An Interview with Ken Wells
RH: Who were your literary models, or heroines and heroes?
KW: I’m a huge fan of Eudora Welty, who set the bar for all “regional” writers by proving that you could write about a few square miles of backwater America and make it interesting to the entire world. I greatly admire many of the other usual suspects: John Steinbeck, Willie Faulkner, Twain and Willa Cather and, perhaps showing my tastes are more eclectic than refined, I devoured as a young man James Fenimore Cooper, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe and Jules Verne. More contemporarily, I like Saul Bellow, Richard Russo and the late-great Edward Abbey and, closer to home, Ernest Gaines and Tim Gautreaux. And my favorite book of the last decade is hands-down Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” I was struck with awe and jealousy at the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of it. That said, I think my all-time favorite novel is still “Tom Jones” by Henry Fielding. Perhaps I love most how utterly contemporary that book is, and how he handled bawdy themes in a literary way-another inspiration for my work.
RH: Your writing seems very natural and easy, and humor is a large part of your appeal. And yet the critics have recognized the serious literary underpinnings of your work. Is it difficult to pull off both at once?
KW: I think it would be very hard to have grown up in South Louisiana and not appreciate humor-the place, often unintentionally, was/is hilarious. There’s a line in Junior’s Leg about him treating an upset stomach with Pepsi-Bismol. I didn’t make that up: my sweet old Aunt Heloise from Thibodaux, bless her heart, called it that all the time. Such endearing malapropisms were a constant part of the Cajun family landscape. So I guess I don’t think of myself as a humorist as much as perhaps a reasonably keen observer of the human spirit with an ear toward recognizing what makes people laugh. As for the writing part, well, all I know about it is that I like to write, and long before I liked to write, I loved to tell stories-as did my father and grandfather before me. As for any serious literary label, yikes! I’ll just leave that to others to sort out. When I first heard the term “literary fiction” applied to Meely I could only think: damn--that probably means a book that’s not expected to sell more than a few hundred copies!
RH: Although you’re from the South, you’ve moved away and are now a journalist in the Northeast. You’re encountering different experiences now in a different region of the country. So what draws you to write about the South?
KW: People are somewhat surprised-I sure am-that these books seem to have come pouring out of me in a rush. I’m just opening up my head and letting the bayou run out. The axioms are true: you can take the boy out of the bayou but you can’t take the bayou out of the boy, and you write best about what you know. Hence, my compulsion to try to capture on paper at least the spirit of the place and time I grew up in, and the people I grew up among. Plus, let’s face it-the Cajun delta really is a gumbo of color and one of the last real places in America. And literarily speaking, it’s relatively unexploited.
RH: What was it like growing up on Bayou Black, La.?
KW: Imagine two parallel roads winding for 12 miles with a broad, dark ribbon of water--the bayou--in between. Imagine scattered farmhouses with tin roofs and broad porches set on wide lawns of St. Augustine grass. Imagine a sea of sugar cane surrendering eventually to swamp and hardwood forest full of cypress and moss-draped live oak. That was Bayou Black, a place of maybe 350 people built not around a town square but strung out along opposing banks of an ancient bayou. We lived "down" the bayou, about five miles from town, on a five-acre farm with a cow, six dogs, countless feral cats, a pet mink named Stinky and a mischievous pet monkey named Peanut. Peanut was a gift from one of our bayou neighbors, "Alligator" Annie; she ran a reptile menagerie from her bayouside farm.
Almost everyone on Bayou Black (except my dad, an interloper from backwoods Arkansas) was Cajun. People of my mother's generation or older still spoke Cajun French, which is a patois of perfectly fine 19th Century country French and a smattering of English. Almost everyone there worked in sugarcane but work was far from the center of bayou life. Everybody had a boat--or at least a pirogue, the Cajun canoe--tied up to homemade docks and much free time was spent fishing and hunting and otherwise collecting the bayou's bounty of wild things for the pot. Cajuns are sociable folk; they love to eat, drink and dance, and the center of bayou social life was Elmo's Bar, a combination grocery store and honky-tonk, named for Elmo Giroir, its owner.
A typical bayou scene: Elmo, out fishing one day, caught a 120-pound loggerhead turtle, a creature whose head is the size of a cantaloupe and whose shell has massive raised ridges that make it look prehistoric. After a suitable period of display in a washtub atop the bar, Elmo dressed the turtle and cooked sauce piquant for the whole bayou. The food was free; people came on Saturday night and plunked coins in an aging jukebox full of Cajun music and Fats Domino records (six songs for a quarter) and ordered copious amounts of beer from the bar. Everyone started to dance. In typical Cajun fashion, this turned into what the Cajuns call a fais-dos-dos--a party for all.
RH: Are any of your characters based on people you know in real life? How much of your writing is non-fictive?
KW: My characters are seldom invented whole cloth but they are never “real” people. Most are composites-I’ll admit, for example, that there is a lot of Grandpa Wells, and some of my father, in Meely’s dad. I never really knew a Junior Guidry. But I cut my teeth as a reporter during South Louisiana’s Oil Patch booms, and a vast amount of the color of the book is based upon my impressions of people, places and situations during that time. But none of it is strictly “true.”
RH: You write in two very different forms: newspaper articles and novels. How is each one different? Which comes more easily? Which do you prefer?
KW: Publishing Meely after 18 frustrating years of trying to publish fiction was one of the greatest thrills in my life. But I also think the discipline I learned from all those years as a frontline reporter and editor, immersing myself in the stylebook and knocking out stories under deadline pressure, made the crafting of Meely easier when the Muse paid her fickle visit to my shoulder. Journalism seems harder to me-mostly because, unlike fiction, your writing it absolutely anchored to fact. On the other hand, I seem to have been able to deftly compartmentalize the two forms and I find now that they are mainly complimentary, with each providing a welcome break from the other. But if you tied me up and threatened to dunk me in a boiling crawfish pot, I’d admit that my real love and passion now is the writing of my novels.
RH: Having completed the Catahoula Bayou trilogy, what are you working on next? Given your background as a journalist, do you plan to write a nonfiction book at some point?
KW: Actually, I’m working on a book about beer culture in America. It’s my first foray into nonfiction and I’m a bit nervous about it. But, hey-a chance to travel around the country immersing myself in beer culture, beer people and the beer industry (and beer itself!), how could I say no?
My next fiction project is Crawfish Mountain. It’s actually a book that predates Meely and deals (in an engaging way, I hope) with serious issues of environmental degradation and political corruption in South Louisiana.