Airing It Out
Inman Majors discusses his grand, ambitious new novel—and his role as black sheep of the Majors football dynasty
Though he's now a tenured professor at Virginia's James Madison University, Inman Majors is a Tennessean through and through. He grew up in Knoxville, attended college in Nashville (graduating from Vanderbilt) and spent time down the road teaching at Motlow Community College in Tullahoma. Along the way, he's put Tennessee on the literary map. His past three novels—2000's Swimming in Sky (set in his East Tennessee hometown), 2004's Wonderdog (an irreverent and sharply comedic look at New South living), and last year's The Millionaires (a multi-generational saga of a family and a region in flux)—have been reviewed in publications across the country, from altweeklies to national news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
In an interview with Chapter 16, Majors discusses his work as a writer, his life as an ex-pat Tennessean, and his ambitious new novel, The Millionaires. Recently released in paperback, it's set in the fictional East Tennessee town of Glennville—a city much like Knoxville—and centers on the Cole family's troubled foray into Tennessee politics, especially the determination of two wealthy Cole brothers, J.T. and Roland, to bring a World's Fair to town by any measures necessary.
Chapter 16: What as been the response of Knoxvillians? Have any of them asked why you didn't include this or that person or event?
Majors: It seems to have been very popular in Knoxville—at one point there was a 100-person waiting list to check out the book at the Knoxville library. My guess is that people enjoy reminiscing about the World's Fair, which was a really fun and exciting time to be in East Tennessee.
In general, I think people appreciate the well-rounded characters, all of whom have strengths and weaknesses just like you and me. The strongest and most positive reaction from readers has been from folks fifty and older. They seem to relate well to the characters and can identify with their struggles and their memories of growing up in the small towns of a bygone era. They understand when my characters wonder if the "country" still shows even though they now live in the city.
Chapter 16: There's a large and varied cast of characters in The Millionaires, and you employ a huge number of narrative styles—stage and screen directions, vignettes, straight dialogue, lists, even a poem—as well. How did the various voices influence the structure of the chapters?
Majors: The structure was influenced less by the number of characters and more by a desire to have the form match-up with some of the themes of the book. One of the primary themes is that the South in the late seventies and early eighties was a region in transition, moving as it was from an area dominated by farms and small towns to one where the city and suburb reign supreme. So I used a traditional story of ambition gone awry to stand for the Old South, and a postmodern conceptualization/structure to stand for the New South. I thought the juxtaposition between story and conceptualization would mirror the tensions at play in the South during the late twentieth century as the region was deciding how to define itself.
Chapter 16: So reading the book is almost like watching the South itself transform.
Majors: For a long time I've wanted to write a book about my parent's generation, those people who just preceded the baby boomers. Three of my four grandparents were raised on farms in Tennessee (the other in the metropolis of Lynchburg). My parents, however, were raised in small Tennessee towns like Huntland and Winchester. And I was raised in the city of Knoxville. I grew up skateboarding in the suburbs and going to malls and things like that but I also spent a lot of time in small Tennessee towns when I'd go to visit my grandparents. At some point I started wondering about my own family's move from the farm to the suburb and the generation that made that move happen.
So when I'm writing about the Cole brothers and their wives and friends, their ambitions and hopes and desires as they move to the bright lights of the big city, I'm writing about this generation of Southerners as a whole. Growing up I knew a lot of folks just like the ones in my books.
Chapter 16: Your writing style is as sharp and dynamic, as sophisticated and contemporary as any other writer working in any other part of the country. Whether or not you claim the title of "Southern writer," how do you feel about being labeled one simply because you grew up in the South and your novels are set here?
Majors: Well, my family has been in this state for nearly two hundred years, so I'm a Tennessean through and through. And I've always felt more like a Tennessean than a Southerner if that makes sense. But the older I get, the less I worry about where I'm placed as a writer or how I'm categorized. My main objection now to being labeled a Southern writer is commercial. I just don't think it's good business. Simply put, why would a writer want to potentially limit his audience to one area of the country?
As for how reviewers react to my book, I can answer that and hope I don't sound too arrogant. I've always written with the long view in mind. I'm a believer in history and trust history. If the work is good enough, history will record it as such. If history doesn't record my work, then it wasn't good enough. Either way, it's ultimately out of my hands.
I think it was Fitzgerald who said something like: the serious novelist writes for the young readers of today, the critics of tomorrow, and the schoolteachers for all time. He's saying, I think, that good art should be a decade or so ahead of the current brand of critics. I think it's no coincidence that my best reviews come in the alternative weeklies in Southern cities, venues that use younger writers, writers who like that I'm portraying a South they recognize as the one they currently live in.
Chapter 16: Politics and politicians often make central appearances in your work, and the youngest Cole brother runs for governor. Though his roots are rural, he has to convince the voters he's more than a rich man "in a Fifth Avenue suit" when his opponent, "a Princeton-educated son of a doctor" films a commercial wearing overalls. Tennessee voters have seen this kind of posturing before. If Al Gore had worn overalls or a red-plaid flannel shirt, would he have won over our state's voters?
Majors: I tend to think if he'd donned the flannel shirt or used some other prop of that sort, people would have seen it as a ploy and it likely would have backfired. Mr. Gore was an excellent senator and would have been a good president. I'm not sure, however, that he was ever a great campaigner. Good campaigners—good politicians—are actors, and like all good actors, they have a feel for the spontaneous—they trust their gut and trust themselves in all instances to win the audience over. Al Gore was probably just too sincere, too earnest, to do some of the performing—and performance is a form of deception—required to win a close national election.
Chapter 16: You come from a football family: your grandfather was a coach for Sewanee, your father played for Alabama, Florida State, and even the Houston Oilers. His brothers were footballs stars at Tennessee, and your uncle is Johnny Majors, the former UT coach. You even played yourself, winning a state championship. How did you get from football to a degree at in-state rival Vanderbilt to a graduate degree in poetry at Alabama? Ever endure any family teasing?
Majors: Well, if I could have been a professional athlete, I'd have never written the first word. I loved sports growing up and spent a lot more time thinking about them than about school. That said, I did always like reading, and my parents were both big readers. My mom was a high-school English teacher, as were both my grandmothers. And I found out when I was in graduate school that both my parents had taken fiction-writing classes while in college. My dad's class was with Michael Shaara, who wrote Killer Angels, and they ended up being good friends and hanging out a fair bit in Tallahassee. So maybe I inherited more than a love of sports in my DNA.
It's funny, but no one in my family ever pressured me into playing sports and no one ever acted like sports were the be-all, end-all. All of my aunts and uncles are well rounded and have a lot of interests, and I never thought we presented ourselves as one-dimensional jocks. My dad went to Vanderbilt law school so I didn't catch too much flak about my choice of schools. Besides, my dad wouldn't let me go to UT—he knew me too well and knew I'd probably flunk out if I went to school there. Too many high school friends and too many distractions.
I've known for a long time how lucky I was to have the parents I did. They never pressured me to "get a real job" even though it took me forever to get my first book published. They acted like it was my life, and I was allowed to decide for myself what I wanted to do with it. Even when my career path, such that it was at the time, found me unemployed and living with my grandmother at the age of thirty-two.
Chapter 16: The plot of The Millionaires really turns on the lengths to which the Cole brothers are willing to go to bring the World's Fair to fictional Glennville. Did Knoxville's real-life World's Fair make that big of an impression on you?
Majors: A World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee? Yes, it made an impression on me and everyone else in town. Before Knoxville, the World's Fair had been held in places like Chicago, New York, Paris. So who in the world would be ambitious and daring enough to propose a World' Fair in our little city? It sounded like a crackpot idea. But ultimately, they pulled it off. People forget that the Fair was a success: it broke even, people had a good time, and for six months Knoxville had more culture coming through town—symphonies, ballets, art, musicians of all stripes—than anywhere else in America.
That said, I was seventeen and spent most of my time at the Fair trying unsuccessfully to meet out-of-town girls and eating falafel.
Published Wednesday, 13 January 2010