Our Pick Of The Month, Dry County, has been getting a lot of notice. The violent domino effect of a preacher dealing with a blackmail predicment over Easter weekend, gives a dark comic look at faith and small town life. It’s author, Jake Hinkson, was kind enough to take some questions from Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: While Weatherford is a hypocritical preacher, he doesn’t fall into the stereotype of one. How did you approach him?
Jake Hinkson: With all due respect to Sinclair Lewis, I wanted to go beyond the Elmer Gantry model of the hard-drinking, womanizing, hypocritical preacher. I really see Weatherford as a conflicted man, first and foremost. He wants to be one kind of man, but he’s actually another kind of man, and he’s tortured by the contradiction, and he’s desperate not to have anyone find out. I tried to focus on that aspect rather than just saying, “Here he is being a hypocrite.” We’re all contradictory, every one of us. In some ways, the book is about him having to face who he really is, what he really believes. That’s when things start getting scary.
SM: How did 2016 Easter weekend become the time for the story?
JH: The book actually started with the Easter weekend idea. I’ve always been fascinated with Black Saturday because if Jesus died on Friday and rose on Sunday, then he was dead on Saturday. What was that day like? Mankind had killed god, and on that day it all seemed pretty bleak. I thought, “You know, that would be a good setting for a story about religious doubt.” I started the book in late 2014, and as the election came and went, I thought, “I should set it during the 2016 election.” It seemed like the natural thing to do.
SM: What prompted the use of multiple points of view?
JH: Originally, I thought the book was just going to be told from the point of view of Weatherford and Brian, alternating between the two of them. But as I began to write, it became apparent that the book would work better if these other voices came into the mix. Where it really came together was the voice of Penny Weatherford, the preacher’s wife. She’s kind of the secret center of the narrative. She snuck up on me, and hopefully she’ll sneak up on the reader. Alternating between all these voices was a lot of fun.
SM: By traveling through these characters you get a strong sense of this town and its different social stratas. What did you want to explore about small town society?
JH: Maybe my favorite detective series is Walter Mosely’s Easy Rollins books, at least the first five or so, and one thing I love about them is the way they reveal the co-mingling of the high and low stratas of Los Angeles society. (You find this a lot in Chandler, of course, though I think Mosely, at his best, does it better.) Well, what’s true for the big city is no less true for the small town. You may be a big fish in a small pond, but you’re still stuck in the same pond.
The other thing I’ll say about this is that a small town is a complex organism. Class, gender, politics, religion (and so much more) go into it. And yet even to this day—even with all we know of the opioid epidemic and the fifty-plus year shrinking of the middle class, particularly in rural communities—the popular idea of small towns is still wrapped up in this heartland myth. There’s something uniquely American about that disjunction, between the way we are and the way we insist on seeing ourselves.
SM: In the past you’ve mentioned Flannery O’Connor as an influence. What do you hope to apply to your own writing from her?
JH: Influence isn’t really a matter of making a decision about how you’ll be influenced. Your influences choose you, rather than the other way around. So, I don’t see it as trying to apply something from O’Connor to my own work. I’m not Flannery O’Connor and her beliefs are not my beliefs and her style is not my style. But she’s the writer who taught me that you can write about small towns in the South. I didn’t know that when I was starting out. She taught me that you can write about internal religious conflicts and that you can make those internal conflicts explode into the real world. I didn’t know that either until I’d read her. Until I read O’Connor, I thought I was going to do straight detective fiction. I wanted to be the Robert B. Parker of Arkansas. O’Connor showed me you could write about religiously tormented antiheroes or downright villains if you wanted to. She didn’t really teach me to write like her as much as she gave me permission to write like me.
SM: Dry County has my favorite last line of the year. Were you knowingly writing toward it or did it simply come to you at the end of the book?
JH: I’m so happy you like it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the end of the book, and it’s deeply gratifying because it’s my favorite ending of anything I’ve ever written. I think I knew what that last scene was going to be about halfway through writing the book, which, when I hit upon it, really energized me. The last line came about in the writing. I knew I had it as soon as I wrote it.
Jake Hinkson’s Dry County is available for purchase now through BookPeople in-store and online now.