The Influences Project:David Barringer on Johnny Red

in The Influences Project

What writers/books most influenced your new novel, Johnny Red?

David Barringer: Don Quixote, definitely. I read that book and realized I could just start writing and not stop, which was key in figuring out how to cross over from short stories to a novel. I carried notebooks with me everywhere. Everything rattling around in my head was fair game for the novel. I realized even stupid stuff could be said by a stupid character (or a smart character saying something stupid). Early on I knew this book was going to be a serial adventure within an overarching narrative. Each chapter would consist of a well-defined event or conflict. This kept the book alive for me, this quasi-picaresque structure, this old structure that Cervantes used for Quixote.

But I also depended on an overall sense, a kind of philosophical intuition, that this was a story of liberation. This is how Ralph Williams, the University of Michigan professor, describes the Bible. I took his class as an undergrad, and my understanding of the Bible comes in large part from his class. So while structuring my novel, I kept in mind two books: the Bible and Don Quixote.

Beyond that, I was conscious of making this a very contemporary novel, and so I also had in mind that I would allow a pastiche of influences as I developed the story, including such folks as Whitman, Nietzsche, Joyce, Flann O’Brien, and Donald Barthelme, writers you’d never otherwise put together. As the book progresses, my style changes, evolves to suit the story where it is, and about 3/4 of the way through, as readers have told me, it gets much easier to read. It becomes contemporary. That was intentional.

As for chickens (the main character is a rooster), I had no prior knowledge per se, and I refused to do any research until I felt that I really needed it to continue imagining the world. I wrote first and hit the books later. I learned about breeds and the history of domestication, the evolution of factory farming, the subcultures of poultry shows and cockfighting, diet and anatomy. I read everything I could to gather literary and religious references to roosters and chickens, everything from Babylonian religion to Ezra Pound’s "Cantos." I used the facts to my own ends in building up this world, but I used the research like a kid uses snow to build a fort. A little of this and a little of that, some ice and sticks, pack it down.

But I meant to write a novel about characters, not a guide to poultry, and so while I describe the breeds accurately and the conditions of factory farming accurately, I regarded the facts as starting points. The characters move through this world and respond to it like people do, that is, ambivalently. Some characters follow the rules, some break the rules, and others make their own rules.

Read more about Barringer’s Johnny Red here.

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