Friday, December 4, 2015

David Armand: An Interview with St. Tammany 'Rough South' Writer

by Donald G. Redman

David Armand
Photo courtesy David Armand
David Armand’s third novel, The Gorge, was released in October 2015 and early reviews are full of praise for the Louisiana native and award-winning author. Armand is among a new breed of writers whose works are classified as “Grit Lit” or  regionally as "Rough South" literature (rough-edged Southern Gothic primed for violence), influenced by the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown.

Armand hasn’t forgotten his roots, his old stomping grounds in northern St. Tammany and Washington parishes play prominent roles in his novels. The geographical anomaly and horrific past of Fricke’s Cave in the Bogue Chitto State Park just south of Franklinton was the inspirational setting for The Gorge. Despite its name, Fricke’s Cave more closely resembles a gorge and it was there in 1980 that two ex-cons raped, tortured and murdered a young woman, which later served as the backdrop to Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Dead Man Walking, a biographical account of her relationship with one of the killers on death row.

In addition to being an established writer, Armand is a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana, where he also serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. He received his bachelor’s degree in English in 2004 and his master’s degree in 2006.

In 2010, Armand won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist's Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, was published by Texas Review Press in 2013. Armand's third novel, The Gorge, was published on October 1, 2015, by Southeast Missouri State University Press, and his poetry chapbook, The Deep Woods, was published in September by Blue Horse Press. Armand's memoir, My Mother's House, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press.

Armand recently agreed to a Q& A session with The Redman Writing Project where he talks about his early influences and offers insight into his fiction and poetry.

What were your earliest writing experiences?

ARMAND: The first "real" writing I did was when I was in the third grade and wrote a comic strip for the "Just Say No" campaign. It was an illustrated story about saying "no" to drugs, and it won first place in a contest in St. Tammany Parish. I got a hundred dollars and they hung my winning piece up at the Parish fair. That was the first time I really thought I could actually do something with writing. I had always loved books and reading, so this was a nice motivator.

Did you write for the high school newspaper and did you keep a journal? Did you enter any writing or poetry contests in school? What did you do to foster the writing bug?

ARMAND: I never did write for the high school paper, though I had always wanted to. I just didn't have the motivation as a teenager to talk to the right people to make that happen. Same with poetry contests. I was writing poems in high school, but I just kept them to myself mostly. I wish I had participated more when I was in high school, but I was sort of a loner. I liked to write stories and poems and other sketches, which I kept in notebooks and on scraps of paper in a shoebox. One day, I got so discouraged with the work, I burned it all. Maybe it was a good thing I did because I doubt, now, that any of it was any good.

At what point did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Was there one teacher, one influence or was it just an accumulation of events?

ARMAND: I think it was really just an accumulation of events, and a good deal of luck as well. As I've said, I've always loved reading and writing from when I was a small boy, so it just seemed natural to me that I would start writing my own stories. It wasn't until I got to college and started studying creative writing that I learned how I could do this professionally. 

How did you get your first start? What was your first published piece?

ARMAND: My first published piece was a poem that appeared in the undergraduate creative writing journal at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I went to college. I was writing a lot of poems then, so it was nice to get a couple of them in print. I was submitting poems all over the place then, getting a lot of rejections, so it was nice to get an acceptance.

Tell us about your poetry:

ARMAND: The poems I've been working on lately are generally about my family. They're simple narrative poems, but ones I hope lend themselves to multiple readings. I hadn't written a poem for over ten years, so it was refreshing to return to that form again. They're a nice reprieve from the intensity and time spent writing novels. 

Tell us briefly about your novels:

The Fricke's Cave boardwalk at
Bogue Chitto State Park

Photo by Donald G. Redman
ARMAND: My novels all take place around Folsom, Franklinton, Bush, Sun, and Amite, Louisiana. These are the places with which I'm most familiar and for which I still hold a deep fascination--the people, the landscape, etc. All three of my books deal with people who are desperate, whether it be desperately in love, desperate for escape, desperate for acceptance, and also the idea of maintaining hope in the darkest of situations. I like to think of these novels as a sort of trilogy, even though they're not dependent on one another plot-or-character-wise. 

Asked which of your three novels I should read first, your wife immediately responded, Harlow. Why?

ARMAND: I think I agree with my wife that Harlow is the best exemplar of my work and what I'm trying to do with language and my expression of hope in the face of despair. It's also the most personal of my books, as it is based loosely on my own experience searching for my biological father and the disappointment I had when I did meet him. I was surprised by how many readers have approached me and told me they could relate to this story. I think because it was so personal to me, that it resonated with others. 

Most writers will tell you that there is a particular time of the day they feel they are most creative and do most of their writing. When do you do the bulk of your writing?

ARMAND: Well, I write all the time. Whether I'm physically at the keyboard or not, I feel as though I'm always writing--taking mental notes, observing people, paying attention to conversations, etc. That's part of writing to me--listening and watching, being observant. Also reading constantly--I think doing both of those things are ultimately more productive than forcing yourself to sit in front of a keyboard for four hours a day or whatever. That can produce a lot of uninspired work. I'm more concerned with quality over quantity. When I'm working on a project, though, I try to write every day until it's finished, simply so I don't lose momentum. 

What was the biggest lesson you learned while writing your first novel?

ARMAND: I learned the self-discipline it takes to devote oneself to a project that can take years of one's life with no promise of any reward (in the case of a novel, of course, the reward would be publication). I also learned that I have that self-discipline and patience to keep doing it. Additionally, I learned how to cut--my first novel, as well as my third one, were cut nearly in half before they were ultimately published. I have filing cabinets full of pages that were cut from my novels. 

What advice would you give to novice writers or even those unpublished writers still slugging it out?

ARMAND: I would just say to keep slugging it out. Find some folks to read your work who will give you honest feedback, then keep working on it. At some point, start sending it out. Don't be discouraged by rejections--they're inevitable. Use them to motivate you. Go take a look in a bookstore at some of the books being published and find ones that you think aren't any good. It's OK to tell yourself that, "if this book can get published (whatever book it is), then mine can, too." 

What are your interests? How do you incorporate your interests into your writing or how have they influenced your writing?

ARMAND: Spending time with my family, reading, and watching movies. One day, I'd like to do a lot more traveling. My writing is definitely influenced by film in the sense that I think about things like mise en scene and trying to make my stories cinematic without losing the poetry of the language. I love directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and David Lynch. My books definitely try to pay homage to them and the work they've done for the screen. 

What are you writing today?

ARMAND: Right now, I'm working on another novel, The Lord's Acre, which is about a religious cult here in Louisiana. I'm also thinking about collaborating with an artist friend of mine on a graphic novel and also maybe writing a screenplay. 

Where can people find your work and where can they follow you?

ARMAND: Of course, folks can order my books from Amazon or directly from the publishers. They can follow me on Twitter or Facebook by going to my website:

List five of your favorite authors:

ARMAND: Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Stephen King, Larry Brown, and William Faulkner

List ten books you’ve read that you’ll never forget:

ARMAND: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, Dirty Work by Larry Brown, Light in August by William Faulkner, Maus by Art Spiegelman, In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, The Liar's Club by Mary Karr, and Deliverance by James Dickey.

What are you reading right now?

ARMAND: I'm reading a few different things: Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, which is a biography on David Foster Wallace, Blood and Grits and Madonna at Ringside, two books of essays by Harry Crews, Dynamite, a book of poems by Anders Carlson-Wee, and Trashed, a graphic novel about garbage collectors. My reading taste is very wide-ranged lately. I read everything.

Would you be willing to grant us permission to reprint a poem of your choosing on our blog?

 ARMAND: Yes. "Photograph of My Father" is one of my favorites.

“Photograph of My Father” 
by David Armand
You’re standing in the kitchen of that old trailer
that you rented for us on Davidson Road
and where we lived for a couple of months
while you cleared some land just north of here in Folsom
to put another trailer that you were going to buy brand new.
I remember that one of the toilets in that old place
never flushed right and the whole trailer leaned
on its cinder blocks so that all the doors inside
hung wrong and they would creak open
in the middle of the night sometimes.
But there was a horse paddock in the front yard,
a couple of stalls where once I watched
you help deliver a colt and where another time
I saw you get kicked in the chest by its father.
There was also a great field where we rode Go-Karts
and where one time you pulled my brother and me
behind your truck on our scooters
with a piece of rope you found in the shed.
We hunted quail back there in that field too,
pitched baseballs, shot bows and arrows
at little paper targets. And we went fishing
in a pond that was on another man’s land.
That’s where you caught the fish you’re holding
in this picture. It’s a bass that for some reason
you called “Walter.” Its silver scales and wide mouth
are open around your closed hand and its caudal fin
comes all the way down to your belt—
I swear that fish must’ve been three feet long.
You’re smiling about as much as you ever did here:
your teeth aren’t showing. Just a tight, hard grin
that’s barely visible beneath your beard
and your beer-reddened face and cheeks.
You’re also younger in this picture
than I am now, probably by at least five years,
and have only a dozen more left to live.
But of course you don’t know that here.
How could you?
Behind you the counter’s covered with grocery bags,
a box of Frosted Flakes, some pots and pans
and their lids. There’s a sugar bowl, paper towels
a couple of two liter bottles of Coke, a coffee maker.
You’re standing in front of that counter
and just to the right of a dingy yellow refrigerator
wearing dark jeans and green hospital scrubs
that you got when you went to the Emergency Room
after you nailed your hand to a rabbit cage that time.
Do you remember that?
Anyway, this fish you’re holding is staring out
past your thick, dark arms, past the mess
of our kitchen and the mess of the life you built
for us but that was still somehow pretty good.

Photo copyright David Armand. All rights reserved.
"Photograph of My Father" copyright 2014 David Armand. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2015 Donald G. Redman. All rights reserved.

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