Editorial Fiction Interviews on writing

The Wild Journey to Fiction: An Interview with Ashley Oliphant

I discovered a Rudyard Kipling quote: “Once you’ve ruined your reputation, you can live quite freely.” I knew instantly that the quote was a wacky novel waiting to happen, though I certainly had no intention of writing it. Over the next three sun-quenched island days, I couldn’t shake the question: What would my life be like if I genuinely didn’t care what other people thought?—Ashley Oliphant

keyIn the novel In Search of Jimmy Buffet: A Key West Revival, protagonist and all-around heroine Livie Green performs what can only be described by parallels to some maneuver in football that I would know nothing about or a magnificent yet rarely done circus trick: she actually breaks free from the life she no longer enjoys. Tracing the journey of Livie Green through the novel—the deeply southern humor, the moments of quiet yet thoughtful disappointment, and the search for something more—makes Ashley Oliphant’s debut novel well worth the read. At the start of the journey, Livie is a disgruntled English Professor at a small, liberal arts university in North Carolina who is fed up with an outdated and out of touch administration. Paired with the never-ending pile of essays from over packed classes, when the siren song of Key West calls, even I, the reader, am ready to join her. (Full disclosure, Oliphant is a friend, colleague, and fellow professor at the—yes—small, liberal arts university in North Carolina where we both teach.)

Since the publication of Oliphant’s novel, I’ve found myself intrigued by how she went from being decidedly not a novelist—Oliphant’s first book is a practical and beautiful fossil guide entitled Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast and her second book is the scholarly examination Hemingway and Bimini: The Birth of Sport Fishing at “The End of the World”—to bringing alive the carnival world of Key West with a group of lively and vivid characters. Just as Livie Green’s story is a wild journey, I should have known that Ashley Oliphant’s path to fiction would be exactly the same.

TFP: Your journey to writing fiction hasn’t been what some would consider the most traditional path. Can you talk about that journey, as well as your academic interests as a scholar and your interests as a reader?

AO: To say that my path to writing fiction has been untraditional is a bit of an understatement. Up until the moment that I opened my journal and starting scrawling the sentences of my first novel, I was thoroughly convinced that I would never write one. Two main factors really converged at an opportune moment: an incredibly pure and overwhelming inspiration and a decades-long build-up of reading and research. I think most writers would say that everything they read leaves a residue – either positive or negative. Until I wrote a novel, I did not realize how powerful those influences were on even the subconscious level.

My reading interests are varied. I like the challenge of reading from disciplines I don’t quite understand. That’s one of the reasons my first published book was a fossil identification guide, even though English is my discipline. The impetus to write that manuscript was my dissatisfaction with the books that existed about the topic. As a writer, one of my main strategies for selecting what I think will be a profitable research focus is using what I know as a reader to identify gaps in the literature.

To fully answer your question, as an academic, I am an Americanist who specializes in Hemingway. That specialization was born out of my love for the ocean. I discovered The Old Man and the Sea for the first time as a 16-year-old on a family vacation and was immediately transformed as a reader. Concluding that book, which was consumed in one sitting in a beach chair, was one of the pivotal moments of my life. All of my research interests – fossil shark teeth, the history of big-game fishing, pirates and Jimmy Buffett – are a product of that passion for the sea. I need to have my toes in the ocean at least once a month to maintain my sanity. Solitary beach time is also integral to my creative process. All of my projects have been inspired by long visits to tropical locales.

TPF: How did analyzing, researching, and critiquing texts open the door to writing fiction, or was it something else entirely?

AO: In my case, I wasn’t ready to write a novel until I was approaching 40, and it was a very satisfying experience to have it sneak up on me instead of me planning to write it. Once the story began flowing, my 20 years of analyzing, researching, and critiquing texts as an academic and teacher naturally influenced what I produced. One of my favorite essays of the 20thcentury is T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it he asserts: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

I speak with many students who want to write book-length creative works but are struggling, often because I find they simply don’t have a story to tell yet. They have not lived long enough to possess a full appreciation of the writers who came before them. I needed those crazy modernist thinkers – Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Hemingway – swirling around in my head in order to know what an artistic voice was. Then I needed to have some experiences of my own to be able to find that voice and build enough confidence in myself to use it. Make no mistake: the act of emailing a manuscript to a prospective publisher or agent requires reckless courage.

TFP: Many consider the process of writing fiction versus writing academically to be very different: how did you find the processes compared for you?

AO: My first two projects – Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast and Hemingway and Bimini: The Birth of Sport Fishing at “The End of the World”– were nonfiction pieces. Once I have identified a research topic, I move swiftly, mainly because I become consumed by the excitement of the process. I feed on the research and discovery phase of a non-fiction project. I am not ashamed to say that I live for interlibrary loan. Nothing makes me happier than to receive the notice that the rare book I needed from a library across the country has arrived. An ideal day involves me being up to my knees in books knowing that I have a whole uninterrupted day stretched out in front of me. Writing only works when I am 100% interested in the topic, and I do not feel any pressure whatsoever to produce it. I seek publication only when I feel I have a worthy manuscript in hand. I do not ascribe to the school of thought that says if the text isn’t coming along, you should force yourself to sit at the computer day after day in agony. When I have the right nonfiction topic, nothing will stop the flow. In that way, writing feels like a calling and not a responsibility. I would not gain so much joy from it if it felt like a burden.

The only two commonalities between nonfiction and fiction for me are that I compose quickly (finishing manuscripts usually in a year or less) and that I must be invested. Other than that, they are very, very different. If nonfiction is a perfectly styled coiffure, fiction is that wild hair that just will not cooperate. I am not terribly effective at controlling fiction. It spills out when it is ready, having nothing whatsoever to do with my timeline. Perhaps this is because I don’t have an MFA, and I have never taken a creative writing course. Writing fiction made me feel akin to a tramp/outsider/folk artist – maybe because I am a collector of that genre. To make up for my lack of formal training, however, it was my responsibility to seek advice from more experienced writers. I found their feedback during the various stages of the drafting process to be indispensable.

Fiction obviously is not bound by reality. In writing nonfiction, the writer is constrained by the world that is and the events that happened. Fiction suspends all of those rules, which makes it a much more unpredictable (and sometimes terrifying) prospect. In the end, though, I love writing both fiction and nonfiction for very different reasons.


I am not ashamed to say that I live for interlibrary loan. Nothing makes me happier than to receive the notice that the rare book I needed from a library across the country has arrived.


Banana Colada
Oliphant with her husband, Chris, enjoying the spoils of Key West. Photo taken on the same day as finding the quote [below] by Rudyard Kipling featured on the menu at Amigo’s Tortilla Bar.
TFP: In so many ways, your novel In Search of Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Revival feels like an ode. Indeed, in the process of reading this book, Key West becomes her own character. I’m wondering, how did you work to craft Key West in this novel and how did your preexisting relationship with the space influence your writing?

AO: That novel is indeed an ode to my beloved island. I am perhaps more influenced by place than any other person I know. I first visited Key West with a group of rowdy friends in 2001, and since then, I have had vivid nightly dreams set on the island. I will never escape its hold on me. I go back annually – sometimes twice a year – as a mission of mercy. Everything about Key West inspires me: the way the water changes color depending on where the sun is positioned in the sky, the smell of the air when afternoon thunderstorms begin to percolate but aren’t quite ready to release yet, the serendipitous discoveries one always makes by walking or biking instead of driving. Even after traveling extensively in the Caribbean, I have never found another place that can compare. I must tip my hat to Mr. Hemingway here. He was obviously a master of the “place as main character” framework long before literary critics recognized it as a thing, and Key West was his happy place 50 years before I was born. My infatuation with the island only grew through my musical influences. As the title of my novel suggests, I was raised right on old Jimmy Buffett albums, a catalog of songs written with the most sincere reverence for the Conch Republic. No matter where I am on the globe, at least a bit of my brain is stuck in Key West. I have been incredibly fortunate as well to schedule book signings, launch parties, and invited lectures there because so much of what I write is focused on the island’s history, especially In Search of Jimmy Buffett. My advice to aspiring writers is to think strategically about where a book could take you well before you write it. In the past four years, my research has taken me to the Bahamas, Key West, and New Orleans.


Everything about Key West inspires me: the way the water changes color depending on where the sun is positioned in the sky, the smell of the air when afternoon thunderstorms begin to percolate but aren’t quite ready to release yet, the serendipitous discoveries one always makes by walking or biking instead of driving.


TFP: Livie Green, our heroine and protagonist, also represents the very specific place of North Carolina. Did you have any hesitations merging these two worlds together? How do they speak to each other? In what ways, if any, are their cultures opposed?

AO: I had no reservations about creating Livie Green as she existed in my imagination during the writing process. The honest truth is that 90% of her is me. Again, I read a lot of Hemingway as a young woman, and in his world, character and author naturally merge. The second thoughts for me came when I began to think about how she would be perceived once the novel was released. There is some level of cover for a character in a work of fiction. That safety is tenuous, though, when the autobiographical connections are readily apparent. It doesn’t matter that the inside cover proclaims: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” That disclaimer is quickly forgotten by a reader who sees commonality between the writer and the characters. At the heart of the fictional world I created is a deeply personal space. I love Avery, North Carolina, because it is a lot like Lincolnton, North Carolina, where I grew up. Those crazy southern characters are my people. Livie relates to God in the same way I do. From this deeply personal space, the anxious questions arose as the publication date neared: What if the readers don’t like her? What happens if the audience doesn’t revere the beauty of the South the way I do? Professional concerns also arose because of the handful of references that reveal Livie to be a conservative and a Christian. Despite its high regard for itself, higher education is not the most tolerant place for people who are seen as having “divergent” viewpoints. This situation made me question how I would be received for creating and thus condoning a conservative ideology that might be met with skepticism and maybe even intolerance. As a white-knuckle airline passenger, I always tell others: “If you aren’t scared when you are on an airplane, you aren’t thinking critically about the physics of what we’re doing.” The same holds true for writing fiction. If you aren’t scared out of your mind in the weeks before your novel launches, you aren’t thinking critically about the risks you are taking.

The additional risk with this book is that it is a full-bore comedy. Landing a successful joke is exhilarating. Wondering if a joke will land is the stuff of nightmares. Because I had never written fiction, of course I had never written comedy, so I was very uncertain about its reception. Thankfully, my specific brand of Southern comedy has been very much appreciated in the novel’s reviews.


Landing a successful joke is exhilarating. Wondering if a joke will land is the stuff of nightmares.


TFP: In what ways has your past archival work and general research prepared you for writing this specific book? Was there anything interesting that you discovered about Jimmy Buffett or Key West while in the process?

AO: Archival work is really one of the great loves of my life. As soon as I finished In Search of Jimmy Buffett, I immediately started my next project (a revisionist biography of the fascinating pirate Jean Lafitte) because I missed the thrill of archival research during the year I worked on the novel. As a graduate student reading journal articles by Shakespearean theorists, I felt so intimidated by the critical conversation and so marginalized in that it seemed there was nothing left to reveal about those texts. How could I be expected to say something new about Titus Andronicus in a term paper? My first opportunities to do archival research – at the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and at the E.K. Harry Library of Fishes at the International Game Fish Association for my 2017 Hemingway book – really revealed to me how much work was left to do and how I was just as qualified as any other academic to do it. Textbooks do a solid job of making us feel like history has been written in a final draft. Archival researchers have the power to revise history. It’s a powerful thing. I want my readers and especially my students to catch a contact high from my archival excitement and seek it out for themselves. In finally having the opportunity to read all of Hemingway’s unpublished personal letters in Boston, my mind was completely blown. One of the great moments of my life will always be sitting in the audiovisual department at the Kennedy Library flipping through original Hemingway family photos that had been rescued from his Cuban home.

My latest book project about Lafitte has taken me to archival libraries all over the Southeast, and with every trip I gather the pieces of information that are going to help me revise a widely published and commonly accepted timeline. These discoveries give me energy and drive me forward in my pursuit. Without archival research, I would truly be bored (intellectually anyway).

Menu
Quote by Rudyard Kipling featured on the menu at Amigo’s Tortilla Bar.

TFP: Creative writers, rightly, often push against any assertions that a character in one’s novel is a representation of the author. How did Livie begin to form in your mind as your protagonist?

AO: In teaching my students about analyzing poetry, I am adamant that they learn not to assume the poet is the speaker. I readily admit, however, that there is a lot of me in Livie Green. She began to form as my protagonist during a 2016 trip to Key West with some friends who were even more rowdy than my 2001 crew. My husband and I left our son home with his grandparents and took a long weekend away. In the preface to In Search of Jimmy Buffett, I tell the story of leaving Captain Tony’s Saloon after sitting at the bar for longer than my mother would like for me to acknowledge in print. I walked across Greene Street to Amigo’s Tortilla Bar knowing how badly I needed solid food. It was on the menu that I discovered a Rudyard Kipling quote: “Once you’ve ruined your reputation, you can live quite freely.” I knew instantly that the quote was a wacky novel waiting to happen, though I certainly had no intention of writing it. Over the next three sun-quenched island days, I couldn’t shake the question: What would my life be like if I genuinely didn’t care what other people thought? Because the quote prompted me to reflect on that possibility, I think Livie sort of naturally emerged as an extension of me. Considering how that question applies to your life is a daunting exercise. What is less daunting is considering how it might play out for a fictional character who happens to look an awful lot like you on paper. From a psychological perspective, I suppose one could argue that this book is a result of my own uncomfortable grappling with the question of whether I am happy with my life. It should also be noted that Livie came to life in me in the year before I turned 40, a natural time for reflection and maybe panic, even for people like me who are generally very contented.

TFP: I’m curious how this book, or your other two former books Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast and Hemingway and Bimini: The Birth of Sport Fishing at “The End of the World” may be influencing your role as a professor and in the classroom?

AO: This is my favorite question because I think many professors underestimate how much students need to see us as real people who sometimes hit the same writing road blocks that they experience. I talk about my work all the time in class – not to grandstand but to show my students the world of possibility that is open to them. On those days in freshman composition when we are slogging through a lesson about comma splices, what better way to show students that grammar matters than to bring in a portion of an edited manuscript for your latest book? My American literature students are rarely as excited as I am for Hemingway biography day, but they sure do perk up when I break out pictures of that time I got to go deep sea fishing in the Bahamas in the name of research because I was in Bimini trying to figure out if Hemingway ever came back to the island after 1937. (It turns out he did, and I discovered it through archival and field research.) In explaining how writing is a recursive process, I always tell the story of the first remarks I received from an editor, who with the swift stroke of a red pen deleted an entire chapter about Hemingway in my shark book, a chapter I thought at the time was the best work I had ever produced. Students can relate to my candid and emotional response because it is hard to receive feedback that isn’t positive. After these conversations, it is thrilling to hear from students who are considering their own book projects and want my advice. In my view, the main job requirement of a teacher is that he or she should inspire curiosity in students. With curiosity, the rest of the student learning outcomes fall into place on their own. One of the most effective ways I can foster curiosity is by showing them the messiness and the fun that goes along with being an active writer.


On those days in freshman composition when we are slogging through a lesson about comma splices, what better way to show students that grammar matters than to bring in a portion of an edited manuscript for your latest book?


TFP: As you have been doing book launch events, readings, and interviews, I wonder: What questions have you wanted to have been asked but haven’t yet?

AO: It is astonishing to me that more people at book signings and book club discussions do not ask about the publishing process. Maybe they feel my path to publication is personal and it isn’t right to ask. At the end of question-and-answer sessions when nobody has broached the subject, I always bring it up, and usually what follows is a flurry of interesting follow-up questions. While every writer’s journey is unique, there are commonalities in the process that aspiring writers should always try to glean from experienced authors. As a new author, I completely underestimated the legwork I needed to do before I sought publication. I needed to read a book about writing cover letters and writing a business plan. I researched publishers for months before I submitted the first manuscript for consideration. For me, the business side of the craft is much more intimidating than the creative side. Writers who want their efforts to be profitable have to be willing to invest time in their own professional development. I dramatically increased my chances of publication with the first book because I learned about the industry before I attempted to join it.

williams reserach center
Oliphant visited the Williams Research Center to review Jean Lafitte’s original handwritten letters in October 2018.

TFP: What projects are you working on these days and what’s next for you?

AO: As I said earlier, for the last year I have been actively researching the life of Jean Lafitte because I have never been satisfied with historians’ conclusions about his death. In fact, I have been investigating the possibility that he faked his death and relocated under an alias. The most recent evidence I have uncovered leads me to believe that my hypothesis is correct. Of all the research projects I have had the pleasure of exploring, this is by far the most stimulating. I am a bit out of my comfort zone, though, in that the research has taken a full year, and I anticipate at least another six months of study before I will be ready to begin a manuscript. Readers are also asking for a sequel to the novel. I probably need a week-long vacation (Jamaica maybe) and few pina coladas before I will be ready for that.

 

In Search of Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Revival is available now for order at Amazon. 

 


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Marissa Schwalm is an Associate Editor for The Flexible Persona.