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10 Questions with Justin Tussing
Justin Tussing’s debut novel The Best People in the World follows three characters as they flee Paducah, Kentucky for an abandoned house on a mountain in Vermont. Reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, The Best People in the World captures the hopeful sadness of these characters as they attempt to build a life all their own in a world that is slowly coming apart. A chapter from the novel was excerpted in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue in 2005. Dan Rivas asked Tussing about faith, the 70s, and what it means to be “the best people in the world.”
DR: How did you first begin thinking about a novel where a boy (Thomas), his teacher (Alice), and the town mystic-bum (Shiloh Tanager) hop in a car and head for Vermont?JT: There wasn’t much thinking in the first part of the process. The trio was in Vermont when I first encountered them. The book began as a vignette about three nameless characters standing by the side of a road considering a herd of cows. I didn’t know what to make of the piece, so it got tossed in a drawer. About a year later, while I was struggling with another novel project, I came across it. There were these obvious questions: Who are these people? What are they doing? Why have they come to this place? The novel was the result of my attempts to answer those questions.
DR: Your descriptions of Paducah, Kentucky are vivid and pitch-perfect, but I read that you only spent three days there before you began writing this novel. Where did you grow up and are there traces of that place in your version of Paducah?
JT: I grew up in Connecticut, a state that Thomas and his friends manage to circumvent. While in graduate school, I took the Greyhound bus down to Paducah to visit a New Englander who’d moved down there. That the town made such an impression on me can probably be attributed to the fact that it is so markedly different from the towns I knew. That said, the lion’s share of the novel takes place in northern Vermont, a place I’m both familiar with and have a great affinity for.
DR: Dan Chiasson’s review in the New York Times Book Review made much of the lists and inventories in your book. He even writes: “Tussing’s indexes and inventories of Actual Things, circa 1972, are mercifully never more than a page or two away.” How consciously did you set out to inventory the world in your book?
JT: I suppose those inventories are a response to the platform a novel provides. At some time you figure, “If someone’s going to bother reading my book, then I might as well tell them everything I know.” I remember those passages were fun to write—I suppose that might be what makes them entertaining to read.
DR: Chiasson also writes: “What’s the point of having a 17-year-old boy fall in love with his high school teacher if some fairly filthy stuff doesn’t ensue?” Do you wish you had written more mad hot teacher-on-student sex scenes?
JT: I think the book has a lot of sex, so that criticism caught me by surprise. I might have been guarding against the more prurient appeal of the story. I was interested in the characters as people, rather than the sensationalism of their situation. Sex is an integral part of Thomas and Alice’s relationship, but there’s something rarer going on: two people choosing (at first anyway) to be kind to one another.
DR: I was surprised to read in a New Yorker interview you did back in June that you did not think Thomas had a very commanding voice. Was his voice something you worried over and tinkered with a lot or did you decide on it early and stick with it?
JT: I worried about it a lot. Thomas is thoughtful, reticent, and, often, vulnerable. I questioned his ability to command the reader’s attention. I spent many hours trying to wrest control of the book away from him. But it’s his book. At some point I made peace with his voice, or else I found something else to worry about.
DR: Thomas is looking back at the events of this novel more than a decade later, and his retrospective gaze intensifies toward the end. The narrator Thomas says, “We make choices and then we make other choices. That’s what I’d like to tell you, Alice… I missed you always.” Why was it important to you for Thomas to address Alice directly in this way?
JT: Alice is Thomas’s first love. She was his best friend. And, in no uncertain terms, she betrayed him. If he is to be faithful to her memory, Thomas must contain all of those feelings. He must carry those different Alices. Considering that, his choice to address her seems pretty ordinary.
DR: Throughout the book are chapters that follow two men as they investigate supposed miracles. These passages seem to be the kind that a reader will either love or hate because they are bewildering at times and how they relate to the rest of the novel is not apparent until nearly the end. What kind of response have you gotten to these sections?
JT: Some critics have found those passages disorienting, or suggested that that they distract from the main narrative. They seem to create a type of ambiguity some readers find intolerable. Ultimately, those chapters connect to the main story both in material and theme. I worked on the book for four and half years before I discovered those characters. Their arrival was a complete surprise to me, but as soon as I met them I couldn’t imagine the book without them.
DR: Paducah is surrounded by a flood wall, and the threat of catastrophe always looms over the city. I’ve heard you have a particular interest in catastrophe. What about it fascinates you?
JT: Who doesn’t find themselves moved by calamity? Disasters are full of drama and pathos. Landscapes are transformed, people displaced. They trigger both the best and worst of human behavior. They can be seen as the proof of God or of the absence of God. I’m teaching a course right now called “Literature of Catastrophe.” Among the works we’re studying are Daniel Dafoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake, and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
DR:The Best People fits so well in the 1970s. We still believed in utopias then, even while the world seemed to be falling apart—rivers on fire, the Munich Olympics, Vietnam, nuclear threats. Did you know from the beginning that this novel would have to take place at that time?
JT: I knew where my characters were headed before I knew the year. People I spoke with who lived in Vermont in the late sixties and early seventies recall a large influx of people arriving at that time. I set the book at the end of this era, partly so that Vietnam wouldn’t overwhelm the plight of the characters, partly because I felt a stronger connection to the ‘70s than I did to the 60’s.
DR: Did you have particular books or stories in mind as you were writing The Best People?
JT: There are three books that I remember looking at a lot. One is Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro. It was Johnson’s first novel (though Angels was published first) and it is utterly fearless and unapologetic. The second book was Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I found that book mesmerizing. The language and the dialogue really transported me. Further, I really liked the way it fit in the hand. I liked its density. Finally, about a year into the writing process I read Don Quixote. I’d been concerned about the episodic nature of my manuscript. I’d shown it to some people and they expressed some concern about the feasibility of the structure. Well, reading Don Quixote gave me all sorts of things to worry about, but the feasibility of an episodic narrative wasn’t one of them.
DR: One of my favorite lines comes from one of the “two men” chapters. The younger man thinks: “But without the promise of salvation, faith was like a kite without a string.” It becomes obvious rather quickly that Vermont will not save them from whatever they were running away from and as autumn turns to winter they begin to starve and freeze. Why do they stay? Is it simply a matter of misguided faith?
JT: I think faith (in themselves, in each other) is one of the fundamental reasons the three characters stay past good sense and reason. And I’m not sure it’s a misguided faith. To me there seems to be something heroic in their struggle.
DR: For most of the novel Thomas doesn’t seem to be surrounded by the best people in the world, but in moments they are—when Shiloh tows Thomas in from the lake after he has become exhausted, when Thomas is in bed with Alice or they are swimming. Do you think everyone has a moment when they are, and are surrounded by, the best people in the world?JT: Whenever people meet our deepest needs, in that instant they are our best people. My wife is studying to be a therapist, and I’ve been exposed to some interesting theories as a result. The psychoanalyst Fairbairn said that we internalize our early caregivers at the moment when they are most gratifying (and, conversely, frustrating). I imagine the same kind of thing happens with all intense, formative relationships. When some primary need of ours is met, when we are gratified by love (or what on some psychic whim feels like love), we are made flush with emotion, and we project saint-like status upon the one who has met that need. Each of us carries our “best people in the world,” though they may not be good at all.