Interview With Anthony V. Bukoski, Part Two
TJF: I’ve mentioned to you my Uncle Dan who once lived in New Orleans and was a leading expert on port facilities. You’ve been to New Orleans and have spent time in Louisiana. On the one hand, no two places could be more different than Northern Wisconsin and Southern Louisiana. On the other hand, your Southern experiences seem to have been fruitful. . .
AVB: I’ve set stories in Superior and Natchitoches, Louisiana, where my wife and I lived when I taught at Northwestern State. One Superior-Natchitoches story appeared in the South Carolina Review, one in New Orleans Review. The latter, “Pesthouse,” earned a 2001 Pushcart Prize Special Mention. Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio’s Chapter A Day program aired another story set in the two places. “The Tools of Ignorance” concerns a ballplayer who can’t hang on with the Texas League Shreveport Captains. Having lost his girlfriend in Natchitoches along the way, he returns to Superior to tend bar at Heartbreak Hotel. Also, the actor Liev Schreiber of “Ray Donovan” fame read a story of mine that first appeared in Louisiana Literature, edited by a former Northwestern State colleague. Mr. Schreiber read the piece at a theatre in New York City. Later, the reading was broadcast on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts: A Celebration of the Short Story. I say all of this this with humility and gratitude. Our life in the South was indeed fruitful. Stories and friendships came out of it. Fruitful, too, has been the time in Yankeeland that I’ve spent thinking about the South. In 1985, I lost my teaching job when a sinking oil economy hit Louisiana hard. My wife and I returned to Superior. The last time I visited Louisiana I went to observe the sugarcane harvest and to learn about the Polish Displaced Persons that worked in the cane fields after World War II. The stories that came from the trip make up a part of North of the Port (2008). Now I’m planning to write a novel set in Superior and in Mississippi and Louisiana.
TJF: How did your interest in the South develop?
AVB: Partly with a Christmas present from my parents. When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 6th or 7th grade, I began to notice the South. This would have been in 1957 or ’58. The allusions and the dialects in the book were difficult, so I was proud of myself for finishing it. One sunny February afternoon after I’d completed the book, I had an insight related to Mark Twain. Looking out a back window toward the bay, I realized—was stunned, really, to learn--he’d lived for a number of years in the same century as I, Twain having died on April 21, 1910. At age 12 or 13, I became aware of time and literature in a different way from before. This is why I mention something so innocuous as looking out the window at the snowy earth. Th awakening is vivid in my imagination. It was a Sunday around 4 P.M. I was home alone. In that moment, both literature and time became different for me. If Twain was alive something like forty-seven years earlier, then I was a part of the same century and in this small way was connected to him, to an author, which meant literature wasn’t something found only in classroom books and Christmas presents but was written by a real person perhaps not so long before.
This next event further encouraged my interest in the South. It was around the time of the Mark Twain discovery, or maybe a year earlier, that Civil War caps were popular with boys. I didn’t know which to buy at Lederman’s in East End. Blue? Gray? Yank? Reb? Though living in far northern Wisconsin, I liked the gray cloth of the Rebel cap, the black visor and chin strap, above them the crossed rifles, the Confederate flag on the top. I liked the song “Dixie.” Still, given the slavery question, I did what I thought was moral and remained a Yankee. And all the while, Superior, a northern town, was beginning its decline.
Let me offer other examples of how the American South eventually won the war for a boy’s imagination. At the Superior Theater in East End, I’d see previews for movies set in the South. Passing the “show house” during the week, I’d study the lobby cards advertising the movies. I’d recognize their titles on the Catholic Legion of Decency list published in the Herald Citizen. Sometimes I’d come upon an article explaining why a movie like “A Streetcar Named Desire” should be offensive to Catholic audiences. Not only were the titles of the movies poetic, they suggested something repressed, neurotic, sexual, “Baby Doll,” for instance. In time, in 1963 I think it was, I became enthralled by “The Long Hot Summer,” a movie based on William Faulkner’s novels.
I was a goner by then anyway. One winter evening in my room upstairs, I’d pulled in a New Orleans’ radio station on the Wards Airline radio. I remember the announcer saying, “It’s a rainy night in the French Quarter,” then explaining why New Orleans was called “the Crescent City.” That did it for me. After a hitch in the Marines, I completed a B.A. in English, wrote an M.A. thesis on Thomas Wolfe, then a Ph.D. dissertation on an aspect of Southern literature. Charming Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, was the ideal place to begin a college teaching career, until the oil economy went bust and my services were no longer needed.
TJF: Speaking of the South, you have seemed to like Southern writers, and I know George Garrett liked your work. Russell Kirk used to call himself a “Northern Agrarian.” Are you, at least literarily, a Midwestern boy with a Southern soul?
AVB: You might say I have Northern and Southern souls. I guess I like extremes, the thought of a cold, wintry, forbidding place and a lush, beguiling one. It may have been in Southern Living magazine where I once saw advertised a T-shirt with this message: “Southern by Choice Not Birth!” Though I could justifiably wear such a shirt, my allegiance still has to be to northern Wisconsin. After all, my immigrant grandparents settled here, and I grew up here. Louisiana, Mississippi—the Deep South in general—come in a close second. My book editor of 18 years was from Savannah. Shirley Ann Grau, the Metairie, Louisiana, short-story writer, novelist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, was good to me, too. One of my best friends was from Pelham, Georgia, another from Atlanta. I lived for a year and a half in Virginia and for a short time courted a girl from Manassas, where “Stonewall” Jackson got his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run. In short, I’ve been enchanted by the beauty of the South, by its literature. On a small hill on the Northwestern State University campus rise three Greek columns. The building they supported has long since burned down. With a miasma rising from the Cane River, the columns are bewitching in the Southern moonlight.
On our living-room wall hangs a painting of Tennessee Williams wearing a white linen suit. Behind him, a streetcar, its windows lit, rolls down Desire, and beyond that the dark trees, though some evening light colors the sky. In another room, we have a framed sketch, purchased in Oxford, Mississippi, of Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. I have been a frequent visitor to both places. My last time in Natchitoches, the time I ventured south of there to study the cane harvest, I attended an NSU football game. From high in Turpin Stadium, I could see the countryside. A slight haze had settled over the fields. The band played “Summertime.” “I love this place,” I thought. “It could be home--” Oxford, too, although I’ve heard that in both towns the real estate developers have taken over.