Inman Majors’ novel ‘Penelope Lemon: Game on!’: A Review and Interview

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By

Niles Reddick

 

 

Inman Majors’ newest novel, his fifth, is Penelope Lemon: Game on! (Yellow Shoe Fiction by LSU Press). I have known Majors for well over twenty years. We taught together in the mid 1990s and co-edited a literary magazine The Distillery, which we took from a fledgling journal to an international one that was distributed by Ingram, reviewed by Library Journal, and had stories nominated for the Pushcart Prize. We shared many meals together, and Inman actually gave me an old doghouse on his property for my wife’s dog, Harper Lee. Perhaps, my fondest memory is when we spent a weekend at the Majors family home in Sewanee, where after too many refreshments, I hammered hymns on the pump organ while we all sang along.

 

Penelope Lemon: Game On! is Majors at his finest and funniest. His narrative captures the modern, micropolitan world of Penelope, a recently divorced mom with who–financially strapped–is forced to move into her childhood home with her mother and stepfather. She meets a cast of colorful personalities while waiting tables at Coonskins, a peanut hull laden frontier restaurant, and during her first foray into online dating. Despite a constant barrage of issues she confronts, Penelope stays the course and triumphs.

 

You can find Majors teaching at James Madison University in Virginia. Readers will be pleased to know they haven’t seen the last of Penelope Lemon and there will be many more laughs to come. Majors answered some of the questions I sent him while he was on vacation at the beach. I have been impressed with his writing since his first novel, Swimming in Sky, and have a great deal of respect for his work. I give Penelope Lemon: Game on! my highest recommendation.

 

 

Your humor shines in this novel whether in the description of Penelope’s first and second husbands, her suitors on websites, or her own mother and stepfather. Everyone seems to be flawed, or at least have eccentricities. Do you find this reflects your own sense of reality? Secondly, how influenced are you by other Southern writers, particularly those like Flannery O’Connor and a sense of the grotesque?

 

I think I used to be a sincere and earnest young fellow, but at some point I began to look at the world in a more slanted fashion. This likely happened around 1975, when I was flipping channels one night and came across what I thought was an actual commercial for something called Spud Beer, “filled with the rich, full taste of potatoes.” I’d stumbled across a new show called Saturday Night Live and it blew the top off of my developing mind. From then on a ten-year-old boy in Knoxville, Tennessee began to see the world more often through absurdist lens, much to my parents chagrin.

 

I like Flannery O’Connor and find her stuff funny, but I don’t really consider her an influence on my own work. I’m not a huge fan of the Southern Grotesque, simply because it’s generally a little more violent and/or cartoony than I like. O’Connor was a cartoonist before she was a writer so that makes sense for her. With my own comedy, I’m trying to keep things on the verge of reality—what an actual person might actually do or encounter on a day or week when every single thing goes wrong. I don’t want to strain credulity too much. At the same time, I like absurdist situations and light, goofy humor. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler type stuff.

 

I’d say my biggest comedic influence is P.G. Wodehouse, specifically his series with Bertie/Jeeves. I like the way he balances absurd humor with eloquence of language. I also like how unserious they are. It’s escapist fiction at its best and that’s what I’m going for with Penelope Lemon. My hope is that for several hours readers will be able to forget their troubles and just kick back and enjoy a laugh.

 

 

Penelope’s personal life is a shambles, but in the end, readers are cheering her on and know she’ll be fine. Her triumph also reflects Theo’s triumphs in baseball as well as with the school bus bully. Would you consider a sequel Penelope Lemon: Game On!?

 

I’ve already written the sequel. It’s called PENELOPE LEMON: OPERATION DIMWIT. In a perfect world, I’d emulate Wodehouse and write ten or fifteen of the same sort of light, novels. I have a comedic Yoknapatawphaian universe knocking around in my head that I’d like to explore for a while. I’ve spent over half my life living in small towns like Waynesboro, VA and Tullahoma TN and have met a lot of interesting and funny people. I feel like I’m just getting started and would love to keep hanging out in the fictitious town of Hillsboro, VA. It’s like a PG-13 Mayberry where nothing bad really happens.

 

 

How difficult was it for you to write this novel from a woman’s point of view? I know your wife Christy is always big help with advice and editing, as was some of her friends, but ultimately, you wrote it.

 

The first thing I tell my fiction writing students at JMU is that the key to successful narration lies in becoming the protagonist, not observing them from afar. It’s a point-of view-issue, placing the “camera” in the brain/eyes of your lead character as opposed to across the room. So when I’m writing well, Inman Majors goes somewhere and, for lack of a better phrase, I become whichever protagonist I’m writing. In this case, a forty-year-old divorced mom named Penelope Lemon.  Faulkner said that all writers are frustrated actors so when I’m writing well, there’s a kind of method acting going on.

 

I guess it comes down to this: I never thought: What would a woman do here? I just thought, What would I do here? I’m taking a long time to say that I don’t think men’s and women’s brains are that different. But just to be safe, I did ask Christy to read my work chapter by chapter to see if anything felt wrong or unrealistic. When the narration is right, when the story is going and immediate, the whole question of authorship and storytelling disappears, and the reader feels like he/she is watching a little movie in their heads. It feels “live.”

 

 

Your writing seems to be more micropolitan than the usual categories of urban/city and rural/country. To me, this offers a unique and postmodern perspective that I think may tap a broader audience of readership. Is this intentional or simply a matter of “write what you know”?

 

I think it’s more “write what you know.” I like that word, by the way—micropolitan. I’ve lived almost my entire life in the south, half of it in small towns and half in cities like Charlottesville, Nashville and Knoxville. I’ve come across a wide range of people and I’ve just tried to get as many of them down on the page as possible. You remember when we taught at Motlow State Community College together? We’d have farm kids writing essays about their favorite rappers. We had kids who showed sheep at 4-H shows but they were wearing the same sneakers as the hippest actor/singer in LA. They had cable TV. So it was a mix of rural and modern that I found really interesting.

 

I also think the urban/suburban south has been vastly underrepresented in literature and art. Murfreesboro, TN, where you lived for awhile, how would you explain that in simplistic terms? You couldn’t. You’d have to show the nuances, the subtleties of a small college town that has suddenly become like a suburb of Nashville. It’s a million different things at once. Getting that sort of thing right is the sort of challenge I like.

 

 

What’s next for Inman Majors?

 

Next for me is probably a glass of iced tea. And then, hopefully, working with an editor on the Penelope Lemon sequel sometime in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

 

 

Inman Majors

Inman Majors is the author of five novels: LOVE’S WINNING PLAYS, THE MILLIONAIRES, WONDERDOG, SWIMMING IN SKY, and PENELOPE LEMON:
GAME ON! which will be released in August 2018.
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A native of Tennessee, Inman received his BA from Vanderbilt University and his MFA from The University of Alabama. He is a professor of English at James Madison University and makes his home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

 

 

Niles Reddick

Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, a collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in eleven anthologies/collections and in over a hundred and fifty literary magazines all over the world including Cheap Pop, Pure Slush, Drunk Monkeys, Spelk, The Arkansas Review: a Journal of Delta Studies, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, among many others. His new collection Reading the Coffee Grounds will debut this month. He lives in Jackson, Tennessee and works for the University of Memphis, Lambuth. His website is www.nilesreddick.com

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