Below is a Q&A session in which I was interviewed about my upcoming novel, Green Bay Outsiders. You’ve been hearing a lot about it. This interview takes readers more in-depth about what inspired me to write the story and what I hope it accomplishes.
The following interview was conducted with Author Jay Lemming about his upcoming novel, Green Bay Outsiders.
So tell us about Green Bay Outsiders.
Wow, where do I begin with that. Green Bay Outsiders is the story about Carl Daniels, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who discovers pretty suddenly that what he wants to do in life pretty much flies in the face of everything he’s known and believed in to date. He’s studied business at university and has his first professional job at a credit union, he’s got a long-time girlfriend who wants an even more serious relationship with him, and he’s got several friends with whom he hangs out at happy hour every Friday night.
A lot of people would say, for a 22-year-old, he has a lot going for him. And he does, there’s no question about that. And Carl knows it too, which is why he feels so uncomfortable about these feelings of discomfort and distraction. He wonders if something is wrong with him and if he’s not grateful for what he has when he should be. And that voice in his head, the voice that makes him question himself, is the same voice of pretty much everyone around him–his parents, his girlfriend and his friend. The way the story opens up (you can read the first scene here for free) ends up with him getting cast out of the ritual happy hours because his friends feel he’s not really a part of them anymore.
There’s really only one person who supports him–his Uncle Jack who is a former war veteran from the Vietnam War. But Jack is somewhat estranged from his sister, Carl’s mother, which only complicates her growing frustration with Carl. She thinks her brother is having a bad influence on Carl.
If you had to describe the kind of book that Green Bay Outsiders is, how would you do that?
It’s a coming-of-age novel. I know that paints a broad swath; I mean, a lot of books are described as coming-of-age.
But mine isn’t a fantasy quest story or anything like that. Green Bay Outsiders falls squarely within the tradition of literary coming-of-age novels including Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, minus all the stream of consciousness, the purple prose and the angry howling. Nevertheless, it’s definitely the story of a young man who discovers his spirit is at risk if he doesn’t take bold steps to follow whatever it is he feels compelled to do. And it’s not until the latter part of the novel, by the way, that he even has a clear picture of what that may be.
Green Bay Outsiders is also the second novel in the Maddox Men series, which began a few years ago, with my first novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot?
Wait. Isn’t Billy Maddox Takes His Shot also a coming-of-age novel?
Well, yes. That novel takes place several years after Green Bay Outsiders and Carl Daniels plays a pretty significant role in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot too.
What separates the two novels in terms of style, though, is that Billy Maddox Takes His Shot takes place in the stark landscape of the Sonoran Desert. His coming-of-age journey doesn’t have to do with getting out of where he is. He’s pretty stuck since he has a wife, a son and a mortgage. Of course, one night he does lay in bed listening to the whistle of the Southern Pacific railroad heading north past his town of Sahuarita, Arizona, and he wonders what it would be like to take it to places all over the country.
But that’s a fleeting moment. For the most part, Billy Maddox remains in one place and his voyage is one of internal self-discovery. His story is more like that of the father in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In The Road, you have the story of a father living in a post-apocalyptic world. The earth has been pretty much destroyed by a meteor strike, and this man has to take care of his son who has also survived. A large number of the survivors have turned into predators killing others (think The Walking Dead without zombies), and the father is only saved from losing his faith in everything because of his love of his son.
Billy Maddox also has a son–a wife and a son, in fact. But his wife is losing faith in him because he has serious anger management issues and a history of lost jobs. She’s ready to leave him. When Billy was a boy, his brother was killed in a shootout between drug mules and Border Patrol agents. And as the novel opens, Billy has just gotten a job as a Border Patrol agent, pretty much returning him to the same border region where he lost his brother.
So he has every reason in the world to let his anger spill over and to get in trouble again. But he has to think about his family, just the way the father in The Road is only saved from despair from the one person he still loves and is devoted to.
Carl Daniels in Green Bay Outsiders doesn’t have the angst or anger management issues that Billy does. By contrast, in fact, he’s described in the novel as a peacemaker, a pretty easy-going guy. What he has to contend with is believing in all the crap that he’s been taught his whole life. Get an education. Get a good job. Get married. He’s successfully followed all the advice he’s been given during his upbringing but now, suddenly, he’s out in the world as an adult and he wonders…is this the dream I’ve been waiting for?
And seeing the uncomfortable relationship between his mother and her brother, his Uncle Jack, doesn’t help Carl see middle-class suburban life as all that thrilling. Once he learns the history of his parents’ marriage too, he questions the amount of love that actually binds them.
If you read the final scene from Jon Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, you have the story of a guy standing on the side of the road, maybe a Bruce Springsteen kind of anti-hero, who thinks about all the promises and dreams he’s been told about, but he’s really just…well, a guy with not all that much, standing on the side of the road.
You tend to compare your work to other novels and writers.
I recently heard Temple Grandin speak. She’s a renowned professor of animal science with autism. She explained how she sees the world in pictures. I would argue that I see the world through literary themes that appear in books and the vibe you get from music. The difference, of course, is that I’m not as famous or accomplished as her but listening to her talk about her perspective made me consider my own way of seeing the world. It reminded me of something a friend told me a couple years ago – he accused me of seeing the world in symbols. That’s probably true.
How did the idea of Green Bay Outsiders come to you? Tell us about books such as Into the Wild.
Coming-of-age stories have always resonated with me, even as I get older. I don’t think there’s any age at which you’re not experiencing new things in life and learning from them, though life learning, as a core topic of literature, often ends up in coming-of-age stories for younger people.
But a couple years ago, I read a relatively unknown work of nonfiction called Grand Canyon Celebration by Michael Quinn Patton. It’s the real-life story of how the author took his teenage son and a friend into the Grand Canyon on a journey intended as a ritual introduction for his son into manhood. Patton writes how we have no rituals in the United States introducing children into adulthood, the way other cultures and nations do, and I realized as I was reading how absolutely and remarkably true that was.
And then Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild, a wildly successful work of nonfiction that ended up being made into a film about Chris McCandless, a young man from a well-adjusted middle-class American family who turned into a drifter and ended up giving up his college fund, material possessions and living in a deserted school bus in the Alaskan wild for a while until the northern winter caught up to him and he passed away, leaving behind his writings in a journal he’d kept meticulously up to date.
I thought Krakauer really captured exactly what Patton had been speaking about, which is about the danger that can present itself to young men, especially sensitive men, who are looking to the future, and to adulthood. And they can get all the education they need in the university to prepare themselves for a job, but there’s absolutely nothing at school that prepares you for life, its disappointments and crushing expectations. And I don’t mean to be pessimistic. But when you’ve spent your youth being cared for and protected by adults, and then suddenly you’re on your own having to survive and make choices (and you have no formal way of passing from one side of the river to another, and no chance to ritualize this moment), it can be overwhelming. And no matter what you do in life or what success you find, you’ll inevitably run into challenges. So preparation, or acknowledgment that this is a part of life, is important.
If you end up having to do that on your own–McCandless didn’t have much of a connection to his father, I believe–you can find yourself looking for meaning beyond what has been presented to you by your school, your parents and society as the so-called golden prize. You may even want to revolt and throw it all away.
Any idea why you think in symbols, getting back to what you say a minute ago?
Originally, I was going to be an professor. I got my Bachelor and Master’s degrees in English, and fully intended to get my PhD and then seek a position as an English professor. For reasons that aren’t worth going into, even though it does make for an interesting story, I ended up leaving academia after my Master’s degree. But my education reinforced and strengthened my ability to think analytically about literature, and that perspective has never left.
How long ago did you graduate from graduate school?
20 years ago. I’ve been in the professional workforce since then.
20 years ago? And you still think like the same way?
You can take the man out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the man. Even though my education focused my analytical approach to reading, that approach had to have already been there in some ways. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have gone to graduate school in the first place.
Anything else you want to share about Green Bay Outsiders?
Just that I hope people enjoy reading it. And if they do, they may also want to check out Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.