One of the four debutants on this year’s Man Booker longlist, Montana-based author Virginia Reeves has played many roles through her life. Perhaps that has deepened her perspective of the word ‘work’ as she views it through the history of her own family in Work Like Any Other. The story of a man whose heart lies in electric work but whose life takes him to the farm and then the prison, the book is a great reminder of the price of human progress. Reeves lets me in on more.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you began your journey in writing.
I have always had a variety of interests and fascinations, and I have been writing since I learned how. Early on, I thought I’d be a veterinarian, then a psychologist. I toyed with double-majoring in Spanish and teaching English abroad, only to abandon that dream to pursue a master of arts in teaching high school English. I waited tables, quite a bit, in many different restaurants. I approached a woodworker about apprenticing. I designed curriculum for a museum of science and culture. I taught middle schoolers, toddlers, high schoolers, college kids. I got married and had two daughters (now 9 and 13). And through all of it, I wrote. I kept writing. I applied to MFA programs in creative writing three times. The first time, I didn’t get into any. The second time, I got into two, but without funding. I started working with an incredible mentor in Helena, Montana, the poet Loren Graham, which I count as my first real instruction in craft. I was in my late twenties then. The third time I applied to programs, I got into three of six, and all three offered me full funding. I chose the Michener Center at UT-Austin, and moved my family to Texas. From there, it’s still much like a dream. Those three years at the Michener Center were magical, full of friends and books, workshops, margaritas, barbeque. I had incredible colleagues and teachers. I started Work Like Any Other in my second year there. After graduation, I got an incredible teaching position at a private school in Austin, The Khabele School, where I again had the great fortune of working with brilliant people. I taught full time, middle school and high school, and I worked on the novel when I could, often with my students. They held me responsible to my art. When the book got picked up, I shared the success with them.
What inspired Work Like Any Other?
It starts with my grandparents. They retired to Lillian, Alabama when I was in elementary school, and I visited nearly every year. My parents moved quite a bit, and in adulthood I have as well, but my grandmother still lives in their original house. In a way, Alabama is a constant, a place that has not changed. I started writing stories about her community, and then I took a history writing course at UT with the intention of digging into Alabama history. The first book I found was a bound graduate thesis, published in the early 1930s, called These Came Back. It explored chances of breaking parole based upon specific characteristics of parolees. The findings weren’t what you’d expect. Married men were more likely to break parole, as were highly intelligent men, those skilled in a trade, those with a child. I built Roscoe from those statistics. His character is the heart of the book. As he expanded, I built the world around him—Kilby prison, convict leasing, farming, electricity.
What is at the core of the book; can you give me a blurb on it?
There are really two things—work and debt. I’ll talk more about work in a bit, though I think it’s tied to debt in many ways. By debt, I don’t mean financial, though that comes up in the novel, too. I mean emotional debt, cerebral debt, all the credits and debits we make throughout life. I’m interested in how we pay those sorts of debts, and whether we can. I think Roscoe struggles with this notion throughout the book.
How did you choose your characters, apart from Roscoe?
Roscoe just kept growing from that original study I found. The others were trickier. I’ll start with Marie. She gets a lot of grief from readers [so many people hate her]. I have quite a soft spot for her though, and I swear she used to be even more unlikable, which was problematic in earlier drafts. Someone asked me who she was. Why does she act this way? And I realised she was my grandmother, that same one in Alabama. Not completely, but in part. My grandmother is this tiny woman, with fierce stoicism. When something horrible happens, she swallows, moves it to the side, and continues. I know we’re likely to call such behaviour “denial” now, but I think that’s too simple a description. It is a means of coping with trauma. One I saw growing up, one I gave to Marie.
Ed Mason [Roscoe’s cellmate and the builder of the state’s electric chair] was a real man—a woodworker from London who managed to get himself to Mobile, Alabama, where he was arrested for larceny. The prison really did give him a month off in exchange for building the chair. The historical record of him grows cold then [not surprising], which let me make his future into a great figment of both my and Roscoe’s imagination.
Deputy Warden Taylor is based on a former deputy warden, Oscar Dees, whose story was recorded and transcribed along with his son’s and grandson’s in the book Alabama Bound. All three men worked for the Alabama department of corrections. Oscar Dees worked the dogs, which opened up that door for me.
Wilson is probably the hardest character for me to talk about because I feel the most for him. Like so many people in his position, he suffers at the hands of a corrupt and abusive system, yet he manages to remain hopeful. I think Wilson is a great amalgam of history, friends, and story. In my eyes, he is the hero of the book, the character I respect the most.
What made you pick the farms as a backdrop to your story?
I’m not sure that I know. On this end of it—the book completed—I see it the way Roscoe explains Dewey’s system of classification in the library. “Our library has seven books on dairy farming—600s. Cotton is in there, too. All the agriculture. It’s strange to me that electricity gets filed under the same number. Dewey must’ve seen the running of power through wires as the same as running shoots out of the ground, seeing them all as applications of science.” I think the occupations—farming and electrical work—have more in common than any of the characters realise, yet the obvious differences create conflict.
I’m curious if, through electricity, you’re juxtaposing the problems of a modern world against primitive wisdom.
I see electricity as an example of progress in this book, the abolition of convict leasing as another. I believe in progress as a general concept; we must progress culturally and socially, but progress can get tricky [or possibly misused] when other forces are at play, specifically money and greed. We commit all kinds of horrors in the name of progress, but we also right many historical wrongs. In the context of this novel, electricity gets to play to both those sides.
What do you think mechanisation is doing to the world [and to our idea of work]? Are we getting it all wrong?
I am in complete conflict on this topic. On one hand, I long to live in what I see as a simpler time, void of most modern machines and technology. I’m a reluctant participant in the new norms of today—social media, constant communication, screens, videos, cars, parking lots, box stores—but a participant all the same. I romanticise a life of hard, physical work, on a farm, for example, or a mine. That said, I think I’ve done only two days of hard, physical work in my life—once at a neighbour’s lumber yard, running logs through a peeler, and once at a cattle drive, injecting hormones into neutered calves’ ears as they struggled against their ropes. My livelihood, my work, is with words, about as opposite of the physical as you can get, and I do that work primarily at a computer, sitting down in a comfortable chair. This subject is in the same category as “the universe”—one huge rabbit hole I can fall down. I could talk about it for days, and find myself in the exact same state of conflict, here at my computer, wishing I was tending a garden, even though I do better work on this machine.
How did it feel being a debutant on the Man Booker longlist?
I am still in shock. The Man Booker prize has always been the prize in my mind; I respect it immensely. Honestly, I’m still reeling from the fact that my book has been published at all, that it’s out there in the world. I keep thinking I’ll wake up one morning to find that it’s a mean joke the English-speaking world decided to play on me. Actually, even that would be an honour—the whole English-speaking world involved in a joke just for me. Which is all to say, I’m overjoyed.
What are you currently working on and what is next?
I’m currently working on a new novel set in Montana about a behavioural psychologist who suffers a stroke at the prime of his career, and I’ll be teaching an introductory writing course at the local community college this fall semester. Other than that, I have no idea what’s next. I keep getting surprised.
Text Soumya Mukerji