Joseph D. Haske’s North Dixie Highway was released in late 2013 by Texas Review Press. It’s a grimy, tight gem of a read. Highly autobiographical, the novel flitters non-chronologically across a life of war, chicken butchering and hard drinking. But it’s poetic the way the blues is poetic, charming the way town-drunks can be.
I thought we’d ask Joe some questions.
Enclave: Let’s start small; what is the North Dixie Highway, and why write about it now?
Joseph D. Haske: It’s a road I’ve been traveling down for quite a while now, deep into the fictional world that’s consumed me for the better part of five years. It actually is a real highway, though, or at least a series of connected roads that bring north and south together in most of the eastern U.S. It was an ambitious project in the early 20th century at a time when motor vehicles were still relatively new. There are sections of the Dixie Highway all over the eastern U.S. The north most tract actually ends in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where much of the book is set.
The Dixie Highway was always sort of fragmented, and it’s even more fragmented these days. Still, as I’d travel around the country, Dixie Highway signs would pop up everywhere: south of Chicago, in central Georgia, around northern Ohio, in various parts of Florida–all over the place. Then there’s that strange tract of Dixie Highway in the eastern U.P., where I grew up. As I mention in the Prologue, the E.U.P. section wasn’t actually connected to any other land mass, at least until the Mackinac Bridge came along, which makes it a particularly lonely stretch of highway.
The construction of the highway is a really interesting story in itself, but the concept of the highway alone spoke to me on a deeper, literary level. I realized early on in writing the book that the Dixie Highway worked well as a sort of unifying/disunifying metaphor, given the travel motif, the temporal and geographical shifts in the novel, and, in general, the sort of schizophrenic nature of the protagonist.
E: Your writing has drawn comparisons to folks like Daniel Woodrell and Chris Offutt—two southern writers—but you’re from as far north as America gets. I know you’ve spent a great deal of your life in Texas and Mexico. Do you think your time in these places has made you more of a literary “southerner,” or do you think that there’s a stronger connective tissue between American regions than we tend to believe?
JDH: For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to America’s great southern writers. Even coming from a place as far north as the U.P., I feel a stronger connection to, say, Mark Twain than to Henry James, and that was the case even before I made my way south. I think that there’s a much more significant bond between the rural and working-class parts of the north and south than many would have us believe. Some readers, critics, even writers, might reduce it all to a simple issue of geography and claim that southern writing tends toward the rural and northern literature is somehow more “cosmopolitan” by nature, but there is a danger in that sort of oversimplification. I’ve been influenced by, and enjoy, a broad range of writers, though, and I think it shows in North Dixie Highway; the novel shares a great deal in spirit with the work of many southern/rural writers, but it’s distinct to the various settings in which the book takes place, particularly the eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Offutt and Woodrell are amazing writers, two of the best writers in contemporary America, so I’m flattered by those comparisons, but I think that the style, tone, and narrative voice of North Dixie Highway is unique, the same as with the fiction of those writers. It’s never been my goal to simply imitate great southern writers and I don’t think this is what’s happening with NDH. I strive for an original voice in my writing, and I think that readers will find this to be the case with my novel. I guess, though, if you’re trying to find a category to place the book in, I suppose it’s a better fit to group it in with Offutt and Woodrell’s work than with writers who focus on privileged suburbanites. Like these writers, I focus on geographically disadvantaged places and my characters are typically not society’s elite.
Having lived some time in Georgia, and a significant time in Texas and Mexico, like you mention, has no doubt had an impact on my life and on my writing. I was born and raised a Yooper but I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life in Texas, so I’m both southerner and Yooper in a way, and I have a thorough understanding of Mexican and border culture. More than anything, though, I think that spending so much time in different geographic regions has enabled me to see the connections between rural Michigan and other rural areas of the country, especially the south, in a way I wouldn’t have seen them if I’d lived my entire life in the U.P.
E: I love this answer, because it recognizes this idea that the fiction world is divided along so many lines—rural/urban, north/south, genre/lit.
You’ve been teaching literature for years at the college level: why do you think writers are so heavily categorized? What purpose do you think it serves? Do you find it necessary? Or is it ultimately harmful to label them?
JDH: Thanks, man!
In general, people seem to love these sorts of divisions. It’s easier to stereotype than to tackle the intricate, complex details, so our society favors addressing most issues by dealing with mostly the superficial aspects of things. As we both know, most writers don’t fit all that neatly into one category or another, but dividing writers this way is practical, and helps professors and teachers fit everything into neat little groups for instructional purposes. In a lit survey course, you have to deal with the big picture and cover as much ground as possible in a semester or two, so literary categorization helps to facilitate the process. As writers, we may even catch ourselves doing this from time to time, perhaps forming allegiances with like-minded writers, but going too far with this way of thinking can be dangerous, especially when the rhetoric becomes exclusive and narrow-minded. When this happens, the categorization is definitely more harmful than useful.
E: So, let’s bounce of that. You’ve been a teacher at the post-secondary for some time now. Do you think teaching has informed your writing? Do the two things work in tandem, or do you feel like they are separate endeavors?
JDH: Sometimes I wonder if it might be better to work in a completely distinct profession. All of the grading interferes with writing and can really disrupt concentration in a way that other jobs wouldn’t. I’d like to think of my own writing as separate from what I do for a living, but then again, it’s really not. It is, but it’s not, and those of us who teach writing are stuck in a strange position. Our profession, by its nature, makes one more aware of issues with one’s own writing and we do get to spend quite a bit of our time thinking about writing because it’s expected of us. But, it’s easier to get burned-out with everything or get side-tracked, at least for me. On the plus side, we’re surrounded by colleagues who usually care about the same issues and are typically well-read, and that can be a real advantage, but there’s so much teaching-related work that goes on once class ends, it can get in the way of writing.
E: Okay then, if you weren’t a teacher what would you want to be?
JDH: A rock star—no question. I used to sing, write music, play some guitar. I got to a point where I had to make a choice, though, and took the practical route, graduate school and all. With all the damned grading, sometimes I think about getting back with the band. Think it’s too late?
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar, whose debut novel, North Dixie Highway, was released in October 2013. His fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review, theFour-Way Review, Pleiades, and in theChicago Tribune’s literary supplement, Printers Row. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications. Haske edits various literary venues, including Sleipnirand American Book Review