Talk Show 17 with Jennifer Haigh, Margot Livesey, Mark Jude Poirier, Stacey Richter, Daniel Wallace

Jaime Clarke


Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, The Condition, was published in July by HarperCollins. Her first, Mrs. Kimble, won the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award; her second, Baker Towers, the PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Ploughshares, Five Points, Good Housekeeping and many other periodicals. Visit Jennifer at

Margot Livesey grew up in a boys’ private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught, and her mother, Eva, was the school nurse. After taking a B.A. in English and philosophy at the University of York in England she spent most of her twenties working in shops and restaurants and learning to write. Her first book, a collection of stories called Learning By Heart, was published by Penguin Canada in 1986. Since then Margot has published six novels: Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, Eva Moves the Furniture, Banishing Verona and The House on Fortune Street. Visit Margot at

Mark Jude Poirier is the author of the novels Modern Ranch Living and Goats, as well as the short story collections Unsung Heroes of American Industry and Naked Pueblo. He is also the editor of the anthology Worst Years of Your Life: Stories for the Geeked-Out, Angst-Ridden, Lust-Addled, and Deeply Misunderstood Adolescent in All of Us. Poirier also wrote the screenplay for Smart People and is adapting Alice Munro’s short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage for film.

Stacey Richter is the author of My Date with Satan and Twin Study. Her stories have been widely anthologized and have won many prizes, including four Pushcart prizes and the National Magazine Award. Find out more about her work at

Daniel Wallace is the author of Big Fish and most recently Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. Visit Daniel at

––Name a memorable road trip

Haigh: The summer after I graduated college, my boyfriend, whom I’ll call J, invited me to drive down to visit his grandparents, who had recently retired to Lake City, Florida. He neglected to tell me that we wouldn’t be traveling in his car, but in a twenty year-old Winnebago camper his grandparents had left behind in Connecticut when the bank foreclosed on their chicken farm.

Livesey: The first summer I visited the States I traveled round first by bus and then hitching. After a rather peculiar bus trip from New York to Chicago—everyone on the bus seemed to be in flight from something—I hitch hiked alone from Dayton, Ohio—I am no longer sure why I was in Dayton—to Athens, Georgia.

Poirier: Tucson to Puerto Penasco, Mexico. (Rocky Point). 1984-1987. During those years my friends and I made this trip several times. In my memory, they all blend together.

Richter: One fall, I convinced my friend Peter to accompany me on a drug-themed road trip from California to Connecticut, where we were in college. I had just read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and was impressed by the way Thompson was committed to being fucked-up all the time, like an athlete, but of dissipation. When I brought up the idea with Peter he just said okay. This, in retrospect, seems strange. Peter was more easy-going than most of my friends, but he was also less bored and seemed to have more to live for than a lot of us (me), and what I was proposing had a sort of suicidal tinge to it. But I guess it sounded fun. And at that time, we saw no reason why we wouldn’t live forever. We hadn’t read the chapter on Thanatos yet.

Wallace: I took a year off between high school and college. There were a lot of good reasons to do this, but the main one was that I didn’t get into any of the colleges I thought I wanted to go to: Columbia, Georgetown, Brown. I did get into my backup, Southwestern at Memphis, but I had no intention of going there. I only applied because I knew I could get in and my guidance counselor made me, suspecting, perhaps, that I was over-achieving with these other schools. I was not a good student, and, in fact, just graduated from college this year: I’m a class of 2008 University of North Carolina alumni. It feels good. Anyway, at the end of that year (1978) my girlfriend Mary and I decided to drive through America, beginning in Birmingham, Alabama where we were born and raised, and heading west.

––What kinds of preparations were made in advance of the trip?

Haigh: Nobody had driven the camper in fifteen years, but J had spent part of the summer tinkering with the engine and had managed to get it running.

Livesey: I prepared by reading Kerouac’s On the Road and buying a map. Neither were of much help although I did encounter people who seemed very much like Kerouac characters. There were some hippies who were going to Florida in a hearse who invited me to join them several times. The fact that a mattress lay where the coffin once would have put me off.

Poirier: My friend Elaine’s mother threw blankets and sweatshirts into the car before we rolled out of her driveway. It was like 100 degrees, honestly, so I don’t know why she insisted on blankets and sweatshirts.

Richter: We pooled all of our money and subtracted what we needed for gas and food. The rest went for the drugs. We ended up with a couple hundred bucks, which was enough for a little cocaine (entirely consumed the first night), a bag of pot, and a few doses of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which we ate at Disneyland.

Wallace: We were well-prepared. I’d been working that year, living at home, so I had nice chunk of change. We bought a tent and a stove and sleeping bags. We bought food. The car: one of the first Toyota Corollas anybody in Alabama had ever seen. What a great car that was. It had two doors, an engine, brakes, accelerator, headlamps—the essence of carness, and no more. There wasn’t even a radio. We packed and re-packed using scientific space-consolidation measures, which included removing the backseat. But there still wasn’t enough room, so we had to buy a rooftop carrier. We spent a lot of time planning our route as well. Deciding whether to go south, through New Orleans, or straight across on I-40. We took I-40. We had six weeks, and we wanted to get out to California quick, take Highway 1 to Oregon, then to Montana and down to Indiana, where Mary had a friend. From there we’d go to D.C. to see my sister, and then trickle on back to Alabama. We knew where we were going to be every single night. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, but we pretended it was going to. Planning a trip is like writing a story in that way. It’s good to pretend you know what you’re doing.

––What were your expectations for the trip?

Haigh: The plan was for J to pick me up at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania. He had never met any of my family, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. My cousin was getting married that weekend, and he would be my date for the wedding. We planned to leave for Florida the following morning. The whole trip was supposed to take a couple of days.

Livesey: Having grown up in a place where ten miles is a long way I was completely unprepared for how large the US is and for how big the roads are. There were some rather scary moments when I was hitching on the interstates—one small person with all these huge vehicles thundering by.

Poirier: My expectations were mainly to get drunk, swim in the ocean, blob on the beach for a few days, not to think about the SATs, college admissions, or the C- I was getting in physics.

Richter: Being high, I expected to have a more interesting, fun time than if I were not high. If I’d been paying any attention, I would have noticed the words fear and also loathing in the title and thus surmised that I might be terrified or miserable much of the time. And I was! Though Captain EO was cool.

Wallace: I don’t remember what our expectations were. But it was the first time either of us had been completely on our own, far far away from our home and families. I think we expected to feel what it felt like to be free, and we did. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way again.

––Were there any disappointments along the way?

Haigh: J planned to arrive at my house the night before the wedding. He was often late, so I didn’t worry when he didn’t show up for dinner. Finally, around nine o’clock, J called from a rest area a hundred miles away. The camper had one and a half flat tires, and he was waiting for a service truck. “Can’t you use the spare?” I asked him. “I already have,” he said. He’d blown his first tire before leaving the state of Connecticut . I fell asleep on the couch waiting for him. A few hours later I woke to a crashing noise. J, pulling into our driveway at three in the morning, had taken the turn too wide. The noise was the camper’s front fender pulling our mailbox from the ground. We set out for Florida the following morning. After J’s grand entrance my father was in a foul mood. so we decided that J could meet the relatives some other time.

Livesey: How boring the countryside was and how similar the restaurants were. As a vegetarian I found myself eating breakfast for almost every meal. Also there were almost no places along the way where I wanted to stop and explore.

Poirier: Several. The first night, we arrived too late to find the beach where we normally camped, so we got drunk and ended up sleeping on broken glass and a community of fire ants.

Richter: Yeah. I wanted a grand adventure and this was not a grand adventure. The whole thing was surprisingly punishing—physically, emotionally, and mentally. I am no athlete of dissipation.

Wallace: There were lots of disappointments, but most of them were minor. I had never been fond of camping out, and the trip didn’t make me any fonder. The idea of sleeping outside, on purpose, still makes no sense to me. The KOA campgrounds we ended up in were full of mobile home campers and sunburned kids. Mary and I fought once, I can’t remember over what now, and when we stopped during the course of it so I could go into a gas station rest room she drove away and left me there. She was gone for half an hour before coming back to get me. It seemed longer.

––What is your single outstanding memory of the trip?

Haigh: Our mechanical difficulties were really too numerous to mention. The Winnebago broke down, on average, every hundred miles, most notably at the bottom of an exit ramp in Columbia, South Carolina, at the height of the afternoon rush hour on the hottest day of the year. We got out and found ourselves parked at an alarming angle, leaning heavily on a dilapidated guard rail, the only thing that kept us from tipping over a steep embankment onto a busy highway below. These were pre-cell phone days, so J walked to a gas station to call for help. “Wait in the camper,” he suggested. “You’ll be cooler out of the sun.” I did this for ten minutes, sure that at any moment a car would come careening down the ramp and into the side of the camper. Finally I climbed out and trekked a hundred yards in the hundred-degree heat, clinging to the guardrail, so overheated that my legs were dripping with sweat. I perched on the guardrail just in time to see a pickup truck roar down the ramp and into the guardrail, not two feet from the Winnebago’s back end.

Livesey: How generous everyone was to me. People bought me meals, told me their life stories, advised me where to go next, asked about Scotland, gave me money, invited me to their houses. I was amazed and abashed at how open people were.

Poirier: A creepy American dude with like four teeth and scraggly hair who had been living (hiding) down there for years offered us a VCR in exchange for my friend Melissa. He was serious.

Richter: I ran into my good friend Susan at Disneyland. She’s from New Orleans and neither of us lived in California. It was just the kind of utterly unlikely coincidence that can turn a little mushroom-addled co-ed to our lord Jesus. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

Wallace: This was in 1978, and the rock star of writing back then was indisputably Tom Robbins. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction (his first book) were very very hot. We loved his books and by extension him, so we decided to track him down. Robbins was notoriously private, however, and his book jackets said only that he lived in small town somewhere near Corvallis, Oregon. We called directory assistance of every town near Corvallis (lots of quarters), and finally found a Tom Robbins in a little town not far from Corvallis. But we didn’t have an address. So like a couple of goobers we collared anyone we could and asked them if they knew where Tom Robbins the writer lived, and finally somebody did. The house was hidden in a wooden lot not far from town. Mary and I had picked a bunch of blackberries that afternoon. Mary took them and knocked on the door, and after just a moment it opened. And it was him. “We picked these for you,” Mary said. And he invited us in for dinner, just like that. He said we couldn’t stay very long, though, because the next day he was going on a tour of North American roller coasters with his son. I’m not making this up. He was a very sweet, charming guy. But I could tell that if I hadn’t been there he would have slept with my Mary. In a heartbeat. Even my being there wasn’t much of an impediment: when he looked at her his eyes glittered like the light from a star, and under the table I think he was touching her leg with his charming foot. Even then I wanted to be a writer. More specifically I wanted to be Tom Robbins, with this lovely house in the Oregon woods and about to go on a roller coaster tour of North America with the money I made selling something I’d written. I wanted to be him, but that night, for one night, he wanted to be me. After dinner we thanked him and left and celebrated by staying in a hotel. A Motel Six. It was great.

Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.