Alan Heathcock Releases New Collection, Volt 

Local author gives fictional town a spark of life

Alan Heathcock is like the Dr. Frankenstein of Krafton.

photo by Glenn Landberg

Alan Heathcock is like the Dr. Frankenstein of Krafton.

Alan Heathcock sits down for coffee on a cool afternoon in his topcoat, black-framed glasses and newsboy cap looking happily serious and writerly. He pulls from his bag a freshly published paperback copy of his first book, the story collection Volt (Graywolf Press), and simply says, "Finished."

And there on the cafe table before him sit eight bound stories, 207 pages of catastrophic floods, murder, bar fights, bowling-ball vandalism, unrequited love, grim hope, slim measures of peace and people--real and true people.

It's a hard-fought accomplishment for Heathcock, who moved to Boise 10 years ago from his hometown of Chicago where he was enrolled in a Ph.D. program after receiving a master's of fine arts degree in fiction from Bowling Green State University. He moved here to write and study under Robert Olmstead and Mitch Wieland in Boise State's MFA program, and several of the stories in Volt got their start during that time.

Heathcock, an adjunct professor of English at Boise State, has put in the good time, working on his craft and artistic vision and making a life here in Boise as a father, husband, writer and teacher of writing. He has continually believed in the value of story, of creating big truths with words, and has honed his art well enough to publish several of the Volt stories in prestigious journals like the Virginia Quarterly Review (where his story "Peacekeeper" won a National Magazine Award) and Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story.

Now, on Friday, March 4, at the Linen Building, Heathcock will launch Volt with a reading and musical event, hosted by author Anthony Doerr and featuring the apropos Americana roots-rock of Hillfolk Noir.

"In many ways, I can't believe all this has come together," Heathcock says. "I'm proud and a little humbled and probably more than a little nervous."

All eight stories in Volt are set in and around the fictional rural town of Krafton, where Heathcock's cast of characters--Sheriff Helen Farraley, Pastor Hamby, Seamus the sharecropper, Walt Freely the shopkeeper and Jorgen Delmore, a young soldier, share the same stage, lacing into each others' lives as the fabric of Krafton is presented piece by piece.

Volt is not intended to operate as a novel-in-stories or overtly present a larger narrative. Each story stands alone in the collection giving us a section of the whole and a new lens for viewing the dramas of Heathcock's well-developed, archetypal characters.

"At the book's genesis, I had the idea that I wanted to write a comprehensive moral history of a town and its people--Krafton," Heathcock says. "The whole point being that as humans we struggle with the same issues over and over, especially the quintessential American problems of war and grief, the nature of peace. I've always been interested in these issues, and I wanted stories about characters in one place, playing this stuff out. So now, in some ways I suppose, the book is a failure of my original vision, which was going to be 30 or 40 stories. I'm still writing about Krafton, and so it just may take me two or three collections to get out the full vision."

In Volt, Krafton operates as a kind of any-town, in any place, at any time. To let his stories be presented without presumption or prejudice, Heathcock has intentionally removed all references to state or region when it comes to his rural town. He simply lays out his dramas along bleak country roads, within dim barrooms, tangled in the corridors of a corn maze, floating the town's main street--Old Saints Road--thus leaving it up to the reader to assign Krafton a specific place on the map or in their spirit.

"Readers have come up to me and said, 'I know this is set in Oregon.' Or, 'This all happened in North Carolina, right?' And I'm like, 'Sure, absolutely,'" Heathcock says. "There's enough leeway that people can take a certain ownership of the stories, which I like. My father, in fact, is convinced that several of the stories take place in the 1960s, which is a type of power he, as just one man, has over these stories. And overall, I wanted to create a place that was absolutely real and singular, without being caught up in the finite semantics of time and place."

Within the characters of Heathcock's Krafton there is a reticence, a tight-lipped pride that keeps the dynamic of Volt contained, terse and oblique, yet anything but simple. These people don't always say what they mean or feel, but they mean and feel a lot. This over-arching trait Heathcock bestows upon his people is found similarly in his prose. His setting, character details and dialogue are taught, tangential and often complexly simple.

In "The Staying Freight," the opening story of Volt, a description of the protagonist reads: "Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles."

And the middle-volume story "Smoke" opens: "A voice called his name. Vernon woke to the haze of dawn, and a figure slouched in through the open window beside his bed. Vernon was hungover. His eyes pulsed, and he rubbed them to clear his vision."

There's a lot delivered here--vivid place, dramatic circumstance, troubled emotion--without there seeming to be much, an admirable trait of the collection and a testament to Heathcock's skillful eye and serious work ethic.

His style has been described as "Knob Goth"--rural settings and troubled characters amid a darker, Gothic angle of storytelling--a moniker Heathcock doesn't shy away from.

"I think that term, Knob Goth, says it pretty well," Heathcock says. "As the book has been getting ready to come out, I've been trying to get my head around how to talk about it, how to explain what I've been writing about all these years. I think I wrote these stories with the intention of investigating things that scare and confound me, preoccupations that I've had. It's just me trying to work out things in my mind--about war, violence, grief, death. It gets trickier for me to explain why I'm preoccupied with them, but I do my best to put characters through many a new test or trial. That's my way of explaining."

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