Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, has some very memorable characters that are worth getting to know. In previous segments of this interview we have talked about resiliency in strange times and the meaning of Alabama. If you’ve read the book, you’ll enjoy this segment because we get down deeper into the characters that bring the book to life. I began with a nod to the theme of electricity that pervades the book…So…I’ve got an electrical problem here at the house. Can you help me with it?
[laughs] No. My go-to on the question about electricity is that one of the pieces about writing that I really love is the research process and being able to try on so many different careers and livelihoods and passions and hobbies. I also did not know that Roscoe [the main character in the book] was an electrician for quite a while. I actually wrote most of the prison scenes before I knew what it was that Roscoe had done to get there. Which seems really strange at this point because electricity literally flows through the whole book. When I stumbled upon that I was like, “Of course, you have Yellow Mama [the prison’s electric chair] and we have the electrified lines around the prison and all linked together. But I was just a little blind to it for a while. That’s often the case when the truth is right before us.
I discovered the electricity much like Roscoe did: I found a book of Faraday lectures in an old used bookstore. Faraday is this incredible kind of fortune or storyteller and really an entertainer. He would have these huge lectures in which he would tell huge rooms full of people about the forces of nature and do demonstrations. I just loved the language of the mechanics of electricity. It’s actually very lyrical and beautiful.
So I dove into the study of electricity through Faraday and then did internet searches and questioning people and double-checking my ideas. I retained it long enough to write the book but if you ask me anything about electricity right now I think that that file has been purged and opened up to the next thing that I need to learn. So I guess I could not solve your electrical problem. There was a moment where I maybe could have at least guessed, but no longer
Well, you are very convincing. That really surprises me because the theme of electrification really moves through that book.
Well, thank you. Two of the recurring questions I’ve gotten are: Am I an electrician? and How much time have I spent in prison? I say it is a testament to the art of writing fiction that I am not an electrician nor have I spent time in prison.
Yeah, and you’re not a man and the other amazing thing about this book is how much you were able to get in our heads in a really deep way.
Well thank you, thank you so much. I’m flattered by that. I feel like that’s the highest compliment. As a writer I think the best stories come from character and this story started with Roscoe. If I had stumbled upon a female that I would have been interested in I think I would have written her but we are chameleons as fiction writers and we take on the lives and voices of our different characters. So I think of it as just an extension of that.
Then I also think I’ve always really connected with men. As far as my personality goes, I’m part adolescent boy and 80 year old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.
One of the things you said at the end of the book was that you developed the Marie character [Roscoe’s wife] because one of your students encouraged you to spend more time with her. It was interesting watching my wife because, as she read the book, she had a much more negative reaction to Marie than I did. She didn’t like Marie at all.
Marie is the most hated, for sure, of all of the characters in this book and people are very divided on Marie. Many book clubs have lots of conversations and people hate Marie, like really loathe her. Actually, I think I should probably start taking notes but I would say that my male readers mostly have more compassion for her than my female readers. I adore Marie and I see Marie as resilient survivor. I don’t agree with everything Marie has done and I don’t condone her behaviors across the board…she finagles a divorce from Roscoe when he was in no place to grant her one, so there’s dishonesty there…I don’t agree with all of her actions but I see Marie as a strong, resilient, independent woman in a time when strong, resilient, independent women were not the norm. She needed to survive. She needed to save her son. She needed to save her farm.
Actually, this a place where it becomes more personal, because she was much harder to take in earlier drafts and someone asked, “Who is she? Who does she remind you of? Are you basing her on anyone?”It took that question make me realize that I was actually basing her largely on my grandmother who lived in Alabama and got me thinking about Alabama in the first place. My grandmother is turning 90 in October. She’s a very strong, independent, resilient woman and has suffered many tragedies in her life and when faced with tragedy she looked it in the eye and put it aside and never returned. When I was younger I saw that as a kind of a flaw. I saw it as cold and distant and as I’ve aged I think I see it as just her coping mechanism. It’s survival. It’s the only way she knows how to move through tragedy and pain. So I gave that trait to Marie and I see her actions not coming out of a place of malice necessarily. I mean she’s definitely angry at times, but not out of cruelty and not out of any sort of meanness but out of a need to survive in the only way she knows how.
I think that’s true and, as I said in the review, I felt like some of your best writing was in the chapters where you were trying to flesh her out. I think I would’ve had a really negative reaction without those chapters, too, because the longer you stay in prison you wonder “Well, where is she and what’s going on?”
Exactly, and early drafts of the book were all from Roscoe’s point of view and he didn’t have any sense of what’s going on with Marie. She existed only by her actions and that was where a trusted great reader said, “What do you think about spending a little time outside of prison and letting us know what’s happening and letting us get to know Marie a little bit so that we don’t just loathe her completely?” and that was very, very good advice.
I also liked the visions of Marie that Roscoe has that got him through in a way. I thought that was really insightful in the way that we use people to think—the way that we use the idea of people to get a us through.
Yeah that’s very well said. I love that idea that we conjure creations of people to help us through.