The Penmen Profile: Acclaimed Southern Writer David Armand

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

David Armand’s peers often compare the Louisiana native’s writing to that of William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Franklin, his southern heroes. Armand has three published novels, a poetry chapbook and a recently released memoir, “My Mother’s House.” The latter focuses on his childhood memories of his mentally ill mother and being raised by an alcoholic, abusive step-father. A finalist in many competitions, Armand won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, “The Pugilist’s Wife.”

In addition to teaching and spending time with his family, Armand is at work on his sixth book and a second memoir.

Have you always written?
Yes, I think so. I’ve always loved reading and before that, being read to. In fact, those are some of my fondest childhood memories. That’s not to say, though, that I think I was necessarily born a writer. I think artists are certainly born with the inclination to be creative, but circumstance is what ultimately creates them. I think all of my life’s circumstances have made me into an artist – out of necessity.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I always start out with an image. Something that just gets into my head and won’t leave. When it’s that persistent, I start asking myself questions about the image. For example, if it’s a woman standing alone on her front porch, watching a stranger slowly appear out of the woods surrounding her house, I start asking myself questions like, “Why would that man be coming out of the woods like that?”, “Why is the woman on her porch watching him?” and “What’s going to happen when they meet?” The answers to those questions start turning into a story and it just grows and grows until I hopefully end up with a novel (in the example I just mentioned, the answers to all of those questions luckily ended up turning into my first published novel, “The Pugilist’s Wife”).

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Well, I feel compelled to write every day. I mean, I have to do it, you know? If not, I get depressed, anxious, I start to feel guilty. So the biggest challenge for me is slicing out those bits of time in my busy day of grading papers, teaching, maintaining a house, paying bills and being a dad in order to make time to write. I try to write – especially when I’m in the middle of a novel as I am now – for about an hour a day, aiming for one thousand words in that hour, if I can. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but I try my best.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
After I finished my first book, I started sending it out to agents and editors. I got some interest in it, but nothing really substantial. I had known quite a few people who had spent years doing this with their books, only to give up in the end. I didn’t have the patience for that. So I started submitting the manuscript to contests, all the while revising the book each time it was rejected. I had also moved on to my second novel, keeping in mind the importance of always having a project to work on. Then one day I got a phone call from Paul Ruffin over at Texas Review Press who told me my book had won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and that it would be published the following year. That phone call literally changed the course of my life in ways I can’t even enumerate here. Paul passed away last year and I was so saddened by that news. He was a great writer himself and such a champion of literature. I hope he knows how many lives he’s changed for the better because of his dedication to the written word.

How do you market your work?
It’s hard, to be honest. But I have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account. I’ve done TV and radio interviews, have been interviewed for magazines like The Oxford American. I do a lot of traveling –speaking at universities, book festivals, that sort of thing. It’s hard to gain traction, though, to get your name out there without a publicist or a big marketing team, but I’ve been lucky in building a semi-small following, I guess. People recognize my name sometimes, or the names of books I’ve written. My strategy now is to just keep writing them and eventually more people will hear about my work.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I don’t know, honestly. I never really went into this thinking it would be easy. In fact, for me, I feel as though I’ve been very lucky in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who are still struggling to get even a short story published, let alone a novel. So I’m lucky in that sense, having found a couple of publishers who like my work and want to keep publishing it. That’s not to say, though, that it couldn’t all go away tomorrow. I never take anything for granted. But that’s a good thing. It keeps me on my toes, you know? I’m always trying to write a better book than I did before. I think all artists have to do that if they want to be any good.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Well, when I was a kid, I used to love adventure stories. Like Jack London, Mark Twain, Franklin W. Dixon (the guy who wrote “The Hardy Boys” series). As I got older, I started reading Edgar Allan Poe, then Stephen King. My tastes started to shift toward the macabre. When I was in college studying creative writing, I was introduced to southern writers like Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, people like that. I realized they were writing some pretty dark stuff too, mixed in with some of that adventurous spirit I liked so much about Twain and Jack London. Now, I just try to take all of those influences and write the book that I would want to read if I were scanning the bookshelves.

 If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
That’s a tough question, but I would say the top three books, ones that I would want to read over and over again are probably “Dirty Work” by Larry Brown for its beautiful language and compelling storyline about two Vietnam veterans in a VA hospital, sharing their life stories. The first time I read that one, I can remember having to sit down to collect myself for a good while before closing the book and putting it back up on the shelf.

Number two would probably be “11/22/63” by Stephen King. It’s a long book about a guy who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. It is so full of period details and a sense of nostalgia for that time that it makes one feel as though he lived there. The last two hundred pages or so are so riveting you literally cannot close the book until it’s done. I read it twice (it’s over eight hundred pages) and both times, I spent a good six hours in my chair reading those last couple hundred pages in a single sitting. It’s incredible.

My third choice would probably be “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. That’s another one I’ve read multiple times, and each time it bowls me completely over. His language is just some of the most beautiful stuff you’ll ever read, not to mention it’s about a father’s love and dedication to his son, so I could really relate to that as well.

Could I pick one more? “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck – just an epic novel, a classic. I could probably easily make a list of twenty books here, but I’ll just say that it’s so important for a writer to read. That seems so obvious, but I feel I have to say that simply because I talk to so many writers who say they don’t have time to read, and I wonder how they have time to write. It’s crazy. So read everything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, movie scripts. It will only make you a better writer, I promise.