Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a wrecking-ball of a novel that attempts to give meaning and poetry to everything that comprises small-town life in central Kentucky. Listen: they are the ghost stories that children tell one another, the litter that skirts the gulley, the lines at department stores. — Two Dollar Radio (publisher)

“David Connerley Nahm’s Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky knows that all true stories are ghost stories, full of horror and want, distance and loss — the lasting specters of the tales we tell ourselves to mask the long truths that refuse to let us go.” — Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

LF: Tell us about Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky.

DCN: A little boy disappears and his older sister grows up to one day manage a non-profit organization in their hometown. There are snow storms, ghost stories, will contests, broken engagements and people lurking in the dark of a backyard at night.

LF: What drew you to Kentucky? Did you spend any time there while writing the book?

DCN: I was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1975 and lived there until I graduated from college and moved to Louisville and then Chapel Hill and now the Shenandoah Valley. You never quite get away from your hometown completely, so some part of me has continued to live there, though, all of these later years. While the only time I’ve physically spent in Kentucky since 1999 has been a few days here and there during Christmas vacations, I spent several hours there every day, or at least in the fictional version I’ve created in my mind, while thinking about whatever stories I am working on at the time.

While writing the novel, I would sometimes call Danville up on Google maps and hover above the streets refreshing my memory and discovering things that I’d never noticed before, in particular, how small it is. The fields on the edge of town, to my surprise, don’t extend on forever. The woods around the lake are not endless. Of course, this is only applies to the real world Danville. The one I’ve constructed inside myself for use in my work has none of these defects.     

LF: You have a Book Notes feature for the novel on Largehearted Boy (very awesome) — does music always factor into your writing process? Does it influence your short stories as much as it does your novel writing?

DCN: I always listen to music when I write. I enjoy sitting in silence when I want my mind to wander, but when I write, I find that music helps me focus. Otherwise I’d never do anything but sit and stare. Music also helps me cultivate the mood that I need to be in to write. In particular I enjoy listening to scores from 70s and 80s horror movies, especially the work of John Carpenter, another Kentuckian. It isn’t because I am a completely grim and ghoulish person. I feel a good deal of joy and love when I hear music like that. It reminds me of my childhood, watching low budget horror and science fiction movies on Sunday afternoons with my father. Additionally, I find the synthesizers used in the movie music of that era both comforting and mysterious and the dissonance between the two feelings is perfect for putting me in the mood to write. And it influences all my writing, whether it be a novel or a short story or even this interview. I’m listening to Dead Can Dance’s first album right now and will probably switch over to the Cocteau Twins when that is finished.

LF: I’ve read that you worked on Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky for fifteen years… what was that process like? Were there a lot of stops and starts? What was the longest period you went without working on it?

DCN: There was never a period of time that I didn’t work on it, but I didn’t open a blank Word document in 1998 and start typing until I ended up with the book as it exists today. Several of the main elements—the missing sibling, the trip to touch a skeleton, the snow storm—are stories that I’ve written and written over and over for years and years trying to find the perfect final form, but failing again and again. I had this pattern: I would write the majority of a novel, then decide I didn’t like it and then abandon it and begin another immediately, only to find I disliked this new work and abandon it and begin again. Some times I tried short stories, sometimes novels, sometimes poetry. It just took me a really long time to find the right way to tell the story and I knew that it was right because when I finished, I didn’t hate what I’d done. I put it a side for a few months to let it cool and when I came back to it, I still didn’t hate it. In fact, to my surprise, I really liked it.

For years I would outline things and plan what I was going to do and it took me a long time to realize that this wasn’t a natural way for me to work. In my opinion, my writing is best when I don’t plan beforehand, when I just get lost in what I am doing.

LF: What are you working on now?

DCN: I am getting close to finishing the first draft of a second book. I enjoy editing, so I’ll go through several drafts, but my hope is to have it finished, to the extent that anything ever feels finished, sometime early next year. That’s probably ambitious, but it is good to set a goal. I’m also finishing up several short stories that I have that are in various states of completion. Hopefully I can find most of them homes at some point in the future.

LF: Your LF story, A Mountain Where There Is No Mountain, has some similarities to your novel — a character who leads a quiet life, but is haunted by traumatic events of their youth — is that more of a coincidence or is that a theme you tend to explore in your work?

DCN: It is a coincidence that both the novel and the story have similar traumatic life events, the loss of a sibling, but most of my work right now deals with how people handle the reverberations of some past event—large or small—throughout their lives. And I do enjoy exploring small moments and quiet lives and the hidden expanses of emotion tucked into seemingly insignificant things. There are vast reserves of beauty and horror in the most unexpected places.  

LF: On your novel pub date you laid out some pretty great tweets about the emotion of the experience. One of my favorites was “Novels aren't about those who write them but about those who read them and love them.”  What, if anything, do you hope your novel is for someone who reads / loves it?

DCN: I don’t have a specific hope with regard to what my novel will mean to someone. Books, like songs, mean different things to different people. In fact, I very much want people be able to draw different things from what I’ve done. My only hope is that some potential reader who might get something from the book—whether it is some emotional chime from the story or purely aesthetic pleasure from the prose—finds it and enjoys it.

LF: In a recent tumblr post you wrote out a (pretty diverse) list of authors you like. Are there any who influence your writing more than others? Other than literature (and music), are there any other art / media forms that influence or inspire your writing?

DCN: Melville and Faulkner are inescapable Ur-influences on me (as they are for many people). When I was in elementary school, my parents gave me a collection of classics (edited for children) that included Moby-Dick. Between reading it repeatedly and watching the John Huston movie version, which, in the 1980s, felt like it was on TBS every other weekend, Melville was an essential part of my growing up. When I returned to it and read it for real after college, it seemed even more miraculous to me, as it does every time I re-read it. It is endlessly unfolding and endlessly interesting and what I think all great novels should aspire to. And I feel the same way about Pierre, or the Ambiguities and The Confidence-Man and just about everything that Melville wrote.

Like most folks, I read Faulkner for the first time in high school, the summer before my junior year. Though I read all the time, mostly Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, As I Lay Dying was the first school book that I remember loving. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Ivanhoe or whatever we were supposed to read, but they didn’t excite me the way that Faulkner excited me. It was the first time that I realized that there were books out there that did more than what I assumed books could do. I’d never read writing such as that and it, more than anything else, made me want to be a writer. I’d written stories and poems before, but it wasn’t until Faulkner that I began to think about how I was telling the story as much as what the story was about, or that I understood that the two are inseparable from one another. I was a Faulkner obsessive through high school and college. I finally ended up getting a little burnt out and I didn’t read Faulkner, or anything that was even seemed to me remotely like Faulkner. It wasn’t until 2010, when I began teaching Law and Literature, that I returned to him and reread those books, and just like Melville, was floored by how much more there was to his writing than I realized even in those days of my obsession.

In my post-college years, the writers who’ve had the biggest influence on me, for a variety of reasons, are W.G. Sebald, Cynthia Ozick, Javier Marias, Lydia Davis and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I also have a pretty deep debt to H.D. and Wallace Stevens.  

LF: Do you have an all-time favorite short story / short story collection?

DCN: First, I will note the impossibility of picking a favorite short story. Like picking a favorite song, there are many that I love and depending on the day and my mood, the answer is different. With that noted, the stories that come immediately to mind as personal favorites are “Dance in America” by Lorrie Moore, “Signs and Symbols” and “The Vane Sisters” by Vladimir Nabokov and “The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson.

As far as collections go, picking the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Dixon and Lydia Davis is probably cheating, though all three are among the best collection of pages ever, so I’ll just note that I often reread Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James or Night Shift by Stephen King for pleasure and comfort and when I want to feel excited about being alive.

LF: The term “ghost story” seems to come up frequently around the book. Do you have a favorite one?

DCN: I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you something that happened tonight. Recently, my wife and I moved out into the country. For dinner tonight, we drove to the edge of town and ate at an Italian restaurant in the Food Lion shopping center to see if it was any count. It was middling. On our way home, my wife turned off onto a country road because she wanted to show me our local post office, which was a tiny little building on the edge of a corn field. She also wanted to show me this towering old house, a monstrous brick mansion covered in ivy, set deep in the trees, barely visible from the road. Overgrown and crumbling, but still seemingly lived in by someone.

We rounded a curve on the country road and came upon an old bridge across a wide stream. There was an old man with a cane slowly passing from one side of the bridge to the other. As we approached I said, “Watch out for this guy.” My wife said, “I was beginning to wonder if he was real. I’m glad you saw him too.” We drew near and he didn’t break turn to look at us or break his stride or appear to notice us at all. He shambled and swung his cane and was passed and I turned to look at him. My wife asked, “Was his face just a hole?” I didn’t have the heart to answer.

Later, on our way home, we passed a barn with dozens of cars outside of it. Its doors were open and we could see large globe lights strung up inside. There was a hand-painted sign with an arrow that said, “WEDDING.” We drove on in silence and as we crested the hill and looked down into the little valley where our house is, the sublime light of the setting sun bright on my wife’s face, she said, “I sure hope the bride doesn’t have a million little bugs crawling all over her.” 



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