Todd Dills on “Shining Man,” Southern Literature, and the Search for Joy

Todd Dills

Some of the first readings I ever did were with writer Todd Dills, who was and is one of the most engaging people to see read from their work in front of their audience. (I still have fond memories of watching Todd shaking an upside-down mic stand at an event at an Atlanta coffee shop.) The guy’s a fantastic writer as well, and when his latest novel Shining Man was published in 2019 — it’s a followup to his earlier Sons of the Rapture, which I also highly recommend — I eagerly read it and sent him some questions on it. And then the pandemic happened and the interview was paused for a bit. And now it’s complete — and features Dills discussing everything from the literary influence of Ralph Ellison to the role NASCAR plays in his work.

Shining Man shares a few characters with your earlier novel Sons of the Rapture. Did the idea for this novel come at the same time that you were working on that one, or did the connections between the two come to mind later? 

The origin short story/stories of both books did in fact come at around the same time, when I was an MFA grad student at Columbia College in Chicago (somewhere between 1998 and 2000) and I worked on pieces of the Chicago-set material for Shining Man thereafter sitting on a barstool at the door of Skylark at Halsted and Cermak (much like our narrator here) — I worked a few nights a week there in years 2003-’06. Yet the narrator of Shining Man wasn’t really a fully-realized character until later, when I sat down sometime in 2008 in Birmingham, Alabama, with a particular sort of voice in my head, and started typing out what would become the book’s prologue — that kind of disembodied yet I’m-going-to-talk-directly-to-you earnest sort of snark, you might call it, of a man who has for the moment been jerked around one too many times and has just given up, or taken a half-forced sabbatical, a gathering of energy in his mother’s basement to maybe one day emerge again to some purpose. In some ways, moving back south to a city where I’d never lived after all that time in Chicago — well, some elements of it felt a little bit like that to me, though I was not living in my mother’s basement, of course. Add to the difficulties of building new social connections in the place the fact that Susannah and I had just had our child. A beautiful thing, no doubt (she’s 14 now), but also something that forces one to reckon with pretty much everything about one’s life.

That’s the kind of frame I viewed the project in — that’s the narrator’s mission, to interrogate how he got to this point by telling the story of how he got there, to maybe get a little more of an idea of just where he’s destined to go next.

But you’re guessing right, fundamentally. Both books emerged from the creative soup of the same environment, the same time, and evolved from there (Sons came out in 2006). Also, I was always attracted to the world-building-across-books aspects of some fiction writers (for me, Faulker is the most obvious example). At a certain point later, writing the story of Shining Man Cash, I thought of course it was only natural that this South Carolina man come to Chicago would know a fellow SC-to-Chi guy around his general age, Mr. Billy Jones. Other characters between the two books then fell into place at the various intersections.   

Over the course of Shining Man, the novel touches on everything from performance art to NASCAR to radical politics. What led you to bring these seemingly disparate elements together in a single novel?

They have all been currents/worlds/elements/subcultures at the edges or centers of which I’ve found myself. For a while in Chicago, for instance, I knew plenty of folks in a variety of arts/music scenes, was part of the lit scene there, saw radical left-wing politics at work, and all the while I was a true NASCAR fanboy in a sort of nostalgic way. I grew up right in the middle of the region (around Charlotte, N.C.) where that subculture began its transformation from regional phenomena into the giant it is today … what’s the description from the start of the book? … “one of America’s most egregious wastes of good gasoline, good oil.” … (Been a while: Yes, I had to look that up.) Subsequently, though, I’ve had opportunities to meet various members of various racing teams over the years in my work, particularly the men and women who haul the teams from track to track, and I just feel that, no matter what sort of subculture you’re involved in or have a touch point with, fundamentally we all share a lot when it comes to basic concerns that too often are obscured by the lightning bolts of our differences. There’s a little bit of that sort of motivation in this project, to chart our conflicts/divisions, readily apparent in disparate subcultures, to crack open the elemental things in all of us. . 

There are a few homages to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man found within your novel; what prompted that decision?

See last sentence of that prior answer, maybe. Ellison’s novel is my No. 1, I think (if I had to just name one, that is … I might name plenty others, too, though Invisible Man will always be among them). I’m borrowing the basic narrative structure of that book here, essentially. Obviously, much of the thematics are fundamentally different, but in some ways Ellison’s project there was similar to what I’ve tried to do here. A young Southern black man moored in Harlem of the 1940s/50s has an entirely different set of barriers to life in front of him, no doubt, than what sits in front of our narrator here, a Southern recent-college-graduate white guy from a well-enough-off upbringing being cast out into the world by strange forces, and his own confused will. Yet I always felt that what Ellison was doing was a project of illustrating how difference and attendant fear and paranoia and ignorance cloud our ability to see and be seen. And just personally, when I first read that book as a suspicious teenager looking around his own prospects, his elders and their (often absurd) convictions and all the weirdness in the world (and to quote an indie-rock song, thinking, “I am certainly not pleased with my options”), when we get to the end of the book … the Invisible Man back speaking directly to you from his bizarrely-well-lit, squatted basement, after all the insanity he has been through … and the narrator says, “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.”

There’s an eery kind of ambivalence there, right? It scares him, but he knows it might be true. For me as a kid and then later, there was at the same time this kind fist-pumping like “hell yeah you do!” response in my head. I guess it’s the ambivalence that’s the most important there — the challenge to readers to analyze their own dogmas and prejudices. 

The book holds up, though some folks like to vilify it as a white-racism apology, or alternately reduce it to some sort of Kumbaya race-togetherness treatise. Those are fundamentally reductive readings. And today, of course, the racism Ellison interrogated remains as a barrier to basic sight for many in America. And the various dogma around politics/religion/subcultural identity, also part of Invisible Man in some ways, grow more intense as at least similar barriers for this subgroup or that, or another, and another — at least over the course of my adult life, it’s 100% sure that’s been the case (1990s to now).  

Has living in Nashville had any effect on your writing — either in the broader sense or, more specifically, the way this novel developed? 

Moving to Nashville in 2009 (after a few years in Birmingham) set me off in earnest on this project, actually, at least the last two-thirds/half of the book, that’s sure. There’s this half-satirical notion of life as a journey to find your place that one of Roberto Bolano’s characters in the Savage Detectives articulates at a certain point, the tragedy/farce of the notion being that maybe most of us never get there and just grind along wherever. But: Maybe I’ve found it here? I’m grinding like we all do to an extent, so it remains a question, of course. (Hah!) But when I got here what I definitely recaptured was a sense of being in a place where fiction writing might at least be something that more than just myself and my wife (Susannah Felts) do — she’s done a huge amount of community-building around literary arts here, and as that’s happened over the years, I’ve been a part of that to an extent. My own work on this book benefited from a variety of people who were willing to be sounding boards for early drafts and fits and starts as it all came together. (Shout out to Scott Lyon, Katie McDougal, Susannah, Greg Plemmons, Matt Cahan, Bronwyn Davies-Mason … others who were part of a group or individually saw some of the early drafts of parts of it.)   

I definitely lost that when I left Chicago for Bama.  

At once, there’s always been a value for me in distance when it comes to the ability to truly see a place and the people in it. When I left South Carolina for Chicago, what came out of me writing-wise that was any good often enough centered around that place I had left. Similarly, once here in Nashville, Birmingham became a viable setting through which to guide characters. It’s funny, too — I’ve been in Nashville embroiled in day-to-day life now longer than any place I’ve ever lived but for the town I grew up in, yet I think I’ve set a grand total of two little stories here. My output, fiction-wise, has really fallen off over that time period given age/energy and the demands of my other work, that’s certainly true, but I think there is something to the value of distance for me.   

I know that you’ve been at work on Shining Man for a while; was there one element or section to it that was particularly challenging? 

I guess the most difficult part of the book was figuring out how to get everybody back to where it started around Charlotte, N.C., and figuring out how all of that was going to play out. I knew I wanted the narrator back there — the end is in the beginning here, of course, and he’s moored in his mother’s basement drunk half the time with no concrete plan to fully emerge, but what would happen to bring him back there? “Occupy” as a phenomenon back when, as well as the rise of right-wing populism (and all the associated political dogma with emotional-political movements generally), set me on the course to take the characters through to the end. As I was plotting that last half of the book, I did have a sense of looking around, waiting to see how those current were playing out. 

I “finished” the book in early 2016, during Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, though there were a round of substantial edits and additions almost two years later prior to publication.   

Both of your novels establish a connection between the American South and Chicago. What’s drawn you to utilize both as settings in your work? 

See Bolano reference above. So I’ve lived and loved and struggled with existence (probably by equal measures at various times) in greater Charlotte, in Chicago, in Birmingham, and now Nashville (which almost feels, more and more anyway, like a kind of Chi-midwest/South hybrid, in some senses). Fundamentally, I know these places as they were when I was there, and enough about how they are more recently to confidently utilize them as settings. The things and settings and people in them are naturally the material of the work.

At the same time that I sometimes feel aspects of Chicago in Nashville today, when I was in Chi I could easily likewise find plenty Southern things, too, particularly given the strong influence of African-American culture there. History there wasn’t lost on me, of course — movement of big groups of people around America throughout the decades and centures. On the surface level, I figured out where I could find good smoked ribs and/or source grits and collard greens, for instance, if not in some of the big supermarkets in certain more-white areas. At a deeper level, in a big huge place like that, or a smaller place like Birmingham or some rural town in Midwest or South, the struggles of individuals to find meaning and/or understanding have a whole lot more in common than not. Place matters in fiction, because it can and does play a huge role in shaping an identity, but it’s also just fundamentally of utmost importance to realize that there’s a lot that is in fact universal among us all. I love the journey story for this reason. Place to place, no matter how mundane or crazy or weird or high-stakes dangerous any event, what do we find but struggle, love, success, tragedy and death, and the search for joy, unadulterated joy.    


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