This issue, we’re doing a two-part interview with author Poe Ballantine and filmmaker Dave Jannetta who adapted Ballantine latest book into a documentary.
Writers find literary ideas everywhere – in news stories, in simple conversation, even from one’s past. Author Poe Ballantine discovered the basis for his latest book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere: A Memoir, right next door when his Nebraska neighbor disappeared and his mutilated body found months later. Between its covers, the book weaves true crime with heartfelt memoir.
Ballantine’s work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Kenyon Review and The Coal City Review. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, his work has been included in The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Essays 2006 anthologies.
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Lori: You drifted around for several decades, getting odd jobs, then going on to the next. Was that wanderlust a part of you? Intentional? Where did it come from?
Poe: I always liked to travel, so I suppose it’s in my blood. I’ve got relatives on all sides who were forced into flight, Irish triple great grandparents who fled the potato famine, and Polish triple greats on the other side running from the Russians. My grandfather hit the road when he was ten. My father did his share of banging around too. I don’t think I could’ve stayed in one place if I wanted to. All that wanderlust, I reckon, turned to gold dust.
How did going from place to place help your writing? What was the most interesting place you discovered?
Every place I’ve gone has been interesting, even places I disliked, such as Love Canal, Odessa, Waterloo, and Las Vegas. I’m likely to get more marrow from a bad trip, a string of mistakes, unfavorable weather, an adversary, since it compels me to learn. Writing is not a mechanical process, like building a radio or flying a plane, it’s organic as the stuff you’re made of, so all the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve known, the jobs I’ve held, the risks I’ve taken, the problems I’ve solved, are the nerves and veins in my work. When you pick up a piece of mine I hope you encounter a breathing thing.
Your writing has been compared to Truman Capote and I totally agree. Your thoughts?
I deliberately avoided Capote for a long time because I thought he was a twerp. Then one day, not long after he was gone, I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Up until then I was a member of the Joyless Alcoholic at His Typewriter School. Breakfast at Tiffany’s turned me upside down. It was the first time as a reader that written language unfolded in front of me like one of those children’s books with the pop-up villages and dragons and colored trees. It was a watershed moment.
Filmmaker Dave Jannetta created a documentary based on your memoir “Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere”. How involved were you in the filming and the facts?
It’s beautiful, better than my book. And though it’s based on my book, he’s taken a completely different angle. It’s a funny movie, what an odd thing to say about a true-crime treatment. I like to work alone, so I was a surprised to find how well we got on creatively. We’re a lot alike, dedicated, not particularly interested in money, and willing to live outside the mainstream to create work of lasting value. I was able to help him in many ways with construction problems I’d worked out over the years, and he was able to help me by coaxing out the reluctant, and then once we had them in front of the camera, extracting more than I would’ve been able to with notebook and pen. The re-interviewing and going over every aspect of the case cinematically gave me fresh and deeper perspective and mightily improved my book. Since I’m the expert on the Steven Haataja case, I am your tour guide in Dave’s movie. I hope you find me likeable.
Talking about likeable, is it important to you to write likeable characters? Or does it just turn out that way?
I don’t know if my characters are generally that likeable, but I think that the narrators of my stories, fiction and non, are likeable, and for me that’s essential. Your reader should trust you at the very least, and somewhere along the way there’s no reason you shouldn’t confide a secret and have a few laughs. As a reader I’ll tolerate the occasional misanthrope, Old Grumpy Pants Bukowski or Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, but for the most part I’m not attracted to writers who pretend they’re not members of the human race.
Any other writing projects in the works?
I’m about to release a collection of short stories entitled The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue. It’s 25 years or so in the making. If you like my other stuff, Love and Terror and Things I Like About America, you’ll like this too.
When you’re not wandering and writing, what are your other interests, hobbies, concerns?
I chase squirrels around with a stick, walk for miles and miles, sit in the open boxcars of the trains across the street, have at least three drinks each evening, walk my son to and from school every day and try to get in as much time as I can watching him grow. I’ve usually got a game of chess going, even if I’m no good at it. And I’m always looking for a good book. Read any lately?
Lori M. Myers is an award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee of creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has been seen in more than 45 national and regional magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Her plays have been produced on seven regional stages, two have been published, and one was a Broadway World Award nominee. Lori has a masters in creative writing from Wilkes University and currently teaches at Dominican College in New York.