In his latest novel, Alan Michael Parker tells the story of the Christmas Danzig, a thirteen-year-old with terminal cancer, by telling the story of ten residents of the suburban town of Saxon Hills including a runaway involved with a cult, a beekeeping hermit, and a glitter fetishist, and her aunt who struggles with anxiety. Christmas is in each of the stories, but not always at the center of them. The stories are a mediation on life and loss and a statement on how our society seeks to make heroes out of those that walk among us virtually unseen.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did CHRISTMAS IN JULY begin for you?
. . . prior to writing Christmas in July, I worked on a novel that peetered out after approximately 300 pages.
PARKER: There are two answers to this question. First, prior to writing Christmas in July, I worked on a novel that peetered out after approximately 300 pages: I just couldn’t find my story there. But I did keep a page and one-half that I liked—which became a crucial passage in Christmas in July, the first song sung by the Farley cult. So… maybe this is a second draft of a novel?
The second answer: I was writing a short story, and it kept being interrupted by a minor character, a teenager who seemed especially angry and candid and provocative, even for a teen. I stopped writing the story, and wrote a little solilquoy for her. She’s Christmas. Her voice happened before the story took shape.
AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a question. What question(s) were you hoping to answer with this novel?
PARKER: Can I write unsentimentally about the death of a child?
Can I get inside the voices of so many different characters—so different from each other, too—and make a novel that succeeds formally?
What is “empathy”?
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your choice to have the story of a young girl with cancer and her eventual demise told by ten residents of the town where she lives. What did this structure give you that a traditional narrative would not?
What’s unconventional here is that Christmas herself has varying roles within each story . . .
PARKER: Well, I’d quibble a little with the term “traditional narrative”—in part, because of Faulkner, and Winesburg, Ohio, and Olive Kittredge, and A Visit from the Goon Squad. What’s unconventional here is that Christmas herself has varying roles within each story, sometimes seen and sometimes seen but not heard, and sometimes quite loudly encountered.
Notwithstanding, the ten stories let me zero in, or think about the Venn Diagram of reality that such disparate experiences constitute. That was fun, hard, compelling, and hard. Did I say it was hard? That was really hard to write: I loved how hard it was to write, to find where and how these stories (and characters) might connect.
AUTHORLINK: You set certain expectations with the title, CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Talk about how this title functions to give readers a sense of what to expect.
PARKER: There’s irony aplenty in the title, in the sense of the holiday experienced in the wrong season, albeit for some people happily. Christmas renames herself in the opening story—her given name’s Beatrice (a little nod to Dante)—and she does so to tick off her Aunt Nikki, a game the teen likes to play.
For me, the death of a child can be the most unnatural of griefs, and brings to mind that great phrase from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint” (I.5.187), an idea that Christmas in July represents too.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing CHRISTMAS IN JULY and how did you overcome them?
. . . this was a stunningly difficult book for me to write.
PARKER: Digging deep, mucking about in the self, wrestling with sadnesses more than I have encountered in life, learning to trust the voices of my characters, listening… these were all huge challenges. I am not sure which I have overcome, if any, but this was a stunningly difficult book for me to write. Maybe I did overcome these challenges, though—I mean, here’s the book!
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.
PARKER: All ten of the stories operate with knowledge I didn’t have. So I did site visits— for example, to a middle school, where I interviewed the Registrar and spent a day—and lots of phone interviews, including with a beekeeper who lives roughly in the region I set the novel. I read up on my ignorances. For The Wizard of Oz expert in “Dear Dorothy,” I read everything I could find about the film. To learn what kind of spray-on glitter Evie would use in “Glitter,” I ordered products from Amazon, and sprayed myself for a couple of days, which wasn’t easy for the walking-around part of life. I love doing all this research: it lets me get my nerd on.
AUTHORLINK: You teach. What sort of advice do you offer to apprentice writers about keep focused and staying encouraged?
PARKER: Write daily, write badly, rewrite, and set your standards high. It’s all about the characters, the sentences, the dialogue, the scenes, the exposition, the POV, the tone, the white space, the everything at once… in other words, study your craft. Be persistent. Find readers who help, then rewrite.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
An editor should be someone who “gets it” and doesn’t. I want to know where the sentences aren’t working, or the scene falls flat. Help me, dear editor.
PARKER: Okay, so I know mine might not be a popular opinion among writers, but I love being edited well. Having a smart person dig deeply into the work—neither to correct me, nor to win—is such an opportunity for growth, and for making a book better. This go-round, my editor at Dzanc Books, Michelle Dotter, was amazing: she was precise and methodical when needed, and general and gentle elsewhere. With one of the ten stories that really wasn’t working yet, she simply said that she wasn’t connecting to the voice; that offhand remark moved me to listen better, and to complicate the narrator with simplicity (I know, such a cool paradox!) As a result, that story’s the best in the novel—and no, I won’t say which one it is.
An editor should be someone who “gets it” and doesn’t. I want to know where the sentences aren’t working, or the scene falls flat. Help me, dear editor. And listen to your editor, dear apprentice writer, and work together. Sure, the writer should have the last word, but it’s not a contest.
AUTHORLINK: This is your 17th book. You work with independent presses. What should aspiring writers know about the experience of working with an independent press?
PARKER: They do fabulous work, they’re attentive and supportive, they don’t make very much money, they keep your books in print, they make better looking books, and they’re at the center of the future of the world of literature being written for the ages now in this moment—and they wouldn’t let me get away with the excesses of this sentence.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
Sorry, no: it’s too early to talk about my next novel. But I do have another collection of poems in manuscript, and I expect it will be published in a year or two. That’s exciting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alan Michael Parker has written four novels, Cry Uncle, Whale Man, The Committee on Town Happiness, and Christmas in July. He is also the author of eight collections of poems: Days Like Prose, The Vandals, Love Song with Motor Vehicles, A Peal of Sonnets, Elephants & Butterflies, Ten Days (with painter Herb Jackson), Long Division and The Ladder. He served as coeditor of The Manifesto Project (with Rebecca Hazelton), Editor of The Imaginary Poets, and coeditor of three other volumes. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Pleiades, and The Yale Review, among other magazines, and twice in The Best American Poetry annual; his prose has appeared in journals including The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker. He is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College.
For more information: http://www.dzancbooks.org/our-books/christmas-in-july