Let’s take the plunge and see.
Funny. The Jumper has a lot of big action and big characters. It starts with an illiterate man, who’s grown up thinking he’s an orphan, and who also has the impulse to jump into the void, receiving a telegram from someone claiming he’s his father. And then there are the characters: a gambler who has been in maybe the biggest denial in the world for over twenty years; the eccentric, depressed, larger-than-life woman who was put into a fundamentalist-Christian-style Hindu school as punishment for being “loose” as a teen; the moralizing leg-breaker, the misanthrope who raised the main character and lived in terror of a geological structure…What genre would you call this?
Realism. The older I get, the weirder and bigger I realize reality is.
But that’s not the same as genre.
You’re correct, of course.
I thought so. I mean, I was definitely aware of at least parts of a lot of genres coming together: crime; love-story; pot-boiler; a little bit of Dickensian confusion over lineage. But the novel’s heart seems to be an investigation of a lot of complex character issues like the search for racial and genetic identity, confronting existential dread, and family loyalty. And I like how things get played big with a lot of plot turns over several decades through multiple layers of time.
That’s not a question.
I guess not. Why don’t you just say what you want then?
Well, this book is loosely based on an actual experience of mine and on a class-action suit against the state of Louisiana.
Yes. In the late eighties you were working at a tutoring center in Baton Rouge teaching a man in his thirties how to read. And I’m not saying you were making him a better reader, you were actually teaching him how to read, right?
Then finally you asked him what the deal was because you knew he couldn’t afford the center, and he told you that the state of Louisiana was paying for his education because in the early sixties the state had…well, I won’t give it away…the state had done something to several hundred kids and completely disrupted their lives. The result for the man was that he grew up without formal education or knowing who his parents were and then one day he got a telegram out of the blue from his father one day and decided to reunite with him in.
Which didn’t turn out well. He got so fed up with his father’s mistreatment of him that he impulsively robbed a convenience store and ended up going to prison for armed robbery. I don’t know where the man is now or what happened to him, but I’m grateful to him for giving me such a great story to work with and to build my story from. I hope he’d appreciate what I’ve done.
I understand you had quite a time with this novel getting rejected a number of times. You got very frustrated, split with your agent, lost faith in the novel and put it away for a long time before coming back to it. What was all that like?
Shitty and then great! Thanks for bringing that up, by the way. Naturally, I would’ve liked to sell the book back then and still have a wonderful, lucrative relationship with that agent, but the reality is things turned out for the best. I let the novel sit for seven years while I worked on a memoir and then through a weird coincidence I found out about the George Garrett contest at a small press whose editor I admired. I also liked the contest because George Garrett was one of my thesis director Allen Weir’s mentors, and I’d met George, and George’s wife’s maiden name was Parrish, and George was my girlfriend Sarah Gardner Borden’s first fiction teacher. Not that I’m superstitious or anything. Seriously, though, I pulled the novel out again and it was a mess, but I saw clearly who the characters were and what I wanted to do with the structure. I dove in and completely rewrote it twice over the course of six months right in the middle of a school year. It about demolished me, but I evidently did something right because the novel won.
This book contains a lot of hard-edged writing about racism and desperate people, but you also aim to write funny.
Aim, yes. And I think I do in the sense that I pay attention to the irony in ludicrous circumstances foisted upon people and to the absurdity in people who are heavily self-involved. Not that I’d personally know anything about that. I also cut my teeth on The Three Stooges and I like slapstick and action humor too. Plus, I realize that I’m looking at some very dark stuff, and I want to give readers the room to exhale a little with a laugh or at least a chuckle.
So would you say you want to entertain?
Hell yeah! Don’t you?
TIM PARRISH is the author of The Jumper, a novel; Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir (University Press of Mississippi); and Red Stick Men, a story collection (University Press of Mississippi). He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and teaches in the MFA and undergrad creative-writing programs at Southern Connecticut State University.