HomeArts & LitWilton Barnhardt on Writing His One and Only Southern Novel

Wilton Barnhardt on Writing His One and Only Southern Novel

The story of a contemporary Southern family coming apart at the seams, North Carolina native Wilton Barnhardt’s new novel “Lookaway, Lookaway” hit bookshelves this week.

Alice Sebold called the book “a wild romp through the South and therefore the history of our nation” and Ron Rash said the book “earns a place between J.K. Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons.” There’s no doubt that Wilton Barnhardt is a master at conveying a sense of place and developing his characters. Told in the voices of each one of the Johnston family members and set in Charlotte, “Lookaway, Lookaway” introduces us to matriarch Jerene Jarvis Johnston, an expert in etiquette who presides over her family’s legacy of paintings at The Mint Museum, and her husband, Duke, descended from a Confederate general and once thought to be the next governor, but now spending his days planning Civil War re-enactments.

The pair are parents to a quartet of mildly-disappointing, childless adult children. There’s Annie, who’s been married three times, is overweight and selling sub-prime mortgages to poor families. Minister Bo and his wife, Kate, find themselves at war with their Presbyterian congregation, while gay younger brother Josh uses his lesbian friend, Dorrie, for cover. The baby of the family, Jerilyn, joins a sorority against her mother’s wishes and her rush gone horribly wrong sets the story in motion.

Then there’s Jerene’s brother, Gaston, who’s made his fortune writing a series of Civil War romance novels and has a drinking problem, her mother who lives in a deluxe retirement facility and reclusive sister Dillard. Now that the family money is all gone, reputation is all the Johnstons have left and the clan is ruining that left and right.

Barnhardt drops his characters in a variety of situations, from UNC-Chapel Hill sorority rush to a raucous Christmas dinner and Civil War battle re-enactment, that provide for plenty of hilarious banter and plot developments throughout the novel. We had the pleasure of speaking with him by phone from his office at the University of North Carolina. He’s just as funny as his book and explains why he won’t be getting these characters out of his head anytime soon.

Where did the story for “Lookaway, Lookaway” come from? You wrote on your blog that you knew plenty of women like Jerene Jarvis Johnston growing up, but that your mother wants to make it clear the character is not based on her. 

Lookaway-LookawayYes, she’s pretty adamant about that. I’m just your basic middle-class Southern kid, and I have been at the fringes of high society, either friends that I knew in high school who were much better off than me or the fact that I’m part of a university where in these budget-cutting times there’s a lot of hope in fundraising. So you’re mingling with people who are first families of the town, old money, some new money. Of course, like many novelists before me through the centuries, I’m fascinated by the codes and manners of how these people live. It’s a foreign world to me, but the more I’ve explored, the more I’ve socialized with the upper classes, the more of a strange tribe they seem to be.

“Darling, in the future you may not invite to a bed any young man about whom you do not know his father’s profession, his eventual means, his status in this world. That is a one-way ticket to the mobile-home park.” – Jerene Jarvis Johnston to her daughter, Jerilyn

Your characters are so central to the novel. How did you go about developing them? 

I did know that there were a number of things I wanted to talk about if I was going to write a Southern novel. I wanted to talk about class and I wanted to talk about race and I wanted to talk about money and I wanted to talk about the new South vs. the old South, so the characters had to put those things in play. Therefore, we have a son who’s a minister so I can talk about God, and we have the father who’s a politician and the mother is trying to protect a legacy and you’ve got to ask the question, “How proud should you be?” If your family history goes back into the aristocratic slaveholding days of the South, how proud should you be of any of that?

The book is written character by character, with no character repeating. Was that difficult and why did you decide to write it that way? 

I think you gain something from visiting each character and seeing their motivations and then, of course, you skip a few characters down and you see another entire view of the same character. I also felt a certain strength came from never repeating a character. I think it would have been an easier book to write if I could have just dropped into the mother anytime I wanted to, but I think it was a little more of a jigsaw puzzle for the reader. I hope a pleasant jigsaw puzzle to put it all together and try to get the whole story from all the different perspectives.

Tell us more about the character of Civil War novelist Gaston.  

Wilton BarnhardtI didn’t have to do a lot of research for Gaston. I suppose he’s a projection of myself if it all got away from me. They just ran an article on me in The Charlotte Observer and they’ve got me standing in front of a white-columned house holding my mint julep. I look like Gaston. I look like this debauched lord of the manor.

He’s a combination of a lot of different writers and, of course, there’s a section where he goes on and on about the difficulties of being the male Southern writer. Of all the alcoholics and Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner and James Dickey all careening from bar to bar and the pain, the sufferings of writing. His friend reminds him that there’s almost no such example like that among, you know, 50 female Southern writers. It seems to be a particular affliction of the men. He’s definitely a familiar kind of Southern character. I guess I was drawing on the long history of Southern ruins to make that character and perhaps warning myself off becoming like that if I ever become embittered. He’s embittered by being successful. I have not been plagued with perennial success yet. I don’t quite know how Gaston feels.

“The most treacherous profession, don’t you think?” He dramatically took a sip and looked at his enthralled audience. “Southern writer.” – Gaston Jarvis 

The amount of wine he brings to Christmas dinner would win anyone over. 

That was a dinner to end all dinners. In fact, that actually is sort of based on how our family dinners go. We hadn’t had a big blowout in years, but back during the Bush years it was one half the table vs. the other half of the table. I think we’ve calmed down a bit since then.

History would show, Bo would conclude looking back, that this delay of an extra hour before dinner led to the horrors ahead. It set up Uncle Gaston in the role Bacchus, filling the glasses tirelessly. Bo noticed Skip and Jerilyn took possession of their own 2000 Pape-Clement, and Gaston, permitting all, opened up another one, then another one. Bo counted empty bottles on the table … more than nine. Gaston must have had reserves in his car. – Bo Johnston’s chapter 

Are you into the Civil War as much as Gaston and father character Duke Johnston? 

I think the hyperbolic, overblown Confederatism is vaguely embarrassing. My great-grandfather was captured at Richmond and was in the Civil War. I’m not particularly proud of any of that. I acknowledge it in history, but I’ll never get around the fact, and I don’t think people should get around the fact, that it was a war to keep nearly half, maybe three quarters, of the people enslaved and that was what the war was about. People are always going on about oh, no, it was states’ rights. No, if you read Alexander Stephens, you read the vice president of the Confederacy explaining why there must be a rebellion, it’s about slavery. Negro inferiority. It’s a mixed legacy, and it either bothers you or you look at it like a big costume drama. I have characters who are bothered by it and characters who just can’t wait to dress up and shoot the cannon. And I think those exist in the South. There are people who give no more thought to it than that.

Why did you choose to set the book in Charlotte? 

Charlotte_SkylineCharlotte did not get wiped out by the Civil War, and that’s one thing. Therefore, trying to stage a re-creation where there really wasn’t any kind of battle has a kind of comedy to it that appealed to me. That actually happened, the little Skirmish at the Trestle [re-enacted toward the end of the book], but it’s never been celebrated and for good reason – nothing happened. I don’t think anybody died so the idea that they would have a whole weekend celebrating this epic battle at the trestle when there was nothing really that happened just struck me as high comedy. North Carolina didn’t get a lot of the big battles, none of the big battles. I think our Battle at Bentonville was our largest and that was another flop from General Johnston, but I know that they have Civil War re-creations all up and down the state as if we were a vital lynchpin of the Confederate military theater so I thought that was partly funny.

I wanted a classic new Southern city. Charlotte has built its empire on trucking and banking and courting high-tech, and it’s definitely a new kind of city. They’ve made some good decisions, they’ve had some good mayors. (I think some of the mayors should have stayed in Charlotte and not tried to become governors.) It’s also a city that has tremendous numbers of wealthy people surrounded by the rest of us, and I thought wherever the wealthy are, that’s always interesting.

The white supremacist country club, the inequalities of black and white life in the South, the disgrace of being descended from a Civil War general – these topics were perennials, and Duke and Jerene let her carry on and fume, talk herself hoarse in the car, but there was a more serious showdown of wills ahead: Annie’s debut. – Annie Johnston’s chapter

“Lookaway, Lookaway” is very different from your other books. Why was this the time to write a Southern novel? 

I had not lived in the South since I was a teenager. That was by design. I lived in New York, I lived in Los Angeles for eight years, I lived in Europe for five years. I really had no interest in coming back to North Carolina, and then North Carolina started seeming to me really liveable again. And frankly after you’ve been in New York and LA and lived in a foreign country, you don’t need a lot of the things you thought you needed when you were in your twenties. I did not need to go see a movie at 3 in the morning like in New York City.

So, I did come back when there was a job at North Carolina state. My father and a number of our relatives have gone here, so it was very familiar. I decided, I guess I’ve been here a few years, maybe it’s time to write my Southern book. I was working on a western, and I had to put it aside. I started getting curious about the South and I think I’d held off writing a Southern novel, even though I’m Southern – born and bred in Winston-Salem, North Carolina – I’d held off because I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I knew what I thought. A lot of things still perplexed me and maddened me and bemused me, so I think it took me a while to know exactly what I thought about the South.

emmaAnd then I also made the decision I’d only write one. I was going to write one Southern novel and that would be it, and then I’d move on to other topics. This is my one and only. I decided I’d put everything I ever wanted to say about the South in one book. It’s funny, because I was going to have more about music, and I was going to have a whole chapter about somebody who worked in promotion of NASCAR, because when I worked at Sports Illustrated, I was the NASCAR reporter. I started off with everything in the Southern kitchen sink and then I pared it down to what you have now.

Any final thoughts?

I had a great deal of fun writing it. I thought it’d never end, but then I looked up and I realized I was going to be without these characters. I’ve lived with Jerene Johnston for about six years. She’s been in my head, looking over my shoulder, probably not approving. It’ll be fun to do a book tour and read from these characters, but in a few months, it will all be over. The dust will have settled and these characters will be out of my life, and I think that will be a little sad for me.

Enter to win a copy of “Lookaway, Lookaway” tomorrow during Literary Friday!

Barnhardt is also the author of “Emma Who Saved My Life,” “Gospel” and “Show World.” In addition, he wrote the introduction to “27 Views of Raleigh: The City of Oaks in Prose & Poetry,” which is due out September 15. View his booksigning schedule, which starts August 23, here

Charlotte skyline photo courtesy of CRVA and taken by Patrick Schneider Photography. 

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