Can place be the primary character in a book? You can make the case for that in Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, Work Like Any Other. In the previous segment of this interview, we discussed maintaining hope in strange times. In this segment we talk two great states – Alabama and Montana.
Tell me about Alabama because it’s as much of a character in your book—maybe the biggest character in your book.
I agree. I think setting is character. My current book is set in Montana and Montana is very much a character in it. I’ve been visiting Alabama since I was 8. My grandparents retired there from Colorado but they don’t live where this book is set—they retired to the little tail of Alabama there on the Gulf Coast. My grandmother lives in the same house she moved to 30 years ago, so I’ve been returning to this one place almost every year for 30 years and I started writing stories about the kind of retirement covenant-restricted community where my grandmother lived. Those are hit and miss some might see the light of day someday, but they’re not great.
I took a history writing class when I was at the Michener Center [at the University of Texas] with the intention of beefing up those stories and fleshing out. I had my personal observations but then just digging in to the history of the state, the first thing that I pulled off the shelf in the UT library was a study of convicts who had been released on parole and their rates of recidivism based upon all these different character traits. The rules were counterintuitive when I started to look into them because they were like: if you were married and had kids you were more likely to commit another time. If you had a genius level IQ you were more likely. If you had a skill or trade you were more likely.
I just made a list of all those different traits and that list became Roscoe. I knew I had a convict in Alabama around the 20s and 30s when the study had been published and so that led me to Kilby Prison. As a fiction writer, I think stumbling upon a place like Kilby prison in the historic record is a gold mine.
You asked a great question in your email about ‘Does Alabama kind of represent America, does the story kind of ripple out to have bigger implications for our country?’ and my short answer to that is ‘yes.’ And my expanded one is: my fascination with Alabama is that I think it is a very rich state and it really holds a lot of our beauty—a lot of really incredible things about the culture of America from cooking to music to camaraderie and agriculture and all of those different pieces. And then it also holds some of our ugliest elements as well from slavery and segregation and convict leasing.
So Kilby was this institution that was built to incarcerate but it was very progressive for its day and had all of these elements: the farm and the cotton mill and the wood shop and the library and the chapel. It was built with this mission of rehabilitation and also was, of course, overrun with injustice and violence. Ironically, for an institution built with an eye toward rehabilitating, it also housed the state’s first electric chair. So there was this crazy dichotomy between ‘we are going to rehabilitate you or assume that there’s no chance for rehabilitation and execute you.’ To have all of that in one place felt incredibly powerful and exploring the historic record of Kilby became a complete fascination for me. It’s amazing how much you can uncover. I found the original blueprint for the prison and the original architectural plans and the original pitch to the legislature for why it should be built.
All the sensual detail in there is what made the book so rich, too. I assume that’s drawn on your own experience of Alabama?
A lot of it is. I have this memory of visiting my grandparents maybe in fourth grade with my sister. They let us walk to the clubhouse and there was a pool right by the gate and it being nighttime and being cloaked with that humidity and sounds and just this feeling and the smells. I have those points of reference of just feeling Alabama around me. Then I also worked with the native Alabama plant guide next to my desk so that I was like, “I know what I’m feeling but I don’t know what the plant is” so there was a lot of crosschecking as well.
You say you’re working on a book about Montana. Is there anything more you can say about that?
I can, yes. It will come out from Scribner again. It will be a little while. It’s called The Behaviorist and follows a behavioral psychologist in the 60s and 70s at the height of de-institutionalization and mostly set at the Boulder River School and Hospital for the Developmentally Disabled. My doctor comes there and is the superintendent who is hired to essentially right all of these horrific wrongs. This is the moment where mental institutions and hospitals across the nation are being exposed for their horrific conditions and he’s brought in to right those wrongs and also oversee and help facilitate de-institutionalization.
It’s very much an exploration of the tension between how you can be a really great doctor but possibly not a great father or not a very good husband. So there’s a lot I’m returning to—there’s definitely a little bit of a troubled marriage involved, there’s an institution involved again. But there’s a different story set very much in my home just at a different time. So I don’t need the native guides because I do know the plants and animals of Montana. Montana itself is very much a character like Alabama was a main character. Then it’s just passion and love for this place that pulls him. He brings his family here because he has fallen in love with the place that is Montana and so that plays a part as well.
Great. Well, it’s on my list.
This interview concludes with a discussion of characters in Work Like Any Other.