C. G. Wayne

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Author of:

  • Cocobolo
  • WTexas in 2 Plays
  • French Defense
 

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When asked to describe his work, he began by talking about Cocobolo….

The book on my mind at the present is Cocobolo. I just finished the paperback version. Cocobolo is a story cycle of sorts, built primarily around the lives of six individuals connected by their Gulf Coast origins. As a story cycle it forms a skein of place and the characters are its children. I think of it as an abstract painting, a WPA mural.

There are so many assumptions and preconceptions about the South – by those who live there and those who don’t. Some are correct and others are caricatures. Southern writers love hyperbole, which often turns into caricature. If you are a part of the South, you appreciate it as comic exaggeration. If you aren’t, it’s easy to incorporate that into your perspective of the South. Like New Orleans is defined by Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras instead of the other way around. Cocobolo tries to present a view of the South and its children, resident and expatriate, that is not caricature. Although, I do like to exaggerate when I’m telling a good story.

In a piece I wrote about the book, I described Cocobolo as embracing a chaotic view of the past and present. Chaotic because in our lives memory and present often carry equal weight. Memory is unreliable but powerful, often informing our immediate actions and shaping how we perceive events in the moment when they are occurring. That kind of interaction between memory and present does not follow rational order or often occur in a logical sequence– we call it life. In this book I’ve tried to maintain the often illogical and contradictory experience of life without recasting them in logical structures. Basically I didn’t want to “clean up” what is experienced to fit into a progression of consistent action and conflict resolution. I often call these manufactured progressions.

Personal life doesn’t move in the moment of its experience with assurance to the next event. We experience angst that there might not be another instant until in reflection we turn to the past moment and say with mock confidence that it was all sensible, God’s plan, the universe, Karma or something else conceptual that explains away the shadows. For me embracing the uncertainty of the present captures the experience of being alive. I think that’s what Oak Man Dog was really trying to get at. These worlds of uncertainty and contradiction are the realities in which we find ourselves, the heart of Story, an expression of the world as we find, experience, and perceive it. For Hemmingway, his “grace under pressure quote” addresses, I think, the same desire to embrace life as it is.

The stories of Cocobolo stand-alone and provide the reader with time to linger on character and description—pretty much the way life moves on the Gulf Coast. Read them the way life is lived here. Languidly and savoring the details.

 

What is Cocobolo?

Cocobolo, not my book but the tree, is a dense, hard, and rare wood. It’s used in woodworking to create inlays. They say that Cocobolo wood is so dense that it does not float when placed in water — the perfect metaphor for what a short story collection should be. Cocobolo, my story cycle, consists of 13 stories and, as story cycles go, each story illuminates the next.

 The collection might bend the criteria of a story cycle a little—the characters do not always inhabit the same time or place or always share the same cultural history—but they do have common concerns and  regional origins that reflect the genuine core diversity of those living on and coming from the Gulf Coast. 

While characters are the drivers of Story, Place provides its foundation. Eudora Welty wrote, “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction….” Place informs us of the human characters deepest core beliefs and carries on its shoulders the weight of the narrative’s universe. To me, this is the heart of Cocobolo.

 

Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

That’s tough. Each piece is different, has aspects about it that I like and dislike. I enjoy the pieces about M. Vicknair. She is a terrific character and I enjoyed seeing her develop over time. I’m looking forward to completing French Defense so that I can continue working with her. At times, I think Mr. Thompson and the Curse of Magic House is my favorite piece. Then I think of the others and Disk2 is right up there. And Hydroformed. That’s a favorite of mine as well. It’s like your children, you love them all but not in or for the same things. After all, they are individuals and should be considered separately.

 

Is there one that you like the least?

Funeral Supper. It was important in the development of the story cycle and necessary to JB’s narrative -- but I didn’t care for his mother. Obviously, he didn’t either. I was glad to leave her house and get back out on the road. I was true to her character in that piece but it doesn’t mean I have to like her. Much like the older blonde woman in the Sex Life of Ghosts, she wasn’t intended to be likeable. Not everyone in life is likeable.

 

Which character are you?

None of them. It is fiction you know. – except maybe for the old man character. That might have been my Alfred Hitchcock cameo in the pieces... with Liesl in Oak Man Dog being hit by lightning. I tried to visualize how I might appear to others in that piece. When I would walk Niki in our neighborhood in Fairhope, I sometimes wondered if I was going in be hit by lightning. In the spring, it seemed there was always the sound of thunder somewhere, even if you couldn’t see the thundercloud. On the news they used to say if you could hear thunder stay inside. What a joke. Living there I’d never go outside if I followed that advice. Of course I’m a big fan of hyperbole so that’s not actually true, but it felt that way sometimes.

After I wrote that piece there was a family who was on the beach at Gulfshores, a few miles south of where we lived, that was hit be lightning from a cloud several miles away. Fortunately, they survived but it did put them in the hospital for a few days. I always found it sad when family coming to the beach for a vacation had things like that happen to them. I always think of Flannery O’Conner when I hear of something like that.  Her pieces always had sort of tragic flavor to them.

When I was young and trying to write, my mother was always trerrified that I'd write about the family or the neighbors or people in the church so it was a real problem for me trying to write well when I was young. I didn't have enough "stuff" floating around in my brain to assemble a created universe. It was a handicap but I try not to ever have people that I know in these pieces. There are no family members in here either.

 

What about your other work? WTexas in 2 Plays for example. Why is “WTexas” written together as a single word?

That’s a bit of an inside joke actually. When I lived in Ft. Worth a million years ago, it sounded is if native Texans pronounced West Texas as a single word – Westexas. So we used to say it that way - when I first moved to Ft. Worth. At the time I was going to the seminary and I had a group of friends at school who were from Oregon and we were fascinated by the cultural differences between our separate "home" areas and that of Texas. Texas has such a strong and consciously different cultural identity. Anyway, the title is a play on that.

 

Where did the idea for WTexas come from?

LawnMaster, began its life as an assignment for a playwright workshop led by Amy Freed at Stanford in 2002. In its original form, it focused on the Kid’s entry and exit from the alien world of a university grounds crew in Texas. Alien to him that is. However, as the piece evolved, the more dynamic story became that of the “regular” employees. The Kid was actually boring and I was glad when he left the group of regulars. Eventually I think the grounds crew itself emerged as a character in the narrative. They become a collective body working together sometimes and in opposition at other times.

The second work, Winter Crew, was begun after completing the workshop at Stanford and continues the narrative of the grounds crew of LawnMaster as they finish the work season. The first act resumes in spring at the conclusion of LawnMaster. Subsequent acts occur in the summer and early fall of the same year.

 

What is the LawnMaster?

Ages ago when I was between “real” jobs,” I worked on a university grounds crew so that I could get a tuition break for graduate school. At the time, the grounds department had a LawnMaster - a high-end commercial riding mower. We only had one, that’s all the school could afford so in real life, as in the play, it was the high status symbol on the crew. It was the centerpiece of the equipment collection - a polished, gleaming riding mower - the LawnMaster. What a name. I had to use it. Everything else in the shop was ancient, rusted, and grungy. In the play, the LawnMaster serves as the lightning rod for tension between the members of the crew. It also becomes a powerful symbol in the two plays.

 

Why did you choose to use a play format instead of write these as a novel?

Actually, the plays in this series were initially written with the intention of their being performed on stage. I had completed Amy Freed’s workshop, joined the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and attended a couple of their events. However, after the MFA and later reading The Sunset Limited I reimagined them as narrative abstractions and not solely as performance.

When I was growing up, my mother taught Senior English in high school. One of the main activities for her senior classes was producing and performing in the “senior play.” Each year, she brought home samples of plays - to me they were books - which she received from publishers and I read them as though they were stories. The idea of a narrative in dramatic form jelled after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited ... but it has actually been with me from the time that I began reading.

I revised them by removing most of the stage directions and enhancing the descriptions so that the narrative in the work was rendered more as an abstract painting in which the viewer/reader was empowered and even required to provide meaning and context.

For me, this was not actually a performance piece anymore but a different form of narrative. The emphasis in this form of narrative truly comes from revealing character through what is said aloud—not what the characters have thought. In other words, character is revealed to the reader within the context of the words that are heard, not through a character’s private thought —

 

What else are you working on?

I’ve got another “narrative play,’” French Defense, that is in the last phase of production. Slogging through the administrative task is not a favorite task for me. I also struggle intellectually with the length of this work. It has three movements – I’ve decided to think of it in those terms instead of plays. Like WTexas they are sequential. It would be cool to see them performed but their length will be an issue. I think sometimes that it would be interesting as an operatic trilogy but then it’s about a psychotic chess player – I’m not sure how well the chess games would translate as opera. That would be cool to hear the dialog sung!

And there is the desire to return to the narrative of M. Vicknair and Marlene Englade from Cocobolo.  What keeps me engaged in these narratives is a sense of responsibility to the characters. It bothers me that Marlene’s story ended with her still working at Guidry’s. And M. Vicknair is too good to leave.  I want to see her continue to grow as a character. I haven’t decided yet if it’s a story cycle like Cocobolo or if its long form. I’ll just have to see where the characters take it.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t covered?

I’d like to come back to WTexas a moment and talk about Jake. I really like him as a character. When I began that piece he was just a grumpy old small engine mechanic. Used to be those guys always had a reputation for being heavy drinkers and the guys that I knew fit that. But as I worked with Jake’s character, other aspects of his personality emerged and he developed a much deeper sensitivity than I had originally expected him to have. After the book was written I worked on the cover design and wanted to put a Tobiano colt on it – like Jake’s horse Zulu when it was a colt. That’s when it hit me that the cover should be Jake’s painting of Zulu. I like that the cover art became an extension of the narrative and not a decoration.

I guess that’s about it. I could talk on and on about these guys.

 

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