Wisdom Is a Double-Edged Sword: Talking with Jay Baron Nicorvo

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I have to admit that when The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to interview Jay Baron Nicorvo about his debut novel The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press), I thought the synopsis sounded a bit wild: a female Army trucker goes AWOL and joins up with a Vietnam vet who runs a halfway house for a group of “conspiratorial” veterans in a rundown Borscht Belt resort (think Dirty Dancing) in the Catskills. A greedy corporate executive sends his landman, a Mesoamerican lesbian, to exploit the veterans by trying to buy the land they’re on for cheap so the company could turn around and make large profits from drilling. Throw in some violence (mauling, shooting, mysterious death) and a cougar, and we have a year in the lives of this cast of (over forty, it turns out) characters.

At the time, I had just finished my Rumpus interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his story collection, The Refugees, which deals with themes of the Vietnam War and the aftermath of war. I’d also been deep into a used copy of American Sniper I found on the shelves of my local bookstore, which, strangely enough, caused me to survey, for the first time, rooftops in my neighborhood to assess whether or not they’d be ideal sniper locations. And, as someone who grew up hearing the same war stories over and over about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, as told to me by my parents and maternal grandparents, thoughts of war are often at the forefront of my mind. Interviewing Nicorvo about his book, no matter how wild it seemed, felt like the natural thing to do.

And I’m so glad I did. Nicorvo has a masterful and playful use of language that keeps the story fresh, alive, and immediate. His ability to employ multiple points of view (for both people and animals) enables the reader to get in the hearts and minds of many diverse characters, creating a satisfying and complex layering of emotions and desires. What he captures so elegantly are the struggles of a group of veterans who live in desperate poverty on the margins of the very society that they volunteered to protect while in the service and at war. Veterans, like his female protagonist Antebellum (also known as ‘Bellum’ and ‘Ant’), who look back at their actions during war time and struggle to make a way forward as civilians who have seen far more bloodshed and casualties than the rest of us.

What I enjoyed most about Nicorvo’s novel is his insistence in challenging stereotypes. This is a writer who rejects stereotypes about women, veterans, animals, bodily functions, and even evil. Because he’s constantly pushing up against stereotypes throughout the novel, there’s a sort of ‘swimming upstream’ feeling at times that creates an attraction to, as well as discomfort in, the unusual and the unexpected. For Nicorvo, it’s at this intersection where characters and stories emerge.

We talked over the phone during a power outage on his farm near Battle Creek, Michigan. Even in the darkness, his humility, kindness, and empathy for people, particularly veterans and animals, came through quite clear.

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The Rumpus: You introduce many characters in the beginning of the novel, most of whom have several nicknames. I had to pay close attention and refer back often to the cast list provided. But once I got a sense for them as well as their voices I really got into the groove of the novel. I’m curious if you or your editors worried about confusing the reader with so many characters in the beginning?

Jay Baron Nicorvo: I don’t think my editor was ever worried. She knew that it would be a concern for some readers, and she was just trying to keep the pace going quickly. That was one thing that she was really working toward: so long as the pace kept going at a pretty fast clip, the reader will extend some patience.

My favorite novels when I was starting out were the big Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov, with their ten-page character lists and all the diminutives of Russian in those names. [My wife] Thisbe was also working on a big novel that had a lot of characters in it. The two of us were reading and listening to a lot of the big sweeping novels. We were watching a lot of good serialized dramas like Mad Men and The Wire—shows with big casts of characters. At some point the novel just started to get really big and unwieldy, and every character needed not only his or her own voice, along with a nickname, but some sort of ailment, a language, a region that was his or her own. I was definitely aware of losing some readers but I was trying to keep in mind that the payoff comes for the readers who stick with it.

Rumpus: In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner uses multiple points of view to tell his story. You used a similar technique in your novel. How did you decide on this strategy?

Nicorvo: I didn’t really decide on the strategy. I started with the character first. In the first year and the first hundred pages, I was writing from the point of view of a character who now is not even in the book. You might not even remember the character because she never comes on stage, but it’s the wife of the real estate lawyer, Ellis Baum. Ellis has two kids and a wife who, in her fifties, is an extraordinary ultramarathoner. She had late developing epilepsy and had a lobectomy to correct her epilepsy and the procedure worked to alleviate her epilepsy but it also distorted her experience of time and allowed her to run these ultramarathons and not feel that they were taking forever. It was inspired by a newspaper article that I read.

So I was writing from Ellis’s wife’s point of view for almost a year. It was slow going, and I put her in the Catskills, where Thisbe and I were living at the time. I loved the region and wanted to write about it. And then I read another news article in the New York Times about this guy out in California who had a little place, a house and some outbuildings, on a lot of acreage. He was housing homeless veterans there. And I thought, ‘Wow, that would be neat if this ultramarathoner encountered this place and this situation.’

So then I had to write the proprietor of such a place so I could get into his head. Once I did that, I had to have some vets. The veteran that I knew best was my former sister-in-law, and so I used her biographical information to start that character rolling, and once Bellum came onto the scene she just took over. I had to jettison a whole beginning of the novel and lose that character altogether, but then pulled out bits and pieces, and wound up using parts of that first ultramarathoner’s character to develop Evangelína, who becomes a distance runner.

Rumpus: You really got into the heads of each of these characters. Why did you also give a voice to animals in the book?

Nicorvo: It’s of huge importance to me. Most of us live with animals all around us. I’ve always felt very close to animals. I don’t know if there’s a corollary between growing up poor in this country and having tons of pets but we didn’t have a lot of money and I grew up in a house that had countless cats and dogs, ferrets and cockatiels. My mom had a macaw and snakes. I’ve always wanted to try to know them intimately, and when it comes to representing them in the novel, not to exploit them, not to just use them as a plot point, but to really develop them each as characters. So I give the cougar a backstory with one eye, and a mother who was raised in captivity who helped the cougar eat his siblings when he was a cub. It was important for me to get all of these animals involved, and then when the novel allowed, to really develop each one of them as a character.

Rumpus: Bellum’s character is based on your former sister-in-law who allegedly had an affair while away at war. You’ve stated that your development of characters is an attempt to “try to right them by rewriting them.” Was this a satisfying exercise to rewrite your former sister-in-law through Bellum’s character?

Nicorvo: I think I would be careful to say that it’s helped me to understand her situation. But writing about Bellum didn’t really teach me anything about my brother’s ex-wife because I try to be very careful about the line separating the real people in the world who might inspire me to write about similar people. But in writing for so long about this character that shared some of my brother’s ex-wife’s experiences, I developed a more general sympathy for all veterans, for what they go through. The great privilege and fortune we Americans have in an all-volunteer fighting force. My brothers and I, the three of us, at some point, considered enlisting as young men. I know I did a few times after September 11, and after an arrest at eighteen. I think most men from working class backgrounds do. And it’s not just men anymore; it’s women too. They’re blue collar, they have debts, they don’t have job prospects.

Rumpus: Or education prospects.

Nicorvo: Right. They don’t even know what a scholarship is. I had no idea what a scholarship was until I was mostly through community college.

I haven’t really learned all that much about my former sister-in-law, only to say that whatever happened with her when she was in Iraq and any infidelity that might have happened—they’re kids, first of all, they’re teenagers or in their early twenties. They’re plucked from their loved ones and from everything they know and put in an astoundingly hostile environment and expected to conduct themselves. It’s gonna forge incredible emotional bonds over there. And then to have to come back and reorient and reintegrate into some semblance of civilian life and home life and domestic life? It makes no emotional sense.

What I’ve found is that the military does a phenomenal job of readying our soldiers for conflict. It’s no secret that it’s Pavlovian conditioning, and the military has it down to a science. But they don’t do much in the way of reconditioning for normal civilian life or even military life stateside that doesn’t have conflict forever looming out there. I would like to see our military do a better job reconditioning its soldiers, trying to figure out ways for them to reintegrate into civilian life and domestic life.

Rumpus: Why do you care so much about vets?

Nicorvo: Why do I care so much about vets? [Laughs] I almost want to respond to that by saying, “Why does it seem like so many civilians don’t care about vets?” American society has developed in a way that makes it really easy to not keep our soldiers on the forefront of our minds. To think that there are tens of thousands of fellow Americans conducting wars in far-flung places is a little bit shocking, but because it’s so abstract, it doesn’t really make people care so much. I didn’t really care so much. It was only in spending all that time writing this novel that I came to care. I don’t think you can expect most Americans to do that. They have jobs, families, they’re working hard. But maybe what you can expect most Americans to do is pick up a literary novel, a character-driven novel and immerse themselves in that caring for a week or for a month, however long it takes them to read that book. That’s what I’m hoping my book offers.

Rumpus: So I’m a pretty sensitive eater. Growing up, my sisters used to use that against me. In the middle of a meal, all they had to do was say one gross word and I’d lose my appetite. You evoke the grotesque in this novel, and I found out quickly that this was not a book I could read while eating. What’s your fascination with fluids, bodily functions and foul smells?

Nicorvo: We’re all a bit conditioned to be squeamish. The idea that menstruation or passing gas are embarrassments or cause for embarrassments really bothers me and has ever since I was a kid. I was trying to challenge some of those feelings. It would be nice if we were all more comfortable in our own bodies and weren’t so ashamed of certain bodily functions. I always wanted to somehow represent that. I don’t think they’re represented enough on the page. It’s universal, it’s something we all do, but there is a kind of censorship that happens.

Some readers don’t want to encounter those things on the page, and so there are editors who will try to cut those things back. One battle that I had to fight is the tampon scene—the burying of it and Milton, the owner of the Standard Grande, wanting to use it as bait for a snare. I had to fight to keep that in my novel with my agent and my editor. They both wanted to lose it, and I refused. I joked that I should retitle the novel The Tampon Grand. If it was just a matter of me wanting to gross readers out, I would’ve cut it, but I came to see it as a kind of stand in for the history of patriarchy and what most patriarchies have done to female self-conception and what a lot of women think about their bodies. And how that expresses itself so offensively to us, we in the West, when it comes to things like Sharia law. There are parts of Western culture that are absolutely represented in what we consider extremist ideas. Embarrassment about menstruation is one of them, and so there was that element that was very thematic, to demonstrate to the reader that in some ways, there is not a whole lot of difference between the Midwest and the Middle East.

There’s a lot of violence in the novel, and a lot of blood is spilled, and I didn’t want all of it to be bad. Menstrual blood is life-affirming, and life-giving, and it is a testament to conception and to creation. I wanted that through line there. At the same time, it was a plot point. Wild animals are hypersensitive to pheromones and they do have a sense of when other wild animals are in heat. So Bellum’s period is drawing the cougar. There was this element that was working on so many different layers that I refused to get rid of it.

Rumpus: Can you elaborate on these quotes by two of your characters: Ray, the private contractor, says, “You gotta find a way to keep open to the world, and the people in it. Even the people doing terrible things, maybe them most of all. Because as you know, anyone can do a terrible thing, you put them in a war zone.” And then Bellum echoes this belief later by saying, “You’ve got to find a way to hold onto the qualities that keep us open to the world and the people in it.”

Nicorvo: Wisdom is very hard and well-earned. It comes through trauma and deprivation. If you don’t experience those things, you have a hard time staying open to the world and the people in it. Our current president is a prime example. He’s a person who was born into privilege. I imagine that he did suffer traumas and deprivations, but I don’t think we’re ever going to know them. He certainly hasn’t expressed any of them, and he hasn’t fought wars. This is the problem with privilege—it closes you off emotionally. It curtails empathy, and when that happens, it’s much easier to close yourself off to certain groups and to certain people, to label people who do bad things as ‘evil.’

I don’t really believe in the concept of evil. I think we’re all capable of it. F. Bismarck Rowling, the chief operations officer of IRJ, Inc. is very much a character who is closed off, who is able to compartmentalize, who is able to not sympathize and empathize and stay open to everyone and everything. The terrible conundrum for humanity is that if you remain open to everyone and everything, there is a kind of emotional paralysis. If you empathize too much, you cannot act, which is what I’ve found in my life. And at the other extreme, if you don’t empathize enough, all you do is act. You kind of barrel forward without thinking or feeling. But there’s a spectrum and each of those individual characters expresses qualities of the other side of the spectrum. It’s really hard to be a leader and make decisions if you’re constantly trying to empathize with everybody. It’s a double-edged sword.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Evangelína, also known as Evy. Where did this character—a gay, female, Mesoamerican landman—come from?

Nicorvo: When I was in between community college and transferring to a four-year college, I sailed in the Regatta del Sol. I’d never been in a sailboat race before. I had an English teacher in community college who was racing from St. Petersburg, Florida to Isla Mujeres in Mexico, the little island off the Yucatan right by Cancun and Cozumel. He invited me to crew, and they didn’t care that I’d never been on a boat before. They weren’t really doing it to win the race; they were more in it for the experience. The race itself was a long story. We almost sank and we passed through a tropical storm. When we got to Isla Mujeres five full days later, I would not get back on that sailboat. So I just stayed there.

I met some young women whose father was the mayor of Isla Mujeres. They showed me around and I stayed in their home in Cancun for a while, lived in the city and made trips to Chichén Itzá. I fell in love with the culture and the people and saw some similarities between the influx of European Spanish and the resistance of the indigenous Yucatec Maya.

I fell in love with Mexico and the culture and came back multiple times. And when I started writing about the big multinational companies, and realizing that there needs to be a person who was gonna come and visit the Standard and make an offer to buy it, I thought, ‘Were there any women landmen?’ The beginning point of inspiration for me is thinking about and working against stereotypes because I think that’s where the drama is, that’s where the interesting characters are, that’s where the stories are. Even before I started writing Evangelína, I thought, ‘What if she were not a white woman? What if she were not a straight white woman? What if she were not a tall, straight white woman?’ I would come down to lunch and say, “Thisbe, you will not believe what I’m doing; I’m writing from the point of view of a Mesoamerican, lesbian landman, and it’s ridiculous.” And she would say it’s not and we would go about eating our lunch.

I tried to be very aware, the whole time I was working on this novel, not to subscribe to the historical tropes of plot that I think we, in a mostly male-dominated culture, resort to, which is like ‘the kidnapped woman.’ I was raised by my mom, who was a single mother, and her sister. I’ve always felt more comfortable around women. The men in my life, at least in the earlier stages, were all men I didn’t trust, for various reasons. And at an early point I knew that they were men that I wanted to grow up not to be. They weren’t role models so much as empty role models. It was only later after I went to community college and then college and then grad school when I just kind of fell in with men, mentors, who let me know that there were good men out there. And there was a way to go about living a life as a husband and a father in a way that wasn’t abusive. I think I’ve always harbored a mistrust of men. It was probably easier for me to slip into a woman’s point of view, and when I was trying to develop the landman’s character, I didn’t want her to be the norm.

Rumpus: Why did you set the final scene of the novel in a simulated Middle Eastern village in the middle of the Mojave Desert?

Nicorvo: I was glaringly aware, throughout the whole writing of the novel, that I didn’t have a war scene. All the war scenes happen in flashbacks because the characters are home. I was afraid of writing a war scene because I didn’t have any firsthand experience with it. But being a writer who acknowledges that fear, I feel like it’s my responsibility to confront it.

In my research, I found out about the National Training Center and the high percentage of troops that train there before shipping out to the Middle East. And then I watched a documentary set there called Full Battle Rattle. It’s an amazing documentary that centers on the people who work there. A lot of them are refugees who come from the Middle East, and they’re paid to be role players there. There are Syrians and Iranians. They come from all over the place. I felt there was an absence of representation of a character who comes on stage who’s from the Middle East, so I wanted to get these things in place.

After I started writing it, it seemed to make perfect sense that it was the place where this novel needed to end up, where Bellum could make the most life-affirming decision about how to reintegrate and reorient and have it not just be about her but about others.

And I loved the idea of being able to put the reader in a situation where the reader is not sure if we are in the Middle East or not. And that uncertainty is shared by Bellum. It’s also an uncertainty that’s one of the hallmarks of PTSD—to be out in the real world where the situation comes to feel unreal and you do not know where you are in time or space.

You can go to Wikimapia and actually see these little fake towns and installations. There are a bunch of tanks stashed out there. I used the website a lot, too, for places in the Middle East when I was referring to different air force bases or forward operating bases. Even though I didn’t have that experience first-hand, these resources gave me very close second-hand experience. I used that information to not just cover up my failings as a writer and the gap in my knowledge, but to amplify them and to make my individual failings somehow benefit the novel.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned your wife a few times, who’s also a novelist. It seems you have a wonderful collaboration.

Nicorvo: I’m incredibly lucky and fortunate. There are probably plenty of writer relationships that don’t work out when they get too competitive. Thisbe and I have never been through that for whatever reason, maybe because she was already established and had published novels beforehand. When she and I got involved, I was marrying up, not just financially, having been raised poor, but also aesthetically. She’d already published a couple novels and a short story collection so she was farther along in her career. I didn’t really feel like I was in a race with her at all, and I’ve always trusted her as an editor and a reader so it’s been a big help just to have her in house.

Rumpus: Your bio says you have “vulnerable” chickens on your farm. How vulnerable are they? Do you eat them?

Nicorvo: The hardest thing about chickens is keeping them alive. We’ve gotten pretty good. Our chickens are our pets. We have a nine-year-old hen, Beebee. We have a couple eight-year-olds. They haven’t laid eggs in years, but they stay around. Hawks have been a problem for a while, but because Thisbe and I are both home, and are pretty vigilant, we can spot them and usually chase them off before they start dive bombing. But we’ve lost three, in the past six to eight months, to cars on the road. We’ve got ‘chicken crossing’ signs up but people still hit them. Sometimes we can’t help but wonder if it’s not intentional.

I’ve only ever eaten one of our chickens. We’ve had two roosters in our time, and both of them were accidents. And the second rooster we had grew into a tyrant and started really hurting hens. We tried to get rid of him. We were outside of Woodstock, and the animal center there wouldn’t take any more roosters. So I thought, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to get rid of him, and if we’re gonna get rid of him, I’m gonna be the one to kill him because I raised him, and if we’re gonna kill him, we’re gonna eat him. We’re not gonna let him go to waste.’ So I found an old English recipe for Coq Au Vin, and spent a day dressing and killing him and cooking him up. It was a hard meal to eat, but probably the most responsible meal I’ve ever eaten.

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This interview was transcribed by Sara Acosta. Consultation on veterans affairs provided by Eric C. Sabadin, Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, US Air Force (Retired).

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Author photograph © Thisbe Nissen.


Beverly Paras Parayno was raised in San Jose by immigrant parents from the Philippines. Her fiction, memoir excerpts and author interviews have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Memoir Pool, Huizache, Warscapes and Southword: New Writing from Ireland. Parayno earned an MA in English from University College Cork and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A resident of Oakland, she is a freelance grant writer and development consultant for Bay Area nonprofits. More from this author →