Alabama Writer’s Conclave Interviews Me

https://www.alabamawritersconclave.org/news/2019/4/13/a-conversation-with-david-hornbuckle-about-alabama-meteors-and-his-new-novel

Big thanks to Alina Stefanescu and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave for a great interview.

Some highlights:

AS: Welcome David. Let’s talk about the synergy between local history and fiction. You mention that part of the story is rooted in the experience of Billy Field, a beloved Tuscaloosa film-maker. How did you work that into the story? 

DH: I learned about the Sylacauga meteorite after I’d already written a good chunk of the book. Here I was writing a story about a fireball that falls out of the sky and changes the lives of this family, and I find out that a woman in Sylacauga named Ann Hodges was actually struck by a meteorite just a few years before the time when my story takes place. She is actually the only person to be physically hit by an object falling from space, and it happened in Alabama. It seemed like I couldn’t really tell the story without at least acknowledging it.

I talked to Billy when I found out he’d made a documentary about the incident in Sylacauga However, that’s HIS story, so I didn’t work it into my book as much as I could have. He actually has a copywrite (or whatever the proper legal term for ownership of this sort of thing is) on the story of the family that happened to. In the final draft, I actually removed a couple of references to the Hodges meteorite incident because I didn’t want to overstep my bounds there.

AS: Would you consider this to be a science fiction book?

DH: That wasn’t my intention, but if people like sci-fi, they might like it. Some of the earliest books I read were by authors like Ray Bradbury, but as a teenager I became interested in writers who use elements of sci-fi in the service of something… else. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind, or even some of Thomas Pynchon’s work. I like what writers like Kelly Link are doing in bringing elements of fantasy and fairy tale in to stories that don’t fit easily into a genre. And I guess that’s what I was trying to do in this book–using elements of sci-fi and fantasy in a book that is really just about people, which to my mind is more of what gets called “literary fiction.”

To the extent that this story is sci-fi, I think it comes more from my sense of surrealism than any real intention to do the kinds of things that science fiction often tries to do (i.e. warn/predict about dystopian futures, etc — not that it’s limited to that). Space ships and werewolves are my melting clocks.

AS. This is your first book in ten years. How does it relate to what you’ve done in the past, if at all?

DH: My previous full-length novel–Zen, Mississippi–also deals with issues of Southern identity. Fireball plays around with the idea of “space” and all the various ways that we use that word, and Zen, MS does something similar with the idea of time. So, in a way, this is my Time/Space series.

Munford Coldwater is a character in both novels, but Zen, MS is contemporary, so the character is older. Fireball takes place in 1959 when Munford is much younger.

My novella, The Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter, is about a second Civil War that is fought more on cultural grounds than political. The war is over things like what music you should listen to. In a way, it’s a meditation on the concept of post-modernism and where we go from there. I wrote it when I was super young, and it shows, but there are some good parts I think.

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Thirty years of bad or ridiculous band names

Being embarrassed to tell people the name of your band is not one of the secrets to success in the music biz. Thus, I still have a day job. Anyway, here’s a list of some of the bands I’ve been in. Draw your own conclusions.

Year Band Name Description
1987 (10th Grade) The Recognition Mostly REM covers and REM-influenced originals
1988 (11th Grade) DQ & the Young Republicans Same style as above, but with more Led Zeppelin
1989 (12th Grade) Animal Farm Same style as above, but with more U2
1990 Dismembers Original college rock. Imagine if Live was from Mississippi
1991-92 Quentin’s Bridge Same band as Dismembers, but with more Faulkner references.
1993 Freeloaders Hippie rock with me playing angry noise guitar
1994 Crazy Treehead My guitar gets angrier and noisier
1994 Eat More Possum Acoustic version of Crazy Treehead
1995 Hornbuckle / Satanbuckle / The Semantics Early days of the band that would later become PopCanon
1996-2001 Popcanon Noisepopavantpunkidiotrock
1996 Smack Doris Noisy noise
1997-98 Martha Quinn’s Posse ’80s covers
2000 The Exes Alt Country
2001 Eurotoaster Jangly power pop
2002-2004 The M-Word Trash can acoustic-punk
2005-2009 Dixieland Space Orchestra Exactly what the name describes
2010-2014 The Abdo Men / The Mississippi David Hornbuckle Band / Ghost Herd Power pop with a twang
2014-present Adamadam Twang pop with power

Some Serious Talk about Comedy

During the years that I lived in New York City, I frequented a certain scene wherein I got to be friends with a number of performers of various stripes, many of them stand-up comedians. I even tried my hand at comedy a few times, but apparently I am only funny when I’m not trying to be.

Some stand-ups have ambitions of parlaying their comedy routines into an acting career or some other creative field, but many are dedicated wholeheartedly to the art of the joke. There is something romantic (and terrifying) about being alone on a stage with nothing but a microphone and your wits.

Most of the stand-up comedians I know want to be, and should be, considered legitimate artists. However, a lot of them also cannot seem to endure the kind of intellectual scrutiny that “serious” novelists, musicians, actors, and painters undergo regularly. The nature of comedy provides the easy excuse that, of course, it should not be taken seriously. But there is almost always something more serious at work behind comedy, especially when it touches on politics, sexuality, race, or religion.

A comedian friend recently posted on Facebook: “Comedy is protected free speech, so if you hear someone tell a joke that you think is offensive, treat them like an endangered bald eagle and leave them alone!” Within minutes, dozens of people had “liked” this status post and made positive comments. It triggered a kneejerk comment from me about how the First Amendment doesn’t protect one from criticism; it only protects one from jail. It touched a nerve. I didn’t intend to be didactic, but I knew it would come across that way, so I deleted it shortly afterward. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Of course, a person could find a joke “offensive” for all kinds of reasons. Leaving the comedian alone is probably a good first step if that happens to you while watching a stand-up set. There is no need to disrupt a performance in progress to pursue whatever your issue is. At the same time, when comedians venture into sketchy areas, I think it’s fair for them to be prepared to defend their work in a public forum. Jon Stewart, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, and others are excellent role models in this area. Part of why these comics are successful is because they are engaged with the human experience in a very deliberate way. They don’t go for what’s easy as much as they go for what’s real, and they can talk seriously about the same topics that they cover in their acts.

It’s my nature to be serious, I guess, even about comedy. I’ve been accused a couple of times recently of “not having a sense of humor” because I wanted to probe some offhand humorous remark with mildly earnest rigor. I make my living now in academia. I ask my students to explain why jokes are funny as an exercise in critical thinking. Teaching is also a kind of performance that is a lot like stand-up comedy in many ways, and before I get up in front of the class, I think about everything I’m going to say, the reason I am saying it, and the reaction I expect to get. If the performance doesn’t get the response I hoped for, I have to think about it even more.

The comedians that are my friends are typically very smart, thoughtful people. Otherwise, I probably would not be friends with them in the first place. Even the silliest among them are capable of serious reflection about the impact their work may have on an audience. Comedy is a serious art form, and we should be able to talk about it seriously.

Some Thoughts on July 4th, Charleston, and Other Topics

As the editor of a magazine that deals with Southern culture and Southern identity, I think it is my duty to be a part of the ongoing conversation about current issues, especially in light of the recent massacre in Charleston, S.C. and its aftermath.

First of all, I want to say that I’m happy to see that same-sex marriages are once again legal in Alabama, and everywhere else in the country for that matter. There is still resistance in some corners of our state, but here in Birmingham, I think most of us are ready to embrace the new normal. With the recent Supreme Court rulings and the Confederate battle flags coming down in many places, I am actually feeling more patriotic than any time in recent memory. It seems that this Great American Experiment might actually be working, still imperfectly, but making steady progress. Now, if someone would just do something about Donald Trump… (okay, I stole that joke from NPR, but you have to admit it’s a good one).

As I am composing this, we are coming up on the 4th of July weekend, and, appropriately enough, my students in the Early American literature class I teach are reading excerpts from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography this week. We talked about what Paine and Jefferson might think about some of these current issues, and we concluded that Paine, at least, would see these changes as positive. He was not a religious man, so we can hope that if he were dropped into a modern world, he would not have all the hangups that the right-wing evangelical factions have about modern sexuality. He was also an abolitionist. We speculated that if he knew what happened over the two hundred years after his death, with the states of the Confederacy seceding from the union and the role that the institution of slavery played in that, he would see little reason to celebrate that secession 150 years after the war ended. He came to the United States from England in 1774, stirred by the spirit of revolution. He saw little value in clinging to a past where Americans were politically enslaved by England (a metaphor he utilized in his writing), so it’s easy to imagine that he would see little value in clinging to a past that represented actual slavery.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is more complicated. He was a Southerner and a slave owner. Even though he initially wanted to include a statement against slavery in the Declaration of Independence and was voted down, it’s possible that he was acting purely out concern for how history would view him. He probably thought history would pay little attention to his home life. He was a great man in many ways, and a liberal thinker, but it is hard to say what he would think about the history-making changes we are living through right now. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think many of us who have grown up in the South are familiar with how complicated it can be to come to terms with our history. To perhaps put it a little too coyly, issues of race in the South are never completely black and white. They are complicated.

Speaking of NPR, there was an interview there this week with an African-American gentleman from Montgomery (I can’t seem to find it now, or I would post the link). He was saying that where he lives there are monuments to the Confederacy everywhere, including streets and schools named after Confederate officers. In contrast, he says, there are very few monuments to slavery and Jim Crow, which means we in the South are not really dealing with our history of terrorism and cruelty. This lack of direct acknowledgement makes it impossible for us to have a real conversation about race and what it means.

I agree with many points the gentleman from Montgomery made, but with a few caveats. I have always felt deeply that a defining aspect of Southern culture is the way we live with our history, the good and the bad of it. I’m all for taking the battle flags down from state courthouses and other official state sites, but rather than seeing its presence as a glorification of the Confederacy and all it stood for, we should see it as a recognition of one of the dark moments of our history. Even monuments that overtly glorify or romanticize the Confederate army can be seen through this filter. We are reminded that as recently as fifty years ago, many of us still thought this way. Many of us thought these monuments were a necessary and good idea. We are not so far past it.

One difference between Birmingham and Montgomery is that we do have many monuments that acknowledge the cruelty of the Jim Crow era. We have the Civil Rights Institute, which I have toured many times, often while leading student groups. Some of the exhibits are downright haunting, and I have had students say that it was disturbing and upsetting to them, as it should be. It can be a very emotional experience. Even though Birmingham as a city did not exist during the era of slavery, the connection between Jim Crow and slavery is not lost here. The exhibits in the museum make the connection very clear by presenting a chronological history of civil rights abuses.

Downtown Birmingham is a living monument to the Civil Rights era, which means it is actually giving direct address to the issues to which the Civil Rights era was responding. So, the upshot is that yes, we should take down the battle flags from our government buildings because we don’t need our city and state governments even seeming to openly endorse a faction from our past that defended the institution of slavery. The other public monuments to the Confederacy should remain as reminders of where we have been, even where we have been recently, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. We should also continue to add new monuments that acknowledge the ugly side of that history, that acknowledge the lynchings and the bombings and the effort to keep the black man oppressed, physically and economically.

For better or for worse, we in the South continue to live with our history and walk among the ghosts of the past. Flannery O’Connor called the South “Jesus Haunted,” which may be true, but it is haunted just as much by our history of slavery and terrorism against our own people. And even if we try to suppress them, those ghosts will not be lain to rest anytime soon.

Steel Toe Review Editor’s Note, #19

Our nineteenth online issue includes short stories from Matthew McEver, Cathy Rose, Christopher X. Shade, Kim Siegleson, and Sarah Jennings; non-fiction from Terry Barr and Rori Leigh Hoatlin; and poetry from Sarah Henning, Maari Carter, Philip Theibert, Dan Jacoby, and Devin Kelly.

The completion of this issue is bittersweet. Now that it is done, and our Volume 3 print issue is available, we find ourselves rather frazzled, and we need to take a break for a little while. Our current plan is to return in six months or a year with renewed focus and energy, but the plan could change depending on other factors in our lives that demand our attention. So far, it has been a very good run. We have made amazing, lifelong friends. We have connected with writers all over the world. And we think, in our own very small way, we have made a difference.

Thank you, all of you, for accompanying us on this journey so far. When we once again have the resources to give this project the time and energy it deserves, we hope to see you again.

Cheers.

Student Activism in an Age of Passivism

I was walking across the campus green the other day and overheard some students talking about war–whether generally or specifically, I am not sure. I distinctly heard one of them claim to be a “passivist,” Clearly, this young person meant “pacifist,” a close homonym, and one of her cohort quickly corrected her. Later, I posted this anecdote on Facebook, eliciting many yuks, groans, and clever follow-up comments from my clever and educated friends, including a couple to the effect of “it was probably the truth.” Sure, it was a wickedly ironic verbal slip up; However, the more I thought about this incident, the more it also seemed to make a profound statement about the world today that deserves more than an offhand quip.

For better or for worse, the college campus has often been the lifeblood of political activism, and I’m not just talking about the 1960s here. Think of the Chinese students who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the students behind the 1832 June Rebellion that is at the center of Les Misérables, and the recent Arab Spring in which the fervor for revolution was spread largely by social media–largely by the young people who are most comfortable with that technology. In 1815, in Germany, liberal student groups gathered at Warberg Castle and burned reactionary books.  In Indonesia  in the 1920s, it was students who led the movement against colonialism. Students in Iran in the 1970s protested the Shah as well as the theocratic republic that followed. Even when I was a college student in the early 1990s, there were campus protests against the first Gulf War.

After Syria used chemical weapons against its own people, I asked a group of college freshmen what they thought about it, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I told them that the U.S. was considering military action; this was serious. Their response was little more than a shrug. Passivism.

Traditionally, it seems, the passion of youth stirs people to do extraordinary things from which the wisdom of age pretends to protect us. Though sometimes misguided, this is an important source of cultural energy and power. What’s happened to that, and what happens to a culture filled with apathetic nihilists? American college students today have grown up in a complicated world where there are so many flavors of injustice available to protest that one of two things happen: (1) they are overwhelmed and refuse to get invested in any particular cause or (2) they give lip service to virtually every cause that crosses their path but don’t really get involved in any meaningful way.

I think one of my roles as an instructor is to fan the flames and let youthful passion do its work, but when there’s no flame there to begin with, what does one do?