Jesse Donaldson’s The More They Disappear deals with the murder of a sheriff in a Kentucky town, just as OxyContin gets introduced to rural towns in the late nineties. It is a compelling debut, nuanced in both its emotions and morality. We asked Mr. Donaldson some questions over e-mail as we prepare for his visit to our store this upcoming Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM.
“The novel takes its title from that common desire to leave your town, to disappear. There’s some thematic kinship to this Bruce Springsteen record I love – Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
MysteryPeople Scott: What spurred you to write a whodunnit where the reader knows who did it?
Jesse Donaldson: This is a trick question. I mean, it’s not a whodunit if you know the who, right? And in The More They Disappear that happens rather early. Another writer, Smith Henderson, called it a whydunnit. I’d say the novel has more in common with a police procedural, a la Richard Price – only it is set in rural Kentucky instead of New York City. You follow the deputy sheriff, Harlan Dupee, as he sets about solving a violent crime. The tension is driven by that investigation and its consequences. The larger question is: in the aftermath of a violent crime, will this town held together by increasingly fragile bonds, fall apart?
MPS: What made the early days of the Oxy crisis the right period?
JD: I always wanted to write about the Oxy crisis. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it didn’t get nearly as much media attention as it should have. Newspapers and magazines were more interested in covering the country’s Meth problem. Exploded meth labs make for a nice dramatic photo. The Oxy story was and is way more complicated and in the long run more devastating. It was created by lax regulation by the FDA and states, a dishonest pharmaceutical company, crooked doctors, and millions of people suffering from some sort of “pain”—be it physical or emotional. Moreover, the Oxy issue is directly responsible for the degree of our country’s current heroin epidemic, so it seemed worthwhile to explore its origins.
MPS: All of your characters are fully fleshed out with their angels and demons. How do you approach the people you write?
JD: With empathy.
“Small towns in Kentucky do include hillbillies. They also include doctors, lawyers, public officials, teachers, bored kids, savants, criminals. And sometimes the criminals aren’t just common ne’er-do-wells but doctors and lawmen themselves.”
MPS: What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
JD: Maintaining confidence when stuck in the gyre. A blank page is unlimited potential. That’s daunting. But each sentence that brings you closer to the words “The End” takes away a small part of that unlimited possibility. And that’s frightening, as well.
I learned to allow myself long hours to just think about the book without writing. Walks with the dog were spent examining my characters’ motivations and backstories. Long drives were spent thinking about landscape. I made attempts at lucid dreaming when I got stuck. Those mostly failed, by the way. But occasionally you wake up in the middle of the night and jot down a note and that opens up the next twenty pages.
MPS: Marathon is a fully realized place. What did you want to say about small towns?
JD: That small towns, and more specifically small towns in Kentucky, are not so homogenous as they are usually portrayed. Small towns have very complex hierarchies of class. Certain places in Kentucky, and Texas for that matter, are wrongly stereotyped as backwards or backwoods–overrun by hillbillies. And that’s a crock of shit. Small towns in Kentucky do include hillbillies. They also include doctors, lawyers, public officials, teachers, bored kids, savants, criminals. And sometimes the criminals aren’t just common ne’er-do-wells but doctors and lawmen themselves.
That said, Marathon, the fictional town of my novel, is a place that carries its fair share of desperation. The novel takes its title from that common desire to leave your town, to disappear. There’s some thematic kinship to this Bruce Springsteen record I love – Darkness on the Edge of Town. It followed Born to Run. And whereas Born to Run was all about that romantic notion of leaving the small town and heading out for adventure—the west, the city, the ocean—Darkness was all about trying to leave and ending up nowhere. Which is its own form of disappearing.
“I learned to allow myself long hours to just think about the book without writing. Walks with the dog were spent examining my characters’ motivations and backstories. Long drives were spent thinking about landscape. I made attempts at lucid dreaming when I got stuck.”
MPS: This being a debut novel, did you pull from any influences?
JD: I’m always being inspired by what I read. Some influences you wouldn’t see in the book at first glance. Edith Wharton, for example. Others influenced my writing and then had to be excised. Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree threatened to derail me. For shifting points of view, As I Lay Dying, is a masterpiece. In general, the inspirations reach far and wide. In the crime world, there’s Ross MacDonald, K.C. Constantine, the aforementioned Richard Price, and Walter Mosley. When it comes to landscape, I learned from Willa Cather and James Wright. All The King’s Men was a huge influence. In terms of atmosphere, Pete Dexter’s Paperboy is a hallmark that you try to live up to in your own work. Really there are too many influences to list. But those are the ones that come to mind today.
Come by BookPeople this Friday, August 26th, at 7 PM, for an evening with Jesse Donaldson, speaking and signing his debut, The More They Disappear. Donaldson is a graduate of the prestigious Michener Center for Writers. He will appear in conversation with Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. You can find copies of The More They Disappear on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.