The voice and writing style of Bust It Like a Mule is very ‘distinct’, for lack of a better term. Can you explain your thought behind the language you used?
I like to say that I am a storyteller first, and writer second. This does not mean that I value the story over the fine art of writing, but that the story dictates the writing style. Every book I have written has a somewhat different style, based on the story, the narrator, the time, the events.
In Bust it, what seems like a stream of consciousness grammatical train wreck was actually an excruciating editing ordeal that took over 2 years to get just right. I would write, edit, then read aloud to edit (the book is great to read aloud, just not to children…), then I would unedit something that seemed too edited or didn’t flow orally. At one point in all this editing, I had put in punctuation that wasn’t originally there, to clean it up for literary agents, and an agent got back to me and seriously said it was like I was trying too hard, with unnecessary punctuation. I almost screamed. Then I unedited what I had edited. This was the last couple of years on the book.
What possessed you to write a book with absolutely no commas?
Ha! That’s a tough question to answer…or at least a lengthy one. I had written several very dark, mentally exhausting 125,000 plus word novels with thousands of commas in them, and the comma was pissing me off. It was as if the comma represented an affectation that sickened me as much as my psychologically dark probing novels were sickening me. Another way of saying it was I was sick of myself. I read The Old Man and the Sea and about how Hemingway had tried to limit commas, and I found that admirable.
It also makes sense in that I wanted to punch the reader in the face from the very first sentence, and not stop punching them until they were KOed, like Kerouac’s flow in On The Road.
In the end, Bust It is supposed to connect with you on a visceral, primitive and even childlike level, and I felt commas appeal to and appease the intellect, not the gut heart and psyche, if that makes sense. If you don’t find yourself laughing and getting tears in your eyes at certain parts, I have failed to punch you in the face and make you feel like the great adultchild we all are, and always will be.
It’s funny you should mention childlike language, because I notice several times things like past and present tense in one sentence.
Yeah, that was definitely on purpose. When I was writing it, my son Tennessee was 4, and he said something to me that was so beautiful, and was in past and present tense. To him, was and is and will be were all one, and I thought that was so magical, in a cosmic sense. Bust It is more than a story about a drifter looking for a home, it’s a cosmic tale about a spirit seeking rest, just like all of us. There’s also a certain wisdom in children that speaks to me and is the main language of the book, like calling Jael’s dress when Cotton first sees her ‘a faded red dress faded by the big sky big sun’. I wanted to break down adjectives and descriptors into blatant lengthy thematic descriptions. This also fits into Native American phrasing in their stories and legends. There aren’t a lot of adjectives in those stories, but a lot of simile and description, such as Old Man (God), Yonder Woman, The Land Where The World Began. Native Americans have always had a huge influence on me, so it makes sense that their philosophy, spirituality, legends, ancient wisdom and love for the land is featured prominently in the book.
Speaking of adjectives, or lack thereof, there is a ton of swearing in the book. I think you said there are 600 plus swearwords, is that right? And why?
600 only if you count the 239 bygods! Actually, swearing fits in with the adjectives- I used swearwords as a descriptor instead of adjectives, like ‘that’s how goddamn rough and tumble he was’. Bygod was also used in two ways, as a descriptor and an exclamative swear, like “even if it is a fiery bygod bush he figures to just get it outta the way why waste the time bygod”. I used swears that we used to call “old man swearwords” when we were kids-damn, hell, sonofabitch, then the next level of those-goddamn in all its forms and s.h.i.t. I used words that a drifter hobo veteran rough cuss in the 50’s would use, and as poetically as possible. A lot of people say swearing is showing a lack of intellect, but I think that’s bygod nonsense bygod.
You have so much slang in here that I’m not sure what is being said in some parts. Where did all of it come from?
I actually poke fun at the slang in certain parts, when the narrator isn’t sure what Cotton is saying any more than the people he is saying it to. My grandpa JE Jones, my mom’s dad, is the spirit of Cotton, and a lot of his slang is in the book. He was from Oklahoma, just like Cotton, and came West during the Dust Bowl. When we were kids, he’d say crazy stuff like “It’s hotter’n Ol Blickeys in here,” or “There I was on rabbit island, raisin rabbits” or our favorite when he got mad at us kids was his holler “Here! Here!”. My grandma Ima was from Texas, and she also had all kinds of crazy slang, like adding ‘Henry’ to the end of your name, “Caleb Henry, you get on over here and give me a love”. I really loved my grandparents growing up, and they were a huge influence on me and what I’ve come to love and identify with. This book is definitely an ode to them, and the slang reflects that.
What would you say to people who aren’t sure about the voice of the book?
I’d ask them if they’ve ever read Faulkner, Joyce, McCarthy, Richard, Crews, Kerouac or Mannan. But seriously, I tell people it takes 3-4 chapters before you don’t even notice it. And if you get stuck, read it out loud. Just not to your kids.