A Conversation with David Connerley Nahm

David Connerley Nahm’s debut novel, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, published by Two Dollar Radio, is moving and haunting, lyrical and ever so strange (in a good way). It revisits the way we tell the stories, and how we believe them and let them move us through the world. Set in a small town in rural Kentucky, the novel also explores with rhythmic poeticism the potential for beauty in the unexpected. I was lucky enough to exchange a few words with David about his process, his inspirations, and his thoughts on literature at large. His words are of the kind that fulfill my hopes for all art – they are compassionate, heartfelt, and thoughtful. We at LUMINA are grateful and honored for the opportunity to present them to you today, and we hope also for David’s continued success in the literary world.

– Devin Kelly, Nonfiction Editor

DK: David, while reading your novel, especially that beautiful opening prologue, I found myself brought back to the work of some of the Southern writers that I have come to love. James Agee, in particular. Can you speak to some of your influences, some of your loves when it comes to fiction, or any sort of writing in general?

DCN: When I was a young boy, I loved to read about Greek and Roman mythology, folktales, ghost stories, urban legends and cryptozoology. These books were all kept in the basement of the public library. I would build a pile of them in the far corner of the stacks, just below a small window that looked out onto the weedy gravel of the window well, and read the same books over and over all summer long.

In addition to the books about monsters and UFOs, I had a pile of books that had been my mother’s when she was my age, sentimental novels about children having adventures in rural settings, taming wild horses, or finding gold. I don’t remember the names of any of them. They were the kind of books you see lining the walls in the back corner of thrift stores and flea markets, all out-of-print, the sorts of books no one will ever buy or ever remember. I loved them and would read them late into the night, wishing that I would stumble onto a criminal plot or some gentle mischief.

While different, the sentimental stories and the obscure stories both made me feel the same way: That there was something more to the rather ordinary life that I was living. They were comforting because they gave me new worlds to believe in and new lives to hope for. There was a downside, however, that any reader will recognize—the sadness that comes at the end of a good story, the acute awareness of how lonely you actually are.

Right now, the important thing for me is to try and create something that will give a reader that same feeling—one that lasts after the last page.

As an adult, I’m drawn to writing that transports me in the same way: W.G. Sebald, Hilda Hilst, Javier Marias, Cynthia Ozick, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Merce Rodoreda, William Faulkner, Kathryn Davis, M. R. James, William Gass, Zora Neale Hurston. Writers who can pile words in ways that make the world around me unexpected and new. I like all sorts of different kinds of novels an stories, but the ones I end up loving the most are ones where the wonder and pleasure exist not just in the story being told, but how it is told, right in the sentences themselves.

DK: The setting of your novel – Crow Station, Kentucky – operates as a sort of character in and of itself. There is a way in which the ghostly quality of this Southern town has a voice, or at least a pair of eyes. Is this something you deliberately sought out to craft? And do you find that the South as a setting has a kind of richness to it that lends itself to this kind of characterization?

DCN: Crow Station is based on Danville, Kentucky, the small town where I was born and raised and went to college. I spent the first 22 years of my life in the same place and didn’t really have much of a desire to live anywhere else. Crow Station also contains portions of the other places I’ve lived since: North Carolina and Virginia. In describing the city of Crow Station and the people who live there, I didn’t set out to make anything particularly ghostly or strange. I just tried to describe the sorts of people and things that I see on a daily basis.

With regard to where the Southern setting adds anything special: I’ve never lived anywhere other than the South (though some might not consider Kentucky the South), so I can’t say if the things I see and write about are particularly Southern, but my guess is that anything seemingly unusual about the South either exists elsewhere as well or has an analogue. For example: When I was in high school, on the weekends, people would go out to the strip mall where the movie theater was and they would cruise around the parking lot slowly in their pick up trucks, all painted custom colors, bright blue and pink, not unlike the Trapper Keepers we’d had in elementary school. They would play music loudly (country, rap or metal) and there would be people in the beds of the trucks waving and shouting at friends, enjoying being seen on summer evening. Of course, people everywhere go cruising. Maybe not in pick up trucks and maybe not with the faint scent of not-too-distant cow manure on the air, but the music was the same, the sun was the same and the thrill of seeing and being seen was the same.

What is different? Perhaps there is a little more space between people. The streets are empty at night and seeing someone walking down the street in the dark is a mysterious event. And every house is haunted. I promise.

DK: Can you speak to how you came to write this novel, what initially drove and inspired you? There are all sorts of intricacies to this work – the voices of children, the drawings peppered throughout the pages – that I wish I had the time to explore individually. But I’d rather know how you came to exploring this novel, developing it, and writing it.

DCN: There was no one single inspiration. I like to go out to write—to coffee shops, to restaurants, to the mall—and watch people and listen to them talk. Everyday, there was inspiration for some element of the novel. Eventually, once I became confident enough to get out of the way of the words, everything began to harmonize. It just took me a very, very long time to get there.

For years I wrote, sometimes sustained work on a single large project, sometimes small observations that occurred to me on my way to work. Eventually, I began to edit through what I’d done, discarding that which felt wrong or forced and keeping those parts that excited me. I pared the manuscript down, slicing away bit after bit, trying to get to the most essential elements of the story. I kept everything I wrote over the years, even if I abandoned a project and started all over again. I kept revisiting the same stories again and again, in different forms—novels, stories, poems—until I hit on the right way to tell the story.

I would print the novel out in an incredibly small font and spread the pages out on a table so I could see the whole thing at once, just to make sure that it all worked together in the way that I wanted it. In a novel like Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, where the narrative does not follow a direct path, I think I owe a special duty to the reader to make sure that the parts flow together and that the pacing, like a joke’s timing, is perfect, or as close as I can get it. Though I don’t want it to seem that way. That’s the tough part.

DK:  When I’ve talked to others about Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, I usually use words such as “lovely,” “lyrical,” and “haunting.” I’m interested about the lyricism in particular. It’s something I’m deeply drawn to as both a writer and a reader. Did you make a conscious choice to ramp up the lyrical nature of the prose, or was that in some way natural? Did anyone fight the lyricism and say no, no that’s too much? Do you have a particular authorial stance on lyricism and poeticism when it comes to fiction? Do these questions make any sense at all?

Writing in this way has, for better or worse, always come naturally to me. Once, not long ago, I was at my mother’s, going through some of my old belongings and I found a literary magazine from high school with some of my stories in it. At first, I was impressed—my writing then was very similar to how I write now. Then I got upset that I hadn’t gotten any better.

I’ve been playing music since I was in elementary school and I think that the lyrical/rhythmic elements of the writing are grounded in part in my desire to have some of the freedom of music. The ability to explore mood and emotion with sound and rhythm, while still telling a story—to have sentences that do two things at once.

One of the things that contributed to taking so long to finish the novel was that I fought against this natural inclination. I spent years trying to write spare, taut, tightly plotted things that just didn’t come naturally to me. Eventually, I learned to relax my grip and to follow the writing—the story, the words, the sounds, the images—rather than trying to drag them around. One of the pleasures of working this way is that when it goes well, I am able to surprise myself. It’s like playing music with friends. When the group suddenly finds some wonderful musical moment together, when everything clicks, it is the best. I want to get lost in what I am doing as much as when I read someone else’s writing. I love writing that exceeds itself, sentences that ooze and wriggle and fracture. I don’t want to write something that is forced into my own pre-conceived notion of good writing.

As for whether anyone has ever fought against my writing this way: I don’t think anyone has. I don’t have an MFA and only took a few poetry classes in college, so I’ve never been in a situation where a teacher or classmate would tell me to tone down what I’m doing. I suppose that any literary magazine that didn’t care for how I wrote, just passed on whatever I submitted. The literary magazines that have published my stories have been very supportive and complimentary. Eric and Eliza at Two Dollar Radio have been especially positive and supportive of my writing. All of the editorial suggestions they gave during the process of finalizing the manuscript were for the purpose of polishing the story and bringing what I was trying to do into better focus.

DK: Oral storytelling. That’s a tradition we can all relate to. But somehow you articulate it so well in your novel. There’s all this looking, all this listening, all this banter with kids back and forth. As I read, I could see all the kids I grew up with, telling stories at the park across the street. Was this something you really tried to capture in an honest way, this kind of earnest mythology of children? Is that something you look upon with fondness – the way in which children tell stories?

DCN: As the oldest of four children, a large part of my childhood was taken up with storytelling, both to entertain ourselves and to get out of whatever trouble we’d gotten into. But it isn’t just childhood storytelling that I love. Our whole lives are made up of the stories we tell. Eat dinner alone at a mid-tier chain restaurant and listen to the people at the next table. Listen to the people in line at the supermarket on the telephone with a friend. Listen to co-workers in the breakroom.

There is a fondness I have for those childhood stories, the strange things that we all believed about which bathrooms were haunted and how many nails the principal’s paddle had in it, but stories can also be terrible and hurtful, either on purpose, such as a cruel rumor, or casually, such as the callous retelling of someone’s tragedy for our own perverse entertainment. We share stories about people passing or running into financial trouble or marriages falling apart between bites of salad. Stories are the best, but as with all things that are wonderful, they can be horrible.

Stories are cultural currency, especially for children. Those kids that know things are looked up to as gods by those that don’t know. I remember a girl in elementary school who would tell me most outrageous stories. That she had a spoon full of gold. That her brother’s brain literally came out of his head once. That people in plastic masks stole classmates from behind the school. I don’t know why I should have believed such ridiculous stories—I wasn’t a particularly bright child—but I did and because she was willing to tell them to me, I followed her around and did her bidding.

Even as adults, we all want to be around someone who can tell a good story, or we all wish we were that person.

DK: Your prose in Ancient Oceans slips between the present and past life of Leah Shepherd in an artful way. It made me think of how we think – how even in the present we can be so caught up in the past, projecting those memories, those stories on our day-to-day life. Do you find this kind of non-linear movement to be a more natural way of storytelling? What are your thoughts on thoughts, and how we think?

I don’t think that non-linear storytelling is necessarily more natural, but it was the right way to tell this story.

DK: Perhaps more personally, is there anything in particular that moves you about the American small town? The American South? You pay Crow Station, Kentucky a sort of poetic homage throughout your novel, and it’s a place where I imagine not many people would actively seek out or even find that kind of poeticism. What draws you to the poetry of small towns?

I don’t know that I would say that I am drawn to anything poetic in small towns, but I am drawn to finding beauty and strangeness in that which we do not usually spend time trying to find beauty and strangeness in. Our lives are made of mostly mundane moments, but even in those moments we are seeking, or waiting for, something wonderful and transcendent, or we are slipping away from ever finding that secret thing we want. That seeking or losing is the core of any story. It isn’t that a small town is more poetic to me—every where as empty store fronts and grass growing through the pavement. It’s just the canvas where I choose to chase these small moments. But it is also all I’ve ever known.

There is poetry in everything. There is a story in everything. There is nothing that is an unworthy subject.

It is worth noting that the two authors who have had the biggest influence on my writing about small towns and children are not Southern writers: Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. Even though my own childhood was nothing like Something Wicked This Way Comes or IT, though I did get to touch a skeleton as a child, there are no better depictions of what my own childhood felt like to me: The fear and excitement for all those things in the world I didn’t quite understand.

I don’t think it is strange, either, that the best writing about childhood is often terrifying. As a child, you want to grow up, but growing up means growing old and growing old means dying. I know that this probably sounds a little grim, but I don’t think that it necessarily is. The world at that age appears endless. Growing up is about getting tall enough to see the distant edge of everything.

DK: Finally, and simply, what is next for you? And what’s on your to-read list?

I am finishing up the first draft of my second novel, hopefully by the end of the year, though time always passes quicker than I anticipate. So far, the writing is going very well and I am very happy.

Currently, I’m reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias. My to-read list is long and ever evolving and I generally read things based on impulse, but a few things that I might get to this year are:  In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rhaman; Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi; A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride; The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna; Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning; Marginalia on Casanova by Miklos Szentkuthy; or Clarel by Herman Melville.

Or maybe I’ll read completely different things that I haven’t even thought about reading yet. It’s exciting not to know.