Interview with J.D. Wilkes
Great news! We have signed a new novel! It is called The Vine That Ate the South and is a mesmerizing fantasia that incorporates vampire cults, exorcisms, and the Bell Witch of Tennessee, as two friends embark on a surreal, Homeric voyage that strikes at the very heart of American mythology.
The Vine That Ate the South is by debut novelist J.D. Wilkes, the charismatic frontman of Th' Legendary Shack Shackers, and accomplished harmonica and banjo player, who Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys calls “the last great Rock and Roll frontman.”
The novel takes place in a forgotten corner of western Kentucky in a haunted forest referred to locally as "The Deadening," where vampire cults roam wild and time is immaterial. Our protagonist and his accomplice—the one and only, Carver Canute—set out down the Old Spur Line in search of the legendary Kudzu House, where an old couple is purported to have been swallowed whole by a hungry vine. Their quest leads them face to face with albino panthers, Great Dane-riding girls, protective property owners, and just about every American folk-demon ever, while forcing the protagonist to finally take stock of his relationship with his father and the man's mysterious disappearance.
Following is an interview with Wilkes about The Vine That Ate the South, Southern culture, and the intersection between music and fiction writing.
Q: You are the frontman for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a member of The Dirt Daubers, and are an accomplished banjo and harmonica player. You make your living as a musician—which I imagine was very hard to get to that point—and have opened up for the likes of Robert Plant, The Black Keys, and Hank Williams III. Legendary Shack Shakers just wrapped a tour with The Reverend Horton Heat. Can you talk about how your music intersects or corresponds with your novel?
JDW: I’ve always written tunes about my homeland in Kentucky, the folklore and the colloquialisms that make us unique and interesting. The novel just weaves these stories together in a way that, hopefully, is just as lyrical and interesting.
Q: How did you actually begin writing The Vine That Ate the South?
JDW: I was touring Norway when I began writing. The road from Oslo to Bergen takes you deep into mountain caves where you can spend thirty minutes at a time in darkness. I cracked my laptop open for a light source and started waxing poetic about home and the things I missed. Four years later I put the finishing touches on the book and started wondering if perhaps it was the “Middle Earth”-like surroundings of Norway that sent me in the direction of fantasy, albeit a “southern fantasy.”
Q: One of the episodes from the Protagonist’s childhood involves him attending a Christian school complete with tent revivals, speaking in tongues, and exorcisms. I read in an interview that you actually attended a religious school and walked in on an exorcism yourself. Can you talk about that experience?
JDW: Much of this novel deals with faith and the issues of being “Christ haunted,” as Flannery O’Connor calls it. My time spent at the Christian school shaped me in strange ways, but I’ll always appreciate the time I spent there. I remain fascinated with religion and the big issues of God and faith. I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater, as many have. I think it’s important to stay open-minded and fascinated with the mystical elements of life, even when they’re misinterpreted by well-meaning, simple, country folks.
Q: The book incorporates everything from folklore to hear-say, and as such, there are many stories within stories. Your novel seems to be a celebration of the American Tall Tale in the Southern storytelling tradition. Your music, too, especially your banjo and harmonica playing, seem to be not simply creative expression but a means of preserving tradition. Do you see these folk traditions—from storytelling to music—as at risk in contemporary society?
JDW: Yes, I’m scared that the Internet and smart phones will be the undoing of our organic storytelling tradition. I love all the various “regionalisms” that have grown up naturally from coast to coast, and worldwide, too! So I’m not just interested in southern stories, but northern and western folklore and dialects as well. I think it’s a shame the way these beautiful differences, which vary not just from region to region but county to county and even holler to holler(!), are being whitewashed over by an iconoclastic Industrial Complex.
Q: You incorporate these fantastical elements into the story, from vampire cults to the Bell Witch of Tennessee, and the Sin Eater. How do you see folktales merging with comics or pop entertainment or pulp writing?
JDW: I think there’s no need to mine the depths of Medieval fantasy or even manufactured comic book stories when there is a rich source of fantastic characters in our own back yard. I think the rewards are richer when you tap into a society’s buried memories, conjure old archetypes and remind Americans that we have our own rich, authentic culture. Hollywood would be smart to tap into these dormant memories and set this phenomenon loose.
Q: Juxtapoz Magazine said about your music that “JD convey(s) the dark and twisted underbelly of a country steeped in contractions.” This comment struck me as particularly spot-on with this novel as well. The protagonist, while possessing a deep-seeded love for his home, also has a keen eye for the everyday contradictions that exist in the world around him. I find myself that I’m not able to describe a place very well while I’m living there, but after I’ve left and am removed from it a bit I’m much more capable of describing it. Are these contradictions or observations things you’ve always been aware of, or do you feel that your eye has been sharpened by the extensive traveling you do?
JDW: I’ve always had an eye for these contradictions, but traveling has probably heightened that awareness, yes. However, as a gadabout musician, I’ve discovered that contradiction and hypocrisy are not unique to the religious south. I see it everywhere! Therefore, I think my book could be read as a universal story, not just as a “southern tale.”
There was no need for me to get away from Kentucky in order to see it again in new light and report on it. I’ve always been fascinated by the old songs and stories. I think it’s more the free time that band life has afforded me that allows me to contemplate its contradictions in real time.
And one thing that I’ve come to realize is that the south, being a historically agrarian area and climate, has summoned to itself over time a beautiful mix of simple folk who are tied to the land. Tied to the land like most of us today are tied to our stupid phones.
Therefore Religion and faith factor more in life when one is reliant upon the elements for survival. Superstitions from the past remain in place too, for better and for worse, so there’s a stubbornness to hold true to tradition down here, even when technology offers an update. But the flashier these magpie attractions get, the harder it is to keep alive the songs, dialects and folklore that I find interesting as an amateur anthropologist. I hope my book will help breathe life into these things we risk losing forever.
You can now pre-order your very own copy of The Vine That Ate the South now.
If you are a bookseller, librarian, or a critic interested in receiving an advance reading copy of the novel, please contact us.