Interview from the Past: MO Walsh of My Sunshine Away
Southern gothic novels have always been some of my favorites. It was great to be able to talk to M.O. at Novel Enthusiasts. I’m hopeful he’ll have a new one on the shelves soon:
M. O., thank you for agreeing to spend some time with us here Novel Enthusiasts. I have to congratulate you on the success of My Sunshine Away. It’s everywhere, and all the reactions I hear are extremely positive. I can say that my own response to your book fit the general consensus.
With this kind of encouraging feedback from your debut novel, do you feel like you’ve officially made it as a novelist?
This is an easy answer. Absolutely not! It’s weird, but I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing now any more than I did when I first started this book, some seven years ago. I think you learn things about yourself -- the type of sentences you gravitate toward, the subject matter that most interests you, etc.--and that makes you a better writer, but I don’t by any stretch feel that I’ve “made it” in terms of the novel form. I spend more time thinking things like; “How in the hell does anybody write more than one decent novel?” Now THOSE are novelists!
The cover is beautiful. It’ll probably wind up as the cover of the year. Were you able to provide any input into what you wanted My Sunshine Away to ultimately look like?
My only restriction with the cover was that I didn’t want it to have a picture of a deranged looking Cajun man with two teeth standing in a pair of overalls on a bateaux in the middle of swamp. As long as we could eschew that type of clichéd Louisiana image, I was ok. I fully realize that people in marketing know a hell of a lot more about selling books than I do. I control the words between the covers. Everything else is, in most ways, is beyond me. I’m good with that.
Another thing that I find really cool is all of the comparisons My Sunshine Away is getting to other classic Southern novels. Some readers say it reminds them of To Kill a Mockingbird. Others are praising its accessibility and themes, claiming it to be the next The Help. That’s some fine company. I’m curious how much you relied on other Southern novels in writing your own book? Did you read others for inspiration? Or did you try to stay away from them and create your own world entirely?
I’ve been reading Southern writers with particular interest since I was about 18. All the usual suspects like Faulkner and Hurston and O’Connor blew me away immediately. These are the gateway drugs, I think, for writers like Barry Hannah and Lewis Nordan, who became really important to me when I got serious about writing as an actual life pursuit. Once I sat down to write My Sunshine Away, though, I didn’t consciously use any models in terms of other Southern novels. To say that I’m immune to their influence after years of reading them, though, would be silly. Still, if someone recommends a book to me because they think it is similar to what I’m working on, then I definitely avoid it. I need to believe that what I’m doing is somehow new or interesting or else it loses all its magic for me. Plus, it’s not too good to think about yourself in any sort of larger framework than you actually exist, in terms of being original. All a writer can really do is concentrate on their particular sentence, their particular character, their particular scene. If they do that in earnest, without trying to be like anyone else, then they will create their own thing.
I tend to enjoy stories with unnamed narrators. Did you always know that your narrator would go nameless?
I actually hadn’t realized he was nameless until about 60 or 70 pages into the book. Then, once I thought about it for a while, I began to believe that due the confessional nature of the telling, and due to the person he is telling it to, there wasn’t a need for him to overtly name himself.
In your opinion, what does having an unnamed character add to a narrative?
Well, it does a hell of a lot for writers like Edgar Allen Poe who used it to get across the sort of breathless and paranoid first person narratives he was so incredible at. It also does a lot in terms of creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, I think, where there is less of an obvious roadblock between the reader and the narrator. There are times, in other words, when the “I” starts to feel like the reader as they are reading it—if they have the same sort of moral compass as the narrator—than it does some guy named Joe Smith they are reading about. This worked really well in Sean Ennis’s collection Chase Us, too, where the narrator may be at different stages of his life but is always coming from basically the same moral vantage point in each story. So, you don’t really need a name when you understand that the narrator is basically just a stand in for a way of looking at the world. Call him Trevor or Billy, if you like, the book doesn’t fundamentally change.
When I was reading your novel, I kept thinking about love. Obviously, there is the love story between the narrator and Lindy. However, there is also something more than human love on display. I was reminded of old, southern small towns and that overwhelming sense of closeness and community—well, of love. Did you intend for My Sunshine Away to be a love story about a specific place?
Love is the absolute main thing I wanted the novel to be about. I don’t know what else is even worth dealing with. So, I greatly appreciate that question. Thank you.
Going with a similar idea, do you think towns today can still carry that same kind of closeness? Or has small town love and kindness gone away with the rise of preferred distance and technology?
If I thought love and kindness had gone away, then I’d be reaching for a cyanide pill. I think it exists everywhere all the time. This is not to suggest that the world is all puppies and rainbows. Of course not. It can be horrifying at nearly every turn. But, the only reason it horrifies me at times is because I love it so much. If I didn’t, and if I didn’t see beauty all around me, if I didn’t see so many things worth cherishing, then I wouldn’t care what happened. Have towns and the nature of human relationships changed in the way they are ornamented? Sure. But I’m not sure if people, at their core, have changed that much.
My Sunshine Away seems to really value memory. As the creator of the story, how difficult was it for you to create a narrative based on a fictional character’s childhood memories?
I think this type of empathy for people who don’t exist is the basic building block of fiction. Every writer, therefore, enters the same process of creating empathetic memories when they build characters. I don’t think I was doing anything fundamentally different there. The fact that the novel is based around events that happened several decades before the telling, though, is what brings memory to the forefront in My Sunshine Away. Anyone that does any sort of in depth examination of the past has to come to terms with the slippery relationship between memory and fact. This is obvious. It’s how we use these memories, though, and how we choose to prioritize them, that makes us individuals. That’s the fertile ground for fiction.
I’m sure you’ve been busy with your own novel, but I’m curious if you’ve had the opportunity to read any of 2015’s other new novels. What works have stood out to you?
I never have as much time to read as I’d like, but I have read some great books this past year. I’m not sure if some were released in 2014 or 2015 but a list of books that recently knocked me out would go (in no particular order): Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives, Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, David Joy’s Where All Light Tends to Go, Jacob Rubin’s The Poser, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Sean Ennis’s Chase Us and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Ones I can’t wait to get to are Jamie Kornegay’s Soil, Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain and Michael Ferris Smith’s Rivers. I better get to work!
Have you started your next book yet?
This is hard to tell. I’ve started some edits on earlier projects that may turn into new books. I’ve also started research on a novel idea I’ve had for decades. Will any of these pan out? I really don’t know. The only thing you can guarantee in writing is failure, and you can guarantee that by not actually doing the work. If you sit down and write, though, if you give it your best, you’ve always got hope. And that’s plenty.
Thank you again for talking to us. Congratulations on a great 2015 so far!