The Last Days of California centers on a family preparing for the end of world. If you knew you had one week left on earth, how (and where) would you spend it?
I would need more details. Am I sick? Is a meteor about to crash into the earth, i.e. are there a bunch of really great parties going on? I wouldn’t want to spend any of that precious time hungover, though. I’d stay close to home, maybe take a quick trip down to New Orleans. I’d eat whatever I wanted, see the people I love most in the world and tell them how much I love them. Things I would not do: worry, read, watch TV, remain a vegetarian. If the world’s going to end, I’d definitely want a cheeseburger.
This is your first novel, but you have previously written and published short stories, including the collection Big World. What made you make the leap to longer fiction and did you find that the transition presented you with new challenges as a writer?
I’ve tried to write novels in the past, but The Last Days of California is the only one I’ve completed. This book surprised me. I drafted it quickly, over the course of one summer, and it was fun and fairly easy to write, as I was interested in the characters and what would happen to them. I didn’t know if they’d make it to California, or if the rapture would occur, so I wrote my way toward these things.
"If the world’s going to end, I’d definitely want a cheeseburger."
Because it’s a road-trip novel that takes place over the course of four days, the structure was inherently more manageable than the other novels I’ve attempted. When the story begins, the family has already fallen behind schedule, so there was an immediate tension. They have to keep moving! They must push on! And I felt that push, as well.
There are a lot of pop culture references in this novel that very concretely ground it in the present era and current moment—did you ever worry that by so explicitly dating your novel might also give it an expiration date?
I don’t think I could have written a road-trip story without using these references, and I have a feeling that we’ll have Targets, Taco Bells, and Burger Kings for a long time to come. Same with snack foods—I don't see the Snickers bar going anywhere. Of course, there are also a lot of TV, movie and pop cultural references that will date it. My goal was to try to fully capture a time and place—to ground the novel in the everydayness of these characters’ lives.
Is it possible for a work of art to be unambiguously of a time as well as timeless?
That’s an excellent question—I think so. I really appreciate specificity in fiction, whether the book is set in 1890, 1955 or 2013. I want to know what they’re reading, what they’re eating, what their home décor is like. I want to know everything because these details allow me to fully inhabit someone else’s world, and this makes for timeless literature.
Tolstoy famously wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To what extent do you think this is true? Is there room in modern fiction to explore the domestic family life through a lens unmarred by dysfunction and melancholy?
All families, even the happy ones, are unhappy in certain ways. Whenever you have a bunch of people living together in a house, there are going to be problems, tensions. There’s just no way around this. As beautiful as Tolstoy’s sentence is, it’s a flawed idea. Every happy family is unhappy in its own way. And most unhappy families have many happy moments. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I believe there will always be some level of dysfunction and sadness within the family unit. As a writer, this is a good thing; domestic fiction would be very dull, otherwise.
Like Jess, you grew up and lived most of your life in the South, an area of the country with an incredibly rich and distinct literary tradition. In your opinion, does Southern fiction have its roots in a physical state (or group of states) or is it defined more by a state of mind? To what extent do you feel like living there has shaped your authorial voice?
I don’t think the physical place can be separated from the state of mind. I’ve spent the majority of my life in Mississippi, and there are still parts of it that remain virtually untouched by modern life. As a largely rural and sparsely populated state, we don’t get many visitors and almost no one moves here unless it’s for the military. I once dated a man who came to Jackson from California to run his family’s business. Everywhere we went, people asked where he was from. He couldn’t walk into a gas station without someone asking him this question. We’re also constantly reminded of our history here. As a teenager, my friends and I used to drink daiquiris while running the hills of Vicksburg’s National Military Park. My mother and father grew up in a place where blacks and whites couldn’t eat together at a lunch counter, couldn’t drink from the same water fountain at the zoo. There’s so much to remember here, things and people we can’t forget: James Meredith, Emmett Till, “Freedom Summer.”
Except for a year in Nashville and three-and-a-half in Austin, my life has been spent in Mississippi. The people I know and the culture I know are integral to who I am. It’s also hard for me to describe what this culture is like—how it’s different from other places. My father hunts and fishes; there’s always deer sausage in the freezer. My parents go to church every Sunday. There is meat in all of the vegetables (except the corn). We say y’all. Growing up, we sang “Dixie” in choir. As an undergraduate at Mississippi State, we rang cowbells at footballs games. It’s nearly impossible to get a direct flight anywhere. How many of these things are typical of the South and how many are simply a part of rural life?
It’s fair to say that about as much goes wrong as it does right during the course of the Metcalfs’ road trip—what are your top tips for guaranteed success on long haul car journeys?
Travel with people you like, preferably non-family members. Make sure your AAA membership is active. Stay in a decent hotel at least one night if you can afford it, and eat six-dollar mini-cans of Pringles. It’s also nice to have some audiobooks to distract you—nothing overly literary—think suspense, horror, crime.
Writing wise, what’s next for you: another novel, more short fiction or something else entirely?
I’m currently working on short fiction and essays. This past summer, I started another novel—a historical novel loosely based on the story of Typhoid Mary—and I liked the idea of it, but had no idea what I was doing. When the time came to make some major decisions, I balked. I was scared to mess it up, or that it wasn’t good enough, or I had forgotten what story I wanted to tell. I’m not sure. I’m definitely going to revisit it at some point; perhaps I just need to spend a few months researching communicable diseases and islands in order to become inspired again.
author photo by Doris Ulmer
Former BookPage intern Stephenie Harrison is currently writing from Asia. She blogs at 20 Years Hence.
Read our review of The Last Days of California.