Tony Earley’s first novel, Jim the Boy, the story of a 10-year-old boy growing up in a tiny North Carolina town, was lauded as a dazzling and deceptively simple story. For his second, The Blue Star, Earley returns to Aliceville and to his character Jim Glass, now a 17-year-old high-school senior who falls in love with the wrong girl while the country is on the brink of World War II. Vulture talked to Earley about his obsession with Jim and his family, the process of writing kids’ books for adults, and whether —as some early reviews claim — his success is an indication that sincerity is back.
You’ve written about Jim Glass for twenty years now. What is it about him that you find so compelling?
The first story I wrote about Jim was in grad school. It was probably the first good short story I ever wrote, and I was delighted with it. Then the next year Jim and his family showed up again in another short story, which kind of surprised me. And then after I was out of grad school, Jim showed up again, wanting to be in a novel. It used to sort of bother me. I thought, Gosh, I need to do something different. Why do you keep showing up and bugging me? Now I’ve just accepted it. Which is a big relief, because he shows no sign of going away.
Really? Does the next book catch up with him in another seven years?
We’re going to see him next in 1946, when he’s home from the war. But yes, he returns to these same people. And I’m actually delighted by that rather than subconsciously kicking myself because I actually don’t have a different idea.
You’ve described your first book as “a children’s book for grown-ups,” and The Blue Star reads a lot like young-adult fiction. What makes them right for adult readers?
I wouldn’t exactly call it postmodern, but I am sort of playing around with the form. If one takes the conventions of young-adult literature but uses them to tell an adult story, that creates a tension. I’m interested in the way that tension plays out, and what the implications of it are. I sort of throw out most of the tools used by contemporary novelists and use a smaller set of tools.
There’s a real pressure for young male characters in the book to enlist and go off to war — regardless of their class or social status, they’re all expected to fight. Do you think that’s applicable to today?
At the time I was writing The Blue Star, we were at war. And I wanted in some small way to be a mirror of what’s going on in this country right now. Again, without being preachy or didactic about it, if a book makes a reader ask questions, I think that’s a good thing. We do, as a society, think it’s noble and it’s honorable and a brave thing for young people to go off to war. But by and large, because we don’t have a draft, the people going off tend not to be upper-middle class and rich kids. That’s a generalization, but in a way, it’s “If I don’t have to go, it’s easy to not think about it.” Unfortunately, there’s probably an unlimited supply of poor kids who are going off to do this dirty business.
Do you think that part of why your books are popular is because they’re sort of an antidote to the cynicism around us?
I don’t presume to know what people with a capital “P” are thinking. But I can tell you what I was thinking: I pretty consciously decided to reject irony as a tool when I write. I think that a reliance on irony allows a writer the luxury of not taking a stand on something. I just like throwing something out that was completely un-ironic and saying, “Here it is.” That’s not something that really fits in with everything else that’s going on in contemporary fiction. But I’m hoping that it causes people to stop and think for a minute.
You dedicated the book to “the girls who live in the blue house.” Who are they?
That’s my wife and daughter. I’m sort of proud of the dedication because we’re adopting another daughter but we have no idea when she’ll be arriving. So it’s a dedication that allows for the adoption of an infinite number of daughters. The book will be dedicated to everybody. —Jesse Ellison