An Interview with Edward A. Farmer
by Stuart Phillips
Edward A. Farmer’s novel, Pale (Blackstone 2020), follows the course of several years on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, interweaving themes of race, power, and the stultifying effects of the inhabitants’ connection to the land. In the end, the novel plays out the entire Southern psychosexual drama of white men and disadvantaged black women to the ruination of almost all involved.
Stuart Phillips: I know you’re working on a new book. How long did you wait before you started it?
Edward Farmer: I finished writing Pale in 2013, signed with my agent in 2015, but it wasn’t released until 2020. During that time, I wrote a draft of another novel and was deep into revisions with my agent when I literally heard a voice in the shower.
SP: What did it say?
EF: “I am not a happy person.” I got out and wrote that down, thought for a minute, and realized that I had a novel. I didn’t want to have a new novel—I wanted to finish the one I had just spent a year working on!
SP: But when the spirit moves you . . . .
EF: Exactly. So, my agent and I are finishing line edits on the new novel right now.
SP: What was it that made you change direction?
EF: Once I realized the story behind the idea, I realized I wanted this book to come next. It just resonated. I had put a lot of thought into my second novel. What did I want it to be? How did I want to position myself in the literary world?
SP: Consciously thinking about the arc of your own career as a writer.
EF: Yes. They’re both set in the South, but the one I put on the back burner centered around race relations, which dominated the landscape in Pale. The one I’m completing now uses the landscape and storytelling traditions of the South but centers the family, the gothic, grief, and faith in a completely different way.
SP: You’re not being pigeonholed, then.
EF: No. I made the decision to show that while I am a Southern writer, that means a lot of things aside from solely writing about race. I didn’t want to write the same book with different characters, so this new book veers away from the “traditional Southern novel” and allows me to explore the complicated interplays of faith, of family, and of loss. Plus, I felt it really stretched me to write from the POV of an unreliable narrator who doesn’t share my values. It was outside my wheelhouse, but that’s the kind of challenge that forces you to grow as a writer.
SP: The new main character doesn’t share your values. Was that intentional?
EF: Very. My previous characters had a shared set of beliefs in common with each other, and with me. I decided that just like reading other perspectives, I needed to write other perspectives. So, I inhabited the reality of a character who’d been hurt by the church and wanted nothing to do with religion, then just allowed him to make his case. In the end, I didn’t change him, but grew my own understanding of that worldview.
SP: Your work is very character-driven, so I have to ask: is plot overrated?
EF: Sometimes. Sometimes, you need to just talk about love and hate and loss and the journey of the character. It’s more important to me that the actions of the character are relatable. At the end of the book, people aren’t going to remember the twists of the plot, they’re going to remember the emotional balance of the story. It’s harder to quantify, but when you’re a “discovery writer,” like I am, the character is primary. I focus on the journey, not the plot. You can always add enough facts to make a plot.
SP: What are you reading now?
EF: I came to it late, but I’m currently wrapped up in The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. It’s such an emotional read that I’ve had to put it down several times. The language just draws emotion out of me and hits me and I have to sit back for a while and recover. I’m also reading Everyman by M. Shelly Conner, which is amazing in its granular detail of Black history in Chicago.
SP: Having published one novel, and written two more now, what’s the best take away craft lesson?
EF: I learned to be intentional about my metaphors. With Pale, I felt that the language was steering me, and when a metaphor hit, it felt like pure luck. This time, I decided to draw out the metaphors that I wanted and make them a part of the work. I’m not a huge planner, but this was a real game-changer for me when it came to symbolic language.
Edward A. Farmer is a native of Memphis, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Amherst College with a degree in English and Psychology, and recipient of the MacArthur-Leithauser Travel Award for creative writing. After publishing his debut novel Pale in 2020, he currently lives and writes in Pasadena, California, where he has just finished writing his second novel.
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.