I have to say that there’s something intimidating about Greg Downs when I look at his bio. There’s the Ph.D. and the fact that he’s a professor of history at the City College of New York. He graduated from Yale and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is married to the Associate Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. If that’s not intimidating enough, there’s the fact that Spit Baths, his collection of short stories published by the very academic University of Georgia Press, also happened to win the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
Before I began reading Spit Baths, I wondered if there would be something too academic or inaccessible about the book. I wondered if the characters themselves might be academic and inaccessible. But right away, I found the stories to be populated with boys caught in the middle, boys staying quiet as other people direct their lives, boys with emotions and secrets they must keep to themselves.
So when I spoke to Greg, I was determined to find someone behind all the fancy credentials that knew about lonely boys, failures, and kids that don’t fit in.
Here is Greg in his very together, handsome author shot:
But soon you’ll see the fancy layers peeled away until you get to something soft in the middle.
What are you afraid of?
Forgetting how ugly I looked with long hair. Boy, do I hope someone stops me if I ever get started on that project again.
Did you have any recurring nightmares, either as a child or an adult?
See above. That long-hair dream is a killer.
You know exactly what I’m going to ask for, don’t you?
I hear you used to coach.
Yes, I was a helluva basketball coach. Right after college, I came back to my alma mater, took over the team with all my dreams of Pat Riley style stardom, and led them right into the cellar. The first year that they had the benefit of my expertise, they managed to go a robust 3-24. Now, lest those three big wins mislead you, I should also say that one of those wins was against a church school that played their games in the cafeteria on the tile floor – literally, another we won on a 30-foot-shot that banked in at the buzzer, and the third we won because the team we played suspended their three best players for drinking. I think their coach figured he didn’t need his good players to beat us, but he was wrong! So those three wins didn’t come cheap.
To start off the season, my best player tore his ACL, my second-best player was kicked out of school for carrying a gun in his car, and my fourth-best player was a freshman who weighed – literally – 120 pounds. There were times when the shortest player on the other team was taller than our tallest player. Good times, all around.
Have you ever been fired?
No, but that may be because I walked out the door before they could slam it behind me. I have, however, fired somebody, right before Christmas to boot. I think I cried more than she did. One nice thing about writing stories is that you don’t have to call anybody into your office to tell them they’re being let go.
What kinds of things do you do in your free time?
When I was wooing my wife Diane, we used to travel around with a group of hardcore karaoke addicts, people who sang 3-4 nights a week, all night, at bars around Boston. There was a famous karaoke deejay named China whom they followed from bar to bar. These were folks who carried their own slips with their favorite songs already filled in; instead of scrambling for the book, they’d coolly take out their slip, hand it to the deejay, then take it back at the end of the night.
These people actually had talent. A couple of them had been in bands when they were our age – we were in our 20s and most of them were in their 40s – but just didn’t have the patience to deal with people anymore. But they had routines, shtick, outfits, and decent signing voices.
I had none of those things, so I just made up for it with volume. You knew I was coming up when you saw China turn the volume knobs way down.
I did also try to distract people in the audience by dropping to my knees, tearing open my shirt, pounding the floor, and in other ways try to display an emotion that was sadly lacking in my voice.
My key songs–chosen for their limited vocal range–were “Wanted: Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi, “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” by Willie Nelson (I liked to slow it down), and especially “Heaven” by Bryan Adams, who was clearly twice the artist Ryan Adams is.
I’m begging you for a karaoke photo!
Ha ha ha! I love it! See, now no one will ever forget you. You’re the Karaoke Writer.
Now tell me about your hometown and how you fit into it.
I have a couple of hometowns, which is confusing for other people (and sometimes for me) but was actually really useful. Anybody out there trying to raise their children to be writers (and who isn’t?) should definitely try this. First, divorce, which makes the 2-3 hometowns much simpler to manage. Then parents should move thousands of miles apart, to strange and isolated places. Then ship kid back and forth between said strange and isolated places. Shake, stir, leave to settle, and one writer emerges.
My mother’s family, who mostly raised me, have for 150 years lived in and around Elizabethtown in Hardin County, Kentucky. This is the place that Cameron Crowe used as the name for his movie (though not for much else.) Kirsten Dunst is not walking around, though. Neither was Cameron Crowe for that matter. It’s a medium-sized town near Fort Knox. My mother’s family had been farmers, mostly, and gravestone cutters and local politicians and self-taught “doctors” for a long time. There’s a street named after my great-grandfather who lived to be 102. Now, my cousin is the deputy chief of police there. Along with a taste for some foods, a slightly midwesterny version of the southern accent, and complicated feelings about army bases, the main thing I carry with me from there is a recognition that nothing is quite as important (or painful) as University of Kentucky basketball. Iraq? Pretty big deal, but not like UK losing to Louisville. George Bush’s election in 2004? That was a bad moment, but not as bad as UK’s loss in the NCAAs. As a kid, I once saw a neighbor throw his television out of his window after UK lost a game. From that day on, I set my sights on earning enough money to be able to afford to do that, but so far I’ve had to settle for kicking my toe hard against the wall. This year, though, the TV is a possibility. So 36-0, Tubby Smith, or the TV gets it.
My mother and I lived for a quite a while, though, in Nashville and for several years in Kapahi, Kauai, Hawaii, at the end of a dirt road that was itself at the end of a one lane road, just a valley over from the wettest spot on earth. We lived there a few times, and my dad lived there for the duration, alongside a commune of burnt-out hippies and groups of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) and Filipinos and assorted refugees from the life on the mainland. It was strange being a “haole” with a funky accent in 2nd grade, but I knew from day one that there were some far out places on the planet, and that the idea that the whole world is getting homogenized is, frankly, a lie told by people who live in boring places.
Now, I live in Philly, which is neither homogenized nor home, even though there are parts that do feel like the old South, which is to say homey, impoverished, and a little violent.
Were you one of those Iggles fans throwing ice balls? (Aurelio, the Eagles are a football team from Philly, but I like to say it with the proper Pixtburgh accent.)
My lawyer advises me not to answer that question. If I did throw an ice ball, though, it would only have been in the direction of a known war criminal like T.O., and never at a saint like Big Ben.
I don’t know, when you’re 2 and 5, “saint” isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind. But let’s not talk about my Stillers right now or I’ll get cranky.
How about you tell me about this Philly band you’re wearing on your t-shirt. And what were you doing that got you so sweaty?
Greg likes Marah!
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I like to call Marah the best Southern band around, which confuses people since the brothers who run Marah – Dave and Serge Bielanko – are from Philadelphia. But the kind of music they do is not Southern merely because they play banjoes and harmonicas but because they sing with the oldest Southern faith in the reality of pain, the recognition that anomie and displacement and soul-searching are luxuries of a rich world. In the Nation of Defeat, people experience loss of a more corporeal kind. “A History of Where Someone Has Been Killed,” a life making “nothin’ in a factory,” a record of a day with “seven dollars in my pocket and sixteen cigarettes that somehow I just ain’t smoked yet.” And a place that is haunted by failure, where people “walk out past the spot/ Where there used to be a swing set/ Where a little girl got shot/ I know you’re thinkin about your brother Richard, too/ I wish we could bring him back.”
Southern music, like a lot of Southern literature, was really about poverty, not necessarily about being poor but about the experience of living around poverty all the time. Not a political platform about poverty but just a take on life that grew out of an awareness of it. A lot of Southern artists weren’t poor themselves, but until recently if you lived in the South you lived around a whole bunch of poor people, and no chance of fooling yourself otherwise. The same thing for violence.
Now, there are poor people in the South, but as the South has suddenly got rich and put on its fancy shoes, it has become much more adept at doing what the North was always adept at, hiding them away. And now a lot of the poorest places in the country are northern cities. So it’s no surprise to me that really good Southern music – really Southern – comes out of places like Philly and Detroit and Chicago once you get off the lakefront. What people experience there is what people used to experience in the South.
So Marah are a hardworking band that plays honest, painful rock and roll and sings tough songs but without an ounce of self-pity. Going is like going to a revival, and even someone as self-conscious as I am ends up shouting by the end. So that photo is after a show they did at Asbury Park, New Jersey at the Stone Pony. A friend of mine had seen the author photo they were using for the back book jacket – which is beautiful – and told me that she was going to take a picture of how I really looked, and that is the picture she took.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, though, I say the best Southern band around is the Drive-by-Truckers who are actually from the South and who have a sense of history to keep them from turning the Southern thing into a cliche.
On Sundays, I say the best Southern band around is My Morning Jacket, because you’ve got to stick up for your fellow Kentuckians when they do good.
[Okay Greg is fun, but I suppose we should start talking about writing at some point.] What inspires your ideas for short stories?
I wish it were images. I always think it would be a better idea to start writing from an image and move out into the story. But I don’t think that way. I start with a character or a bit of the story or a voice and try to fill in around it. Often there’s a bunch of ideas floating around in my head, and I wait to see which one becomes an itch that I need to scratch.
Do you like doing readings? What do you worry about most before a reading?
I like the moment the reading is over. Not because I love signing my name – I actually was never one of those kids who practiced his autograph all day – but because I do like talking to people. Right after it’s over, you feel so vulnerable; you’ve just stood in front of people and read something that was written to read on the page, not heard aloud, and probably you’ve read something that wasn’t quite as funny as it should have been. And what will happen if everyone just scoots politely out the door without even acknowledging your presence? Will I have to stand up and wave my arms and say, “Hi Mom! It’s me, Greg!” But then people – strangers – come up and start talking about your story and about writing, and it feels like a real moment of intimacy between people you’ll never see again.
So, this book, Spit Baths, what was the hardest part about writing?
Finding ribbons for my portable Royal typewriter.
You did not write your book on a typewriter. Did you?
Some of the first drafts were written on a manual portable Royal typewriter that had belonged to one of my grandmothers. More recently, though, I switched to doing first drafts longhand. My wife jokes that pretty soon I’m going to be chiseling first drafts in stone.
Um. Okay, on the cover of your book, I have to say the little pencil drawing thing is very eye-catching, but what exactly is it? A puddle?
I think someone at the press spilled their beer on the cover mockup, and they drew the circle around the edges to make it seem artistic and not a mistake.
Or maybe that’s the explanation for the stories inside.
Why did the book cover designer write “Flannery O’Connor winner” around the sticker that says “Flannery O’Connor winner”?
No idea. It was so nice they decided to say it twice?
How long did you shop the stories in this book before you found a home for it?
Maybe a year and a half or so, not nonstop. I had an earlier, longer, uglier version of the book that included all the stories I had published. I was proud of those stories. Getting those stories made me want to keep on writing. I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t end up in my collection. Hadn’t people – strangers – at literary magazines flooded with submissions already accepted them?
I submitted to the Flannery O’Connor, and then I got a nice note from a judge asking why I was spoiling a good book with stories that didn’t belong. And I had to admit that she was right. Not that those stories were bad, just that they didn’t belong. A couple were too raw, a couple were repetitive, a couple were just in a different tone. So I cut them out, wrote a couple of new ones, submitted to the Flannery O’Connor again and got a phone call the next time around, which is always a good sign. What kind of fool calls to give you bad news, when it’s so much easier to send it by mail? So it was good news.
Have any of your colleagues in your department read your book?
None of my history colleagues, though a couple of English professors and administrators who work in the same division that I do. I think the other history professors are happy for me, but they don’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. Come to think of it, I don’t understand it either! One is sometimes reminded of the aphorism that writing is not a vocation or an avocation but simply a bad habit.
What’s next for you?
Right now, a bottle of Troeg’s Pale Ale, brewed in Harrisburg, Pa. Kentucky and Tennessee have the bourbon and whiskey down pat, but I do love the Pennsylvania beers. Troegs and Yuengling and Yards, especially.
But you probably meant beyond the next five minutes. Well, I’m turning my dissertation (don’t ask) into a book of academic history (which is a polite way of saying a book with a readership even smaller than a collection of short stories.’) I’m also revising a novel that
I’ve been working on for a while and am ready to finish up. And I’m playing with some essays about Southernness (often in non-Southern locales) called “The Capital of the Nation of Defeat.”
And I’m obsessively checking the recruiting websites for information about high school sophomores and juniors the University of Kentucky is recruiting to play basketball. Clearly the whims of a 16-year-old with a glandular disorder are more important in the bigger scope of things than my family or my work. If only I were kidding.
So, we stripped Greg down. And when you see him at a reading in his fine leather jacket and his hair all combed . . .
Remember, underneath it all is . . .
But no more will we think of Greg Downs as a fancy, award-winning author with a PhD. Oh no. He’s the sweaty karaoke singer who spills his food and worries you’ll duck out of his reading without saying hello. He’s the one who knows about a boy standing in a parking lot in a catcher’s uniform and punching himself. He’s that guy.
Be sure to “friend” Greg on MySpace and leave a comment about his karaoke and long hair day photos. He’ll love it!
Thanks, Greg! You were a great sport!