Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Robert Maynor is a writer from the South Carolina Lowcountry. His first book, “The Big Game is Every Night,” is the winner of the 2022 South Carolina Novel Series. This novel tells the story of a boy whose world crumbles alongside his high school football career, stunningly depicting rural American adolescence and masculinity today. Maynor’s writing reads like the previously inaccessible but highly desired internal monologue of a season one Friday Night Lights character (before the series went off the rails), and his characters feel familiar to any small town kid still puzzling over her own teenage years. The novel released August 22nd from Hub City Press.
Enjoy our conversation about oral traditions, pageantry in high school football, and the value of leaving manhood undefined, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me a little about yourself? How’d you become a writer? And what’s your relationship with the setting of this novel?
Robert Maynor: The novel is set in McCleod County, a fictional county along the rural coast of South Carolina known as the Lowcountry. I grew up here in a community called New Hope along Wassamassaw Swamp, and I’ve spent my whole life living in different areas of the Lowcountry. McCleod County is a kind of fictionalized amalgamation of all those places.
I grew up in the country. I was the oldest kid in my extended family by a good bit, so there weren’t really other kids around my age. I spent most of my time reading books and wandering the woods around our house. In the evenings and on weekends I’d hang out with my dad and my grandfather and their hunting and fishing buddies. They’d swap stories around the fire barrel and I was always just kind of enthralled by that oral tradition. And those stories were so different from anything I was reading. It was hard to find stories with language that sounded like what I knew, that reflected my experiences.
As I got older, I started to think about stories as a way to better understand my community and my place in it. And a way to both celebrate and critique the culture I feel both entrenched in and somewhat removed from. Storytelling has always been a part of my life. It hasn’t really been a choice. Much more like a compulsion.
DY: At the very beginning of the book you thank Jason Molina, a late alt-country artist from Ohio who made music under a lot of different names, maybe most recognizably Songs: Ohia. The title of the book is from his 2003 album, “The Magnolia Electric Co.,” which you reference a ton throughout. I also really love that album but, aside from a few surface-level hunches, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the connections between the two works. Can you expand a little on the record’s role in your writing?
RM: I listened to this album for the first time while I was writing the book that would become The Big Game Is Every Night. The book was untitled at the time and honestly kind of meandering. It needed purpose. I listened to this album obsessively driving back and forth to Charleston for work every day from my home at the time on rural Wadmalaw Island. The songs certainly came to influence the narrative directly in some ways. But on a deeper level, I began to feel a kinship between the primary narrator of the album, and the narrator of my novel, Grady Hayes. For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it’s become really clear to me that it is a unique kind of loneliness they share, combined with an immense sense of pressure to perform, to meet expectations. It’s feeling like an outsider in your own home, your own community, and trying to figure out how to be alright with that. When I recognized that kinship, it unlocked the novel for me. It really made the whole thing possible.
DY: The main character of this book is basically a sweet kid who doesn’t know what to do with himself, other than when he’s playing football. When playing is no longer an option, his apathy starts to get him into trouble. For whatever reason, he just can’t get reabsorbed in his life at school, and can’t find a purpose there. We’re having a lot of public discussions right now about a “crisis of masculinity,” but while reading I found that I really preferred thinking about masculinity through your fiction. Were you thinking about this story in that context, or just writing about a boy? If you’ve been paying attention to that discourse, do you think fiction offers anything that’s missing from it?
RM: First and foremost, I set out to reflect, as honestly as possible, the experience of one boy growing up in a contemporary rural community. But through that process, I hoped to find some insight into the broader cultural forces and expectations that are shaping our young men in working-class America. I think the concept of manhood is overly simplified, even caricatured in our culture today. It seems like everybody is trying to define it, when really, I think we should be doing the opposite, and broadening our collective notion of what it means to be a man. I believe fiction serves a vital purpose in trying to understand the experiences boys are having today, because it provides insight into the experience of individuals. So much of the discourse I have seen remains focused on social and political groups as opposed to individual people, and I worry that it actually perpetuates these false choices—that men have to be one thing or another, but not both. I think fiction provides an opportunity to deeply explore how these cultural traditions and expectations impact individual people in their lives. Ideally the veil of fiction also helps people detach a little bit from their preconceived and prescribed ideas about things and take a bit more of a human approach to the stories as well.
DY: I loved the comparison the novel draws between institutionalized and non-institutionalized violence, the former represented by football and the latter by all manner of gore, namely hunting and fistfighting. I’m curious whether football was more of a plot device for you – something you needed in order to heighten that contrast – or just something you felt you needed to write about. How did it become such a big part of this novel?
RM: Football was always at the heart of this story because it’s at the heart of so many rural working-class communities. I believe it’s become such a cultural institution that we overlook the extreme mental and physical brutality of the sport and focus more on the pageantry and tradition. On top of that, as high school and college football become increasingly professionalized, the immense pressure teenage boys are put under to play for their future and demonstrate their worth at such a transformational point in their growth and development with all we have learned about injuries and lifelong impacts feels, frankly, inhumane.
And it’s easy to see how physical violence and recklessness cultivated in one major part of boys’ lives bleeds over into all the others. It really goes back to your previous question about masculinity. How do boys figure out what it means to be a man? Well, in working-class communities, they play football.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.