Saturday, December 21, 2013

CD Mitchell: Fighting the Good Fight

Posted by on Sat, Dec 21, 2013 at 12:12 PM

"It's a misconception that I lost my law practice because of drugs," CD Mitchell said. "I didn't get involved with drugs until after I surrendered my practice. I went through a real bad divorce, probably dealing with alcoholism … just went through a major depression.

"I wasn't taking care of business, lost focus, and pretty much lost everything. And then I did get involved with drugs, and, yeah, wound up arrested and inside 201 Poplar … spent eight months in federal prison.

"When my parents took me to begin serving the sentence, I said to them:

"'This day is not a sad day for me, don't be sad, because I'll go in, I'll take care of this, and when I come back out, I'm putting my life back in order, I'm going back to college, I'm going to write. Judge me on what I do from this day forward.'"

And judging from what CD Mitchell did from that day forward, he's made good on those promises. He went to graduate school at McNeese State University in Louisiana and then at the University of Memphis, where he completed his MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction. His work there won the admiration of U of M writing instructors Cary Holladay and Kristen Iversen. And writer John Dufresne has called Mitchell's recent debut collection of short stories, God's Naked Will and Other Sacrilege, "bold, risky and wildly entertaining … [the work of] a writer just beginning to flex his considerable creative muscles." But writer George Singleton put it another way: "Maybe I'm not one to talk, but a psychiatrist with an extra doctorate in theology would pay good money to sit down with CD Mitchell."

I didn't have to pay good money to listen to CD Mitchell, unless you count the cost of an hour-long phone call to the author in Lafe, a town in northeast Arkansas. It's where Christopher Donald Mitchell lives today, and it's not far from where he was born: Paragould. He's 52, with three grown children, one of them a son whose leukemia has been in remission now for 10 years, thanks to the care he received at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

But to say that Mitchell has had a checkered past is, he'd be the first to admit, an understatement. That past does help to explain, though, a running theme throughout God's Naked Will: the sacred set next to when not full up against the profane. Cases in point:

In the collection's closing story, "The Reverend Elvie Simms": A preacher and church deacon one night play "grab-ass" in the baptism pool of the Deliverance Tabernacle church of Piggott, Arkansas, and 40 years later that deacon's prepared to make a deathbed confession before his faithful wife — if, that is, the preacher doesn't smother the dying deacon with a pillow so as to save the preacher's hide (never mind his soul).

In the opening story, "Clovis Clementine": On the advice of a Confederate colonel — actually, the ghost of one — poor Clovis (born cloven-footed and since exorcized) puts a pistol to his head and pulls the trigger, which couldn't put things any worse than they have been. Clovis' life as lived: hell on earth. Why shouldn't he, in death, join the dark forces in their eternal war against the power that made him?

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Elsewhere in these stories: A man (infertile) hires another man to impregnate his wife, and she agrees to the deal in "Stud Fee," because here's the deal: She's Catholic, and in-vitro fertilization, according to her understanding of church teaching, would mean that any eggs in a Petri dish that went unfertilized would constitute abortion.

And elsewhere: A couple — he can "out-Jesus" the loudest preacher, she's a minister's daughter — don't end up a couple at the close of the story titled "God's Naked Will," because the only way that unwed guy can be forgiven for the sin of ending his virginity in a Chicago hotel room is to marry the woman sent by God's Own Escort Service, and the woman's willing to say God-yes to his proposal. She wants a better life for her son, and the prospect of being the wife of a Pentecostal minister is okay by her. Here's her chance to open a beauty parlor.

And elsewhere: Another couple (virginal 21-year-olds in "Original Sin") fly out of Memphis to Cancun to be married in a clothing-optional (orgies encouraged) hotel called the Garden Lifestyle Resort, which sounds less like Eden than it does another kind of hell on earth, one made worse when the couple take in a favorite pastime among locals in the area: cockfights, to the death.

Which leads us to "Execution," where readers are witnesses to the scene inside a prison where a man is lethally injected after the rape and murder of a woman in the community of Delbert, Arkansas. In "Job's Comforter," it takes the patience of Job for a mother to continue to care for an adult daughter diagnosed an acute paranoid schizophrenic — caring even after a scene inside a grocery store, where that daughter slams her mother in the stomach with a 10-pound sack of potatoes. But there's relief in "Healing Waters," set in a ginseng-growing valley near Hot Springs National Park, where an ex-minister's uprooted faith is replanted in the symbolic form of a few seeds.

This here South: It's not the South as envisioned by another Mitchell: Margaret. "That South is gone," according to CD Mitchell's press release — with the wind and for good.

Mitchell can admire the carefully crafted language in literary fiction. But without a good story to go with it, he compared such writing, during our conversation, to the ribs he once had in Chicago: boiled, then slathered in barbecue sauce. Not the real thing, according to this author, who's run his own barbecue stand and competed in preliminaries for the Memphis in May barbecue cooking contest. He also:

Grew up on a farm, where he milked cows, churned butter, butchered and sugar-cured pork, pickled cucumbers, and canned jellies; served in his home state for seven years as a prosecutor and defense attorney (law degree from the University of Arkansas); raised coonhounds and worked as a track-layer and bridge-man for the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads; finished his boxing career — including rounds inside the Mid-South Coliseum — with a 45-5 record (38 knockouts); and acted outside the ring as a boxing promoter in Arkansas towns such as Springdale, Fort Smith, and Fayetteville. (Company name: Mitchell Productions Toughman Slugfest.) True to form, Mitchell explained his Toughman fighting career in the most matter-of-fact terms: "I was a starving college student with three kids and had a chance to make an extra $250, $300 a week."

But now that he's a writer, Mitchell's time has been spent teaching in college classrooms, heading workshops, serving as panelist at writers' conferences, and appearing at book festivals. He's expecting his latest collection of short stories, Alligator Stew (from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing) to appear early next year (the publisher of God's Naked Will, BurntBridge, has gone, according to the author, "pretty much belly-up"). And he's collaborated with Chicago photographer Jennifer Moore, who shot scenes in Arkansas based on Mitchell's stories. Fingers are crossed that the publisher in Germany who specializes in writer/artist pairings will publish Mitchell's and Moore's work in book form. (The two were already featured in Flying House 2012.)

Mitchell's also at work on a novel ("some romance, some mayhem, and other things too, I'm excited") and on a memoir, which he's titled This, Too, Is Vanity. But you can also find his short story "Execution" in a crime anthology published in England. And his story "Alligator Stew" was in the inaugural issue of the digital magazine Real South under fiction editor John Dufresne.

Turns out, editing is one thing CD Mitchell knows quite a bit about. When he was a graduate student at the University of Memphis, he worked in several editorial capacities before becoming managing editor of the writing department's literary magazine, The Pinch.

"I wouldn't trade anything for my time at The Pinch," Mitchell said. "It took away the mystery of submitting work.

"As a writer in an MFA program, you submit material to journals or editors, and 99 percent of the time what you get back is a rejection note that reads: 'Thank you, but this does not meet our editorial needs.' Reminds me of that Snoopy cartoon — Snoopy's travails as an author. He gets one of those rejection notes, and it says: 'You haven't sent us anything for months. This meets our current editorial needs.'"

"Being inside the editorial process at The Pinch, I got to be an initial reader. And it was amazing how many times we as editors read something, commented on something that stood out as really bad, and I'd have to rush home because I had something exactly like that in one of my own stories! I'd spend the rest of the night editing my own work based on comments in those meetings.

"And as an editor, you might have a stack of 100 submissions. There's always one or two or three that stand out. So you get to really see what makes a piece of writing distinguished. You get to see what makes it mediocre."

Which brings us to another matter: reader reaction to God's Naked Will. Family members?

"My children loved it … but other readers: One lady asked me, 'Well, son, have you just given up on your soul's ever going to heaven?' Another said, 'A preacher must've somewhere really hurt you bad for you to write something like this.' I just laughed.

"In that story 'The Reverend Elvie Simms,' a Baptist preacher having sex with the head deacon in the baptism tank … so many of the comments have focused on the extreme blasphemy of such an act inside a church. But no one realizes that at the end of the story, this very same preacher is about to suffocate a dying man rather than let that man tell a secret that would ruin the preacher and his church. The preacher even encourages the man to lie to his wife, against the preacher's own teachings. Folks miss that part.

"I've been raised in the Pentecostal church all my life. I've seen the hypocrisy, the lies. I've also seen some very, very good Christian people. But no matter how devout we are in our religion and beliefs, every one of us has a past … mistakes we've made. Too many times, people choose to forget the mistakes they've made and look down their noses at the mistakes others make.

"'The Reverend Elvie Simms' started out with a matriarch, not the head deacon, of the church and the preacher having an affair with the lady. The more I thought about it, the more I thought: That is so cliched, that happens all the time.

"And that Sunday morning I'd gone to the church down the street, and the preacher got up and started gay bashing. I'm not gay. I've been married four times. Divorced four times. Looking right now for my fifth future ex-wife.

"But I do believe gays have as much right to be miserable in their marriages as heterosexuals do. Why should we be the only ones? Perhaps gays might wish they'd never gotten the right to marry. I'm jesting, of course.

"Talking about readers, though … I've got one friend with an office here in town. We were talking about my book, and I told him about the opening sentence in the opening story, 'Clovis Clementine.' He said, 'You've got incest in there. I can't put that in my office!'"

The man had a point. But why hasn't boxing and the practice of law figured more prominently in Mitchell's writing? According to Mitchell:

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"Frederick Busch, a prose master stylist, came to the U of M as part of the River City Writers Series, and we hit it off. He used to be a boxer too and asked why I didn't write about it or about the law. I said writing about sports is problematic, because the guy always wins.

"Legal writing? There's a story about lawyers in my next collection, but I workshopped it at the University of Alabama, and they trashed it. That shook my confidence in the story, but it's a hilarious story. What they said in the workshop was that no lawyer would do this! It was amazing: how people base their ideas and opinions of what lawyers do on television shows. I'll tell you: There's nothing further from the truth."

The God's honest truth? According to Mitchell, it often isn't what he's heard from the pulpit:

"In the Full Gospel Church, there's speaking in tongues, casting out of demons, foot washings, and holy rollers. About the only thing we didn't do there was snake handling. That's for over in the Appalachians.

"Right now, what little of church I get I get from reading the Bible and from my writing. Occasionally, I go to church, but I have a problem with political churches. I'm sorry, I went to one church a little while back, and the Sunday school teacher was teaching that Obama was the Antichrist! I left. I've known that teacher all my life, respected him. But I won't be going back.

"I believe the Bible should be taught, but the Bible thumpers are wanting to become activists and go after this stuff. I don't think preachers should stand there at the pulpit and tell people how to vote."

Hemingway has been a huge influence on Mitchell the writer, and, as Hemingway recommended, Ecclesiastes can be a great source for book titles. So Mitchell drew from that biblical book for the title of his memoir, This, Too, Is Vanity — chapters of which have already been published or anthologized, three of those chapters nominated for Pushcart prizes. But far from the narrow understanding of that term "vanity," Mitchell wants readers to take in the wider, biblical view. As he said:

"The 'vanity' referred to in Ecclesiastes talks about all the foolish things we do — taking something or someone for granted, for example. My memoir is about how I took for granted that I had a lifetime to correct the mistakes that I've made with my children.

"When my son came down with leukemia, I realized that too was vanity: my taking someone else's life for granted … that you think you have a lifetime … but every day is a gift. So now there's not a time when I see my kids that I don't hug their necks and tell them I love them. And when I leave, I hug them again, tell them I love them, because you never know when you're going to see them again."

One place Mitchell wants never to see again: the drunk tank at 201 Poplar. The charge on May 6, 1996, during the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival: meth possession. And a lesson he learned that weekend: "Wearing a pair of Air Jordan tennis shoes into that jail could get you killed if you weren't willing to part with them."

In April 1997, Mitchell pleaded guilty in Memphis federal district court. His meth charge from the previous year had been lowered to possession of a counterfeit substance, which led, beginning in June, to eight months in correctional facilities across the South before being released to Greene County, Arkansas, where he was paroled from the state in February 1998. Five years later, he won a full tuition scholarship to McNeese State University, thanks largely, Mitchell said, to a story he wrote while incarcerated at Talladega, Alabama — a story that, in essence, changed his life. Mitchell had been living a life that could do with some changes.

"Although I was charged with possession of methamphetamine, cocaine was my drug of choice. I would swap the meth for cocaine or table dances for my dates or me at Platinum Plus or Tiffany's, where I was on a first-name basis with all of the strippers, many of whom wanted to steal my wife away.

"Yes, it's still hard living it down … the trouble I got into. It's been 15 years now … applying for jobs … trying to explain all these things."

Explaining not only to potential employers but before audiences.

"I have given readings and lectures at rehab centers on the difference writing has made in my life. I will never know how many job opportunities my past has cost me, but I continue to move forward every day without looking back. To do this, it is necessary to redefine who you are and what your life will be about. Writing has allowed me to do this. My past has allowed me to become a more compassionate teacher. I know what it is like to desperately need someone to have faith in you and your abilities and give you a second chance.

"Any person who has struggled to achieve has failed. I have failed miserably in many things. But the true test of character is not failure or falling flat on our faces but how many times we get back up again."

Words spoken from a former boxer. And now these closing words from the author of God's Naked Will:

"I've been a pall bearer five times and married four times. But I have never been a best man. That in itself is a story waiting to be written." •
CD Mitchell will be teaching a creative-writing workshop at the Delta Blues Symposium at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro April 3-5, 2014. Those interested in having their work critiqued should sign up early. And for more on CD Mitchell and especially on the inspiration behind his stories, go to the author's website at cdmitchell.net.

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