A native of the Gulf south, Kent Wascom attended Louisiana State University and received an MFA from Florida State University. He was awarded the 2012 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for Fiction. He is the author of The Blood of Heaven (2013), and the forthcoming Secessia (July 2015). For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Kent what inspired his writing, how he found an agent, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what he said:
What inspires and influences your writing most?
The history of the Gulf South, its landscape, its people, and more broadly its place in the greater Amero-Caribbean sphere. My aim for The Golden Circle, the sextet of which The Blood of Heaven is the first volume and my forthcoming novel, Secessia, is the second, is to unlimitedly examine what Carlos Fuentes termed the tri-cultural exchange in the region.
In broader thematic terms, I’m most fascinated and inspired by iniquity and transgression, those incidents in the human experience where we commit or endure wrongs. For better or worse, life and history provide untold examples. I’m generally without patience for works marketed as uplifting or life-affirming or peopled with the dreaded relatable characters. For me, the most worthwhile points of relation with a character is when the reader is forced by one character’s action to confront their own capacity for wickedness, or forced by another’s endurance of a wicked act to confront their culpability in systemic evil. For instance, the book I’ve just started writing concerns the surgical experiments of Dr. J. Marion Sims, inventor of the duck-billed speculum and the “father of American gynecology”, who for four years in the 1840s performed tortuous surgeries on 11 enslaved women (without anesthesia) in an effort to perfect a cure for the vesico-vaginal fistula. The research filled me with rage, loathing, and sorrow, and I hope to elicit the same from the reader.
More than anything, I’m inspired by language. Without a daily and continuous IV-drip of others’ words I’m utterly lost and miserable. I’m constantly hunting for writers whose work brings the language to its rhythmic and imagistic peak. Without them I shrivel up most pitiful.
Do you have an agent? If so, how did you find him / her?
I do have an agent, but I didn’t find her in the traditional way. My path to publication was so stupendously lucky and star-written that I can only bow my head in thanks. The short version: my friend, mentor, &c, Bob Shacochis recommended my manuscript to Grove Atlantic, who accepted it. Shortly thereafter this same white-bearded angel put me in contact with his agent, the amazing Gail Hochman. She read my book and agreed to represent me. I can’t say enough how lucky I am.
What surprised you most about the publishing process?
The people. My publisher, Grove Atlantic, is stocked with amazing, talented folks who stop at nothing to find and promote innovative and challenging books, all the while curating one of the great avant-garde literary backlists. From top to bottom, I’ve been treated better than I could have ever imagined. It’s a wonderful thing for a writer to feel like they have something more than a financier or business partner, but a home.
Do you market yourself? What (specifically) do you do to build / maintain your readership?
Whether for good or ill, I tend to focus on the micro rather than the macro. The individual relationship with the readers and booksellers I encounter is where I put my efforts. Robotically signing copies and fucking off into the night seems not only useless, but rude. Just as having a Twitter-presence but never speaking to the people who work at the bookstore you’re reading at is absurd. That said, I’m piss-poor at responding to emails and I’m trying to rectify that. In person, I try to talk, to engage, and my small readership makes this a feasible task. On that note, pitching a fit and leaving when a bookstore (or whatever event) only has one or two or no people in attendance is the mark of a petulant dope. Read to the staff. Buy them a drink afterwards. The lack of audience is unimportant. These are the people who will sell your book long after the sting of the empty room has faded. Besides, one should do all of these things for reasons beyond self-promotion, i.e., fun.
Based on your experiences in the industry, what advice can you offer writers?
Other than the above, for writers lucky enough to have published books to their name—never condescend to those that haven’t yet. Don’t sneer, you were there once. For those who wish to pursue writing as a career, my prescription is “Everything in immoderation.” Give in to your compulsions. (By this I mean your compulsions to read, write, and create, not your compulsion for fingernail-chewing or the curation of your skin-flake collection.) Read like a maniac, compose ardently, and for god’s sake pay attention to the sound of your sentences. Read your work aloud, use scansion—a paragraph (or chapter for that matter) is a rhythmic as well as a rhetorical construction.