Interview: Joseph Haske on his debut novel, North Dixie Highway

Interviewed by Mary McMyne, fiction editor

Joseph Haske, whose excellent story “Bear Hunt” was the first acceptance for our Vol. 4 Michigan and Ontario writers feature, published his debut novel, North Dixie Highway, today with Texas Review Press. 

A layered look at revenge and the deep ties of blood and family, the novel is set largely in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan and named after the Dixie Highway, a series of roads built to connect rural areas of the eastern United States, the north most sections of which were built in the Eastern U.P. Excerpts of the novel have appeared in Pleiades, Boulevard, Fiction International, and elsewhere, and have already been translated to Romanian.

Joseph Haske, author of North Dixie Highway, visiting the Hessel Marine this summer
Joseph Haske, Vol. 4 contributor and author of North Dixie Highway, visiting the Hessel Marine this summer

A native of the Eastern Upper Peninsula, Haske graduated in 1999 from Lake Superior State University with a degree in English, then went on to earn Master’s and Master of Fine Arts degrees from Bowling Green State University and the University of Texas, Pan American. He is currently Chair of English at South Texas College and a contributing editor to American Book Review. He lives in Mission, Texas, with his wife, Bertha, and their children, Ferny and Joey.

What follows is an interview I had the pleasure to conduct with Haske about the novel.

MM: The prologue of the novel introduces the concept of the Dixie Highway system, and the single act of violence that occurred during the construction of its north most section in the eastern U.P., when a Tennessee foreman named Clay Steven Taylor was murdered by an Irish immigrant named Teddy Cronin. “Cronin’s wife Brigit, by some workers’ personal accounts,” the prologue ends, “was pregnant with Taylor’s son.” How much of that prologue is historical fact, and how much is fiction?

 JH: Well, the north most section of the Dixie Highway was built in the eastern U.P. and its remnants exist today in sections of M-129 and Mackinac Trail. I find the history of the Dixie Highway fascinating and have always wondered why the planners decided to continue highway construction on into the E.U.P. The whole point of the Dixie Highway was to connect all of these countless cities and towns, from south to north, but this stretch of highway wasn’t even connected by land, as I mention in the prologue. It’s sort of symbolic of the history of the E.U.P. if you think about it: this area was always part of the state of Michigan, not a “consolation prize” at the end of the Toledo War, stolen from Wisconsin territory, like the western U.P., but the E.U.P. is still left off most of the maps at rest areas in the Lower Peninsula. In a sense, there’s a simultaneous connection and disconnection from the rest of the U.P. To complicate things further, residents of the E.U.P., in many respects, have just as much in common with the Canadians across the bridge in Ontario as they do with Yoopers from the western end or the Michigan residents from south of the bridge. It’s really a unique, interesting region, interesting enough to attract the attention of fiction writers from Jim Harrison to Ernest Hemingway, but I suppose I’m getting off track.

The Taylors and Cronins are fictional, of course. I’m sure there’s no historical document that speaks of this supposed tragedy. However, the prologue does state that the workers were paid to keep quiet, so how would one know if something similar might have occurred or not? As a fiction writer, I’m paid to lie, so how can you trust me,even if I tell you that this part is all made up? It really is though.

 MM: Much of the novel explores the aftermath of that act of violence, the way it echoed through several generations of Taylors and Cronins, through the voice of its narrator, Buck Metzger, a boy who grows up in the eastern U.P. in a family of hard-drinking smelt-fishers and bear hunters. What was it about Buck and his story that appealed to you as a narrator—what fascinated you as an author and compelled you to write about him?

JH: Hunting, drinking, fishing—these things are all very much a part of life for many people who live in the eastern U.P., or for that matter, most of northern Michigan and the upper mid-west. It may not be everyone’s experience, but the experience in my book is quite a common one. Fishing and hunting have long been important in the eastern U.P., even before Europeans showed up. Heavy drinking is akin to life in the E.U.P. for many people, unless things have changed dramatically in the past few years and nobody bothered to tell me about it. My novel does not aim to glorify these truths nor vilify this experience—I’m just trying to capture it, give readers a feel for life in the area in which I grew up, where most of my family and friends still live. I think that Buck, in many ways, is typical of a working-class kid growing up in the eastern U.P. and he’s also aware of the outside world, due to his fascination with literature at a relatively young age. There’s a strange bias that many people have in this country, that if a person is raised in a rural area, that she/he must be some sort of knuckle-dragging bumpkin. Plenty of smart, talented people come out of rural areas, and the eastern U.P. is certainly no exception.

MM: Were any of the characters or situations in the novel inspired by
real folks you knew, or met, growing up in the U.P.? Can you talk for our readers about how the seed of someone you knew or something you experienced, growing up, developed into the fictional account we can read in the book?

JH: In my fiction, as with the work of many writers, the characters are typically composite characters, constituted of attributes from people I know or have known, or people I’ve met, maybe several people combined into one, and then, one’s job as a writer is to add some dosage of the fictional to it all. As a fiction writer, I’m sure you do this as well. When developing a character, one needs a backstory, a place to start, so I might take a person I’ve known, borrow some of their physical characteristics, their manner of speaking, their psychology and their quirks. Then I manipulate the character and play “what if” games. For example, what if I combined the physical description of person A with the temperament and psychology of person B? What if I were to put that character into a difficult situation or what if this character came into contact with another character? How would they respond to one another? A novelist is responsible for creating an entire fictional world, so it certainly helps to have a starting point. I absolutely do build from elements of what I know, but the reader shouldn’t assume that the characters equate exactly to people in my life, or for that matter, that my first-person narrator is a thinly-veiled version of myself. Yes, there are elements of the familiar there, but fiction should tend much more toward the imaginative, or why not write memoir? Non-fiction tends to be more profitable for writers.

My novel, North Dixie Highway, is intended as a tribute to my grandparents, my family, my friends, and to the area in which I was born, grew up and still hold close to my heart. There are certainly elements of a sort of truth in these characters and the grandparents in the novel might be loosely based on people in my own life, but my grandparents, in real life, are and were, much better people than the characters in the book.

MM: How long did it take you to write the novel? Can you describe your
process—how the idea or seed for the novel came to you, and how it
developed from its beginning phases into the finished product we see
now?

JH: I started working on North Dixie Highway more than five years ago. Most of us who are writing literary fiction as opposed to commercial fiction need a day job, so many of us, like you and me, teach or edit, or find other sources of sustenance. This often interferes with writing time and, more importantly, the countless hours of profound thought that should go into literary fiction, or any type of artistic writing. But that’s only part of the problem. My fiction tends to evolve over time, and the longer I allow myself to think about these narrative schemes, the more layered and effective they usually become, so I don’t like to rush things. Then there’s the obsession with revision… The novel was accepted quite a while back but I’ve been unable to let go, trying to attain that unattainable perfection within the imperfect art that is literature. There are, undoubtedly, a handful of people who are fed-up with my obsessiveness toward revision, but I believe all artists should feel compelled to such obsession when it comes to their work. If the writer doesn’t care about the intricacies of his/her work, who will?

MM:  At the opening of the novel, Buck comes home from the Bosnian War with an intense desire to get revenge on Lester Cronin, the man who killed his grandfather. I don’t want to give too much away, but one of the most fascinating things about the book, I found, is Buck’s unreliability, which becomes more and more clear as the novel progresses, and the fact that all is not what it seems with his desire for revenge on Cronin. Also interesting are the myriad different ways the characters feel about revenge. Buck’s mother tries to protect him from hearing his father’s revenge plots; Henry, in the end, turns out to be a bit more enlightened than Buck’s father. Can you talk a bit about the importance of revenge in the novel, why you chose to write a book in which revenge figured so prominently–it’s a very old literary tradition, obviously, to explore how acts of violence echo across generations–but why set it in the E.U.P.? Is there something about this place, do you think, which makes it more connected to its past, the perfect setting for this sort of tale?

JH: When people think of the E.U.P., they probably think about it in the same way as Hemingway does in books such In Our Time, as a resort area, a place of natural beauty and tranquility. Hemingway’s characters, such as Nick Adams, found the E.U.P. to be a sort of refuge after traumatic experiences in Europe and elsewhere. Countless tourists still flock to the E.U.P. every summer for a sense of peace and a glimpse at relatively untamed nature. The E.U.P. certainly is a naturally beautiful place, but it’s also a darker place than most outsiders imagine; the people who live in the E.U.P. year-round understand its complexity and its duality better than fair-weather, seasonal visitors. The sort of violence that takes place in the novel is exaggerated, of course. It would be difficult for these people to get away with all of the things that happen in the book, since people are inevitably more aware of other peoples’ business in rural areas, but there is something about the E.U.P. that lends itself to the “gothic” setting in a broad sense of the term, and the traditional theme of revenge that you mention. This subset of fiction is very much a part of the American literary tradition; the dark, rural setting is something that is more frequently explored in southern literature, but as one sees in the novel, there is a strong bond between rural areas in this country, whether they’re located in the north or in the south. American “gothic” is not distinctly southern, although many of the best examples of rural literature are. One of the central figurative elements in the book, the Dixie Highway itself, emphasizes this rural connection, literary and otherwise.Rural areas in the U.S., regardless of the region, have a great many things in common, maybe more than most people realize.

What makes the E.U.P. such an exemplary setting for revenge is that characters like Buck, Gene, or Henry, would have plenty of time during those dark northern winters for their revenge plans to brew and the beautiful, natural scenery also works well as a backdrop for this sort of revenge to occur;the E.U.P.s evergreen forests and cedar swamps ultimately serve as ideal places to hide their deeds.

MM: Another important aspect of the book is how it works to capture an older culture and way of life, as well as an older generation’s way of thinking, that is already starting to slip away as the book opens. I’m not from this area, originally, but reading the novel I found that it cast a sort of spell on me, that I began to feel nostalgic for a way of life I had never even experienced—even though the scenes set in the 1980s of Buck growing up with his grandparents were not at all idealized. In fact, even Buck admits that his family is not like other families in this area, that there is something wrong with them, a darkness in his family tree that other families lack. He witnesses a great deal of violence, hardship, and abuse, growing up, so I think it’s a testament to the power of your writing that I could read those scenes and still feel that nostalgia for the setting, despite the flaws this narrative introduces into it. When Buck comes back from his service in Bosnia in the 1990s and notices the changes that occurred while he was gone, as a reader, you feel a real sense of loss. A number of scenes take place in, or reference, real places here in the Sault—the Palace, for example, the party stores, Frank’s Diner—and once you read the book, you can’t help but look at these places in a new way. Can you talk about what drove you, as a writer, to try to capture the EUP in the 1980s and 1990s? Why that particular time period? How do you feel about the changes the area endured then?

JH: The shift from the 80s to the mid-90s is significant because the U.S. and the entire world changed so much during this time period. In the mid-90s, when Buck returns, the mass movement  toward cyberspace has begun and the first Gulf War has already taken place, major events that foreshadow life in the 21st century. These events, I believe, helped to define the global culture we now live in. The novel exists on the cusp of these changes. As the book skips around temporally, we get to see Buck as an adolescent and pre-adolescent as well as the early stages of his adult life, so it’s also a significant time period  for his character on a personal level. Henry Taylor, his step-grandfather, has lived a full life by this point, having personally witnessed both world wars and all of the changes that occurred afterward, up to the close of the 20th century.He has seen the better part of a century unfold before him, and Buck becomes the primary recipient of his “wisdom,” for better and worse.

In the 1980s, before the widespread use of the internet, cell phones, and other contemporary gadgets, places like the E.U.P. were much more isolated than they are now;the impact has both positive and negative consequences. It seems there was a sort of innocence that existed in remote rural areas such as the E.U.P. before this technological transformation, and just as with the “Lost Generation” of the early 20th century, I think many people now feel like there’s no going back to life as it existed before all of these changes occurred. I think one can’t help but feel some nostalgia for a simpler time and place, but I hope that all readers experience this nostalgia as you did, in a subtle manner: that the loss is felt but one can’t quite grasp what that loss is—that it’s a feeling not easily defined. Although I didn’t set out to write an overtly didactic novel, I certainly intended to move the reader, to leave an impact, and I hope North Dixie Highway does prompt the reader to think about some of the many themes that do tend to emerge from the novel.

MM: Thanks, Joseph. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you about this terrific book. 

Locally, North Dixie Highway goes on sale today at UP North Books in Sault Sainte Marie and Safe Harbor Books in Cedarville. Online, it’s available for order from AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Texas Review Press.