Tony Earley returns with a dazzling collection

Rutherford County native Tony Earley, who wrote the best-selling novel “Jim the Boy,” is back with his first collection of short stories in 20 years. “Mr. Tall” is a dazzling array of short fiction pieces, each one mythic in its own way, each one peopled with characters whose unlived lives are often more vivid than their lived lives.

When I catch up with Earley, who is now 53, he’s on vacation with his family on Oak Island, near Wilmington. He talks about the depression that blocked his writing, about the two North Carolina towns that do not exist but occupy his dreams, and about his insistence that his students try to find a way out of the aquarium where the majority of stories by MFA students swim.

Earley grew up at the rural edge of Green Hill in Rutherford County and graduated from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. He sold his first short story, “Charlotte,” to Harper’s magazine in 1992, when he was a graduate student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Earley was named one of the “20 best young fiction writers in America” by The New Yorker and one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” by Granta.

He lives in Nashville, Tenn., where he’s the Samuel Milton Fleming Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

Q. You were a thin-skinned child. Noises were too long and lights too bright. How does your thin skin wear as an adult?

A. I drive my wife crazy. I’m hyper sensitive, which she will often point out. She’ll say something, and I find the way she said it hurtful. And she’ll look at me like I’m an idiot and say, “What are you talking about?” My radar is probably tuned way too sensitively. I wouldn’t want to change it because I do think it’s an important part of what I do.

Q. Early on, you consciously rejected irony as a tool in your writing. An impressive decision.

A. I think irony precludes really feeling deeply about anything. I just didn’t want to be that kind of writer who found nothing that wasn’t worth indictment. I admire Willa Cather so much because she was unafraid to have big feelings and put them on the page. I just want to be able to believe in things.

Q. There’s such fond accommodation between many of the couples in these new stories. Are you drawing on your parents’ marriage in these relationships, or perhaps on your own?

A. I think a big part of marriage is not going anywhere on those days you feel you really want to. It’s like in the Barrier Islands. If you want to stay together, don’t leave. I think just culturally – in the media, in movies, in books – we’re trained to divorce when that first blush of sexual longing starts to fade. That’s just where marriage starts. That’s the time I think we should dig in.

Q. You’ve struggled with depression over the years. How does depression interfere with writing?

A. First, I think depression muddies thoughts. And second, even small things seem overwhelming, even walking out to my building where my computer is. If I’m halfway through a novel, just the idea of finishing the novel feels like an impossibility. Depression is like pushing a car up a hill. It takes all my energy to push the car up the hill. I don’t have any energy left to write.

Q. So you worked yourself out of one serious depression – you’ve said you were on suicide watch – by using discarded storm windows and cheap paint. How did that work?

A. That was 20 years ago. I’m still here. It was kind of funny that my creativity came back in text but it was one big letter at a time. I painted big phrases on a storm window. I didn’t know this would work. I just saw a sign one day in Rutherfordton that said “Roses on Railroad Avenue. $10 a dozen, $5 a half dozen.” I picked up the storm window and painted that sign. Gradually, the words (on the windows) got more complicated.

Q. In at least two stories in this collection, “Haunted Castles” and “Stolen Girl,” a character finds a secret passageway. Do you have dreams of secret passageways?

A. I dream periodically of two towns in Rutherford County that aren’t there. They are so vivid that I wake up convinced that they are there, and when I wake, I’m sad that they’re not.

Q. What do you make of that?

A. I have no idea. One is between Shelby and Hickory and is so vivid that even when I’m awake I think about it. Lovely little town. There’s a little restaurant on the corner where I stop and eat. Then there’s another town out from Ruth, toward Golden Valley. It’s much smaller. It sits on top of a hill with a great view of the mountains. It’s got a red brick building on top like a courthouse. I always stop in that little town and look at the mountains. The one towards Shelby – I would move there if it existed.

Q. What’s the most important thing to tell writing students?

A. I tell them that writing is hard. It’s the only art form where somebody takes a class for a semester and thinks they can publish. Kids get so discouraged. I try to tell my undergraduates that there are not any good 20-year-old writers because there are not supposed to be any good 20-year-old writers.

Q. What about your graduate students?

A. I’m harder on them. When they get there, I tell them that every graduate student in America is writing the exact same story they are. I tell them, “There is an aquarium, and you’re in it, and you have to find a way out.”

Q. So how do they get out of the aquarium?

A. That’s the part I can’t teach them. They have to find a way of framing the world that nobody else has.

Q. How did you get out of the aquarium?

A. I threw out irony. All the cool kids exactly my age were doing irony. If they were doing that, I wanted to do something else.

Q. What effect did the success of that novel “Jim the Boy” – it was a best-seller and well reviewed – have on you?

A. With that book, I basically got everything I’d been wanting since I was in the second grade. The bad thing is that it didn’t make me any happier, and it didn’t make me any less depressed. It did cross off that number one thing on the ambition list: to write a very good novel.

Q. You live in a Victorian house painted Blue Ridge blue with your wife and two daughters. What are your daughters’ names?

A. Willa (for Willa Cather) Ruth Zhi Wen Earley is the 7-year-old, and Clara Eudora (for Eudora Welty) An Xiang Earley is the 10-year-old.

The Chinese character for Ruthie’s name means “to know writing or literature.” Her favorite hobby is writing books. Once she said, “How many books have you written?” I told her five. She said, I wrote five today.”