Transformers: Rise of the South

Monday, January 18, 2010 at 12:09am
By Lacey Galbraith, chapter16.org
booksmain.png

Though he’s now a tenured professor at Virginia’s James Madison University, Inman Majors is a Tennessean to the core. He grew up in Knoxville, attended college in Nashville, where he graduated from Vanderbilt, and spent time down the road teaching at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma. Along the way, he’s put Tennessee on the literary map.

His three novels — 2000’s Swimming in Sky (set in his East Tennessee hometown), 2004’s Wonderdog (an irreverent and sharply comedic look at New South living), and last year’s The Millionaires (a multi-generational saga of a family and a region in flux) — have been reviewed in publications across the country, from alt-weeklies to national news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

In an interview with Chapter 16, Majors discussed his work as a writer, his life as an ex-pat Tennessean and his ambitious new novel, which was recently released in paperback. The Millionaires is set in the fictional East Tennessee town of Glennville — a city much like Knoxville — and centers on the Cole family’s troubled foray into Tennessee politics, especially the determination of two wealthy Cole brothers, J.T. and Roland, to bring a World’s Fair to town by any measures necessary.

Q: There’s a large and varied cast of characters in The Millionaires, and you employ a huge number of narrative styles — stage and screen directions, vignettes, straight dialogue, lists, even a poem — as well. How did the various voices influence the structure of the chapters?

A: The structure was influenced less by the number of characters and more by a desire to have the form match up with some of the themes of the book. One of the primary themes is that the South in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a region in transition, moving as it was from an area dominated by farms and small towns to one where the city and suburb reign supreme. So I used a traditional story of ambition gone awry to stand for the Old South and a postmodern conceptualization/structure to stand for the New South. I thought the juxtaposition between story and conceptualization would mirror the tensions at play in the South during the late 20th century, as the region was deciding how to define itself.

Q: So reading the book is almost like watching the South itself transform.

A: For a long time I’ve wanted to write a book about my parents’ generation, those people who just preceded the baby boomers. Three of my four grandparents were raised on farms in Tennessee (the other in the metropolis of Lynchburg). My parents, however, were raised in small Tennessee towns like Huntland and Winchester. And I was raised in the city of Knoxville. I grew up skateboarding in the suburbs and going to malls and things like that, but I also spent a lot of time in small Tennessee towns when I’d go to visit my grandparents. At some point, I started wondering about my own family’s move from the farm to the suburb and the generation that made that move happen.

So when I’m writing about the Cole brothers and their wives and friends, their ambitions and hopes and desires as they move to the bright lights of the big city, I’m writing about this generation of Southerners as a whole. Growing up, I knew a lot of folks just like the ones in my books.

Q: Your writing style is as sharp and dynamic, as sophisticated and contemporary as any other writer working in any other part of the country. Whether or not you claim the title of “Southern writer,” how do you feel about being labeled one simply because you grew up in the South and your novels are set here?

A: Well, my family has been in this state for nearly 200 years, so I’m a Tennessean through and through. And I’ve always felt more like a Tennessean than a Southerner, if that makes sense. But the older I get, the less I worry about where I’m placed as a writer or how I’m categorized. My main objection now to being labeled a Southern writer is commercial. I just don’t think it’s good business. Simply put, why would a writer want to potentially limit his audience to one area of the country?

Q: Politics and politicians often make central appearances in your work, and the youngest Cole brother runs for governor. Though his roots are rural, he has to convince the voters he’s more than a rich man “in a Fifth Avenue suit” when his opponent, “a Princeton-educated son of a doctor,” films a commercial wearing overalls. Tennessee voters have seen this kind of posturing before. If Al Gore had worn overalls or a red-plaid flannel shirt, would he have won over our state’s voters?

A: I tend to think if he’d donned the flannel shirt or used some other prop of that sort, people would have seen it as a ploy, and it likely would have backfired. Mr. Gore was an excellent senator and would have been a good president. I’m not sure, however, that he was ever a great campaigner. Good campaigners — good politicians — are actors, and like all good actors, they have a feel for the spontaneous — they trust their gut and trust themselves in all instances to win the audience over. Al Gore was probably just too sincere, too earnest, to do some of the performing — and performance is a form of deception — required to win a close national election.

Q: The plot of The Millionaires really turns on the lengths to which the Cole brothers are willing to go to bring the World’s Fair to fictional Glennville. Did Knoxville’s real-life World’s Fair make that big of an impression on you?

A: A World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn.? Yes, it made an impression on me and everyone else in town. Before Knoxville, the World’s Fair had been held in places like Chicago, New York, Paris. So who in the world would be ambitious and daring enough to propose a World’s Fair in our little city? It sounded like a crackpot idea. But ultimately, they pulled it off. People forget that the fair was a success: It broke even, people had a good time, and for six months Knoxville had more culture coming through town — symphonies, ballets, art, musicians of all stripes — than anywhere else in America.

That said, I was 17 and spent most of my time at the fair trying unsuccessfully to meet out-of-town girls and eating falafel.

For more local book coverage, visit Humanities Tennessee’s online journal chapter16.org.