RH: Were you shocked when you found out you'd been selected by
SO'N: Yes and no. Everybody on the original list of 52, and
even some of the people who weren't on that list, could be put on
any hit parade list like that. I was a bit surprised, but then I figured
for at least some of their choices they would pick obscure people, just
to lift them up and promote them, to be able to say Granta
discovered these writers. If they had only picked the big guns of
young American fiction, they wouldn't be telling us anything new.
David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody...all those guys
should have been on the list and weren't, but then again they don't
need to be on that list because they already have a readership.
And I'm happy to be on the list, to be promoted in that way.
RH: I've talked to a few writers on the list, and the overwhelming
theme in talking to them about the list is that it's a great honor, but
that ultimately you just go back and write the way you've always
SO'N: I don't worry about that too much. Some of the people
on that list only had one book out at the time. Or they might feel the
pressure to produce a really good book to live up to the reputation.
But I'm very productive. I get a book out every year easy. If people
ask me if I have the work to back up the award, I can just say, "Yeah,
here it is." I could see why some writers might be worrried about
living up to the list, but that doesn't bother me at all.
RH: How did you start out as a writer?
SO'N: Writing short stories, mostly. Looking at people like John
Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver,
Chekhov. Once I felt comfortable with the short form, I tried to work
on my chaptering, to figure out how chapters work in a novel. I think
a lot of beginning writers can only handle, say, 15-20 pages at a
time, and that in a novel you have to put your twenty, twenty,
twenty together a bit at a time to build your novel.
Usually I get interested in a character. I want to see what their life is
like, to dig into that life and see how it feels to be them. A lot of
times the plot comes from the situations that they place themselves
into. Marjorie calls herself a victim of circumstance, but she's always
placing herself in situations that set her off. She wants to do these
things, even though she says she doesn't. She's a wonderful liar. All
great storytellers are wonderful liars.
RH: How far had you gotten in conceiving Marjorie's character
before you came up with the list of questions she answers?
SO'N: The list came first. I picked up the voice from a
collection of oral histories from Vietnam veterans. It was a guy
who'd been in prison and was gleefully recounting his crime, until he
realized that he should be feeling remorse, and his tone changed
completely. I wanted that voice, that character, in my book.
If you look at the chapters, a lot of the questions in the first half are
simple exposition questions. I get the hook in by mentioning the
murders, but then I slowly build up her background, just the way
that King would. You need to know where she's from, who her folks
are. It was fun to play peekaboo.
RH: Did you start writing The Speed Queen on the
SO'N: Yeah, I was living on Route 66 at the time. I had a job at
the University of New Mexico and another job at the University of
Central Oklahoma, both of which happen to be on Route 66. I got
interested in the cars and the roadside culture, and when I get
excited about something it always ends up in my prose. I had just
finished The Names of the Dead, which had been very long and
difficult to research. I felt responsible to the men and women who
had been in Vietnam, so I was very painstaking in getting everything
right. So I wanted to write something that was a blowout, something
completely irresponsible and stupid. (pauses, smiles) I think
RH: Yep, it's a good pulp book, alright. (laughs)
SO'N: This is the American fantasy of getting into a bigass
muscle car, getting completely fucked up on drugs, having great sex,
killing a bunch of people, driving west into the night as fast as you
can. We've seen that story so many times that we almost buy into
the idea that it might be a fun thing to do. It's just a desire, an
appetite, running unchecked, which is what the culture asks us to do.
At the same time, we know it's the worst thing in the world for us...
but it's fun, too!
Although this is a satire of tabloid culture, and I do poke very
pointed fun at it, it's not like we aren't all implicated in it. We all love
-- or I love, anyway -- fast food. I love fast cars. I love taking drugs,
getting drunk, having great sex. It's fun. So I don't bring the hammer
down all the way.
RH: That's what makes this effective: the honest admission that
this isn't our culture's best side, but it's what we've got.
SO'N: This is our culture. This is it. We're not making a lot of
world-class ballet here, okay? Our composers are Chuck Berry and
Michael Stipe. The Speed Queen is like my other two books in
that it's unashamedly and unapolegetic American in its concerns. It's
supposed to be a carnival ride. It's fun, scary, and thrilling, then you
get off and say, "Whew! That was fast. Let's do it again."
My next book's a very different ride, though. It's set in 1943, and it's
a very slow and stately book. No humor in it whatsoever. It's a very
beautiful book, but it's not like this at all, just like this book wasn't
like my first two.
RH: How are you able to shift modes so radically?
SO'N: You have to want to. I can't see writing the same book
over and over again. I want to try something different every time. In
The Speed Queen, I wrote in the first-person voice of a woman
for the first time, and I wrote short chapters after my last book had
had chapters up to sixty pages long. Doing everything different is
what keeps me interested. Otherwise I'd go nuts.