Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“the goal of people living in the South is to leave; the goal of New Yorkers is to not leave.”

I’ve just returned home to Connecticut from Canyon Ranch, three pounds lighter (maybe it is just water weight, but still – pretty remarkable) and spiritually centered from daily sun salutations. Not wanting my newly acquired Zen to be shattered by honking city cabs and Park Avenue suits on cell phones, the other afternoon I decided to hold a phone interview with Greg Downs.

Downs grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, two states that are so purely southern as to conjure in me, a Yankee in every sense of the word, images of fried okra and tobacco-chewing hicks in overalls. But Downs is far from a hick: with an impressive set of degrees under his belt (specifically, and in chronological order, from Yale, University of Iowa, Northwestern, and University of Pennsylvania), an award-winning book of short stories entitled Spit Baths, a job as a history and creative writing professor at City College, and two books in the works, he may just be the best thing to come out of the South since the Allman Brothers.

Putting his Ph.D in history to good use, one of the books that Downs is working on is an examination of Americans’ relationship to our government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because most of his historical investigations remain squashed between post-Civil War Reconstruction and the New Deal, the research that he does is mainly on-site archival work.

“I work a lot with university, private, or state archives, as well as with personal letters and diaries,” he explains. Luckily, Downs did not have to camp out in university libraries while working on his book, because many places allow researchers to take digital snapshots of the texts. “Being able to take pictures changes the balance of time; now you can take images quickly and then make notes on your computer at home.”

Though the more personal smatterings of 19th century text, like letters and journals, tend to exist solely in the tangible world, various works have indeed become digitized. Now, a 19th century political pamphlet may be just as accessible to the average Web surfer as a 21st century blog, allowing us to “get much closer to primary sources without having to travel.”

Both Downs’ historical studies and his fiction work have been molded by his southern upbringing. When I ask him what exactly it was about the 19th century South that interests him enough to write a whole book about it, he says it has a lot to do with the fascinating mélange of racial tensions and discovered identities that marked the period.

He’s certainly correct in his belief that many of the “emotionally wrought” issues of this time are also very relevant. As a child, Downs was never presented with a romanticized, Confederate-flag-still-flying vision of his home; instead, he understood that “as a southerner, there’s always a question of guilt…[we deal with a] bleaker view of the story of the human condition.”

Downs grew up in a whose-nephew-are-you type of town, a place where there was rarely a new kid on the block. The emphasis on familial ties was so deep-rooted as to border on archaic, and a certain aspiring writer wanted just one thing: to get out.

“My grandmother’s life was structured by the town,” Downs explains, “and I used to be interested in the concept of maintaining personal ties in a changing world that is training you not to believe in them.” This dichotomous strain between the old and the new, the obsolete and the fresh, is exactly how Downs defines his early works of fiction: “my writing was about leaving hometowns and the relationship between present and past.”

Having moved to a city where the goal of the townsfolk is, contrastingly, to do whatever it takes not to have to leave (except for the occasional trip to the suburbs on a putrid summer day, perhaps), Downs faces a whole new set of questions ripe to be reckoned with. “I’ve learned that the quirks I thought were particular or rooted in personality get reproduced in weird ways all over the place,” he says, his voice crackling due to my BlackBerry’s precarious connection.

For example, perhaps his mother wasn’t really a neurotic nut-job for being simultaneously ecstatic when her son got into Yale and distraught at the thought that he would never return home; her reaction was merely circumstantial. Parent/child relationships in the city have a different dynamic, one that’s less concerned with gain and loss, because “parents don’t think that kids are going to become writers or engineers and leave New York.”

So, will Downs’ next novel relocate from a shack in Appalachian Kentucky to an overpriced brownstone on East 67th St.? Knowing his track record, he’ll have it written and ready for print in a year.

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