books: Sympathy for the Devil 

Richmond native Clay McLeod Chapman's writing will grab your attention like a wreck on the side of the road.

The book is filled with the pieces of lives that have been shattered by grief and loss.The characters seem to be confessing their inner-most feelings to the reader, making the most bizarre behavior acceptable in the name of lost love. Will Colby grieves the death of his newly wed wife and carries through on their plans for a highway-bound honeymoon to Florida. After the body of Phil Winters' son is recovered from a swamp he follows through with his promise and takes his son's remains to New York. In the lives of both characters, as well as those they meet along the way, Chapman shows a world bitten down to the quick by loneliness and isolation. However, the pacing of the novel breathes a life into these themes and ideas that is not easily forgotten. The characters engage, pulling us into their stories, making us feel things we're a little too uncomfortable feeling. In the end, the inevitable meeting of Will and Phil is one that we see like a wreck on the side of the road: horrifying and yet inexplicably fascinating.

Style had a chance to sit down with Clay McLeod Chapman when he was in Richmond on a book tour for "Miss Corpus." Here's what he had to say about his writing, his book and the South:

Style: Publisher's Weekly compared you to Flannery O'Connor, categorizing your work as Southern Gothic. Do you see yourself this way, or do your characters have a more universal appeal?

Chapman: The South has been my protective blanket up to this point. It just became the safest, most immediate sense of grounding; I feel rooted to this place. And writing my first novel, it felt like the most organic and natural place to start would be the South. …When you reach the end of the book you'll recognize that the South itself is ultimately the narrator to the piece. These characters voice a larger character than themselves. It's just that idea of giving voice to a particular region through the people who thrive upon that land. But I think this voice can transcend the South, because what it deals with is the emotion behind the voice that's not regional.

So you are obviously a believer in that notion, "write what you know."

I think that the whole notion of "write about what you know" seems too limiting. By saying that you've restricted yourself from X amount of years of experience that maybe you'll never have. So if you just reformulate the thought to "write about what you feel," which is basically just saying within every fantastical or realistic or purely fictional scenario, if it's rooted within an earnest emotion, people will identify it. Love or death or loss, that's the package. The emotion is at the core, and the gift wrap is the situation. So by putting "Miss Corpus" in the South, the emotion has a vehicle to get out there.

What about the darkness of your subject matter? Is there something in the grotesque that speaks specifically to you?

I've always been obsessed with sympathy for the devil. That for me is a feat. If you can lead people to believe that the devil is just as human and empathetic or sympathetic as you or I, you've humanized the grotesqueness. To me, it's an ultimate challenge to say that this is someone who I don't like but I feel for them.

So the grotesque is just another gift wrap?

I've always had a fascination with the darker aspects. If you live in a family that keeps a secret, say there's that one family member that you don't talk about. Of course as a child your immediate response is to gravitate toward that one family member. It's like you say "Why can't I look?" Our morals hedge us behind these very sensitive walls to the degree that the most innocent, childlike, knee-jerk response is to want to look, is to want to see that stuff. The grotesque is the bar that gets raised or lowered depending on our moral sensibility. S


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