Coffee and Questions with Author Jason Tinney

by Holly Morse-Ellington

Jason Tinney http://jasontinney.com/ is an award-winning fiction writer, musician, freelance journalist, and actor. His previous books are Louise Paris and Other Waltzes and Bluebird. His short stories have also been published in the anthology Out of Tune. Jason has been a contributor to several magazines, among them, Baltimore, Style, Gorilla, Her Mind, Urbanite, and Maryland Life. Since 2004, he and artist Brian Slagle have collaborated on The Swinging Bridge, a traveling literary and visual arts project. Jason co-founded and performs with the award-winning music groups Donegal X-Press and The Wayfarers.

His new book, Ripple Meets the Deep (CityLit Press), is a journey about characters grappling with life’s transitions told through various stories and a recurring traveling musician. I had the pleasure of sitting down for a cup of coffee with Jason at Common Ground in Hampden. Madonna’s pop hits were streaming through the satellite radio, but when Jason arrived the music switched, as if on cue, to the roadhouse-style music of The Highwaymen and Hank Williams.

Here’s what Jason had to say about writing, music, and Ripple Meets the Deep:


Let’s start with a writerly variation on a classic question. Do you prefer paper or plastic? Or, put another way, do you handwrite your first drafts or type them on the computer?

Paper. I need to handwrite it out as much as possible even if it starts as random notes. (He removes three black Moleskine notebooks from his bag.) A lot of Ripple [Meets the Deep] is in here. I enjoy going through these notebooks and crossing off sections as I add them to a typed draft.

So once you have your thoughts down, you switch over to the computer.

Yeah. What I love about the computer is the delete button. At a certain point, banish it. That part of the writing is the most rewarding part. When you have all these ingredients and you cut away the fat and find the muscle and bone. My goal with these new stories was to make them lean and fast.

What’s something you watch out for in your writing?

The double adjectives. The two adjectives side by side that say the same thing. (He laughs.) I didn’t know I was doing it until Gregg Wilhelm [Publisher, CityLit Press] pointed it out. It’s awful. It’s all a learning process, though.  

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician and an actor. What are some of the ways, if any, that performing in a band and on the stage has shaped your writing?

They’re all connected. Whether you’re writing short stories or nonfiction, or you’re writing songs or creating visual art—all those disciplines on some level are storytelling (He laughs.) Separating them would be too much work.

Do you find yourself paying more attention to the sound of words and phrases as you write? Or to other performance factors like rhythm and timing?

I am conscious of the sounds of words and the balance between them and, of course, the rhythm of how they are strung together. We have hardwood floors. I’ll be typing and I do this thing where I have a line I tap out. (He thumps his boots on the coffeehouse floor to demonstrate.)  

Most important at the end [of editing] is paying attention to the sound of words. There’s a difference between firefly and lightning bug. Was it Faulkner who mentioned this? Or Twain? They’re two equally great words, but you choose one over the other for its sound and rhythm. I’m not sure I always succeed at it, but I go out for it.

Isn’t going for it part of what highlights an artist’s uniqueness?   

You work with what you’ve got. I’m not a studied musician. When I perform with the bands, I have a lot of harmonica solos, and for me to get my head around the music, I have to tell a story, and whatever uniqueness that comes from that sound comes from this approach. That sound that Chuck Berry has—in part—is because he has really big hands. Or so I’ve read.

Ripple Meets the Deep. The title itself has a musical feel to it.

I give credit for that phrase to Doug Oxford. I was working for Maryland Life magazine and got to do really interesting stories, but I’d have all this material I couldn’t use. A couple of years ago I went ice fishing on Deep Creek Lake for an assignment. Doug, the ice fisherman I interviewed, taught me that the fish hang out where the “deep and the ripple” meet. I flipped it around. (He smiles.) It has a sound and flow that works well with the stories.

Life has a sweet spot that’s just before the drop off. How difficult, in general, do you think it is for people to manage these moments when we see a fall coming?

We all struggle with it, and we each have our own sensitivity to it or lack thereof. When these predicaments occur—say you get stranded on the side of the road—there are many ways you can respond. You can fix the flat or ask for help or sit on your luggage and blame the car or the weather. That all goes into a person’s character. You’re never going to change that character. You work hard at not being like your parents, and then one day you say something to your daughter and you realize you are your parents. You can try to be so in lesser or greater degrees, but you still are. 

How difficult is it for your characters to tow this line?

They’re dealing with these predicaments too. And I think you’re never going to change their characters either. I don’t know that it would be fair to. In the story “Ripple Meets the Deep,” the father could have a transformation where he spills his guts about the missteps he’s made as a parent—or different choices he could have made—but again, I don’t think that would be fair to the character. In “Salt Refused,” the mother says to the daughter, point blank: You want your children to make their own mistakes, not yours.

Speaking of walking the line, you make references to Johnny Cash and Kitty Wells and Faulkner like a true southern boy, but you are from Frederick, MD, and work in Baltimore. Where does the southern influence come from?

I gravitated to that music and literature early on. Faulkner, of course. Flannery O’Connor is a monster. She just blows me away. Larry Brown. Harry Crews, another monster from the South.

It’s more about an appreciation of a rural background, which is often associated with the South. When I was growing up in Frederick, it was an agrarian community. It was nothing to see tractors rolling through downtown Frederick.

A lot of the agrarian traditions associated with the South were very much a part of my upbringing. That sense of terra firma; that we are rooted into the landscape. We had country ham and sweet tea and all that stuff, too. I make killer sweet tea. I’ll just say it. But I can tell we’re heading south by the quality of grits. The grits get better the farther you go.

There’s an underlying theme throughout the Ripple stories that’s very much in the southern style of religion or spirituality. The fire and brimstone, the impending natural disaster cloud of tension over these characters’ heads. Tell me more about how these components shape the stories.

Religious beliefs weren’t consciously on my mind when I wrote it. These characters are at a point in their lives where they realize they’re living on borrowed time. They don’t have a lot of control. They think they do, but nature is one of the great equalizers. These characters are people who, maybe, at one point in their lives did go to church. And now they’re in this place in their lives. They’re older. Changes outside of their control are happening, but they’d like to think there’s some order to it.

Like in “Derecho,” Evan is not in his thirties anymore. He’s not old, he’s not young—he’s definitely in some kind of transition. With the stress of the coffee shop and his daughter growing up, he’s thinking too much. This storm comes in and it looks biblical. The character sees the storm and tries to put it into some context he can understand—it looks like something he saw in a picture book Bible he had as a kid. He’s trying to define an underlying predicament within himself that has nothing to do with the financial difficulties of his business or his daughter dating or this storm.

I found myself thinking about Greek tragedies and how these people are fated for disaster—maybe disaster is too strong of a word. They know what’s coming, but they’re also so blind.

At any given time, you’re simultaneously performing in a play, most recently, “Heinie Goochems,” performing with one of the two bands to which you belong, and writing a book. How do you make time to write?

Unless I’m on a deadline I don’t set a schedule. But I do write every day. It’s not that hard because I like to stay busy and stay sharp. It all gets done, but there are times when writing is the priority. I’ve had to bow out of playing with the band a couple of times. I missed a St. Patrick’s Day gig [with Donegal X-Press] because of a writing assignment.

How do you feel about endings?

I want them open-ended. When you’re in the middle of a transition you may be looking for the end, but I try not to have them resolved too much. This is the clothesline running through Ripple; that these people are rootless. They want to land somewhere, but they don’t see where they can.

The books that I like—the last page, that final sentence is a little nebulous. The ending should be the beginning of something else.