Inman Majors is the author of four novels, including Love’s Winning Plays, a smart, nimble comedy about SEC football that made BookPage’s Best Books of 2012. Majors currently teaches creative writing at James Madison University in Virginia, where I was once his student.
I caught up with Majors this Thanksgiving to talk about his most recent book, as well as football, family, and writing. We met at his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside Charlottesville—a town which Majors, who hails from Knoxville, would probably not like us to use as a point of reference, because the denizens of Charlottesville “act as if that place is Paris, France.”
ROGER SOLLENBERGER: Could you first talk a little bit about your work preceding Love’s Winning Plays (LWP)? Maybe from your most recent novel, The Millionaires, on back.
INMAN MAJORS: Roger, this feels suspiciously like the kind of question you’d give me as a little payback for tormenting you and your classmates in workshop. I can see you chuckling.
There was the first book, Swimming in Sky, which is a kind of delayed coming of age story. My protagonist is having a quarter life crisis well before this was socially acceptable (the book is set in the early nineties). It’s a serious book with funny parts and kind of a post-divorce family drama. It has some nice lyrical moments, I think, and I like the rawness of the situation and the emotional honesty.
The second is Wonderdog, a political comedy set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (where I got my MFA). It’s a full throttle comedy, rapid fire, and, I hope, linguistically interesting. It’s quite different in tone and conception from Love’s Winning Plays, my other comedy, where I’m working on understatement and a kind of sly, droll humor. Wonderdog is throwing haymakers on every page, going for all-out comedic carnage. LWP is sneakier in its humor. It’s still trying to slay you, but in a kinder way, where you end up dead before you know the knife is even in.
The Millionaires is a big book, experimental, definitely my most ambitious. It’s trying to capture a whole generation of people in a particular time and place, namely that generation of people around my parents age who moved from the small towns and farms of the South to cities and suburbs like Knoxville, Charlotte, and Atlanta. It’s a generation who always seemed to me to have one foot in the rural past and one in the urban/suburban present. It’s probably the book that I’m most proud of and also the one that made the most readers mad. Sometimes those things go naturally together.
RS: You come from Tennessee’s “first family of football,” and seem to know everything about the college game. Could you give us some history there?
IM: Well my dad played at Florida State and had a nice career there. He was also a teammate and friend of Burt Reynolds. My grandfather was the long time head coach at Sewanee University and four of my uncles played football for Tennessee. One of them, my uncle John, was the runner-up for the 1956 Heisman Trophy and went on to a long coaching career at Pitt (where he won a national championship), Tennessee, and Iowa State.
RS: LWP is certainly a football novel. But aside from your scathing critique of the end zone fade route, and an ongoing analysis of the cover-two zone, there’s not much actual football action in the book. Instead, it’s set in the offseason, on a fundraising tour called the Pigskin Cavalcade. Could you explain this choice, if it was a choice?
IM: I really wanted to explore the off-the-field aspects of collegiate football and satirize some aspects of the sport that I find funny or ridiculous: the overzealous fans, the big cigar boosters, the message board cry babies, the cynical local sports writer, those sorts of things. I thought examining the peripheral elements of college sports would be a lot funnier than the nuts and bolts of an actual football game. And I wanted the book to be funny, first and foremost.
It’s really a comedy of manners, though I realize a comedy of manners revolving around football sounds oxymoronic on the surface. But at its essence, the book is examining how a specific and well-defined group of people interact. In this instance that group includes coaches, athletic department folks, and the rank and file fans and boosters that support a college football team. The things they do and say seem to make perfect sense to them in the moment, but should strike some readers as funny, I hope.
RS: What was your off-the-field experience like?
IM: Great. I was a kid with access to practices, the locker room, etc. I got to stand on the sidelines during games. I got to be in the locker room after Pitt won the national championship, I had Tony Dorsett jerseys, I was allowed to run pass routes in Neyland Stadium when no one else was on the field. For a kid who liked football, it was idyllic. I’m sorry my own kids won’t get to experience some of the things I did. I was very lucky indeed.
RS: If you’d like, please riff on one or more of the many comedic targets of LWP: the fist bump; sportswriters; game-day coaching apparel; book clubs; Willie Nelson; Quilted Northern; chat rooms, etc.
IM: Let’s be clear—Willie Nelson is not a target. My young protagonist just wants a change of pace after four straight hours of the Red Headed Stranger during a long car ride. I’m a big fan of Willie.
But yes, Quilted Northern is inhumane. The only things I can imagine them quilting with this product are glass shards and jagged pieces of bark.
As for the fist bump, it is an embarrassment to humanity and an exercise in juvenilia and dipshittery. But if you’re one of those people who love touching your fist to your friend’s fist every five minutes while watching the home team down at Buffalo Wild Wings, then, by all means, have at it. Live and let live, I say. But me, personally, I’ll greet you once with a firm handshake when first we meet, then offer another on parting. Other than that, I don’t plan on touching you any more during the course of our time together.
RS: Though the book is a straight-up comedy, there’s also more going on here. Your protagonist faces some tough choices. The novel also seems to mourn a loss of responsibility or accountability, a loss that, here, seems one result of the sprawling apparatus of university athletics. Were you conscious of addressing these themes as you wrote?
IM: Not really. I wanted to have a straight up hero as a protagonist for once. My other three books have main characters who are more ambivalent about things, more shadings of grey in their moral make-up. I still like all my other protagonists and think they are good people at heart, but not all readers feel the same way. For this book, I wanted to try an honest to god earnest character, one that all readers should be cheering for from the opening page.
That said, the book is obviously taking big time college sports to the woodshed on a number of fronts, the first of which would be the inordinate amount of time and energy that our society devotes to it. I’m a big sports fan, but man, it’s gotten pretty ridiculous out there.
And yes, I think sometimes, as the headlines have shown, folks in athletics can lose their moral compass when money and winning come too much into play.
RS: You write women well. How long did that take?
IM: Roger, since you’re a man, do you really know if I write women well? What if I just write women the way men think they are? Can we get one of your female colleagues to confirm this before I accept hosannas on this front?
Seriously, I do hope I write women well. You don’t want to be one of those writers like Hemingway who make all women sound like soap opera stars or peasant girls with little nuance of character in between. For the record, I like Hemingway a lot, just not when he has men and women interacting. If I do actually write women well, then I don’t know how to account for it, other, perhaps, than I’ve been around a lot of interesting women in my life and have been able to draw a bit on that.
One thing I do know about my writing is this: anything I do well is by luck or by a subconscious part of my mind that is smarter than I am (which probably isn’t saying much). Anytime I try to plan something—premeditate something—in my writing, it comes off as stiff and unnatural. Good writing takes luck and a writer who is actively trusting that luck. I also think it’s healthy NOT to analyze your own work, especially what you might do well, for fear of overthinking that aspect next time you’re at the computer.
RS: In our comedy writing class at JMU, you had us read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s still one of my favorite books. In the class, you pointed out that Toole is trying to make you laugh out loud on every page, pulling no punches, and you said something like you could understand how an effort like that could kill a person. (Referring to Toole himself, who committed suicide.) Though your protagonist here, Raymond Love, is much more affable and earnest and likable than Ignatius, you’re trying to do much the same thing—pull no punches, make us laugh on every page. But you yourself have, at least from the outside, a rich and beautiful and even-keeled family and personal life. How are you such a serious writer, and also such a seemingly well-adjusted dude?
IM: My wife isn’t allowed to read this, right? She might choke on that “well-adjusted dude” line. I don’t know the answer to that question if it’s true, or partly true. Things are definitely a lot easier now that I have a steady job and a definite idea of where I’m going to live. But I was forty before I got to this point. There was a lot of anxiety in the years leading up to my job at JMU.
If you can, though, I recommend marrying a really cool person and having fun, laid back kids. Whether you’re a writer or not, it definitely helps the frame of mind.
RS: You’ve told me about a thousand times that writers are frustrated actors—a Faulkner line, right? With this in mind, how has your life influenced your writing?
IM: That is a Faulkner line and one of my favorites.
There’s some of me in all my protagonists, that’s for sure. We tend to share likes and dislikes and to have some biographical elements, however subtle, in common. They are all some reflection of me, sometimes a me that is worse than I am in real life, sometimes a me that is better. They all seem to be slightly disconnected from whatever setting they find themselves in, always kind of with ’em, but not of ’em, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why they end up like that or if I’m like that in real life.
I have a hard time writing as myself. I don’t write very good letters and my few attempts at nonfiction don’t impress me much. I seem to need the veil that fiction affords to really get loose. But here’s the thing, and you’ve heard me say this in class too, you can’t think and write at the same time. So when I’m writing, I’m not me anymore, I’m not even there.
When I write, I become the protagonist and view the world through their eyes exclusively. What happens when I am inhabiting that character is almost always spontaneous, especially if the moment is any good, and the character is just living and thinking of his/her own volition. If some part of me or my life creeps into their scene, then it is not premeditated and I’m always surprised when it happens.
Here’s an example. You mentioned the Quilted Northern scene earlier, where the old coach is complaining about the toilet paper in his hotel room. After reading the book, a roommate of my brother’s emailed me, laughing at the fact that I had worked in a line (“Hey, did you make this toilet paper yourself?”) that I used on him twenty years before when visiting him and my brother in New York. When I was composing the book, I had no recollection of having used that line before. It just happened. And it happened because I was in character and trusting that my subconscious would do the right thing, for that character in that specific moment.
As I tell my students these days: don’t observe the character, become the character. That’s what I think Faulkner was talking about, method acting. This will automatically move the perspective closer to the action and bridge that narrative distance which can be such a hurdle for young writers.
RS: What’s the appeal of comedic writing for you? Do you find comedy harder or easier than, say, dramatic fiction?
IM: I like to laugh and I like to make people laugh. If I wasn’t reasonably funny I never could have talked my wife into marrying me when I was thirty-two, unemployed, and living with my grandmother. Plus I kept my wife drunk most of the time, which helped.
They are both pretty hard. I don’t think I could just write comedy after comedy and make them all funny. I kind of have to let the bile build up a bit. My comedies originate in irritation. Then I just have to let that irritation fester for long enough so that it no longer bothers me anymore. Then I can approach the subject matter with the necessary emotional distance.
I like to alternate comedy and drama so that both always feel fresh to me. Plus I’m really superstitious about not writing the same book twice. It has to feel new, interesting, and challenging—challenging more than anything—or there’s no way I could spend two or three years with it.
RS: What, for you, makes good comedic writing?
IM: It has to feel natural and inevitable. Timing is crucial. And tone. The tone has to be right. Comedy can never feel like it’s trying too hard, or as if it’s nervous, or as if it is anything but ice cold confident. Great comedians, writers and stand-up too, are all killers at heart. And once they get you, they aren’t going to let you up. Great comedies and great comedians share this more than anything: confidence verging on arrogance. In essence, they are saying: I dare you not to laugh at this. But they are cocky and insistent and merciless without ever looking like it. It needs to look a little effortless. Killing it comically, knowing you’re killing it, and acting like it’s all accidental, like it’s no big deal. Just a little walk in the park. Insouciance of tone is what I’m talking about.
And language. Language is huge. But not puns and cheap wordplay gimmicks. That stuff is just too cutesy and premeditated for me. I like spontaneity, where you kind of see it coming, and then don’t. Or you see it coming and it gets you anyway. Good characters are essential too, because comedy is about the moment, the wonderful ridiculous moment when the human condition is rendered just right. The comedies I don’t like as much depend more on plot machinations, and other premeditated things.
But it all starts with narration, tone, and voice.
RS: Can you talk about your favorite comedies and/or authors?
IM: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: This is the pinnacle of the comedic novel. Epic in scale but tight and spot on at the scene-by-scene level. Great language and great characters. Sets the bar for pure ambition and writerly cajones.
The Jeeves and Bertie novels by P.G. Wodehouse: Anyone wanting to write comedy should read these for the pure music of the language and for a tutorial on comedic timing. He’s like a sly metronome in his delivery. Deadpan and unrelenting. For the record, I like my comedy to be funny a lot, like on most of the pages. And I like it to feel natural. Trying to be funny on every page and also sounding natural while doing it is what Wodehouse has mastered. Plus, I admire the sweet tone of his books. Most comedies, mine included, have to rely on a bit of a bite to accomplish it. In my opinion anyone wanting to write comedy should start with Wodehouse.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: Great academic send up—the best ever, in fact. Great language. It seems to me that the best comedic writing juxtaposes situation and language. Most often it is a low/base situation rendered in high or poetic language. Amis’s description of Jim Dixon’s hangover after a long bout with the bottle is a perfect example of this. Comedy is always about contrasts, that which is out of place or inappropriate in a given situation. So hyperbole and understatement should be the friend of the comedic writer. The Brits are the masters of this. Think of Monty Python ( “A mere flesh wound!”) or any Flight of the Conchords episode. I know, they’re from New Zealand, but you get the point.
Norwood and Dog of the South by Charles Portis: Portis is the absolute best for the right—the perfect—detail to render a mundane moment comedic. I really envy his eye in these books and also his great feel and empathy for the human condition. Comedy writers need to know people. Not study them like little bugs in a jar, but know them. Portis is one of those writers you can tell who hasn’t spent his whole life hanging out with academic types. He’s mixed it up a little and known a wide variety of people. I think this helps when it comes to writing comedy and doing a wide range of comedic characters.
RS: Trop is a collection of young writers. A good deal of our readers are young writers, too. Got any advice for us?
IM: I really don’t. I would never suggest to someone that they ever pursue this, simply because the odds are so long that you will make a career out of it. But if you are going to try it, then I think every day when you sit down to write, you should be writing the book you want to read right then, right at that moment.
I also think it’s important to follow the book, rather than pull it along. When I write, I have a little movie playing in my head and I’m writing to see what happens next. If I’m ever interrupted while writing, it’s like I’m pushing pause on the DVD player. And when I sit down the next day to write, it’s as if I hit play just to see what happens next. In other words, the work should be organic, characters should have their own volition. You are transcribing the story you see in your head as it happens, in real time. Not retelling something after the fact, something that the narration already knows but that the reader does not. It’s a tricky thing, what I’m talking about, where the narration and the reader always experience things simultaneously. But for me immediacy is the essence of art.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.