Describe your latest book.
On Christmas Eve itself, the bachelor Harley Jackson stepped into his barn and beheld there illuminated in the straw a smallish newborn bull calf upon whose flank was borne the very image of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
"Well," said Harley, "that's trouble."
Turns out he was right.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Writing. It's taken me to the top of Mt. Rainier with veterans of the Iraq War, across America with truckers, on tour with country music stars, and generally on new adventures, in which I — a flat-footed farm kid from rural Wisconsin armed with a nursing degree — have been allowed to do things I'm not qualified to do, go places I couldn't reach on my own, and hang out with people who normally wouldn't hang out with me. Once, for the sake of a story, I stood in the same room as the frozen head of Ted Williams.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
In 2003 I attended a reading at which the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers read her poem "On Listening to the Two-Headed Lady Blow Her Horn," from The Gospel of Barbecue. There were some lines in there that — perhaps because I was raised a fundamentalist Christian but am now a bumbling agnostic with traces of amateur existentialism — struck me to the core:
All that but you
ain't prayed in so
Long. Why bother
with fancy now?
Simple, simple words, but profound in their power. I carried them around for over a decade, hoping to work them — even in fragment — into a book sometime. Finally, in The Jesus Cow, I was given that chance. I am deeply grateful to Honorée not only for giving me permission, but for writing a poem that has resonated in me since the hour I first heard it.
Just now I'm reading Honorée's brand new collection, The Glory Gets.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
As a guy who writes by ear and with little formal training, I don't have much room to talk. Caveat aside, I have come to believe that "sort of" and "kind of" (as in, "It was a sort of massacre, followed by kind of an inferno") have become the National Public Radio equivalent of "like" and "y'know."
Ach, but I catch myself saying all four. So let me create a diversion by saying that my greatest grammatical pet peeve is the gotcha! as described here.
Why do you write?
On one level, I do it for the same reason my brother farms or my sister shows up for her factory shift: to pay the mortgage, put braces on the teenager's teeth, pay the plumber. It's a form of self-employment, no grander than any other.
But above all: every morning when I wake, the first thing I want is time alone with words, and I am allowed it. I cannot believe my luck. Gratitude is the ultimate fuel.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration.
The epigraph leading off The Jesus Cow is a line from a song written by Ray Wylie Hubbard. Singer/songwriters like Ray Wylie, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, James McMurtry, and Michael Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) achieve in song what I can only dream of replicating on the page.
The photographers John Shimon and Julie Lindemann have lived the most artistically committed lives of anyone I've known. They've shot the covers of several of my books and contributed chapter photographs for Coop and Visiting Tom.
Who do you follow on Twitter and why?
I follow Aaron Dessner of The National (@aaron_dessner) and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (@blobtower) because we're working on a music festival together (@EauxClairesWI). Author Christopher Moore (@TheAuthorGuy) because he's one of the world's uproarious Tweeters and he gave me a fountain pen. Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) ever since I discovered him via The Atlantic. Michel de Montaigne (@TheDailyTry) because my next book is about him. Sandy Rustin (@SandyRustin) because she's the actor who read the audiobook version of my middle-grade novel The Scavengers. Author Daniel José Older (@djolder) because he led me to reconsider the practice of italicizing non-English words — a perfect example of the unexpected perspective adjustments available via short-form social media. Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) for his Twitter essays. Blind Boys of Alabama (@blindboys) just to keep tabs on them ever since they allowed me to write the liner notes for their album I'll Find a Way. And the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) because although we've never met or spoken I understand she likes old-school country music and her essays sharpen my understanding of our society as a whole.
If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
Marvin Gaye, singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. This would help me avoid being me in 1983: a high school senior who smelled of English Leather and the barn and had feathered hair and thought that was cool.
Five poetry books within five feet of my guitar that has the International Harvester sticker on it:
Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis
In Other Words by Bruce Taylor
The Poems of Dylan Thomas by Dylan Thomas
The Day Underneath the Day by C. Dale Young
The Gospel of Barbecue by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers