By Lainy Carslaw, for The Fourth River
Tim Parrish is the author of three books: Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a memoir (University Press of Mississippi); The Jumper, a novel (winner of Texas Review Press’s 2012 George Garrett Prize; and Red Stick Men, a story collection (University Press of Mississippi). His work has appeared in dozens of periodicals and in a number of anthologies, including Louisiana in Words, Alive and Awake in the Pelican State, The Best of LSU Fiction, and Rules of Thumb. In a former life he was the front man for the bands The Human Rayz, The Lower Chakras, and The Irascibles. He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is now a professor in the full-residency MFA and undergraduate creative-writing programs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
Parrish lead the workshop in multi-genre prose at last year’s Summer Community of Writers.
The Fourth River: How much of your fiction is drawn from personal experience? In The Jumper specifically, is the part about minority children being sold to farms for labor actually true? Was there ever a lawsuit involving that scandal or did you invent it?
Tim Parrish: Five of the nine stories in my collection, Red Stick Men, are heavily based on my family, though of course so heavily recrafted as to be only shakily classified as “autobiographical.” Members of my family begged to differ. One of the other four stories, from which The Jumper partially grew, is based on a newspaper article, another about my time working offshore, though with a central character only tangentially related to me, another about a shooting that a friend saw at work, and another about the Mississippi River changing course, so it’s a mixed bag. The memoir is, of course, my experience, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. The Jumper, which is my best book I think, isn’t autobiographical at all, except that I tutored a man on whom the main character is based and then combined that with a premise from one of my stories.
TFR: Your memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, deals with your process of overcoming a racist past. Was that evolution gradual or did you have one “ah-ha” moment that woke you up from your prejudices?
TP: Well, obviously it’s tough to summarize such a thing when I felt the need to write an entire book about it, and you would have to read the book to see about my evolution, but overcoming racist indoctrination, not only in my upbringing, but from society as well, is a gradual and ongoing evolution. That said, there were key moments that led to things like epiphanies, all after violent circumstances. One was when, in the aftermath of a friend of ours being stabbed in a fight and almost dying, this powerful racist under whose sway I’d fallen wanted to burn down a house of innocent black people and I just wouldn’t go along with that (luckily, he didn’t either). Then after being in a gang fight at school and getting suspended my senior year, my father and the African American quarterback at our school stepped in told me things I need to hear.
TFR: Most people seem to be praising your bravery for speaking up about your past. Are you getting any backlash as well?
TP: I’ve gotten a huge amount of support and feedback, but I truly don’t believe I’ve done anything that’s courageous in simply telling the truth. But, oh, yeah, I’m getting backlash from both whites and African Americans. Most of it is from white people in the South, especially my hometown, but just last night I was on a radio show where I was gone after pretty thoroughly by the two African American hosts for still being a racist and part of worldwide white supremacy. It’s not easy to manage all that because I’m a person who tends to engage people in what I hope is a rational way, and many of these people, obviously, aren’t looking to have rational discourse.
TFR: Is your lesson one of hope that people really can change?
TP: Without a doubt, and I’ve had to work hard to get there and stay there through lots of cynicism and anger in me.
TFR: You said you have been “somewhat famous” over the last few weeks. Are you enjoying the attention or are you more of a private person?
TP: For the most part, I’ve loved it, though “somewhat famous” is a little ironic. More like mildly high profile, especially after I was on CNN, though things started going fast when an Op Ed I wrote for the New York Daily News went viral. I’m a performer and I like to talk about things that matter to me, so I’ve enjoyed having a wider audience. I like the buzz of new things, and it was definitely a rush when my girlfriend and I were in NYC and I was about to leave to go back to CT when CNN called and asked if I could go on in four hours. I didn’t even have a clean sleeved shirt with me, so that was an intense and weird day, not mostly because of the shirt, but partly. I hadn’t had make-up put on me in a while either.
TFR: What’s your next project? Are you in the middle of one?
TP: I am working on a convoluted novel that is a fake memoir entitled MIMWAR! It’s told from a first-person narrator named, surprise, Tim Parrish, but also from a number of third person POVs by characters whom a younger Tim Parrish knew or the older one creates. Most of those third-person characters are involved in a kind of Western set in 1971 Baton Rouge. The book came about in part because of my frustration with and bitterness toward NYC agents and other houses rejecting the actual memoir after trying to push me to make it focus more on violence and sensationalism. So, this memoir starts with a version of a fight that a number of people suggested I start the actual memoir with. MIMWAR!’s version is narrated by previously-mentioned, crank, edgy writer who bears no resemblance to me. I’m trying to make sure that it’s so convoluted that no agent or big house will take it either.
TFR: How long have you been teaching? What do you like most about it? Least? Do you have a student who has really stuck with you? One that maybe taught you more than you taught them?
TP: If you count the four years during which I taught two classes a semester while getting my MFA, I suppose I’ve been teaching for a little over thirty years, including a three-year stint as a high-school teacher, and a three year gig as a teacher of developmental reading at LSU. I love the interaction with people, giving my students ownership of their learning, giving feedback and discussing what I love, but most of all I love being able to sometimes have a positive impact on people and just getting to know so many people. I’ve had tons of students who have stuck with me, and I’m still in touch with students all the way back to when I taught high school. And I’m constantly learning from and influenced by MFA students because they are reading works that I haven’t read and doing things that I haven’t done and so I have to expand my understanding and aesthetics in order to respond semi-intelligently.
TFR: Was your first book hard to get published? How did you get your foot in the door? Many of us here are trying to manage our expectations. We have dreams of being published but don’t want to write solely for being published. Do you have any advice for us on managing those expectations?
TP: Every one of my books has been hard to get published, as I think I complain about up above. Rather than get a foot in doors, I tend to shove them open and then have them swing back and hit me in the face. As far as expectations, publishing literary fiction seems to get harder and harder. I think most people continue to write literary fiction because they can’t not write it. I compare it to a virus. So write what you’re compelled to write, send the work out, try to make connections with other writers whom you admire and who get your vision and keep trying. I don’t buy this thick-skin thing, but you do have to take rejection the least personally as you can and just have real resolve. But most importantly, make the work as good and original as you can, and then work, work, work with the aim of always learning from your own work, work you admire, and trusted readers.