The Lightning Room with Garrett Crowe


–Interview by Diana Clarke


Garrett Crowe’s furious, tender story “Teachings” demands that you read like your father is a felon, and like you are a human being, empathetic, fallible, and hungry. At least one of those things is certainly true. The other might be. Below, Crowe speaks on uncertainty, the second person, and being from West Tennessee.


1. I loved the tentative atmosphere you create for “Teachings” by using the second person and by beginning the first two paragraphs with possibility: “If your father…,” lending doubt to the narrative that follows, implicating the reader in the experience of having their father sent to prison, making it seem also as though the story could be autobiographical. How did you make that choice?

The point of view was actually discovered sometime after I wrote that first line. Originally, the opening was rhetorical only, thinking I’d somehow transfer to first person. Then it occurred to keep it second because, yeah, I wanted the reader to experience parental felony. I also found second person gave me distance away from the narrative. I could be a bit more technical, long-winded, kind of like a legal document.

2. You make a very interesting distinction, at the end of the first paragraph, between “citizens of the United States and small-town Tennessee.” Not to say that one can’t be both, but that they’re different. How?

I’m not sure if I know exactly why I made that distinction. Small-town Tennessee is the setting for most of my stories. It’s where I come from, and sometimes being from a small town in the south seems very us vs. them. The media mostly ignores us. Out of the ten poorest states, the south has eight of them, and because of that—we’re often stereotyped as low-grade intellectuals. So there’s baggage, a chip on our shoulders, yet I know there’s autonomy here.
On a different course, small-town Tennessee, probably like all small towns, is very gossip-y. People are thrilled by knowing other folks’ business. We love Just Busted! and other mugshot magazines because, hell, you may just see someone you know who’s been caught in an act of perversion or shoplifting some jeans or assaulting a lover. Basically, word gets around easier in small towns.

3. The whole idea of choice and adventure (the second person, the repeated “if,” reminded me of a choose-your-own adventure story, tonally) is quickly undermined as the litany of limitations piles up on the narrator’s felon father. How did you get interested in and knowledgeable about courts, conviction, and prison politics?

Well, I have immediate family and friends I grew up with who have convictions and rap sheets, so it’s been ingrained in me on what those loved-ones can and can’t do (especially voting and owning a firearm). I also do a documentary podcast with some pals called Everything Is Stories. We mostly interview outlaw-types, and it’s always the same story regarding convictions, courts, arrests.

But there were a few things needed to fill some gaps in the story, so I would Google search something like “What happens when you’re a felon?” Those searches led me to some amazing resources on message boards and blogposts. That’s where I realized it’s not just about rights being taken away, but the effect: How does a legal conviction hinder one’s function in society?

4. At the moment it felt like the story would be overwhelmed by laws, policing, and limitations, the speaker (and the speaker’s father) reclaim narrative with the line “Yet the individual can ignore the conviction, the felony, the law, and keep the firearm, which is what your father will do.” As if storytelling happens in absence of, or in opposition to, the legal system—which maybe it does. What do you think?

Absolutely. As a reader, the stories I’ve always been drawn to are about breaking the law, legal or moral. Disregarding a law provides everything that you need in storytelling. If done well, you’ll already have a dimensional character, tension, and climax because the crux is about going against the grain of society. In my opinion, resistance is always fertile for storytelling.

5. You grew up in West Tennessee. How does being from a place inform how you write about it?

Who I am, how I think, my need to be creative, whatever, it somehow comes from Lexington, Tennessee. Of course, it gets a little complicated when we talk about being different in a small town or having a need to find a way out or having the desire to come back. This is home. We all know what home does to a person. I feel a debt to represent that place, at least from my perspective, for better or worse. And at the end of the day, I take a lot of pride from being a West Tennesseean.

6. That final line—”it will be you”—carries so much: responsibility, family, violence, learning and growing, all messy and together. How and where do you find the “real truth” you write about there?

One of my favorites, Harry Crews, has a great quote about how you should be afraid of any writer who’s trying to hustle you truth. I totally agree. I think “real truths” are interchangeable and can shift from one moment to the next. While writing “Teachings,” the truth was about starting over, going one direction to the other. Right now, that’s still a truth to me. We all have to start over in our lives, and I’m wary of anyone who hasn’t.


  • I’m a childhood friend of Garrett’s.
    I’m completely blown away by his intellect, creativity, perspective. I’m very proud to have grown up with such a original, caring, and phenomenal friend..
    -Garrett Freeland