Bryan Harvey: What I found most striking about Jaxie Skinner (the protagonist in Red Dirt) is how he exists between two worlds. He really does come across as a subversive boundary crosser, which seems apt considering the tennis athlete’s relationship with line judges. The tennis elite see Jaxie as somewhat of a redneck, but the rural population of Georgia does not necessarily claim him as their own. Moreover, even his romantic interests are forbidden to him: he sleeps with the quintessential high school jock’s girlfriend, stows away in a Russian star’s hotel room, and steals time with a cop’s wife. Did you intend Jaxie as a thief or trickster in the crafting of the novel? Or is his life on the edge an element of Southern noir and the private detective novel?
Joe Samuel Starnes: I think all exceptional tennis players have at least a little bit of a thief or trickster in their character—every point you win is one you’ve stolen from your opponent. It’s an intensely individual game, and all players are loners when out on the court—how many other sports are there where a competitor is forbidden from talking with a coach or advisor during play? It’s isolating. And although it has a reputation as being elitist, pro tennis has seen great success by outsiders—the Williams sisters, who rose up from the rough public courts of Compton, California, are a prime example.
And yes, everything I write has some element of the “rough South” or “grit lit”—as some southern fiction has been called—inspired as I have been by my literary lodestars: Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and William Faulkner.
BH: Aside from being a tennis novel, Jaxie’s story also speaks to the Southern parable of the family farm’s decline and the abandonment of the Southern economy to and by the textile industry? One of my favorite sequences in the novel is Jaxie banging a tennis ball against the ruins of this hard economic history.
JSS: Until I was fifteen, my family lived out in the country, six miles from Cedartown, Georgia, and about a mile from the nearest house. When my dad drove me to elementary school in the seventies, every day we passed a small family farm where the farmer waved at us without fail. That farm is now long gone and its fields are the site of a subdivision with newly built homes. The Goodyear Mill where my grandfather worked the second shift for thirty-five years closed down in the eighties, and later the vacant building burned in a spectacular fire. So yes, even though I’ve lived in or near big cities for past two decades, including the past fifteen near New York or Philadelphia, rural southern landscapes and economies are part of me and have been the primary settings for my fiction.
Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys. The above photograph on lease from The New York Times.