I met M. Randal O’Wain this past summer when I was a visiting reader and he was visiting faculty at my alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College. After reading his just-released essay collection, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, part of University of Nebraska’s American Lives series, I asked him to sit down with me via video and chat about his book.
From University of Nebraska Press:
In Meander Belt M. Randal O’Wain offers a reflection on how a working-class boy from Memphis, Tennessee, came to fall in love with language, reading, writing, and the larger world outside of the American South. This memoir examines what it means for the son of a carpenter to value mental rather than physical labor and what this does to his relationship with his family, whose livelihood and sensibility are decidedly blue-collar. Straining the father-son bond further, O’Wain leaves home to find a life outside Memphis, roaming from place to place, finding odd jobs, and touring with his band. From memory and observation, O’Wain assembles a subtle and spare portrait of his roots, family, and ultimately discovers that his working-class upbringing is not so antithetical to the man he has become.
LL: First of all, can you explain the title? Is it a physical location?
MRO’W: Yes, before the Mississippi was locked and levied. When the river got beyond the Memphis area it would sometimes move 100 miles east or west. It would build these little off-shoot oxbow lakes, but the current was still moving strongly, so it would break those oxbow lakes and the river would move. The cover of the book is actually an Army Core of Engineers map. University of Nebraska Press did a great job—the cover is very vascular looking.
In the beginning, the book had these concrete, factual descriptions of the river and related things I found interesting—almost like a second book that went through it—that I wound up cutting. But I liked the word meander in terms of rambling and travel, so that’s why I kept it.
LL: That makes sense. I mean, your life in the book does meander. You’re all over the country. And you grew up in that area?
MRO’W: I grew up in inner-city Memphis, so I could ride my bike to the river.
LL: Another question I had was about structure. I was surprised when I realized that the book is an essay collection rather than a memoir. I noticed that a lot of these essays were published singly, yet it flows so beautifully. It doesn’t feel like separate pieces at all.
MRO’W: Thank you, I appreciate that. I like to think of it as an essay collection with the scope of a memoir. It was written as a linear memoir at first, but it was a bad book. I didn’t want to present as if I knew something, or had learned something or had something to teach, because I don’t. I wanted to present as a person who is trying to look at where he came from, and who he came from, in relation to these great losses. I wasn’t a good person, but I wasn’t a bad person. There’re these expectations in memoir that you’re supposed to come out the other end altered or changed.
LL: Right, right. Someone said that all memoirs are stories of redemption.
MRO’W: Exactly. I wanted to get at grief and loss and circle around it. I very much resisted the genre, which made a bad memoir. The genre is so set in stone. I’d been pulling sections of the book and writing essays because the process was taking so long, and I wanted to publish something so I wasn’t so alone and scared all of the time.
I looked at the book through the lens of those essays, and it made a better. What remains of the memoir is only the Memento Mori sections. Those are lifted almost entirely from the stand-alone book. The rest of them, such as On Love or Barking Hours were written after I decided to turn it into an essay collection. And it’s ironic, I laugh at myself because by adding those I think I added the redemption that people want and that memoir expects. But I couldn’t do it in that form for some reason.
LL: That makes sense to me. I think there can be more freedom if you don’t use the word memoir. When you take away that word, it kills the expectation of a linear story, and it opens the form for more experimentation.
MRO’W: Then it becomes very complicated in terms of readership. As soon as I moved it into this other kind of book—and one that I’m very proud of—I knew it was going to be a hard sell for most readers. I’m very happy with Nebraska by the way. They’re great, and the American Lives series is fantastic, but it’s hard to get people to read almost anything that isn’t pushed by New York.
LL: There are people who are afraid of the word essay—that the book will make them feel stupid. Like you, I went to college later in life. I got my bachelor’s when I was forty. So a lot of times as a reader I felt undereducated, so I can still relate to that.
MRO’W: Oh, man, in college I read over time. I had this assumption that all these 18-year-olds had already read all the classics.
LL: You briefly mention touring with your band in Meander Belt. I Googled you, and there’s this whole internet presence for you as a musician. That struck me as something that perhaps people always said you should write about, yet you’re very nonchalant about it in the book.
MRO’W: No one ever said that to me, actually, but I tried to put more about music in the first draft, which ended up being 500 pages long!
LL: That’s a lot of material.
MRO’W: I put it all in there—the tour stories. And I wanted so many people to have page space. People who were around, who were in the room, or who meant a lot to me. More than just the band, I mean, I apologized to my sisters at the end because they don’t really get any stage time at all. So much of it came down to, what is this about? And then getting rid of everything that didn’t circle back to my father and my brother.
One of my favorite stories from tour that I wish could have made the cut was when Sicarii was on our first US tour, and we played in Richmond, Virginia. In an apartment complex that everyone had just been evicted from because it was getting condemned. And we played on the top floor of this apartment complex. And the floors were so bad that when everyone was dancing—the floors visibly moved. And we didn’t make any money, we didn’t sell a single record—everyone was just there to party. Afterward, we’re loading our equipment in the van and the cops come, and everyone runs. And the cops are threatening to arrest us because we’re the only people they have—we’re stuck with all our equipment.
LL: Right, you can’t run.
MRO’W: We can’t run. So we’re telling them over and over that these college kids set this show up, and that we are on tour from Washington state. And eventually, I blew up. I had been on this vocabulary regimen, where I was taking words from the dictionary and putting them into sentences so I could expand my vocabulary because even then, I wanted to be a writer. I’d just been using the word asinine. So I said to the cops, ‘This is asinine. We were just here doing our thing. there’s no point in bothering us.’ And as soon as I used the word asinine they got so bored. Like the word itself put them to sleep. They were like, ‘Get the hell out of Virginia!’ And I loved that moment, because it was the coinciding of trying to be smarter, and on tour, and how bored they immediately looked as soon as I used a big word—a one-dollar word.
LL: It changed their view of you, perhaps?
MRO’W: Or they were just like, alright. Go away. One of the things that I wasn’t able to get into the book that was really important was that being a musician was all that I wanted to do—not a successful musician, but a punk musician. I was very happy playing basements and living rooms. We toured Mexico and Canada during the three years I describe in Memento Mori when my father’s mental health plummets: he has panic attacks, he can’t leave his room then he goes back to work and slips the disks in his spine. My dad was in this really horrible descent, but for me, out in Washington, it was this wonderful ascendency. I was making something, and it was working. And that had never happened to me before.
LL: And the guilt in that—the pull from family to come home, but you don’t want to sacrifice this happiness that you’d never had. This success that has eluded you so far in your life.
MRO’W: Exactly. And that’s what I mean when I said earlier that I wasn’t a good person. I wasn’t a good son. Three times my father asked me to come back—like Peter in the bible. But we’re young. We don’t think.
LL: But you did come home, in the end. As a parent, I wouldn’t want my children to sacrifice their futures for me. Even if in the moment I felt needy or weak—which we all do, we’re human. But overall I’d want my kids to follow their dreams.
MROW: Yeah, but my father didn’t see it that way. I think towards the end he really tried to. But his ambition was to be a strong provider, and my brother was the same way. So he’d look at me and go, ‘what the fuck are you doing? When are you going to man-up and start laying the foundation for what is expected of you?’
LL: To me, that is one of the most powerful things in your book. It’s very much about what it means to be a man, and you choosing a radically different path from your father and brothers. I think—and you’re never supposed to comment on the narrator’s life choices—but there was a lot of bravery and confidence to strike out on your own.
MRO’W: It was fantasy, for me. My wife Mesha and I have been doing this tour together and we had this live Q&A. She had this question that was similar. Basically, why this need at a young age to strike out on your own in the first place?
We were raised on television, and I remember collecting these ideas of identity from Stand by Me, The Lost Boys, and Goonies, all those movies involved leaving home and returning a different person. I loved that idea. Hanging out with punk rock vampires under the bridge, or finding a dead body, it didn’t matter, it was all going to be awesome.
I’m an 8th-grade drop-out. That’s all erased now that I have degrees and a job, but it was really hard to be suddenly without the option of a high school diploma, working with my father, and knowing that I had failed. I had this daydream about being in a band and playing in shows, or traveling, but suddenly there was shame. Great, great shame. I felt just awful about myself. And I was doing drugs, drinking, and all that didn’t help. But what happened was the shame bothered me so much that when these fantasies came—say going to Montreal at 16—I thought, I have to. If I leave it as fantasy, then there is only shame.
LL: But if I can make something work, then it would have been worth it.
MRO’W: Exactly. I think I’m still that way. I mean, writing a book is a fantasy. You have to fantasize about some future moment when the book is out to get through the writing process. Everyone has to. And I still have that shame with me, that fear of failure that’s rooted in this thought: you can fantasize as much as you want, but if you don’t do it, then you’ve failed that boy. I feel like I’m always trying not to fail that boy. And that boy was trying not to fail himself, too. But it’s funny—it goes back to Stand By Me, I swear.
LL: In Meander Belt, you talked about how you wrote a novel and made 30 copies and your mother stitched them together on her sewing machine. Do you still have a copy of it? Did you sell any of them?
MRO’W: I sold all thirty of them.
LL: I guess that goes into the whole I said I was going to do it, I’m going to do it. That’s a lot of tenacity at that point in your life, to have actually finished a book.
MRO’W: It was this idea that I’d been playing around with for a couple of years. I was 19, so since I was 17 or something. I moved to Olympia, Washington and was living in this punk house. I was working at this pizza place, and I got fired for the first time in my life. I was living off the food bank, and I had all this time on my hands.
And there’s that fantasy and shame—the twins. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ I didn’t have a typewriter, none of us had computers, so I wrote it long hand. I finished it in like 5 weeks, 6 weeks. I convinced all my roommates to take shifts typing it on a borrowed typewriter with me. Then I cut up the pages and collated them in 16-page signatures—I read about that at the library. Another thing that doesn’t end up in the book is that at this point in my life I was happily a criminal. And you could scam Kinko’s in this very special way.
A lot of punks worked at Kinko’s, and at punk shows they’d sell $100 copy cards for $10, or something like that. So I had a $100 Kinko’s card, and the scam was this: you put in the $100 copy card into the card reader, then you unplug the card reader, and the machine automatically spits out the card. You take it and put in an empty card and plug the card reader back in. It remembers what value it had before. That turns an empty card into a card with money. That’s what I did to make the thirty copies. And then my mom sewed them together on her upholstery sewing machine. I carried them around in my backpack to shows and parties. And it was really bad, too. I didn’t know how to spell, really, and I definitely didn’t know anything about grammar. But I re-read it when writing Meander Belt. And it is not good, but I see myself in it. The moves make sense to me, even now. I just didn’t have the knowledge.
LL: I notice that my first instinct when I start to write something—that voice hasn’t really changed. It’s in revision that my stuff gets a lot better. I tend to use a lot of exposition in my first drafts. It’s something I fight against, but it also feels really comfortable, like sweatpants.
MRO’W: That’s why I usually do everything longhand first. That sounds more grandiose than it is. I start things longhand and then write my way in to the computer. It allows me to get the confessional, or expository voice, out of the way. I feel like every time I sit down to write, I begin stuck, every day. So that’s my way to get unstuck.
LL: They say it’s supposed to open your brain in different ways to move your hand across the page.
MRO’W: The computer is great, but it’s a different kind of interaction. I find that my teaching voice takes over when I do the first draft on computers. I have this know-it-all voice that is awful. There’s nothing worse than writing as if you know something.
LL: I’ve been called a know-it-all many times in my life, and no one wants to read that, but it can be a comfortable place to start.
MRO’W: That’s where a lot of my first drafts start—as the expert. And I’m like, you’re not that smart.
LL: I wanted to ask you—you mentioned your wife, Mesha Maren, earlier, and a bit in the book. I recently read her piece in Salon entitled The Waitress Who Thinks She Can Write where she talks about working on a novel after you got into Iowa’s MFA program and she didn’t.
MRO’W: That’s a great piece.
LL: Oh My God, it’s wonderful, but it must have been terribly hard as a couple. And now you both have debuts out the same year. Your paths have been different and together, and I’m curious how that works. If you share work with each other, or hide work from each other.
MRO’W: I depend on her greatly as a reader, and she depends on me greatly as a reader as well. We came into this whole thing together. Thirteen years ago, on our first date, I was working on a second novel, which I did finish, and which is also terrible and I will not return to it. That’s what they say—you have to write two terrible novels first, before you can write something decent.
But I was really in the throes of trying to write that book, and Mesha had just returned from El Paso and was trying to write that experience, which is kind of now coming to fruition with her second novel. We saw a movie and then went to a bar in Asheville, and started talking about writing.
We slowly began publishing or trying to publish, going to school together, applying to grad school together. There are all of these moments of great upsets that came before now. Like she got her first publication in an online journal and I was heartbroken. Happy, but also devastated because I thought that it would never happen for me. From the beginning there was a lot of jealousies or insecurities moving back and forth, that come from hanging out with any writer, but it’s a little different when you’re in love. But the grad school was the worst. It made no sense that Mesha didn’t get into grad school. She was Summa Cum Laude.
LL: And her book has done very well. Obviously, she can write, there’s no question.
MRO’W: She was the perfect candidate, and it made no sense. And she didn’t get into a full residency, and I did, which also made no sense. So then we were off to Iowa City, which as she said in Salon is the worst place to doubt yourself as a writer. So the first year was really, really hard. And we were both as careful with each other as we could be. And she is tenacious, she just doubled down and worked every day on Sugar Run. When she got her agent, went through their rounds and sold the book, by then we’d been through so much with this sometimes hellish life as career writers and I felt nothing but joy, but also my own sort of fear because I was in the middle of writing my own book.
Something I don’t like talking about is my agent dropped me when Meander Belt was still in the memoir stage. I went very, very dark. I was devastated. And Mesha had to deal with me in that place of feeling like I’d absolutely failed. When Sugar Run was gaining momentum and success I was afraid that I’d become an asshole. That I’d go inward, and get cagey, and get jealous. There were all these fears, like that I wouldn’t let her talk about her life, that I’d be all, “you can’t talk about that right now, I’m feeling precious.”
LL: I get that.
MRO’W: I think precious is the most perfect word—not asshole. I was really afraid that I was going to be too precious to even be there with her for this great success.
LL: This moment.
MRO’W: This really wonderful moment. But I wasn’t. I’m all proud of myself, but I was so happy that I could be fully there with her with the success of Sugar Run. And I think that is the best thing that ever happened to me in any relationship—to not feel precious and to be fully there with her. It was absolutely because we’d gone through so much shit in the same way with this career thing.
LL: You were in the trenches together the whole way. And now you have a second book coming out next year?
MRO’W: In October. A year from now.
LL: It’s fiction?
MRO’W: Yes, it’s absolutely fiction. Thankfully it has nothing to do with me, or my family at all. But they are very related, these two books. My mind has always worked in both genres, and I’m always moving between stories and essays at the same time. This short story collection is interesting because the stories were coming to me almost as a protective layer, or armor against how devastating and difficult it was to write Meander Belt.
LL: I totally get that. I started writing a middle-grade fantasy novel because I just wanted to write something that didn’t give me anxiety.
MRO’W: Right. My brain started telling me stories of people who were not me. I started taking notes. Over the years I’d have to put Meander Belt aside, but I’d still have to work—that’s the big anxiety, not working. So I would work on those stories. It was sort of a happy accident to have the second book and then to have somebody who was interested in it was a happier accident.
LL: So what are you working on now?
MRO’W: I’m working on a nonfiction book about bioluminescence. It’s going to be weird. It’s nature writing, it’s science writing, but I’m also interested in the interplay of light and dark and depression. The most exciting part is that I’m letting my mind go wherever it wants so it’s more truly an essay than anything I’ve ever written. If I want to think about Johnny Cash and those American recordings he did at the end of his life, I will and I can. If I want to think about Caravaggio, or Rembrandt, I will. So again, it probably won’t be a book that anyone will want to give me money for, but that’s ok. I mean, I could write a pop-science book on bioluminescence, sure, and bioluminescence is the cornerstone of the book, but I want the freedom to be digressive.
Randal O’Wainis the author of Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South(Nebraska 2019) and the short story collection Hallelujah Station (Autumn House 2020). His work has been published in Oxford American, Hotel Amerika, Crazyhorse, and Guernica Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.