Beating Small Town Odds: An interview with Jason Headley by Lonnie Martin

by Lonnie Martin

From ad man to rock band, Jason Headley has always found himself doing the unexpected, but no role he’s played has been as exciting to him as that of soon-to-be published author. On October 1, his debut novel, Small Town Odds, is released nationwide.

The story revolves around Eric Mercer, who grew up in the fictional small town of Pinely, West Virginia and spent his youth wanting to get away. Though in love with Jill Dupree, he gets a different girl pregnant, and decides to stay. The book takes place six years later. Eric has a five-and-a-half year old daughter, Tess, who is the only thing in life he’s not bitter about. When Jill’s father passes away, she returns to Pinely, forcing Eric come to terms with love and life. Full of laughs and poignancy, it’s a stunning debut.

Lonnie Martin recently had a chance to speak with Jason during a visit to his boyhood home in Paden City, West Virginia.

* * *

Lonnie Martin:
How did Small Town Odds come about?

Jason Headley:
I used to be in a band. At first that was a lot of fun, but near the end of it, we wanted to do different things. So at night I started going home and writing for the purposes of not having to bicker over something creative. At one point I just started to write a story about a kid getting his hair cut. Then I started thinking about that kid and what he might be like if he was older. Then I started thinking about a story about what would have happened if I never left Paden City. That’s how it all started. I started thinking, ‘Why would I have never left town?’ Like, what if someone like me had gotten someone pregnant? That might be a reason someone would stay against their will.

LM:
Did you set out to write a novel?

JH:
Yeah. Once I came up with the format’a chapter for each day of the week, and a flashback chapter between each day’it made it easier for me to realize, ‘Okay. Here’s a set number of areas, ‘buckets’ as they say in the marketing biz, that need to be filled.’ Once I figured out how the story would go, it took off.

LM:
Were there moments of doubt, like ‘Oh my god! What have I started here?’

JH:
(laughs)
Oh yeah, super moments of doubt. At first the haircut story was chapter one. And then I wrote a chapter two which I was really doubtful about because it seemed like it really drug on. I felt like, ‘If I write a whole book like this, it’s going to bore me, let alone anyone else who reads it.’ Then as the book went on, things became a little more clear, until I got to the point right before Jill (Eric’s ex-girlfriend) comes in to the story. I was really freaked out. I didn’t know what to do with her because I’d built her up so much. At that point I completely stopped writing for about eight or nine months. During that time, I met Amy, my wife. Yet the book was always there in the back of my head. After a while, I decided I wanted to be the guy who wrote a book not the guy who’s writing a book. I asked Amy to remind me to write and she was very good about that. You know, ‘Oh, are you going to write tonight?’ And then I’d kind of feel guilty with myself and realize, ‘Oh yeah. I am.’ Once I said it to her, then I would go do it.

LM:
What’s the difference between the guy writing the book and the guy who wrote the book?

JH:
(pause)
Well, I’m married now.
(laughs)
There’s certainly a level of confidence. There are two big moments for me in writing this book. One is the night I finished it. That was an incredible exciting night for me. The other was when Chronicle called and wanted to make an offer on it. I haven’t been that excited in years. It was a sort of validation, I guess. But beyond that, an opportunity to maybe do something with my life that I want to do.

LM:
Have you always written?

JH:
Yeah. I read a lot as a kid. I wrote a lot of stories. When I moved to San Francisco, I got a job in the mailroom at an ad agency, and then got a job as a writer there. I don’t know where the writing skills come from. They must just come from reading a lot.

LM:
What kind of stuff do you like to read?

JH:
When I was a kid, I’d read anything. I was actually up in the attic yesterday and I found these books, like Mig Pilot. It was a non-fiction story about this Russian pilot who makes an escape from Russia. I read all kinds of football books. I went through a phase where anything that had a dragon in it was good enough for me to read. Then I started to get into more literature. They’d make you read stuff in high school and I was really surprised by books I’d like and books I wouldn’t. Like Heart of Darkness seemed like something I should like and I couldn’t stand it and Jane Eyre I remember really liking, which didn’t help me around this town. Then I discovered Richard Russo. That was the first time I ever read something that seemed like someone was writing almost for me, just right in line with what I think is funny and what’s good and what the scale of stories should be. I’m not into big epics. I’m much more about one person and how life affects that person or a group of people on a smaller scale.

LM:
Small Town Odds is pretty far removed from Mig Pilot.

JH:
Yeah. Well, they’re both about men desiring to escape, so the parallels are there.
(laughs)

LM:
Eric, Gina (the mother of Eric’s child) and Tess are a sort of non-traditional family. The book seems to say a lot about family and what it means to be a family and what family is…

JH:
It’s kind of funny. The idea of a traditional family is increasingly non-traditional. The old Leave it to Beaver family is going along the wayside, and I don’t think it was ever true. People got pregnant out of wedlock. People had kids. They put them up for adoption. I think it’s just much more healthy that people recognize that this ideal . . . you might as well stuff that up your ass because things are going happen in life.

LM:
You have one family, the Dupree’s, dealing with the death of a patriarch, and also there’s a man, Eric, learning to be a patriarch.

JH:
Yeah. I have a pretty strong relationship with my father. It’s an interesting idea to me because I think my dad has done a pretty good job. There are actually three father figures in the book and I think all of them are strong fathers in their own way. Mr. Dupree was in many ways the reason that Eric decided to stay in Pinely because of his relationship with Jill. Eric couldn’t deal with the idea of having his kid grow up without that kind of same bond. The same goes with Eric’s relationship with his father.

LM:
What did you do when the book was finished?

JH:
I went on vacation. I tried not to think about the book. Finally, six weeks later I pulled it out and read it a couple of times. That was depressing because there was so much work to be done. Overall, the core of it was good, but I had secretly, in my heart, hoped I would pull it out, read it, and say, ‘Excellent.’ So, then I started editing.

LM:
How long did you edit before sending it out to publishers?

JH:
I did another draft, then sent it out to about a dozen people…friends. Once I got their comments back, I did another draft or two. That was the draft that eventually landed the Chronicle deal. There were another four drafts before the one that got published. Each draft got less and less extreme. Draft one to two was far more brutal than draft seven to eight. But a lot of good things came out of all that editing. I had a great editor who helped me sort all that stuff out.

LM:
How did your relationship with Chronicle begin?

JH:
The way it’s supposed to work is that you get an agent and the agent takes your novel and shops it around to publishers and hopefully you get an offer. What happened with me is that my wife’s cousin’s friend’s daughter’
(laughs)

LM:
Is that a real relationship?

JH:
Yeah. She worked in marketing over at Chronicle. I got her number and called just looking for tips. She was nice and told me a few things. Then she said, ‘Well, I’ll read it if you want.’ I said, ‘Yeah. I want.’ After she did she sent it to the literary editor over at Chronicle. In the meantime, I got married and went on with my honeymoon. Two days after I got back, the literary editor called. He said all sorts of nice things about the book and that he wanted to make an offer on it. And so I shat myself.
(laughs)
So then I was in the enviable position of calling around to agents with an offer essentially in hand.

LM:
How did you go about looking for an agent?

JH:
I started with Chronicle’s literary editor who was really cool because it’s probably better for them if I don’t have an agent. Who knows? They could probably roll me over and do what they wanted. I told him I wanted to get an agent and he recommended four or five. I called all of them. I contacted a couple of agents of writers that I liked. Oddly enough, those people didn’t return my call.
(laughs)
Also, a guy over at Book Magazine had sent me a nice email response to one of the short stories I had been flogging around. It said, ‘I really liked your story but we can’t use it. Blah, blah, blah.’ I had held on to his email address ‘ so beware anyone who e-mails me – I hold on. I emailed him and said, ‘Hey, look this weird thing has happened. Do you know of any good agents?’ He sent me a couple of contacts as well, but I ended up going with someone that the Chronicle editor had recommended.

LM:
Since we’re on agents, why an agent? You had the offer already.

JH:
Because I don’t know anything about anything.
(laughs)
It’s just better to have someone who knows something about the publishing industry representing my interests. It’s in their interest to get me a better deal. I didn’t have an offer technically. Chronicle’s literary editor wanted to make an offer, but he never did because there’s the numbers game to play. So, I let the agent handle that. Also, the agent can handle foreign rights, film rights, broker the best deal on all these things, audio rights, and just be an ally ‘someone I can run things by. It’s just nice to have someone to call and say, ‘Fuck.’ And they’ll insert the correct wisdom. It’s good. I definitely, working with Chronicle, never felt like I needed to gang up on them with my agent because they’ve single-handedly been the coolest group of people with whom I’ve ever had any sort of working relationship. Even outside of writing.

LM:
After accepting the offer and getting and agent, what happened next?

JH:
There was a bunch of negotiating going on with contracts. Meanwhile, we had already started editing the book. This was all happening before I signed any contract. It was all good faith I guess. We went through a few rounds of edits. Then the contracts eventually showed up. We signed those, and sometime after that a check came… which was good. I met people, publicists. Covers started coming up. We went through a whole rigmarole about the title. The title isn’t the original title. I don’t know really. I’m still in the middle of it so I can’t really look at it with any perspective.

LM:
Is it overwhelming sometimes?

JH:
No, it’s not actually. It’s sort of . . . well once the editing gets done, nobody has any need for me. There’s very little need to have contact with the author between now and when it comes out. It’s kind of weird to put a lot of time into this thing and then not hear from people for a long time. You start wondering, ‘What’s going on?’

LM:
What is your involvement? For instance, do you have involvement or say in how the book is marketed or the cover?

JH:
Yeah. The cover. They ran a bunch of stuff by me. The cover we ended up going with was my favorite one that I saw out of the whole batch. They were very cool about that. At no point did I feel like, ‘Well, just shut up and let us do this.’ I have involvement as much as I need to, but the type of person I am, I just want to know what the hell is going on all the time. I try not to bother people, but I’m sure I do.

LM:
Are there parts of the process you still don’t understand even though you’re dead in it?

JH:
Yeah. I’m sure that when I get the second book out, it’ll be a lot less of an enigma and a little more, ‘Oh, I remember this from last time.’

LM:
Is there any fear of, ‘Well, this is my first book, I don’t want to be too pushy with all these things I want?” but at the same time it’s your first time out, so you want to make sure you’re well represented.

JH:
There are things that I have opinions about. Then there are things I don’t know anything about and I’m not going to worry about. I’ve worked in advertising for eight years now. There’s nothing more frustrating than someone wanting to get an agency to do what they do, a big team of professionals and then second-guessing every decision they make.
(laughs)

LM:
You recently spent a month on the road. What was that about?

JH:
I thought it would be a good way to have an intensive period of writing to get the next book kicked off.

LM:
Do you want to tell anything about the second book?

JH:
It’s about a husband and wife moonshining team set during the Depression and Prohibition. It’s going to be about what people do for a living and why they do it. Relationships. Perspective. It’s a little bit bigger scope than Small Town Odds because it’s going to take place over three years as opposed to one week and be written from different people’s perspectives. Small Town Odds is all written from Eric’s perspective. There’s bastard research I’ve had to do which I didn’t even consider at the time. You just start writing and you’re like, ‘I don’t know. Did they have windshield wipers in cars in the 1930’s?’ There’s just things like that slow me down.

LM:
Does it take place in West Virginia?

JH:
Yeah. West Virginia and Kentucky.

LM:
Small Town Odds also takes place in West Virginia. What is it about West Virginia that attracts you as a writer?

JH:
Well, I’ve been here longer than anyplace else. I know who the people are and how they talk and what’s important to them. I spent twenty-two years in West Virginia. Even though I moved away, I still like it and have a fondness for it. The characters, the people are more interesting to me.

LM:
Eric, the main character of Small Town Odds, has a lot of love for small town living yet also seems somewhat critical of it.

JH:
It’s like anything. Anytime you’re somewhere doing something you don’t necessarily choose to do, you become critical of it. I think Eric feels stuck, and as a result of that, he’s sees everything through hypercritical eyes. Some people might think it’s negative, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s accurate’seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t want to be there. It would be like taking someone from this town and sticking them in the city. They wouldn’t dig it. People living in the city who want to get out of there, they’d be seeing it the same way.

LM:
Is there anything in particular you’d like people to take away from the book?

JH:
I think the vast majority of people have something that they think, ‘Ah shit. If only this, or if only that.’ Even if they don’t have specifics they just think, ‘Well, I thought I’d be somewhere else.’ And so, I think this book is about trying to… trying to put that aside and live the life that you have instead of spending all that time thinking about the one you could have had.

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