Caleb Caudell lives in the American Midwest. His first novel, The Neighbor, will be published this month by Bonfire Books. Caleb writes essays at middleamericanlit.wordpress.com.
What are the cultural advantages of living in the American Midwest?
Midwesterners have a reputation for being polite and stolid. We have our hospitality, our slower rhythms and vast farmlands. Are we kinder, more considerate? Depends. If you grew up in a house where your dad came home drunk and broke beer bottles over your head and the neighborhood kids beat you with aluminum baseball bats, you may feel a chill at the mention of midwestern hospitality. More to the point, the midwestern artist experiences a double alienation. He is alienated from his stock and his surroundings. But he is also cut off from the cultural vanguard. He is neither comfortable in the middle nor poised on the edge. Instead he floats, he scatters himself, he creeps around in the shadows. The artistic elites do not accept him, they do not see him. And his own people view him with suspicion or perplexity. For all the pain and loneliness of living this way, of getting caught in a void between the heartland and the extremities of the counterculture, the midwestern individual enjoys an advantage or two. He can surpass the cynicism of the coastal cities, because he has an outsider’s perspective on the pretensions of the falsely transgressive trendsetters, yet he can also temper his cynicism with the hospitality and earthiness at his core. He can burn hotter and run colder and hit harder than the cultural standard bearers. For me, I never really wanted to stay in the midwest, but I never wanted to be anywhere else in particular. I’ve always distrusted urbanites without feeling entirely secure in my rural roots. But I believe this tension gives me an artistic edge. I can’t help but channel this bizarre blend of down-home sensibility and unearthly or even demonic and scornful energy into literature.
Clemons, the main character in The Neighbor, has fallen about as low as a man can go. Where does he get his inner drive to survive?
The will to live cannot be reduced to circumstance. Some people have it all, but they throw it away. Others have nothing but they refuse to give up. I find it all mysterious and electrifying. No one can tell from the outside what drives a man to live or die. Maybe he can try to tell you, but it’s likely he cannot understand it himself. In telling the story of a man who is steadily stripped of everything good in his life, but who never stops, I wanted to show that mystery without solving it, or even giving too many strong hints about how it really works. I have a strong intuition of absurdity and irrationality at the heart of existence, so when you ask why Clemons survives, I can only say the question is the point.
Name one living author you admire.
I don’t read many living authors, if any. I guess I will count Cormac McCarthy, although he is hit or miss for me, and I don’t jock him as hard as some of my literary twitter friends. His early work is great and then I think he went too far up his own ass. A danger for us all. Outer Dark and Child of God are top shelf Appalachian gothic, but even in Blood Meridian, which is supposedly his shattering masterpiece, there are lines that just embarrass me, ridiculous metaphors and similes. Oh yeah. Delicious Tacos. He’s a great writer. Economical, punchy prose and scathing sentiments. People don’t talk enough about how funny he is. He’s always compared to Houellebecq and Bukowski, but I think he’s way funnier and more enjoyable to read.
Name one book or author that people would be surprised you like.
I don’t think I can do it. I read the authors you would probably expect. Faulkner, McCarthy, Nabokov, Joyce, O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Carver, Pessoa and Proust. For poetry I like Dickinson, Auden, Stevens and Larkin. Plenty of others here and there, but here’s the thing about me: I’m not a list guy, I don’t like favorites. I get in moods and read what I want, but there’s a lot I don’t like and never get curious about. Sometimes people try to get me to read a certain sci-fi book or a comic book or manga or whatever. I’m not going to do it, and I don’t even have a high brow reason for it. I’m just not going to do it. In general, my consumption levels are low and I like it that way. I have no idea how you people read and watch so much. I’m not that interested in stacking up books and movies and tv shows until they hit the moon. I spend most of my time working, walking, playing with my cats, talking, lifting weights and writing.
What are you optimistic about?
Now this might surprise you, but I believe love is real. It is irreducible to chemical reactions or blind evolutionary processes. I’m not sure if I can say I’m optimistic, but I believe we are capable of loving each other and acting with courage and nobility. I think there will always be a chance to experience beauty, truth and love, and even if we cannot exemplify those ideals in our day to day lives, we can preserve and pass them down in art.