Set in the South

Tyrone JaegerDr. Tyrone Jaeger

 By Rachel Thomas '14

Catskills native Dr. Tyrone Jaeger has become a serious contributor to the Arkansas literary world since he came to Hendrix four years ago to teach creative writing as the Hendrix-Murphy Writer-In-Residence.

Jaeger's short story "True Believers" was recently published in the Oxford American magazine's Best of the South issue, and he contributes a new column on the magazine's website. His book The Runaway Note is set to be published in September by Shakespeare & Co., Toad Suck, a press founded and run by University of Central Arkansas creative writing professor Mark Spitzer.

Jaeger said Spitzer approached him about publishing the work, which Jaeger feels he can't quite call a "novel," through his press. Spitzer had previously published Jaeger's work before in the Exquisite Corpse Annual, the precursor to the Toad Suck Review, a local literary journal that Spitzer edits.

"He had started Shakespeare and Company, I guess it would be a year ago, so they had published one book, and the idea was that the aesthetic was embracing surrealism," Jaeger said. "They wanted to publish one title a year, maybe two eventually, and so he approached me about publishing the thing."

If the aesthetic of Shakespeare & Co. is embracing surrealism, The Runaway Note certainly meets the criteria.

"It is a novel in a way, or a novella, and you know it kind of embraces a little bit of folk tales and short stories from the Catskills," Jaeger said. "So there's a strand of the Legend of Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. So it's a story of sort of an alter ego, this kid called Tyro, who's writing a story, and his involvement with this young woman Marissa, who is the funeral director's daughter, and they steal the Devil's van."

"The entire thing, well every story, is kind of like a chase scene, them running away from the Devil. But then there are also these other pieces," Jaeger added. "In stealing the Devil's van they, intentionally or otherwise, are able to time travel, so there's this element of time travel through it. And it's very sort of absurdist."

Jaeger said he'd been working on two projects that eventually blended together and became The Runaway Note. The first was a series of epistolary stories called The Dead Letters, narrated by ghosts. The other source was a series of non-fiction pieces Jaeger had been working on about his own childhood in the Catskills.

"I had never really been happy with these non-fiction pieces that I was writing, and then when I moved here I read a book called The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which is by Arkansas poet Frank Stanford, and it's a pretty amazing book," Jaeger said. "It's 500-some pages of a single epic poem, with essentially no punctuation, but just very beautiful and very rollicking and surreal … So I started revising some of the nonfiction pieces with The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You on my head, and so that was really where I sort of saw that these two projects could be one."

With The Runaway Note almost ready to be published, Jaeger has turned back to an ongoing project of several years, a work he is comfortable calling "a novel," called Radio Eldorado.

"I'm hoping it's going to be done this summer," Jaeger said. "It's close to being finished."

Set in Eldorado Springs, Colo., during 1969-1970, Radio Eldorado is about a young woman, who is a peace activist turned revolutionary, and her relationship with this rock band called The Wound Tights.

In addition to longer literary works, Jaeger recently published a short story titled "True Believers" in the Oxford American. Jaeger's story is about love, belief, and, at least a little, the Heaven's Gate cult that became infamous for a mass suicide in 1997.

"That was a story that I worked on for a lot of years, I mean I probably started that story eight years ago. And at different points of time I was satisfied with it and then six months later not satisfied with it," Jaeger said. "So at one point, as I went back and worked on the revisions, I thought about the Heaven's Gate cult, and I thought, 'Oh, this may be the answer to how the story plays out.'"

Jaeger worked on the story with the novelist Tim O'Brien at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where Jaeger earned his M.A. and Ph.D.  

"It's kind of funny because … he had recently been at Hendrix," Jaeger said. "And you know you never see Tim O'Brien without his baseball cap on, and he had a Hendrix baseball cap, and I had, just the month before, gotten the writer-in-residence position at Hendrix."

"He was very impressed with Hendrix students," he said. "He thought they were like grad students."

Jaeger appreciated the way the Oxford American editors worked with him on the story.

According to Jaeger, a literary journal editor's main job is often to screen work, rather than to offer in-depth edits. The Oxford American isn't like that, he said.

"The Oxford American is the kind of place that does do a lot of that editing, so it was interesting. It was interesting for me as a teacher, too, to really have my work be edited, both story-level and line-level," Jaeger said. "I mean, because that's what I spend a lot of my time doing, you know, what amounts to editing student work, giving both line-level suggestions and talking about characters and so on. And so to have that sort of work done on my own piece, it was good. I certainly saw an improvement in the story, working with [Editor and Founder] Marc Smirnoff and [Managing Editor] Carol Ann Fitzgerald."

"It was exciting to have the story appear in the Oxford American," Jaeger said. "One of the things, that I was excited about when I moved here four years ago - well I was excited about having a job and teaching at Hendrix - but I was also excited about the fact that the Oxford American was in the same town."

While he was working with the Oxford American editors on his story, an opportunity arose to write a column for the online portion of the literary magazine.

"It was just blind luck really, and stupidity. I live really close to downtown Conway, and every year that we've been here we've sort of been fascinated, me and my wife Julee, we've been fascinated by Stuck on a Truck," Jaeger said, referring to an annual contest in downtown Conway during Toad Suck Daze where contestants stand with their hands on a new truck. The contestant who can hold out the longest (the event regularly runs for three or four days) wins the truck.

"Every year that I've been here I find more people who are also oddly fascinated with Stuck on a Truck, and there are all these Hendrix graduates who still follow Stuck on a Truck," he said.

This year, Jaeger was let into a Facebook "betting pool" that a Hendrix alumnus had set up for Stuck on a Truck. The pool didn't deal in cash, just "glory." People in the pool selected their top three, and the person they thought would let go of the truck first.

"It was during finals," Jaeger said. "So, you know, I have tons of grading to do, but I have Stuck on a Truck on my computer and so I'd glance at it every once in a while in between portfolios, and I'd shoot off these little missives, these dispatches."

About halfway through Stuck on a Truck, which lasted for three days, six hours, and 30 minutes this year, Jaeger was contacted by Oxford American web editor Amy Ellingson. Jaeger had invited several of the Oxford American staff into the betting pool, and Ellingson wanted to know if he would write a column about the event for their website. Rather than writing a story after the event finished, Jaeger realized that he could compile the dispatches he'd already written.

"I think a lot of people were interested in the story, and it was sort of fun for me because I spend most of my time working on novel-length work, which is sort of like digging a big hole and just screaming into it out in the middle of the woods where no one can hear you, you know, it's very solitary work," Jaeger said. "So what was fun about doing the dispatches from Stuck on a Truck was that both in the Facebook writing and then when the column was published online in the OA, it was very interactive, and I got a lot of great responses from people."

After writing the story on Stuck on a Truck, Smirnoff invited Jaeger to join a group of columnists who would be publishing online blogs on the Oxford American website. Jaeger agreed and recently his first two posts, his Stuck on the Truck dispatches and a new column about cave pirates, went live.

"My wife for years had been trying to convince me that I should blog, I should blog, and you know it never seemed like anything that could be very satisfying," he said. "But it is, and it does feel more communal, in part because in writing these non-fiction pieces that are somewhat journalistic, I get to interact with people in a way that I don't when I'm working on a novel."

"And it's fun because in both these stories and probably in many of the stories that will happen for the column, my wife is there, so she's sort of involved, and we talk about the stories, so there's some degree of collaboration there," Jaeger said.

His column is called "State of Wonder: Notes from the Upland South." The title comes from an old nickname for Arkansas before it was "The Natural State." From 1923 until the 1940s, Arkansas was officially known as "The Wonder State." This was then changed to "The Land of Opportunity" and finally "The Natural State."

Jaeger said he hopes to write one or two columns a month. He's looking forward to the Chuck Wagon Races in September, an annual event held in Clinton, Arkansas.

In addition to all his local literary accomplishments, Jaeger's story "Mercy Comes Calling" set on Lake Conway and published in the Southern Humanities Review, recently won him the 2012 Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award.

Read Jaeger's blog and other Oxford American blogs here or check out his Stuck on a Truck dispatches here.

Oxford American's Best of the South issue, with Jaeger's story "True Believers," can be found at most booksellers and can be purchased online through the Oxford American website.

Jaeger's book The Runaway Note is available for pre-order on Amazon.

To learn more about Dr. Jaeger, read his Faculty Faces profile.

Rachel Thomas '14 is an English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.