrender is much sweeter/When we both let it go/Let the water wash our bodies clean/And love wash our souls.] Roman Catholic families in Texas often have these miniature silver hands and feet nailed to their doors, so that’s where the scene in “Isabel” comes from. I went back to my old chestnut, “Raining on Sunday,” and wrote a story about a guy searching for himself and for love and finding it when he meets the main character, Isabel. I wrote her first in the story. It’s also hard to inhabit the characters. How do you write in the voice of a nine-year-old boy? I’ll often sketch a back story and then the characters come to me. In “Requiem,” for example, Sylvia, one of the main characters, told me the story.
If you could invite five authors to lunch, living or dead, who would they be?
Thomas Merton: I came to Merton through struggling with my faith when I was in college. My wife was a religion major; she had some of his titles on his bookshelf when we were falling in love. Having a few life crises led me to develop a quiet time and to meditate, and his writings have been a very important part of those times in my life. Tennessee Williams: so fascinating because he was such a gad about town. Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, Rick Bragg, Peter Guralnick, John Irving, and William Faulkner.
How do you read? Electronic or in print? Do you read one book at a time?
I read both. I have one or two in my iPad and one or two in print. I’m usually reading one or two books at the same time. I just got through reading Stephen Ambrose’s book about Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage. I couldn’t put it down; he’s such a great writer. I still love To Kill a Mockingbird, especially that scene where the children sneak into court to see their father. My father was a small-town lawyer, and I can recall times just like that in my life. When I started writing, though, I get to where I quit reading. I listen to a lot of music, and it’s all over the map from The Band to Rush.
What the one book you won’t leave home without?
My father’s Bible. [Foster pulls out and shows me a tattered and well-thumbed through pocket-sized Bible.] He underlined lots of passages, and he wrote all these notes in the margins. I love reading his annotations. Strunk and White The Elements of Style. My journal.
What’s your favorite bookstore?
Well, Shakespeare and Company in Paris is a pretty cool place. Here in Nashville we have a couple of great bookstores, Parnassus and Howlin’ Books. I love them.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
First of all, I hope people are entertained by it. Fiction’s job is to show us things that nonfiction can’t explain. The constant theme of all these stories is redemption.