Fighting the pull of poetry, this poet finds his muse in the military's role in his life in latest novel


Jay Baron Nicorvo’s debut novel, “The Standard Grand,” centers on a group of veterans — each damaged by his or her experiences in the military — who form a community in Catskills. When a multinational company attempts some subterfuge in order to buy the land on which their camp is set, the veterans’ fragile ecosystem is sent into disarray. Nicorvo explores the fallout as individuals seek a new way forward in the absence of their comrades.

In this e-interview, Nicorvo — who lives on a farm outside Battle Creek, Mich., with is wife, their son and about a dozen chickens — discusses the personal story underpinning the novel, the nature of hell and its importance to his story, and his move from poetry to prose — and what might come next.

Q: Tell me about the origin of this story. What led to your interest in crafting a story focused on troubled vets?

A: I grew up hardscrabble in working-class Jersey and then Florida. Don’t know my dad. Mom’s clerked at a 7-Eleven for 30 years now. She’s 72 and can’t afford to quit. For poor people in this country, the military’s always an option. A job prospect, and far more accessible than college.

Twice before I turned 25, I came this close to enlisting. Once after a drug arrest at 18 — my first and last — and again after 9/11. But I had other options. My brother’s first wife didn’t though and, after they eloped, off she went to drive trucks for the Army in Iraq at the start of the surge. I had a tough time resolving why my sister-in-law was fighting our wars, instead of my brothers or me — a generation ago it would’ve been us. (Our father was drafted into Vietnam.) The war took a severe toll on her. My novel is, I suppose, something of an apology, a way for me to say, “I’m sorry it wasn’t me.”

Q: The novel is much concerned with the forging of tenuous relationships in the face of deeply individual damage. As you thought about the interactions among your characters, what were the challenges of depicting these relationships?

A: There’s a line in the novel, a rejoinder offered when one character tells another to go to hell: “Hell’s not somewhere you go, sweetheart, hell’s someone you become.” Now there is a novelist in your neighborhood, a national treasure, dear Ms. Marilynne Robinson, who like Jacob wrestles with such ideas on a regular basis. The notion that hell’s not a place is heresy in some circles, but it’s not new. You hear it in Miltion’s Paradise Lost when Satan, yammering to himself, says, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.”

A number of times in my life I’ve felt like hell. It’s a symptom of suffering deep individual damage, as you say — struggling through child abuse, drug use, a run in with the law and it’s epic aftermath, crushing debt, one leading directly to the next along the narrative arc of my life. The driving force behind all this was the poverty I was raised in, and in each of those living hells — which feel eternal while you’re in them — I managed to struggle free, only to encounter the next struggle. That’s life.

The saving grace is other folks. I don’t mean a party; I hate parties. And I don’t necessarily mean the family you’re born into. One thing my deadbeat dad taught me, at a young age, is that all our relationships are tenuous, to use your word. That’s a secret, I’ve found, to good storytelling — the brutal acknowledgment that our ties to one another, and to the world, can be severed in any interaction, given the right, or wrong, set of circumstances.

Q: I found myself thinking about the ways language connects and divides us — whether different languages or specific jargon are in play. Talk about your approach to the characters’ shared (and unshared) language and what experience you were crafting for readers who encounter that language.

A: I wanted “The Standard Grand” to be something of a stand-in for America. The America I know and love best is a righteous muddle. Like most Americans, I’m a mutt, and English is a mongrel tongue. That’s partly what makes it so hearty. Diversity — linguistic, cultural, genetic — engenders survival on our planet. Our staying power is dependent on this, whether we acknowledge it or not. The hard part is maintaining some union in the face of all this difference. Same goes for the novel, though on a far smaller scale. You get too many characters squabbling in different registers, and the thing starts to feel, and sound, like a Babel guidebook. Then there’s the danger of the whole listing thing come crashing down, but that can add to the drama.

In order to keep a novel like mine from falling to pieces, it helps to have a good ear and to be a decent mimic. Thisbe, my wife, can’t tell the difference between my meow and the cat’s. I low at the dairy cows on our road as I jog by, and I get answers. I squeak at hummingbirds and caw at crows. I’m fluent in many dialects of chicken. We’ve got 15 hens, all named, all different breeds, and I can pretty much identify them by their voices — which are all subtly different if you listen. When I’m trilling at Punny Chunny Conghi, who’s a Dorking, I don’t use the Faverolle squawk of Yabsera, who’s a sweetheart. In the end, I wanted to write a raucous, mixed brood of a novel, because that’s democracy.

Q: Tell me about the transition from poetry to fiction — and about being half of a two-writer family.

A: I’m a card-carrying PA member — Poets Anonymous — ever in danger of relapse, so in my fiction I’m always fighting the pull to make music instead of making sense. The best writing does both at the same time, and some believe it’s also the fiction writer’s responsibility to tell a good story. It’s hard to work on the levels of the syllable, the sentence, and the story, all at the same time, while also trying to bring characters vividly to life, but I’m pattern obsessed. I’ve found the novel to be the most challenging form I’ve encountered. The level of difficulty is what makes the novel endlessly engaging. It took me 20 active years — and three finished but failed attempts — to figure out how to write a publishable novel without compromising what integrity I’ve got left.

And I’m not alone. Just because you do it once doesn’t mean it gets much easier. My wife, Thisbe Nissen, has published two novels. Now you might think her third would’ve faced less resistance, but you’d be wrong. She’s got a new novel coming out in January, “Our Lady of the Prairie,” set in a fictionalized Iowa City, and it took her 14 years to write. She and I were struggling, on our own, together. Willingly working hard alongside someone you love makes this trying world worthwhile, I’ve found, and even occasionally enjoyable.

Q: What will you be working on next?


A: Shortly before St. Martin’s bought “The Standard Grand,” which centers around a number of characters dealing with the fallout of trauma, I was diagnosed with PTSD. Sometimes I joke my disorder was caused by the novel, but that’s just me being flippant, a way to distract from the difficulty of facing my own age-old traumas. So, having finally solved the novel, I’m deserting the form for the time being to try my hand at a memoir. If that doesn’t work, I’ve always wanted to become a potter.

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