I use a shortened version of my middle name—the name most people have called me over the years. In graduate school I used the name “K. Wesley Berry” when publishing academic writing because I thought that initial in front made me sound more professional, more authoritative, like C. Everett Koop, the Surgeon General in the 1980s. I published a couple of short stories as “Wes Berry,” believing the creative writing should have a less formal name attached. When I got a real job and gained more confidence, I dropped the formal and just went with Wes.
2. Where/how did you study writing?
I first took creative writing classes at WKU during my undergraduate years, studying fiction writing with Pat Carr, and later at Ole Miss with Barry Hannah, Darcey Steinke, and Larry Brown. The classes offered a break from academic research. I took them while writing my dissertation, a work of literary criticism. For a full year, I arrived at my university office around 4:30 on most mornings and tapped out dissertation pages until late afternoon, with only breaks for teaching and taking those creative writing classes. At night I wrote stories for those classes. Without the deadlines, I wouldn’t have written stories. Those classes provided structure and a real relief from the academic prose. And Barry Hannah was funny as hell. I’d sit in his classes with a goofy grin on my face. Hardly a dull word left his mouth.
3. What all have you had published?
Most of my publications are academic—literary criticism in scholarly journals, mostly dealing with contemporary American literature and environmental writing. Ecocriticism. I’ve published a few short stories in little magazines and some creative nonfiction as well. In March 2013, The University Press of Kentucky will publish my first book—The Kentucky Barbecue Book—a comprehensive treatment of Kentucky’s rich barbecue heritage. For three years I traveled all over the state and ate at over 160 barbecue places and interviewed pit masters and owners of restaurants. The book features over 100 of my favorite places and—I’m happy about this—includes over 40 color photographs.
4. What’s your favorite piece of writing that you’ve created?
That would be The Kentucky Barbecue Book and a piece of creative nonfiction called “Awash in Blood” that I wrote in graduate school.
5. Tell us a little about the publication process.
Write it. Send it out. Get rejected. Send it again. Persevere.
6. What advice would you give to beginning writers?
Glue your ass to a chair and write, or stand up and write like Thomas Wolfe (he was supposedly so tall he wrote on top of a refrigerator at times). Read voraciously in the genres that most turn you on. Don’t talk about writing too much. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just get it written. Then revise. Be willing to throw away stuff that you’ve written.
7. Why did you start writing?
Writing came as an extension of reading. I read plenty throughout childhood but didn’t write. In high school, I played football, ran track, and did a hell of a lot of farm work—which left little time for reading (and certainly not writing). In college I studied hotel and restaurant management for a while. We had to write a paper on our favorite food for a nutrition course. I wrote about “The Incredible Edible Fungi” and got an A+ on my essay about mushrooms because, I think, the teacher was amazed that someone in hotel and restaurant management could sling words together so well. I enjoyed the writing. When I decided I didn’t want to kiss ass the rest of my life—you know, “The customer is always right” attitude of the service industry—when I decided, to paraphrase Faulkner, I didn’t want to be at the beck and call of particular people who gripe because a server places their tea glass in the wrong place—I started studying literature. And then I started writing literary criticism for my classes and short stories for classes, and once you get praised for your work, well, that’s pretty addictive. After a while, I just started feeling lame when I wasn’t writing something. Scribbling a sentence that sounds good is immensely pleasurable.
8. Tell us a little about your writing process.
Despite my advice to writers in point 6 about getting black on white, I’m ponderously slow and meticulous. I fret over individual sentences. The barbecue book was liberating, though, because I was writing towards a deadline and working from audio files of interviews. That accelerated my pace, scribbling down interview notes and sculpting them into narrative. I work best in the morning. My brain turns to jelly by afternoon, as happy hour approaches. I can teach in the afternoon—the adrenaline helps me then—but the brain isn’t sharp enough to create much after noon. That’s not to say that I can teach with a jellied brain. These are just very different tasks—generating discussion about literature versus creating something new.
9. What is your favorite book/author?
That’s impossible. Favorite poet: Gary Snyder and his essay/poetry collection The Gary Snyder Reader. Favorite honest essayist: Kentuckian Wendell Berry. Favorite books: Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, The Grapes of Wrath, Walden, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Things They Carried, Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, Walt Whitman’s poems. Oh, and food writing: Anthony Bourdain’s work, Lolis Elie’s Smokestack Lightning and Peter Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them. How’s that for a title? I love Barry Hannah’s twisted short stories and idiosyncratic sentences. Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner captivated me for years—still do, but I’m starting to think my time is best spent reading about ecological catastrophe, food, and booze. Carpe diem means more when you read about climate change and mountaintop removal. Then you can seize it with tasty grub and beverages.
10. Free write anything you’d like to add.
Shameless self promo: I’ve recently started working with WBKO on a TV show that features local travel, food, and businesses, called The Local Traveler. Check us out on Facebook at WBKO Go Local. You can also see photos of my barbecue journeys on Facebook at the ridiculously named “Wes Berry’s Kentucky Barbecue Adventures.”
Learn the flowers