by Valerie Nieman
Press 53, 206 pp., $17.95
Valerie Nieman’s first two books were a collection of short stories, Fidelities, and a poetry collection titled Wake Wake Wake. Now from Press 53 comes Nieman’s first published novel, Blood Clay. This book, set in rural North Carolina, follows two principal characters as the friendship between them slowly develops into romance. Their names are Tracey Gaines and Dave Fordham and, for an understatement, both Tracey and Dave tote serious emotional baggage across Blood Clay’s 192 pages. Occasional passages wherein we dig into their backstories and gain understanding of their emotional baggage are of the book’s strongest moments; I’ll leave that at that.
In case an often-awkward and always-complicated love affair isn’t compelling enough for Nieman’s readers, she throws the involuntary manslaughter of a neighborhood child into the mix. How this affects things? Well, Tracey is witness to the incident, and it takes barely any time for the town at large to point fingers at her for not coming to the child’s rescue. Thus—in your reviewer’s opinion—Nieman has constructed a plenty complex framework for Blood Clay’s plot. What I find most rewarding about this reading experience, though, are Nieman’s acute observations of her characters, as well as her inspirited, stirring prose.
Here’s a look from Dave’s point of view at the way Tracey walks through the halls of the alternative school where they both work: “Tracey Gaines had a certain walk, a kind of slowed quickness he’d tried to characterize: someone who was anxious, trying to walk fast without appearing to do so, or someone eager who equally wanted to hide that fact.” A little cryptic, perhaps, but such is Tracey’s nature as seen through Dave’s eyes. That is, Nieman describes something as everyday as Tracey’s walk in a way that suggests—yet doesn’t reveal—the innermost secrets and desires of both principal characters. Just imagine what it’s like when they hop in the sack.
To represent Nieman’s prose when she’s at the artful top of her game, I’ll resort to some of the book’s most somber sentences (omitting two lines which would spoil a haunting surprise if included). We’re walking through a farmers’ market with Tracey at this point. “The market seemed forlorn, with so many empty spaces. The presence of the missing……Those who remained, the living, the abandoned, huddled in the shadow of those who were lost. Why did she keep trying to make something new on the burying ground of the old?” There’s no shortage of moments like this in Blood Clay, where the circumstances surrounding Nieman’s characters, along with her to-the-marrow passion for and familiarity with those characters, make it seem as if the book is breathing.
And did I mention there’s a gang of stray cats to watch out for? I know, I know, now I’ve got your attention.
Yeah, I had a couple of quibbles with Blood Clay when I first read it, whether it’s kind of pretentious that Tracey doesn’t own a television, that she listens to a fair amount of NPR, and that we readers learn about these things though we might not need to. Mostly that sort of thing. Completely worth it.
Last month I had the pleasure of hearing Nieman read from the book, and the further pleasure of meeting her afterwards. How about another understatement? She’s one of the most unpretentious people I’ve met, to say nothing of her kindness, genuineness, and thoughtfulness. Maybe this here Q&A between her and me (I’m Q, she’s A) will get some of that across:
Q: The principal relationship in the book is between Tracey and Dave, and the development of that relationship begins very early on in the book, page 11 (well, they’ve known each other for a while, but this is where the development begins in terms of the book’s present action). However, this development—like the development of many relationships in real life—goes slow, sputters, and at times it seems as if these two characters might give up on each other. It’s excruciating to read about this romance, excruciating in a great way, I mean. So I’d like you to talk about them, as individuals, as a pair, and about how their internal lives affect what goes on between them.
A: Tracey came first, assembling as most characters do from some of my own experience along with bits and pieces plucked from all over. She was the book, at the start. I don’t remember when Dave surfaced, exactly. He was just there, that next morning, and meshed into Tracey’s life despite both their misgivings.
Each of these characters has a deep emotional wound that hasn’t properly healed, and they “favor” the bad place in much the same way that Dave limps to compensate for his physical damage. Tracey longs for the ease and intimacy of her failed marriage, but can’t seem to make the right connections with a new man. Dave never had a serious relationship—he devoted himself to his widowed mother, then his teaching, and after the attack was unable to see himself as desirable or worthy. So if their relationship is awkward and erratic, that would be expected from their personal histories. It was one of the great joys of the book to see each of them make strides toward wholeness. I did not know that would happen—this novel was the first I’d written where I had no idea how it would end. The E.L. Doctorow quote came along at a rough time in the writing and has remained a favorite: “[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Q: There are some extremely rich and compelling themes in Blood Clay. We’re talking courage and cowardice, guilt and remorse, secrecy, the past, friendship and good ole love, and what I find so remarkable about this is how equally you attend to all of these huge ideas. I wonder if you set out to write a thematically sprawling book. Or was it more so that, as you learned your characters and plot, you learned that the book was, inevitably, about all of these things?
A: It’s really quite a compact book, the result of all those years as a reporter and editor, cutting and cutting on deadline, and my “other life” as a poet. So if the themes are large, I guess that’s a result of the characters themselves, and the situations they find themselves in, rather than a large scope for the telling. The kernel that started it moving was a classic “what if?” As a newcomer, I’d quickly fallen in love with rural North Carolina, seeing many similarities with the fields and farmsteads of my childhood home—so what if that kind of all-in love was rejected, friendship replaced with hostility?
I teach a fiction workshop called “Under Pressure” in which I ask writers to put their characters “between the rock of necessity and the hard place of their psyches.” Tracey is caught in that kind of vise—she wants, needs, to become part of this place, but her ethical decisions set her against the community. The easy way out would be for her to withdraw her testimony, but her internal code will not allow that.
Q: I hope this doesn’t offend you—it would flatter me—but Alice Munro came to my mind any number of times while I was reading your book. I think this maybe has something to do with the book’s dynamics. That is, it’s a rather quiet book, action wise, for long stretches of pages, but in those pages we get such acute and perhaps even loud emotions via interior monologue that something as simple as a look—one Lakeesha’s mother gives Tracey comes to mind—can feel like a damn earthquake. On the other hand, there are moments in the book that are extremely lively; a certain scene with certain dogs comes to mind. What I mean to say is that I think you prove yourself to be a thoughtful and skillful dramatizer in Blood Clay, and I wonder what the process of dramatization, in this case, was like. Did the book’s dynamics reveal themselves as you wrote, or did you set out to write a thoughtful book that is, occasionally, in-your-face.
A: Alice Munro! One of my favorite authors, so I am indeed flattered. I have a penchant for women writers from the cold Northland—Munro, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates. But to return to the question. Both characters have been called “damaged,” and that is true, but I’ve yet to encounter an adult human being who isn’t. They have ventured into the world and been wounded, and have retreated from it—one by moving away from the place where the wounding happened, the other by returning to the solace of home, only to find the support system frayed and failing. In addition to these crossing plot arcs, I learned in the writing that this was a story about the tension between the individual and the world—between the monk who is part of a community and one who is a hermit. The solitary retreats to his or her chosen place, and in work and meditation, considers his or her soul and its relation to the divine. The member of a community is confronted with the daily joys and irritations of living among others, and in that community also approaches a relationship with God. So the movement between loud and quiet, action and contemplation, reflects that tension between solitude and encounter.
Q: Okay, lame question, but I gotta ask: What was it like writing from a man’s point of view, Dave’s? Have you made this move before in writing? If not (or even if so, I suppose), did you find writing from a man’s point of view to be, perhaps, intimidating?
A: One of the great disparities in our culture is that girls are allowed to be “tomboys” but the reverse is almost never allowed, much less indulged. The recent uproar over a video showing a mother playing with her young son by painting his toenails show how deep this gulf is. I was a tomboy—I ran barefoot, played with little green army men, fished, built dams, played rough and tumble football with my cousins. I remember my grandmother intoning, “Whistling girls and crowing hens will always come to some bad end,” but I was undeterred. I remained more in the male world than the female until—well, I still run barefoot, fish, prune trees, collect rocks, and know a thing or two about cars and football. So writing from a man’s point of view is not as alien as it might seem. My previous novel, Survivors, is a story of a father and son, told primarily from their viewpoints. My work-in-progress has a first-person female narrator, but there is a male presence in the form of her father’s letters to his absconded wife.
A fellow teacher once used my story “Worth” in the classroom, and asked the students if the story had been written by a man or woman. They were unanimous in their belief that the male narrator’s insights into tractors and feed stores and fishing meant that it had to have been written by a man—one woman even defended that position with a close reading of the text for her major paper. So I guess I come close, or hope I do. Every time we inhabit any one of our characters we are being enormously bold.
Q: Children in this book are, in a word, nonexpendable. They affect Tracey’s and Dave’s internal lives very much, to say nothing of how one child’s life, in particular, sets the book in motion. And of course we’re not talking about cutesy, loveable, innocent children. We’re talking about children with serious problems. Or, rather, I’d like you to talk about them.
A: Neither Tracey nor Dave has a child, yet they are in loco parentis as teachers. Their students at the alternative school demand more attention, more mentoring, because of their various issues, and Dave in particular seems willing to go the extra mile with these kids. The children, in their dependence and vulnerability, are the most intense signifiers of the problems in our culture, the canaries in the coal mine.
Q: The South is a powerful force in Blood Clay. How do you see setting—the South, specifically—working throughout the novel? As for a couple of trivial questions in this regard, are you a Southerner? And if not where are you from, and what research did you do to write—in my opinion—beautifully and truthfully about the South?
A: I’m a newcomer to North Carolina, 14 years ago, but rather than thinking of my nature as North or South, I think of myself as a lifelong inhabitant of “the Borders.” I grew up in a very rural corner of western New York State, a Yankee indeed, yet farm life and closeness to the Canadian border, for me at least, set up certain resonances with the rural South. I went to college in West Virginia, just below the Mason-Dixon line, and then worked as a reporter there and homesteaded a small farm. West Virginia is neither North nor South, neither agrarian nor industrial, but some of both. It was once called “the bastard child of a political rape,” a part of Virginia but apart from it, separated in the midst of the Civil War. Most of the state was occupied by small farmers and loggers, miners and foreign-born artisans—yet there was enough attachment to the slave-holding aristocracy of Virginia that a rail line that ran near my home had to be guarded by Union troops stationed in sight of one another for the remainder of the war, to stop the constant sabotage. So I lived 25 years in this border state before choosing North Carolina as my home.
So far as the setting as it works through the novel—I get to speak through both main characters as they grapple with their own histories, biases, and fears that reflect a small part of the experience of the South. It’s much too large a topic to even begin to approach in a single book, but I do think a couple of elements are visible. One is the idea of layers, an archaeologist’s view—who lived here, and when, and how? Dave’s encounter with local history is framed by generation upon generation of his family. Tracey has to learn by inquiry—her digging after bottles brings more than artifacts to light. Although I hadn’t realized it in the writing, there is a lot of consideration of what lies under the surface in this novel—whether in dig sites or ditches or graveyards or the plants rooted in the soil. I recently heard from Fred Chappell, who said that the forces arrayed against these characters are “almost chthonic in nature,” and I was struck by that insight (of course, Fred reads deeply and clearly and sees what the rest of us only glimpse through a glass darkly!). The ambiguous and unclear motivations of Artis and Jim and the hostility of the community indeed partake of that idea of the hidden depths rather than the visible surface of the land—the place from which life springs and to which in death it is consigned. In terms of research, much of it came from my predilection for just wandering around. I like to look at things. I drive and stop in little stores and talk with people. I like to take factory tours—the legacy of daily journalism. And I read nearly everything, including heavy volumes of North Carolina history when I first arrived so that I would be a better informed editor but more importantly, because I wanted to know this place. As with Tracey, I fell in love quickly, and then had to learn “who” this place was. The News & Record library kept me stocked with the facts, while the state’s poets and novelists (many of them read before I claimed a home here) gave me the emotional truth. Fred Chappell, John Ehle, Kay Byer, Reynolds Price, Thomas Wolfe, Wilma Dykeman, Robert Morgan, Ron Rash, far too many to name—and a special mention to a book of poems by Nancy King, Tobacco Blossoms and the Pulled-Tight Twine, that chronicled her life as a sharecropper’s daughter. If I’ve done things right, credit goes to the native friendliness of North Carolinians and the insights of her writers. All errors are purely my own.
Blood Clay is Valerie Nieman’s third novel. She is also the author of a collection of short stories, Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press, and a poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake. She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A native of Western New York State, she graduated from West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte. She teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University and is the poetry editor for Prime Number Magazine.