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Be the Change.
An interview with novelist and writing professor Inman Majors
By Bill Goodykoontz ('85)
The Millionaires is JMU Creative Writing Professor Inman Majors third novel.
Bill Goodykoontz ('85) interviewed JMU writing professor Inman Majors about his third novel The Millionaires for MadisonOnline. The book the story of two ambitious brothers, Roland and J.T. Cole, who rise from rural roots to amass great wealth before pushing their luck — and banking laws — too far.
"For someone who says he writes slowly — he's published three books in nine years — Inman Majors speaks quickly," says Goodykoontz. "But he says a lot, his voice filtered through a thick Tennessee accent." A Waynesboro resident, Majors graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Alabama. He told Goodykoontz and MadisonOnline about the inspirations for his novel, the bond between brothers and more.
Madison: The story, though fictionalized, follows closely the Butcher brothers, who brought the World's Fair to Knoxville in 1982 before being indicted for bank fraud. How aware of their story were you?
Majors: I lived in Knoxville when all that was going on. When I was a kid, my eighth-grade project, Jake Butcher was running for governor against Lamar Alexander. We had to pick … somebody to support. You collected articles on them in the newspapers and made an argument of why they were the best candidate. We were Democrats … so I started following Jake Butcher when I was 13 or 14 years old. I liked him. …
I always viewed it as a tragedy that these guys who had so much talent and did a lot of good things for the city, as well, ended on such a sour note. I always liked the Butchers. Now, I understand if I had lost money with them, I may not have. And I understand they did some things wrong. I've never known if they were just guys who got in over their head or if they tried to do things intentionally. I've never known that. I think there's little doubt that they did do some good things for the city, as well.
Madison: Did you research them?
Majors: I read the newspaper every day. I don't really have any inside scoop. I basically just used the story everybody in Knoxville, Tenn., would know just to create my own characters. I understand how fiction gets written, but when I write it's like I'm watching a little movie in my head. I just kind of write and transcribe what I see in my head. I never saw any real people when I was writing this.
Now, the plot line follows the real events. But the characters and what they say and some of the back stories, winning 50 chickens in a rook tournament, that's stuff that some family members of mine might have happened to them.
Madison: The rook tournament anecdote in the book - as a boy, Roland wins it, beating older men — where did that come from?
Majors: My dad won 50 chicks playing in a rook tournament. My dad used to move the barriers on I-40 before the interstate was finished and drive on it really fast. The book was a way for me to talk about some of the old family stories.
Madison: The novel is in many ways the story of brothers and how they relate. You have a brother. Are you alike?
Majors: We're very opposite. My whole life, everybody in my family has talked about how opposite my brother and I are. We're very close, but also competitive. I realized one time at a party, where there were 100 people, there's nobody who's more like me than my brother. Side by side we're opposites. But in a room of 100, by virtue of DNA and shared upbringing, we're the most alike.
Madison: The book is knowledgeable about back-room deals cut in bars and the like. Did you spend a lot of time in those kinds of places?
Majors: My dad was a long-time lobbyist in Tennessee. From the time I was a little kid, I spent time with legislators. When I was in grade school and middle school, my dad would let me skip school two or three days a year to come down to the legislative session with him. I'd just hang out and ride the escalators and go out to lunch and sometimes go to dinner with my dad. I was just always around politicians. I went to college at Vanderbilt — Dad had by that time moved to Nashville, and was there full time — so I'd go out to dinner with him then. Then when I got out of grad school, I couldn't find a job teaching, so my dad lined me up with a job at Jimmy Kelly's steakhouse, which was the inspiration for Rooney's (in the novel), which is where all the politicos hang out after the session. … I think a lot of stuff was sort of intuitive. I'd just been around it.
Madison: With the collapse of the economy and the public mood, it's a good time to have a book out about bankers breaking laws. Is that just a happy accident?
Majors: When I started the book five years ago, the financial world was in good shape and the notion we'd experience a recession like the one we're in now seemed pretty far-fetched. So I just got lucky in that regard — I sure wasn't prescient, as my 401K can attest. As far as the timeliness of the book's release, the good news is I've written a book that seems to coincide plot-wise with a lot of what we're reading in the paper, so there should be a natural interest in readers. The bad news is everyone is too broke to buy a book.
Madison: Is money always a good topic to write about?
Majors: I think money is always good fodder for stories, but it's less about the money itself and more about the types of people who can make it, or give the illusion of making it. Most of us don't feel that confident or savvy when it comes to business or investments, so we are naturally interested in these alchemists who seem to be able to turn everything they touch into gold. We want to be near them and read about them, hoping that some of that magic dust will rub off on us. And I think we're interested in ambitious people and risk takers in general, and most people who have made their own money (and not inherited it) have ample qualities of ambition and derring-do. In short, we like reading about rich folks when they're doing well in the hopes that we can learn something from them. And we like reading about them when they fail even more, as it allows for that very human moment when we say, "Ha, I knew you weren't so smart."
But in general I'm not interested in reading about people who want to make money because they are greedy, and much more interested in people who want money because of what it can bring, namely power and prestige.
Bill Goodykoontz ('85) is the film critic for The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix, and chief film critic for Gannett.
Madison: What's your writing process like?
Majors: I'm not fast. If I write Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 pages a week during the school year is good for me. I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I don't write then. And then during the summer I turn in 15 pages a week. It adds up, but I'm not that fast. I've published three books in nine years now, but I started that first book way before it got published. I'm hoping to get faster. I'm hoping the next one I'm writing, a short comedy, hopefully I'll get it done in two years.
About the Interviewer: Bill Goodykoontz ('85) is the film critic for The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix, and chief film critic for Gannett. He lives in Chandler, Ariz., with his wife, Susan, four children and assorted rodent-type pets, as well as a parakeet. Read his blog at goodyblog.azcentral.com, and follow him on Twitter at goodyk.
About the Professor: Inman Majors is a writing professor. The Millionaires is his third novel, after Swimming in Sky in 2000 and Wonderdog in 2004.