The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”
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Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

 

Haints, Horrors, and Hilarity: JD Wilkes on The Vine That Ate the South

 

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Vine-That-AteIf you grew up in the rural South, you’ve probably heard tales of big cats, vampires, the Bell Witch, flesh-eating kudzu, and other terrors that go bump in the night. You may have even encountered some yourself, though probably not all in a single outing. Unfortunately for the protagonist of The Vine That Ate the South––and fortunately for us––he did.

Author JD Wilkes spared hardly a Southern folk demon in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South. It’s a Homeric tale of going into The Deadening, a patch of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in hopes of coming out not only alive, but with an adventure tale so heroic as to woo his One True Love away from his sworn enemy.

The ultimate destination of our unnamed hero is The Kudzu House, where legend has it an elderly couple was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and their skeletons can still be seen strung up by the hungry vine, like two burned out bulbs on a strand of morbid Christmas lights.

When the myriad of Southern haints and frightful creatures are encountered alongside the more corporeal menaces, like trigger-happy hunters and murderous Masons, you’re not entirely certain what’s real and what’s not––and that’s where the magic happens. Rather than a moonlight-and-magnolias glorification of the South, Wilkes shows just how fearsome it can be––literally and figuratively.

The Vine That Ate the South is not only suspenseful, but also uproariously funny. Whether he’s recounting a run-in with a lisping, overly eager pastor or remembering the day his girlfriend-stealing nemesis found his family’s “shit knife,” our protagonist is like that hilarious uncle who always tells the best stories, genuinely unaware of his natural talent for comedy.

The style and tone of the novel, as well as its deft storytelling, mirrors the music of the band The Legendary Shack Shakers, of which Wilkes is the frontman. With the band’s punk, blues, and rockabilly tunes, lyrics rife with apocalyptic Biblical references and Wilkes’ onstage persona as a Southern gothic preacher, The Vine That Ate the South is like a Legendary Shack Shakers show contained between two French flaps.

I talked to Wilkes about his writing process, his influences and his varied artistic talents.

Shunnarah: I so enjoyed The Vine That Ate the South. The story kept me turning pages well after I probably should’ve gone to bed. The novel reads like a bard finally wrote down the South’s oral mythic history. Were you conscious of that bard-like quality as you were writing? How do you think the oral tradition plays into Southern culture?

Wilkes: I wanted the book to read in a “high prose,” florid manner that mirrored the lushness of the Kudzu. The words needed to overwhelm you at times. But I also tried to cut it back and clear room––much like the characters do with their machetes––by allowing plain speech in spots. That way you hopefully get a nice balance of old-school verbosity and simple Southern humor and wisdom.

Shunnarah: I know The Vine That Ate the South wouldn’t be considered a humor book, but there were parts where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on how humor factors into Southern culture and storytelling.

Wilkes: I think humor is or should be a part of Southern writing. Flannery O’Connor was satirical and humorous, of course. John Faulkner is a bigger influence on me than his brother William.

Irvin S. Cobb, from Paducah, Kentucky, is too. To write about a place with such an intense history, one must occasionally pop air into it. Levity is what keeps novels like mine from descending into depressing historical fiction or even horror.

Shunnarah: It seems like going exploring in the woods and seeing at least one big cat or mythical creature is a Southern rite of passage. I say that having explored some creepy shacks and seen a big cat or two myself. I’m curious to know if your own explorations and otherworldly encounters fueled some of the scenes in The Vine That Ate the South.

Wilkes: Yes, I also enjoy walking around in abandoned places in the woods, ha! Careful we don’t get shot!

One place nearby is an actual ghost town in the woods along Clarks River. It’s called Carter Mill (it’s talked about in the novel) and there’s nothing like letting your imagination run wild through all those old dilapidated timbers and tar paper. You can even make up your own stories about what happened there… mix it in with the truth a little. Let the storytelling take on a life of its own. It’s something I did as a kid and still do.

Shunnarah: I noticed that the unnamed protagonist calls his companion in adventure, Carver, “crazy” on several occasions. Though Carver is his best friend, he’s self-aware enough to know Carver has a few screws loose. As someone who calls the South home––but who has left, traveled the world, and come back––are there times when you feel like an outsider like the protagonist, too?

Wilkes: I think I’m secretly jealous of people like Carver, a simple redneck who can handle himself in any situation. He’s not that nuanced and he’s the absolute opposite of an intellectual. But it’s his ability to blend into the wild that makes the main character wonder if he’s just crazy… Carver even seems to be an extension of the terrible forest itself. But I see the character as less crazy and more visceral, even feral. A man in complete union with nature at its deadliest.

Shunnarah: Your first book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was a work of nonfiction published by History Press. Did you always know you wanted to write a novel at some point or was there something about writing Barn Dances and Jamborees that inspired you in that direction?

Wilkes: I never dreamed of really writing a novel. It was really all just a lark.

While on tour with my band in Norway, I cracked a laptop open for a light source while riding through a long tunnel in the mountains. I was homesick so I figured, “Hell… Why not start waxing poetic about Kentucky?” Those Arctic Circle surroundings might’ve inspired my slightly-Tolkienesque approach, though. It really looks like Middle Earth up there!

So I reckon I just started thinking about the lore of the South, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon stuff that Tolkien studied. Thinking about how we have stories, too.

Shunnarah: In addition to writing the novel, you drew all the illustrations. And on top of that you’re an accomplished musician, both as a solo artist and as a member of multiple bands, most famously The Legendary Shack Shakers, and a filmmaker. How does your love of one inspire and influence the others?

Wilkes: All my pursuits are aimed at telling the same kind of story: epic southern mythology. So there’s always this overarching theme despite the varied media I dabble in. Each medium is just a different discipline that I have learned “good enough” to get the stories across to the public. The hope is that each and every creation will combine to form my own little universe, one that people will enjoy visiting from time to time.

Shunnarah: What’s next for you? I’m interested in any creative projects you’re working on, though I’m especially curious to know if there are more books in the works.

Wilkes: There’s a solo record in the works with some of the Squirrel Nut Zippers guesting. There will be another mural project or two––I just did a large painting for the historic Coke Plant in Paducah. And I’m always writing tunes for The Legendary Shack Shakers. New album comes out in April!

Despite the workload, I’m still vaguely entertaining Carver’s next move, way in the back of my brain. Wonder what he’ll do next …

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Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.