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'Only Love...' Author on Neil Young, Letting Go, and Heartbreak
BOTM Author Ed Tarkington on his wildly entertaining and emotional new novel
Book of the Month, Ed Tarkington
Liberty Hardy's February Book of the Month selection is a novel with one of the best titles we've come across in quite some time, 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart.' The book itself explores themes of loneliness, heartbreak, religion, and coming-of-age in a way that brings you into the story as if you were there. We spoke with author Ed Tarkington and got some insights that make us love the book even more.
Check out the full audio interview here or read the full transcript below:
Listen to the song written by Ed's friend, country singer Will Hoge, that was inspired by 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart,' and released in a special limited edition vinyl single.
We want to hear about yourself, your background, how you got into writing...
I grew up in a town not different really from the one that's in the book, Lynchburg, Virginia and I kind of got the inspiration - it really basically is Lynchburg but I wanted to fictionalize the town just to give myself the liberty to change things and embellish and play around with the geography. It's a small town in central Virginia, kind of best known as being the home of Jerry Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour. I always joke around with people because most people when they think of Lynchburg, they think of Lynchburg, Tennessee, which is the home of the Jack Daniels Distillery, and I always say no, no, not Lynchburg, Tennessee - Jerry Falwell, not Jack Daniels. Big difference. I didn't really grow up in that world. I grew up across town, in the land of the sinners and the hypocrites, which we referred to as Episcopalians and Presbyterians. I always just was drawn to storytelling from a pretty young age. I think around the time I was a junior or senior in high school, I started thinking about writing more seriously as a pursuit, I had a really profoundly influential English teacher my senior year named Patty Worthem and she was a really wonderful mentor to me and turned me on not only to Shakespeare and Yates and all the classics that have really been a source of inspiration to me for many years but also was the first person that really encouraged me to read a lot of contemporary fiction and so she got me in particular interested in John Irving who has been a huge influence on me as well as Tim O'Brien and certain other really good contemporary writers that I like a lot. So that really was a huge influence for me. Then the other thing that I had happen when I was a junior and senior in high school was that I was involved in acting, in the theater group at our high school. We had a very influential and ambitious director, by the name of Jim Ackley, and he really pushed us
He got this idea when we were seniors to write a play and perform it and I got the first experience of writing something that was - not published exactly - but delivered to an audience and I just got a real charge out of that and it was a lot of fun and I felt like man you know I can do this. I started pursuing that throughout college and then eventually decided I would probably want to go to graduate school, but my path took a lot of circuits. Family situations, and the general challenges that I think every writer faces who is not just born ready at early adulthood to go out there and set the world on fire. I meandered for a while, and was in and out of grad school, I wasn't sure really whether I wanted to go to creative writing grad school or try to get a doctorate and try to be a Professor first. Eventually I did wind up down at Florida State Graduate Creative Writing Program where I came under the influence of some really important mentors and teachers in particular Bob Shacochis whose last novel called 'The Woman Who Lost Her Soul' was a finalist for the Pulitzer I think last year or two years ago. And Elizabeth Stuckey-French, a really great contemporary writer, her last book is called 'The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady,' it's really good. And so I started there and learned a lot from those two teachers in particular and I wrote another novel that was very long, it was kind of more of a Shacochis-type novel which was dealing with sort of global politics and crime, and it was much more of a kind of serious Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy type novel. That was the type of writer I thought I was supposed to be.
Along the way I got married and my wife got married and I decided that I better grow up and support my family in a meaningful way and I hadn't finished my degree yet there so I said alright I'm going to get a job teaching at an independent school which I had done before and was comfortable with. Then I finished that book when I was teaching high school and I thought oh well I'll just do this for a few years until I finish that book and then the world will be ready to recognize my genius. Well that book did not sell - it came close in a couple of places. I still think it's a good book, clearly there was something about it that just didn't make somebody fall in love with it with is really what has to happen in the publishing process. You have to have an editor that absolutely loves your book and is willing to fight for it. So I kind of realized at that point that my life had changed, I'd become kind of a tamer person, I don't really have the type of lifestyle that I had had when I was younger. Now my life revolves around my children, and my wife, and is so much more domestic, ostensibly small concerns. So I realized that I wasn't going to have the luxury of writing a big, global type book again, because I didn't have the room to go off and discover those things, the way I had when I started the first book. I realized I had to turn back to memory, and go back in my childhood and find the events and the inspirations that made me feel like I had an urge to tell stories in the first place. So I rewound into some issues in my past, some problems with my family from when I was really young, and kind of learned about these things when I was older, and just didn't realize that there was a lot of hardship going on around me while I was just a happy-go-lucky kid, thinking I had the perfect family. So that was kind of the main theme for me when I went into the writing of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart.' Trying to duplicate that feeling of disillusionment where you lose that innocence and your understanding of the way the world is around you and discover that it's a crueler, harsher place and that the people that you love are maybe wrestling some demons that are very powerful.
You answered a couple of my questions from Liberty. Is John Irving one of your influences?
I would say probably at this point obviously John Irving is a huge influence. I haven't really thought about it consciously but it's come to me a little bit lately in the last few months because I've been getting some comparisons to Pat Conroy and I really did - when I was in high school, I just devoured Pat Conroy's books and just thought he was amazing. As I got older, I sort of forgot about that and left it behind but there's no question that his sense of the importance of family and also his sense of place and love of language has filtered into me. Walker Percy is a huge influence to me, really not just as writer, but as a person, as a thinker. I identify with the struggle that is kind of the central theme of his writing and trying to wrestle with the problems of meaning and faith in the modern, fallen world and so I kind of think of him as a spiritual influence as well as a writing influence.
Lately I've just been trying to broaden my scale a bit in terms of what I read and am influenced by. I try to read a lot more women writers. I think when I was younger I was always just trying to read the books written by the guys that I felt like, sort of resembled me, and now I realize that that's a huge limitation. I've gotten really interested in, I'm a big fan of Kate Christensen, I just love her novels, and I go back to them all the time. I got real into James McBride, an African-American writer, 'The Good Lord Bird' is just an absolutely amazing book. I don't know how I could ever write anything like that, but it just really turned me on a lot and kind of inspired me. It just made me energetic about writing. Not everything has to be written for me, or toward me, in order for me to be inspired and moved by it. Muriel Spark has been a big influence on me in the last couple of years. My dream would be to write my own version of 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.' I just think that's a perfect book. So those are thne influences I'm thinking about now. I wouldn't say that I was particularly influenced by it because I'd already pretty much finished my book when I read 'The Goldfinch,' by Donna Tartt, but I just absolutely loved that book and I felt like in a lot of ways, that book validated a lot of the things that I was wrestling with as a writer because I think I struggled for a long time with the question of - is this stuff about people just living in a small town serious enough in a post- 9/11 world to merit anyone's interest? Even though there's the sort of element of terrorism as the instigating act in 'The Goldfinch,' it's really not about that. It's a coming-of-age story - a 21st Century 'Great Expectations.' To see that and just fall in love with that book and really see a lot of people moved by it, kind of validated for me, where I was going as a writer. I have a lot of admiration for her.
What about the title? Did you have the idea for the title from the beginning, or was it something that you worked in later?
It was a totally Eureka moment. I hadn't thought about it at all - I didn't have a title. I was pretty close to finishing. I had name checked the song in the book at one point but I hadn't thought about other than it was just one of the songs that the character was thinking about when he was making a mix tape to try to impress this girl that he's trying to get close to. I was riding around in the truck, I did spend a lot of time just listening to and meditating on music that I felt like these characters would be listening to, and Neil Young's music was definitely an entry point for me because I associated it really strongly with the prime period that I was beginning the novel with. I don't remember much about it, I was really young, but I do remember that I had this record of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with several songs on it that were Neil Young songs and just being kind of hypnotized by those when I was a kid so I associate that time with that sound which I like to say is at once ancient and other-worldly. It just sounds like it could be from another time but also from another planet. It really had that mesmerizing effect on me when I was a kid. I was listening to that a lot, and I was driving around in cars listening to 'After the Gold Rush,' and the second song on the album is 'After the Gold Rush,' just absolutely haunting, creepy, weird, wonderful song and I liked it so much I was like "gosh I wish I could just crib a lyric from this song," but nothing in there really works because if you actually know the history of that song it's based on an un-produced, science fiction movie about aliens coming down to earth and there's no aliens in my book so that didn't really fit.
Then the song flipped over to the third track, which is 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart.' It just hit me like a lightbulb going off over my head. That's it. There it is, that's what I'm going to call my book, 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart.' It's just perfect. And I listened to the song, and thought about the lyrics and I realized, I don't know if I had just internalized those lyrics or if it was just a coincidence, but the lyrics almost summarize the themes of the novel. The song - "when you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone?" "I have a friend I've never seen, he hides his head inside a dream." It just sort of fit the problem of the main character, with the loneliness that he experiences after his brother disappears and he struggles with reconciling his love for this person that he can't really trust. So I just slapped it on there.
The initial reaction to it was pretty positive. My agent loved it, and people seemed to like it, but then when I showed the book to some people, something sort of strange happened which was that a few of my friends told me "I don't know, you might want to reconsider that title...maybe it might sound a little too feminine...maybe it sounds something that's like a romance, and you don't want to alienate male readers." And my initial reaction to that was, "what male readers?" Most of the people who I know that are pretty serious readers are women and if that's the audience I get, great right?! And the men that I know that read are quite a few but are definitely not the types of people who are scared to pick a book up because it mentions love or heartbreak in the title. And most of those are familiar with the song. I didn't want to let it go, but I did have a bit of anxiety after that where I'd go around and people would be like, "so what's your book called?" And I'd be like "it's called...um...[slurs] Only Love Can Break Your Heart." And I'd kind of mumble it and then I'd real quickly invoke Neil Young to make sure that everybody knew that hey this is actually a song title from a super masculine, cool guy, rock singer. And then the more I thought about it I was like "what it is wrong, it's stupid right? Why should I be embarrassed about this?" If there's something too feminine about caring about love and heartbreak, well then I'm going to own that completely, I think those are the things that matter most to me, and I think when it comes down to it, that's true of most people. So I had to kinda get comfortable with it again but now I'm completely on the other side where I'm very proud of it and I'm very proud that hopefully I've written a book that communicates the importance of those things in my life. I think most other people will agree that when it comes down to it- that's what life is all about - love.
I'm glad you stuck with it. It's a great title, it's a great cover too. Can you talk a little about the role of religion and spirituality, which you touched on a little bit, from your childhood. Sounds like you've drawn from a lot of your childhood experiences. What was the decision there to thread this element of religion throughout the book?
It was a profound influence in my life when I was a boy. My mother was very devout and got real involved with other people in our town who shared those inclinations. There's a character in the novel called Miss Anita Holt, who has a kind of spiritual clairvoyance, and there actually was a woman that I knew growing up, a very close family friend, she's since passed away and I'm sad that I was not able to finish the book in time for her to be able to read it, because I think that I meant for the character to be kind of a homage to her influence on the lives of the women in our community, and she really did have an extraordinary ability to know things, that she shouldn't be able to know. We went to a traditional mainline Presbyterian church growing up and about every second or third Sunday we'd drive across town to this place called The Lighthouse, which was essentially like a Revival Church. A tent meeting place - the type of place where the preachers were the traveling preachers, very charismatic and Pentecostal. And I can remember being very young, probably the same age or younger than Rocky, the narrator, at the beginning of the novel, and being in these Church services, where people would suddenly begin to speak in tongues. The one that I think probably made the biggest impression on me was when the pastor was in the middle of some prayer or service and this woman suddenly started crying and screaming and falling down on the ground in this sort of ecstasy. It frightened me. I asked my mother, "what is going on?" She explained to me that God was speaking to the woman - that she was being communicated to. She felt that God was talking to her. As I've gotten older and become more skeptical, I'm not sure that that was actually the case, but when I was a seven or eight year old kid, that made a huge impression on me. Then as I did get older and I got more skeptical, the whole concept of religion and religiousness in my life became something that I really have struggled with. I am not really a religious person anymore. But I don't deny anything. I feel like there is a great mystery out there, there are things that are beyond our understanding, that it's foolish to say that they're not. There's just too much unknown about the world to deny the existence of these things. At the same time, the tools that I feel like we've been offered, in particular, the kind of often repressive, and judgmental interpretations of Christianity in the South, can be very damaging to people. It's something that I have a lot of conflict over. Naturally, given the influence that that had over my life as a child, and also the issues that I still kind of struggle with, and my desire and need really to have a spiritual life, in conflict with the difficulties I face in really accepting that there's really any one dogmatic or doctrinal path toward that understanding. They are things that I wrestle with so naturally are going to be things that I want to write about in some capacity.
What about the central act that happens at the end of the book? Without giving away any spoilers, did that draw from anything in your childhood experiences?
Absolutely, from a very specific thing that happened, from a crime that took place in my town. I can't remember the exact year but I was maybe eleven or twelve years old when it happened. It was exactly as shocking as is described. The circumstances and the details are different in real life, but the effect that it had on this little town where everybody felt like it was no big deal if you forgot to lock your doors at night. It was absolutely devastating. If we're trying to avoid spoilers I can't get into too much detail but the case itself has come back into the media in the last few months. There was a big feature article about it in The New Yorker Magazine in November, and when I saw that it was just like "Whoa unbelievable, that after all this time, this case has come back up." One of the people who was ultimately held responsible for the crime is still claiming to be innocent and has developed a fairly persuasive argument that his trial should have been declared a mistrial. So he's actively lobbying to try to get out of prison right now. When I was telling the people at my publishing company, Algonquin, about this, everybody's eyes popped open and I was like "oh no, but I don't want to talk about it because it'll make it so obvious - it'll spoil the ending of the book." But, it's there. It's kind of ironic because I've had a few people give it the old "that would never happen" remark about that particular element of the story and I'm like "you bet it happen!" But of course it doesn't matter if things really happened, the trick is, as a writer, you've got to make people believe that they could happen. Most people I think that have read the book - even though it's understandably shocking - most people seem to accept it and it doesn't break their suspension of disbelief of the story.
Do you have plans to write any more books after this one?
I do. In fact, I'm delighted to say that almost two weeks ago my agent presented another contract to me from Algonquin for my next novel and we've agreed to the terms, and there's still a few minor things but it's in principle, the deal is done. I'm really excited about working with Andra Miller again, whose my editor, I think she's extremely talented and that she gets me, and she's read a significant portion of what I've written already and has a lot of enthusiasm for it so that's a real good feeling and it makes getting up in the morning and getting back to work a lot easier when you know that there's somebody on the other end waiting with excitement and with some confidence and encouragement for what you're doing.
Congratulations. My last question, what do you want BOTM members to take away from this book?
What do I want people to take away from this book? I think that so much of life now is - particularly for me as I'm easing past the years of my youth basically - really identifying my main role, my main identity in life is as a father. I really just want to believe, and I do believe, that even though terrible things are inevitable, and that we, and our children, are going to be confronted with challenges that can't be avoided, we're going to make mistakes, we're gonna pay consequences for our choices. Not everything is going to be easy. I do believe that love and forgiveness can overcome almost anything. As I mentioned before, I'm not a particularly religious person, I'm pretty skeptical. But I do believe in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Many terrible things befall the people in this novel, relatively speaking, obviously there are much more terrible things that people endure, but, our concept of pain is relative to our experience and so by most people's concept the things that these people endure are terrible things. Yet I think that they find a way to live on and to grow from those things and to continue forward. There is life and love beyond pain. I do believe that. That may sound naive and unnecessarily optimistic - maybe I'm wrong about that - maybe I want to believe that because I've got small kids and I want to have hope for their future happiness, but I know in my own life that things that I didn't think I was ever going to be able to overcome, or get past, don't matter that much to me anymore because of the things that I do have. Hopefully, when people put the book down, they'll feel that way, and also that the things that they suffer are worth it. That what we go through for the people that we love, and what we suffer, on their behalf, what we watch them suffer which also causes us pain - it's worth it. Life would be pretty empty without it.