“Writing Close to the Bone”: an Interview with Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough’s twelfth book, the novel Stay Gone Days, covers much of the lives of Ella and Caroline Cole, two sisters who come of age in the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s. Their divergent paths — Ella to the Berklee School of Music in Boston and Caroline to California, Virginia, and several European countries — illustrate the ways in which characters’ choices, even in youth, influence the course of their lives.

The recipient of awards including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the California Book Award, the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, the Richard Wright Award, and the Robert Penn Warren Award, Yarbrough is a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. He and his family divide their time between Boston and Krakow.

Stay Gone Days covers sixty years of fictional and global history. Readers are treated to sisters Ella and Caroline Cole’s development, maturation, and adulthood at the same time that we encounter the fall of Communism and 9/11, to name just two events. How conscious were you of intertwining these multiple histories as you wrote the book?

I pretty much knew before I started writing it when it would begin and when it would end (it’s actually about forty years, start to finish, since it begins in 1975 and ends in 2014, though there are references to things that happened before ‘75). I’m not sure that when I started I knew one of the characters would end up in Eastern Europe, though that is never impossible in one of my novels, since that part of the world is my second home and I know Krakow and Warsaw as well as I know the Mississippi Delta, or Central California, or Boston. I did know in a general way what the future would hold for the two main characters, but I also encountered some surprises, and it would worry me in the writing of a novel if things went exactly according to some carefully outlined plot. Life just isn’t that neat, nor should a novel be–or so it seems to me.

The novel takes place in numerous settings, including many that I know have personal resonance for you — Mississippi, California, Boston, and Poland, among them. How did you approach writing about so many places, making each one authentic and particular even if it didn’t take up as much space in the book as others?

Well, as I said, I know those places well. Not just what is ordinary about them but also what is unusual. On the surface they’re very different from one another. Because I have a past in all of those places, and because there are still people I love in all of those places, I think about them every day of my life. I really don’t have to work very hard to summon the sights, sounds and smells of them. I remember how on a Friday night in late August in the Delta, the heavy atmosphere can wrap itself around you like a wet blanket. In Fresno on that same night, it might be 105 degrees but dry as a bone. In Boston, you could already be feeling a bit of cool air, and in Krakow you’d feel the chill of autumn and hear leaves skittering across the pavement. In the Delta you might hear the drone of a cotton gin. In Krakow you’d smell bigos (stewed sauerkraut) and grilled kielbasa. But in all four places people feel pain when they lose a loved one, and they feel hope and joy when they fall in love.

Early in the novel, in reflecting on the Cole family’s background, you write, “They are the kind of people things like that happen to. You lose your hand, you get shot behind the counter at a liquor store, you eat too much Crisco and have a heart attack and die at forty. One day they’ll be the subject of hillbilly elegies and Harvard dissertations. Now they’re just folks who, for the most part, escape notice.” While the parents seem satisfied with this existence, neither of their daughters wants this life for herself. Though they go in different directions, they both escape this fate. Would you ascribe this to personal determination on their parts? If so, what makes them different from their classmates, many of whom readers learn, decades later, have not escaped their own pasts?

I think that in their hometown, both of them were to a great extent outsiders. Many of the kids who went to the all-white school were from families who had money and a fair amount of local prestige. Even though Ella was a good student, she was still from the wrong side of the tracks. So was Caroline, who never did well in school, cheated on a test, got caught stealing a book from the library and was generally viewed as “the bad sister.” I think the environment there gave both of them solid reasons to want to be gone, and then the family scandal surrounding their father’s death made them even more determined. Fortunately, they were both gifted — one with words, one with music — and those gifts led them elsewhere. I might as well admit that while I’m glad I grew up where I did, in a town much like theirs, and though I still have friends in that town, my idea of hell would be to go back and live there. So I invested a fair amount of my own feelings about the place in them. 

One of the standout qualities of the narration is the way you flash forward every so often to reveal how an event will shape a character’s life down the road. For instance, when Ella comes across her father’s secret lockbox, you write, “She has no way of knowing that this is a decision she will replay off and on for the remainder of her life, rarely going more than a couple of days without returning to the attic, where she’s a seventeen-year-old girl in the grips of her own curiosity.” What advantages did you find in employing such time shifts?

It’s a technique I can’t remember using before in a novel, but it came to me quite naturally, so I ran with it. I suppose the reason I hit on it — or maybe I should say the reason it hit on me — is that using that intrusive narrator helps bridge the enormous gap between the earliest sections of the book and the later ones. What I mean by that is that the flashforwards, I think, help alert the reader to the scope of the narrative and make the time jumps a little less jarring. That’s what I hope anyway.  

In keeping with the fact that this is a novel in part about a writer, you mention numerous fellow writers in the book, everyone from Eudora Welty and Susan Sontag to Tessa Hadley and Cólm Toibin. Most significant, to me, is Richard Yates, who even has a cameo. I couldn’t help thinking of The Easter Parade while reading Stay Gone Days. Did Yates, or any other writers, inform the choices you made in this book?

You are an astute reader! Ever since I first read The Easter Parade, back around 1982, I have been intrigued by the possibility of covering most of the lives of a pair of siblings as Yates managed to in that superb novel. I’m an only child, but my wife is one of a pair of sisters, who are about as different from each other as they could possibly be. I’m the father of two daughters who are also about as different from each other as they could possibly be. And two of my closest friends in California were yet another pair of sisters, one of whom, sadly, is no longer alive, and while they looked alike, they too were very different. So I’ve thought a lot about sisters, and when I decided to embark on Stay Gone Days, I hoped to write a tight, taut novel that would be as economical as Yates’s, which I believe is only about 250 pages long. (I could go downstairs to the Yates section of a particular bookcase and check and be certain, but it’s late and I’m too lazy.) I discovered very quickly that I was not going to be able to write with so much economy, partly because of Caroline’s globetrotting ways. And by the way, my wife’s sister, who is Polish and still lives in Poland and like Caroline never went to college, has indeed become a novelist and a good one. People who are supposed to be writers always manage to find a way.

At one point late in the novel, when Caroline considers explaining her writing process to her sister, she thinks, “She could try to explain that the internal logic of the story dictated its development, that it was almost as if it told her where it wanted to go and getting in its way was useless, unless she wanted to give up on writing, which for her would have meant giving up on living. She could say she wishes she hadn’t written so close to the bone, but that would be untrue. Writing close to the bone is all she knows how to do.” What does “writing close to the bone” mean for you? Does your process correspond to Caroline’s?

Writing close to the bone, for me, means the willingness to draw from the life I see around me, in all its chaotic, generally less than idyllic manifestations. I think that’s true of how Caroline writes. It also means that I don’t write with an agenda beyond trying to explore the lives of my characters, some of whom may not be angels. I continue to be astounded by some people’s desire to have trigger warnings on novels. One of the reasons I read fiction is to be triggered, to be forced to experience someone else’s reality, no matter how painful it may be. That makes me a more caring person. 

This is your eighth novel. Did you face any challenges in writing it that you had not come across previously? Can you offer other writers any advice for facing these same moments in their own work?

I’d never written a novel that covered so much ground. That was daunting. And though I’ve been writing from the point of view of women off and on throughout my life, I had never written a novel that was almost strictly from the point of view of two women. I think some of the best writing advice I’ve ever heard is something John O’Hara once said — namely, that when a writer figures out what it is that he does, he should immediately stop doing it. (Sadly, O’Hara seems not to have adhered to that advice himself.) Let me invert his dictum and say that when a writer figures out what he’s afraid of doing, he ought to try to do it. The worst that can happen is you fail. But failure won’t kill you. Or at least it shouldn’t.

As Yarbrough stated previously, “People who are supposed to be writers always manage to find a way.” Stay Gone Days feels like a book that was destined to find its way, as well.

Stay Gone Days
By Steve Yarbrough
Ig Publishing
April 19, 2022